“What is the best type of luggage for me to carry on my trip?” is a questions we hear all the time.
While the choice ultimately depends on personal preference, there are some key factors to consider to help you make the best decision for your personality and travel style.
The main choice is between wheeled luggage and backpack-style luggage with a few variations and hybrid options.
The most obvious advantage of backpacks is that they are great for going anywhere. Hiking a mile down a dirt road after hopping off a bus? No problem. Climbing six flights of stairs to a walk-up apartment in New York or Paris? Again, no problem. Many models even offer a zip off carry-on bag, getting you set for easy air travel, all with one bag.
The disadvantages start to crop up quickly though. You can only really carry one backpack at a time. Sure, you can add a smaller pack on front or a shoulder bag, but I find I start to look and feel like a pack horse – I certainly don’t feel classy or professional.
For our year abroad, I used the large-backpack-on-back/small-backpack-on front-approach, along with a small purse for quick access items like passport, phone, etc. I spent a lot of time with sore shoulders and sweatier, more wrinkled clothes than I would have liked, while putting bags down frequently ended up in a tangled mess of shoulder straps as I tried to remember what order I’d loaded up in.
While, the Osprey travel packs we used were front-loading and relatively easy to pack and find what we needed, the soft-sides and looser form still made it challenging to keep things in order and clothes tended to get pretty wrinkled. I also started to feel the lifting and twisting contortions involved in taking a relatively heavy pack on and off were more suited for a twenty-something than a forty-something.
Roller bags on the other hand provide a neater carrying experience. No lifting or twisting required. On smooth surfaces, they are easily wheeled along, leaving your back and shoulders unencumbered – great if you have shoulder or neck pain and also if you’d like to carry a second bag, for instance a carry-on backpack with laptop or camera equipment. Roller bags tend to have a more solid structure, so they’re a bit easier to pack in an organized manner with less wrinkling.
On the down side, walking up long flights of stairs or hurrying up or down escalators is a challenge and covering long distances can be difficult, particularly if you are in a hurry or there are rough surfaces involved like gravel, curbs or frequent pavement gaps. If you’ve tried running with a roller suitcase, you know it rarely ends well.
For our year-long trip, we chose backpacks for their versatility. We weren’t sure how far we’d be walking or on what type of terrain and wanted to be ready for anything. I still think keeping our options open was a good choice for such a fluid trip, but in hindsight, we really didn’t hike all that far and rarely on surfaces that couldn’t have accommodated a roller. In actuality it seemed like I was putting my pack on and off a lot for relatively short periods of walking and I did feel I was carrying about as much weight as I’d want to be hefting on and off my back regularly at 25 pounds.
These days, I’m leaning toward the roller suitcase option and have picked up both small and medium-sized versions that I love at Wal-Mart to try out for a while. I love the option that 4-wheels gives of being able to wheel my bag alongside me on smooth surfaces, like airport hallways and sidewalks. This is by far the easiest luggage experience I’ve had.
I just returned from two weeks in Europe with the larger of my two bags, which weighed about 40 pounds and I loved it. With the weight and size of this bag, I don’t think a backpack would have even been a viable option. The biggest challenges were the few times that I needed to carry the bag down long flights of stairs (carrying worked fine, but elevators were usually an available option too) and one time that I needed to cover a mile or so on a gravel surface (which went surprisingly well actually).
As a subdivision of backpacks there are travel backpacks and backpacking backpacks. The latter are generally top-loading, making it challenging to locate any particular item inside, and strappy, leaving way too many parts to get caught in a luggage conveyor belt or other seam-ripping contraption in my opinion. Although I see many of them on the road, my opinion is that unless you are planning to actually backpack or walk very long distances with all of your gear, I belive this style is not the best choice.
There is also a class that combines the features of backpack straps and wheels which may be ideal for many short or lightweight trips. I’ve not yet had the opportunity to try one of these convertible bags out, but certainly will. In the meantime, if you have, I would love to hear your thoughts in the comment section. The downsides I notice seem to be a significantly higher price tag as well as added weight and reduced capacity due to the addition of the retractable handle and wheels.
To summarize, here are the key factors to consider when making the backpack vs rolling suitcase decision:
- How far will you go on foot? Even relatively smooth sidewalks can get old after a mile or two pulling a suitcase.
- What will the terrain be like? Dirt roads or city sidewalks?
- How much do you want/need to carry with you? If you are going to carry a lot, a backpack may just not be reasonable. Alternatively, if your bag is relatively small, hauling it onto a public bus or up a few flights of stairs may be no big deal, no matter what style of bag it is.
- How do you feel about lifting and carrying a loaded backpack? Or more specifically, how does your body feel about it? Is twisting and lifting 20 to 30 pounds onto your back repeatedly a reasonable option?
So there you have it – Joyce’s opinions on luggage and how to choose the right bag for your trip. We’d love to hear what works best for you.