Ask a traveller which is better, suitcases or backpacks, and they’re likely to take a deep pretentious dive into the difference between tourists and travellers – even when that’s not the question you asked…
Everyone who goes abroad with any semblance of regularity has an opinion about their favourite baggage options – and every long-term or budget focussed traveller ‘knows’ the best backpacker’s luggage!
But there’s only one person who can decide the best luggage option for your trip – and that’s you!
So, let’s dive into the differences between backpacks and suitcases, as well as the pros and cons of each!
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Backpacks vs Suitcases – Top Travel Luggage Options ??
Pros and Cons of Backpacks and Suitcases
As a general rule – and there’s going to be a lot of general rules in this article – suitcases are heavier than backpacks.
But there’s a lot of variation in the weight of travel luggage. Some travel backpacks barely weigh a kilogram while others are around two or three. Suitcases tend to start in the region of 1.5kg and can go heavier – 4.5kg in some instances! Bear this in mind when checking your airline’s baggage limits.
When fully laden with a bunch of stuff, heavy suitcases are easier to move around than heavy backpacks. Suitcases can be pulled along behind you as you move from A to B, while backpacks need to be carried at all times.
Suitcases with wheels are excellent for smooth floors like you’ll find in airports, train and bus stations. You can stroll to your departure gate as your luggage glides along behind you. However, suitcases start to struggle when the going gets a little tougher.
City streets are touch and go, depending on where in the world you are – some cities have pavements your freshly shaven skin would be jealous of, while others have sidewalks in serious need of a facelift. And that’s without touching on ancient cobbled streets or accommodation options with a bunch of stairs!
Backpacks, while more challenging than suitcases on smooth floors, excel on more uneven terrain. They’ll go wherever your feet can take you!
However, neither option is great for crowded streets, busy trains or packed buses. If you’ve got a lot of gear, whether it’s on your back or being pulled along behind you, you’ll be inconvenienced by large numbers of people – in the same way you’ll be an inconvenience to them! Spending a little extra money and getting a taxi is often worth it when you’ve got bulky bags!
When pulling a suitcase behind you, you’ve lost 50% of your hands – not permanently… I hope. This makes checking directions, pulling things out of your pocket or getting through doorways a more challenging prospect. Backpacks, on the other hand, leave both hands free, so you can navigate the world around you with relative ease.
Backpacks are designed to be carried, so carrying them for a long time shouldn’t do you any harm – especially if they have a good hip belt and suspension system! Suitcases on the other hand aren’t built to distribute the weight of their contents across your body. This means, if you’re required to carry a suitcase for any distance, you’ll put a lot of strain on one arm and shoulder.
Depending on how you’re travelling, backpacks either help you blend in or stand out from the crowd. In a typical Bangkok hostel, a backpack marks you as a regular backpacker but if you’re on a romantic trip to Europe, a backpack may stand out at a classy hotel!
It’s also worth noting that backpacks tend to wear out your travel clothes. The friction created from backpack straps rubbing on your t-shirt or jumper can cause holes to appear – while this isn’t an issue for short trips, long-term travellers may find they need to replace clothing more often than they would at home!
Honestly, you get what you pay for. It’s possible to get both backpacks and suitcases at super low prices. And it’s possible to spend a fortune on them too.
In general, a proper travel backpack is likely to cost more than a standard suitcase. But there’s not much in it. If cost is your main concern, browse secondhand sites to see if you can pick up a travel bag, or suitcase, for a good price!
Traditionally, suitcases make it easier to pack, unpack and arrange your belongings. They open up completely, giving you full access to the large main compartment (or compartments) where all your gear is stored. This means you can see most of your stuff and find what you need without having to pull everything out. They also tend to have a simple square or rectangular shape, so it’s easy to make the most of the space, without having to worry about weird shaped corners or pockets.
While travel backpacks used to all be top-loading bags, similar to hiking backpacks, this isn’t always the case today. The best modern backpack brands make bags that open clamshell style, offering a very similar packing experience to a suitcase. A lot of them are square, or almost square, so allow you to make the most of the space much like a suitcase.
The biggest difference in terms of packability between suitcases and backpacks is the rigidity of the luggage itself. Suitcases tend to hold their shape better when empty, making it easier to start packing them. Backpacks have a floppier structure, so can be frustrating to pack!
Another advantage of the more rigid suitcases is that they protect your belongings more than soft-sided backpacks.
Suitcases tend to feature a large open space for all your belongings. They may house some smaller compartments for organising your gear but there’s rarely a vast array of pockets.
Backpacks on the other hand, often feature a bunch of small hidey holes, mesh compartments and organisational options for all your gear. But this varies from pack to pack. Some have a pocket for almost everything you can imagine, while others are much more like suitcases with a large open compartment and just a couple of smaller pockets. This variation means you can find the best backpack for you, no matter your travel style!
Carry-On vs Checked Luggage ✈️
It doesn’t matter whether you opt for a one-bag trip or take all your worldly possessions, there is the right size backpack or suitcase for you.
It’s common to see both backpacks and wheelie suitcases being taken onto planes as hand luggage. Likewise, you’ll commonly see large backpacks and suitcases on luggage carousels at airports.
It’s worth noting that many backpack and suitcase manufacturers will have options too large even for a checked bag. Be sure to check the dimensions and weight of your luggage against the airline’s requirements when flying.
Backpack or Suitcase: How to Choose ??
How Much Stuff Are You Taking? ????
But if you’ve got multiple outfits, a bunch of travel gadgets or safety accessories and a ton of stuff, a suitcase may be the better option. You won’t need to carry it on your back and you can check it as soon as you get to the airport.
Do You Need Your Clothes to Remain Wrinkle-Free? ?
If you’re travelling for business, or have some posh nights out planned, you’ll want your clothes to be as wrinkle-free as possible. In this case, a suitcase tends to be the better option. You can pack things flat and they’ll move around less than in a backpack.
What Time of Year Are You Travelling? ❄️?️?☀️
If you’re heading to Lake Como in winter you’ll need very different clothes than for a beach-focused trip to Thailand. Europe’s winter can make travelling with just a smaller backpack challenging. If you’re taking a lot of clothes, suitcases are often easier.
However, temperature isn’t the only consideration.
What will the weather conditions be like at your destination? No one wants to drag a suitcase through a foot of snow. Likewise, travelling with a suitcase in Southeast Asia’s rainy season can lead to some problematic moments when you need to wade through ankle-deep rainwater to cross the road to your hostel!
Will There Be a Lift? ?
Staying on the 8th floor? Make sure there’s a lift if you’ve got a suitcase! Dragging a heavy suitcase up multiple flights of stairs is one of the most soul-destroying ways to begin a stay in a new location!
Type of Trip ?
The type of trip you’re on is one of the most important factors to consider when deciding between a backpack or suitcase.
If you’re backpacking your way across a country or region, a backpack is often an easier choice. It makes using public transport easier and ensures you can get to your beachfront hostel even though you need to walk a mile through soft sand.
However, if you’re visiting just one or two locations and won’t be moving between accommodation options very much, a suitcase is a sensible option – especially if you’re staying in a nicer hotel where a backpack will stand out!
Your Body Size and Strength ?
You don’t need to be Arnold Schwarzenegger to comfortably carry a backpack but if you’re particularly petite, you may struggle with a heavy bag. Knowing how much you can comfortably carry is an important aspect when choosing between backpacks and suitcases.
Where Will You Store It When Not in Use? ?
When you’re not travelling – which let’s face it, is most of the time for most of us – you’ll need to keep your backpack or suitcase stored somewhere. Backpacks are often more compressible than suitcases so take up less room when not in use. But hey, if you have both – why not store your backpack inside your suitcase?! Savvy…
Do You Need a Backpack to Be a Backpacker? ?
In short, no, you don’t need a backpack to be a backpacker.
This is actually a question we get asked a lot. While the term backpacker conjures images of unshaven young adults with long hair, a bunch of stick-and-poke tattoos and huge bags on their backs, the reality can be very different.
Yes, most backpackers carry backpacks. But not all.
Being a backpacker is much more than your luggage – or hairstyle and tattoo choices for that matter!
Being a backpacker is about travelling on a budget. It’s about travelling for extended periods and getting further off the beaten track than two weeks of vacation allows. Backpackers aim to truly experience a place rather than just partaking in the ‘must-do’ activities. It has nothing to do with your luggage choices!
Even if you opt for a suitcase, we recommend getting a small backpack to use as your daypack. A collapsible option works well if you don’t want to fly with a backpack! You don’t want to drag a small suitcase around every day just because you can’t fit everything in your pockets!
Duffel Bag ?
It would be remiss of us to discuss backpacker luggage without talking about duffel bags. They’re sort of suitcase and backpack fusion. Often soft-sided like a backpack, they can be squashed down when not in use.
They don’t tend to feature backpack straps (although some of the best duffel bags for travel do), so need to be carried by hand or with a single shoulder strap. They have a single large compartment, much like a suitcase which makes it easy to store a lot of stuff. However, their soft sides and single zip actually make organising and finding your gear a little challenging.
Wheeled Backpack – The Indecisive Answer! ?
Backpacks with wheels are a good option if you’re undecided between a backpack and suitcase, or if you go on different types of trips and want an all-in-one bag for every occasion!
However, they’re limited compared to proper backpacks or suitcases. Backpacks with wheels are often heavy, not too comfortable to wear and aren’t super easy to manoeuvre in wheelie mode. Plus, they have soft sides and are harder to pack and organise than a traditional suitcase.
When to Use a Backpack vs Suitcase – A Round-Up of Backpacker Luggage!
So, which is better: backpacks or suitcases?
Backpacks are better for:
- Travellers wanting to get more off the beaten track
- Island hopping through Southeast Asia
- When you need to walk a long way to your accommodation – especially over rough or variable terrain
- When you’re moving around a country or region a lot during your trip
- People who don’t have too much storage room at home
Suitcases are better for:
- People travelling with a lot of stuff
- Travellers staying in one place rather than moving around a lot
- Keeping clothes wrinkle-free
- Those with petite frames who don’t want to carry everything on their back
- Keeping a professional appearance while on the road
But the most important factor to consider when choosing between a backpack and suitcase for travelling is your personal preference. If you prefer to use a backpack to travel, then use a backpack. But if you’re a suitcase person, use a suitcase!
Let us know your opinions of backpacks vs suitcases in the comments below!