Spotlight on Travel Gear: Suitcases vs. Backpacks

in Travel Store, Trip Planning

In past posts, I’ve given advice on packing and avoiding luggage fees. Now it’s time to take a look at the gear you’ll need to get the rest of your gear where it needs to go. When deciding whether to use a suitcase or a backpack, it’s important to think through multiple issues. In addition to giving you some general criteria to think about, I’ll offer suggestions on some of “best practices” for using each type of luggage.

Should I use a suitcase or a backpack?

The answer to this question depends on several factors, including the length/intensity of your travel schedule, the activities you will be participating in during your trip, the primary modes of transportation you’ll be taking and your physical health.

When you should opt for a backpack:

Obviously, for biking or hiking trips, a backpack is a necessity. In addition, for longer trips with frequent movement from place to place, I prefer using a backpack. I’ve also found that a backpack is a lot easier to maneuver with on public transportation, especially trains. I also find it easier to navigate airports and staircases with a backpack. Some backpacks are small enough that they can actually be used as carry-ons.

Most travel backpacks on the market are deceptive in terms of their size (they fit a lot more than it looks like). To maximize my space and prevent wrinkles, I roll my clothes before putting them in the pack. I also bring large Ziplock bags to keep my shoes, liquids and toiletries separate from my clothing. For comfort, books and heavier items should be packed toward the back of the pack (the part that will be worn closer to the body).

In addition to being convenient, quality backpacks can be quite comfortable to wear for extended periods of time.

Most of the good backpacks on the market are designed to be ergonomic and therefore are relatively comfortable to wear for extended periods of time (like when you’re wandering around a strange city trying to find your hotel). Another convenient aspect of a backpack is that it can be easily washed (in a washing machine) if it gets soiled during your travels.

Something to keep in mind when checking a backpack at the airport is that the straps should all be tied down. I have a soft slipcase (a large vinyl bag) that I put over my backpack to protect it and keep the straps under control during luggage handling.

When you should opt for a suitcase:

If you will be staying in one place for most of your trip (and don’t have to pack up and move frequently), then a suitcase can be a good option. If possible, use a small to medium sized one that is easy to maneuver. Of course, if you’re planning on taking cabs (or renting a car) instead of using public transportation, then maneuverability isn’t as much of a concern. Some smaller suitcases can be used as carry-ons.

Another reason one might want to opt for a suitcase is if you have back (or other) physical problems. It can be easier on the body to roll a suitcase than to lug a heavy pack around. Also, if you are attending formal events during your trip, a suitcase generally keeps clothes less wrinkled then a backpack (in this case, you may even want to consider bringing a garment bag—which allows you to keep clothes on hangers—as a carry-on).

Similar to packing a backpack, when packing a suitcase (especially a smaller one), I roll my clothes before putting them in the suitcase to maximize space and prevent wrinkles. I also bring large Ziplock bags to keep my shoes, liquids and toiletries separate from my clothing.

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