How to Choose Between a Backpack and a Suitcase for Travel

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Different types of vacations require different gear, and one of the biggest choices most of us make as we head off to the airport is the choice between packing everything into a backpack or a suitcase. They each have their strengths and weaknesses and are better suited for certain situations.

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The choice between these two might seem arbitrary. But anyone who’s had to lug a roller suitcase for a mile down a dirt road from the train to a hotel, or who’s pulled a wrinkled suit out of a backpack right before a wedding, knows that the wrong choice can ruin a vacation.

I think it’s best to break this down into three categories: suitcases (like a common carry-on roller bag), small backpacks that could fit underneath the seat, and larger backpacks that need to go in the overhead compartment. From there, it’s all about a few simple questions, like, how long your trip is, what you’ll be doing, what seasons you’ll run into, how much more travel you’ll do when you arrive, what the infrastructure is like at your destination, and how much you plan on bringing back with you.

Pros and Cons of Suitcases

Suitcases are the preferred and likely best choice when you’re heading to just one destination and you plan on staying there until you return. In that situation, chances are you won’t be dragging your suitcase around everywhere, unlike a backpack. For example, I almost always bring a suitcase when I head home for the holidays or when I travel to a wedding (or funeral). I also took a suitcase when I went on a road trip through the South because I had a car the whole time, and suitcases are much easier to repack than backpacks.

Pros

  • Hard-shell suitcases can take a beating and you can lock a suitcase if you’re worried about theft.
  • Wheeling a suitcase through airports is far more comfortable than walking with a backpack.
  • Unless you’re an expert packer, it’s easier to pack formal wear wrinkle-free in suitcases.
  • Suitcases are infinitely easier to repack than a top-loading backpack.
  • Most suitcases, especially hard shell ones, are waterproof.
  • Some suitcases make it easier to separate dirty clothes from clean ones. Organization in general is easier with a suitcase.

Cons

  • Carrying a suitcase sucks and those wheels don’t help on cobblestones, dirt, or other tricky terrain.
  • Wheeling around a suitcase in a crowded city or onto crowded trains is usually a hassle. Generally, it’s hard to be mobile with a suitcase, which is problematic if you plan on using a lot of public transportation or you’re traveling by boat at any point.
  • A good suitcase is usually at least a couple hundred bucks, but a bad, cheap suitcase with squeaky wheels or weak zippers can ruin a vacation.

If you’re shopping for a new suitcase, we’ve collected some reader favorites over the years. I’m a fan of the Timbuk2 Co-Pilot, partially because it has a lot of different organization systems inside the bag, including an easy access top compartment that’s perfect for travel snacks.

When a Suitcase Is Best

The humble suitcase is best suited for traveling to resorts, if you’re renting a car, if you physically can’t carry something on your back for hours at a time, when traveling to weddings or other formal affairs, and when traveling for work. Suitcases can work in a number of situations, but they shine brightest when you’re staying in one place for a while as opposed to moving around between different hotels or hostels.

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Pros and Cons of Small Backpacks

As most of us would expect, small backpacks are the obvious choice for long weekends or shorter trips. They’re also perfect for minimalists who tend to travel with travel-specific gear and don’t mind doing laundry along the trip. The Wirecutter has a great collection of the type of gear I’m talking about here, but think wool socks, fast-drying underwear, and a portable laundry detergent like this for everything else. I did a two week trip with a smaller 16.2 L bag from Topo Designs by reusing and cleaning a lot of clothes along the way.

Pros

  • Tiny and easy to carry anywhere, giving you near-limitless mobility. Plus, you can run to trains, jump over puddles, and fling yourself into the back of a cab without much effort.
  • Fits underneath the seat so you don’t need to worry about the plane running out of overhead storage room or losing it.
  • Small backpacks are multi-use. Where a suitcase is pretty much only useful when traveling, you’ll have far more reasons to grab a small backpack for day trips, hikes, or whatever else.
  • The small size means you only bring what you need and you don’t buy a bunch of useless junk to bring back home with you (which some may view as a con).

Cons

  • Smaller backpacks are often top-loading, which means you need to completely unpack, then repack, every time you need to get something.
  • Backpacks are a little more personal than luggage, so you have to work to find one that fits you. That usually means trying on a bunch.
  • The size can be a big problem if you like to have a lot of options when you travel. Small backpacks don’t work well if you’re going to be in multiple climates and need a variety of clothes.
  • A backpack isn’t as sturdy as a suitcase, so you usually don’t want to sit on it or throw it around.
  • You’re basically required to roll your clothes instead of fold them, which can make it tough to cram in certain types of formal wear (no matter how good you are at packing, I challenge you to stuff a suit into a daypack and not have it come out 10 hours later wrinkled and weird).

If you’re not sure where to start with finding a backpack, we’ve got you covered in a variety of ways. For inspiration, here are a few featured bags from last year that might help you find something, and our deals site has collected together reader favorites as well. Popularity is only part of the equation though, shopping for a bag that is comfortable takes a little skill and research beyond Google.

When a Small Backpack is Best

The small backpack is the king of short trips, moving quickly between different places after you arrive, and for those who don’t mind doing a little laundry on the go.

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