The lone wanderer with their life on their back makes for a romantic image, but increasingly – especially now that dreadlock sporting backpackers are finding themselves outnumbered by their more clean-cut cousins, the flash packers – the wheelie suitcase is being seen as a valid alternative for travelers.
Nowadays each trip can pose the question: should I take a backpack or a suitcase?
This is exactly the question my mum asked me the other day – she’s about to retire, and is planning her first trip outside of Europe. As someone who’s never done the “traveling” thing before, except on short holidays, it’s a good question, and it got me thinking — which option really does reign supreme as the ultimate travel companion? The answer to that might be different for each traveler, but let’s go over the pros and cons to see which option is the perfect pick for you!
- Durability. A backpack is less precious than a suitcase. It’s a suitcase’s rough-and-ready, slightly grimy cousin who can take a bash and a tumble and won’t balk at the sight of stairs.
- Status. A backpack also has an iconic sense of status that the wussy wheelie suitcase will just never achieve: can you really claim to be a proper backpacker without actually having a backpack?
- Accessibility. I for one hate having to constantly unpack and repack all of my earthly belongings every time I get on a bus and realize that my passport is at the bottom of my bag.
- Comfort. A backpack can be a pain to carry around – literally. A badly fitting or oversized backpack can be at best an inconvenience, and at worst can cause serious back problems. And the sweaty patches they leave on your back after a long walk from the train station leaves a lot to be desired.
- Ease. A wheelie suitcase is easier for getting around urban areas and developed countries because, well, it has wheels! You’re not stuck lugging your things around on your back while trying to make your way to your accommodations.
- Volume. You can carry way more in a wheelie suitcase then you could ever dream of hauling around on your back. This means that if you simply have to bring a lot of stuff – say you’re required to bring an array of technical equipment with you on your travels for work – a suitcase might be right for you.
- Size. A suitcase is too bulky to sit on your knee if you’re on a crowded bus, and if you’re going further afield than developed towns and cities, than you’ll probably find yourself wishing for the freedom of dashing across grass and cobbles with just a backpack rather than lugging this four-wheeled, 20 kg monstrosity behind you.
- Cost. A suitcase sometimes comes with added costs that a backpack will never really have to be subject to. Whether it’s hopping on a plane that doesn’t allow a free carry-on (looking at you, Ryanair) or having to pay a fee to stash it somewhere when you need your hands free, sometimes a suitcase can rack up unexpected and irritating fees.
All that being said, a lot of people do opt for a backpack when they’re trying to travel light. That’s the great appeal of a good backpack: rather than encumbering you, it gives you a sense of freedom that a suitcase simply can’t. The important thing is to get the right backpack for you. This means that you shouldn’t just hijack that scruffy one that’s been gathering dust in the garage ever since your kooky uncle took it round India in the ‘70s, but find one that fits you properly instead.
Backpacks are generally designed to fit male rather than female frames, and often straps won’t be designed to fit smaller shoulders and clasp over curves. Instead, try and find a backpack designed specifically for women, and make sure everything fits comfortably before committing. Some of these backpacks even come with cleverly-designed zips that mean that the whole thing can be opened up like a suitcase, like this option from Timbuk2, which makes accessing your stuff and packing everything efficiently a lot easier. With a suitcase like that the world is your oyster!
Of course, different trips have different requirements. Take a careful look at your trip and your needs before making a decision. Where are you going? How much stuff do you need to take? How much will you need to be moving your bag around?
In my mum’s case, I’d be inclined to recommend the trusty old backpack – it’s for an extended trip around Asia, so I think that extra bit of freedom will come in handy. And also, undeniably, I do just want my mum to get to enjoy that feeling of freedom that being a bona fide backpacker gives you!
Do you prefer to travel with a backpack or a suitcase? Do you have any good tips for picking the perfect bag? Let us know!
I struggled with this question before taking off on my extended travels, and I ended up happy with my Osprey Meridian hybrid: it’s a rolly suitcase AND a backpack! There are downsides to it–the frame is a little heavier, and airlines often target wheely bags to be gate checked–but there are a TON of upsides, too! Because it’s Osprey, it’s SUPER durable so although the wheels have taken a lot of beating they’re still in top-top shape, and it has a really comfortable fit (again, thank you, Osprey) when it’s converted into a backpack. 🙂
Aha – good thinking, Batman!