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Orin Zebest / Flickr

Should I Travel With a Suitcase or Backpack?

The differences between traveling with a suitcase and backpack are vast. What you should reach for when it’s time to pack up the belongings can differ depending on the trip and what you’re looking for in a bag.

Though most people tend to have a preference toward one, I actually split most of my travel alternating between a suitcase and a backpack. If you’re looking for something that offers maximum mobility backpacks might be your best bet but there’s something about the order a suitcase can provide.

In short, there are significant advantages and drawbacks to each type of luggage.

Backpack

I still remember the day when my best friend threw me a fake Quechua/North Face bag—right, the two companies decided to make a hybrid bag—and literally sent me off to the airport with nothing but a string of flights. It was my first taste globetrotting and, though someone essentially planned it out for me, the first thing I did when I returned home was invest in a REI bag.

Though I’ve started using a suitcase pretty recently for most of my travels, there’s a part of me that will always remain partial to backpacks. They’re still the choice of most adventurists for a good reason.

Do you think she’d rather use a suitcase?(Nate Kay / Flickr)

■ Better Mobility

Nothing else can really replace backpacks in the mobility department. I can still run, crouch and climb over fences with it. (Well, I can at least toss the bag over the fence and then climb over the fence. Not speaking from experience, I swear.) If there are five minutes left before the plane/bus departs, I’d choose to be stuck with a backpack rather than a suitcase. That way I can seriously haul ass.

Suitcases don’t have this flexibility; a lot of the times I end up standing awkwardly on the escalator to the baggage claim because I can’t be bothered to pick it up by the handle and haul it down the stairs. Stairs are not a suitcase’s best friend.

■ Versatile Organization

There’s nothing about pockets I don’t like. I love the side pockets and all the different placements on a backpack; I even love my backpack’s bottom pocket for its inbuilt rain cover. There are so many small and hidden ones and I often use the most unobtrusive, non-obvious one as my “hiding spot” for backup cash, valuables and my passport. It’s a beast you’ve got to be intimate with in order for you to easily get to my secrets.

In fact, everything—from my toiletries to my power adapter—has a particular spot where it resides in my backpack. I’ve memorized them inside out and can tell you in a heartbeat where everything is. In this particular way, backpacks can be just as secure as suitcases because everything is diversified into separate sections.

Suitcases often have less pockets and therefore, as a result, less organization. I can spend more time digging through my suitcase’s back compartment because things have started shifting around unnecessarily and fall out of place. Disorder? Unlike.

■ Complex Itineraries

This ties straight into the mobility issue. Suitcases get annoying and are cumbersome to lug around all the time when you can just simply throw a backpack on and go.

If I know I’m going to be situated in one place for a while, I’ll think about using a suitcase instead of a backpack. It is based on the most basic of reasons — suitcases are just better suited for traveling when the road is paved. Who wants to drive over dirt, gravel and grass?

But if I know I’ll be bouncing from place to place or hostel to hotel, I’d much prefer the simplicity of a backpack.

■ Weight Distribution

This should not be confused with weight relief! Instead, in a backpack, the weight is evenly dispersed on the left and right side of your body. This doesn’t happen with a suitcase because one must choose to drag the suitcase with their left or right hand. Consequently, the weight and drag will never be as even as it is in a backpack.

Assuming you’re relatively fit, carrying a pack also forces you to have somewhat better posture when you’re carrying a load. No Hunchback of Notre Dames allowed in here.

■ It’s About the Adventure

Most backpacks aren’t actually built with travel in mind. In fact, they’re built with the outdoors, camping and intense multi-day treks in mind. It’s part of the reason why travelers often think they need a bigger capacity backpack when they actually don’t.

The point is this: backpacks were built to be optimal for adventure. You can’t go wrong choosing a backpack to hike Kilimanjaro around in.

Suitcase

It’s a different type of traveling. (Anne Worner / Flickr)

Maybe it was because the boys in first class would come in with their snazzy Tumi bags and I would stand there awkwardly shoving my bag in the overhead bin. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that — my former ladyboss, a foreign correspondent at TIME, kicked ass in a backpack while on assignment regularly. But eventually, I did switch to the other side and while I’m not quite as mobile anymore, I do feel a lot more ladylike. 

And strangely, there was a whole slew of benefits suitcases provide that I never realized I was missing out on.

■ Weight Relief

One of the first things I immediately noticed about using a suitcase is that the weight distribution changes significantly. Instead of having it relegated at your back, it’s now relegated at your feet, and often, to your side.

Though this can slow mobility down some, the biggest difference is that it relieves pressure off the back — perfect for a particular oldie who has trouble reaching for the soap bar in the shower without pulling a muscle, apparently.

■ Better Protection

It’s not like backpacks don’t provide protection. But man, if you go all out and get the hard case, oh, boy, you’ll feel like you can really throw that stuff around.

While I’m not going to take out a sledgehammer and start testing it on my Muji bag anytime soon there’s a definite sense it can sustain significantly more wear and tear than the backpack. (My backpack has also sustained some over 300,000 miles on it, so that’s saying something.)

Belongings inside my suitcase seem better protected than with my backpack. Small packages and boxes tend to get bent out of shape with the latter; this happens less so with a suitcase. Though I wouldn’t do it unless I had to do it, I would rather check my DSLR in a suitcase than check it in my backpack.

■ Easier Access

One of the most common complaints about backpacks is that you only have top-first access to your belongings while everything at the bottom is much more difficult to reach. This requires someone to unload the top before they can get to the bottom.

In comparison, you have lie-flat access with a suitcase, letting you get your hands on everything at once. It’s amazing. I no longer have to dig around my daytime clothes just to get to my pajamas.

While there are some backpacks like the Minaal and the Incase EO Travel Backpack that are designed to let travelers access their belongings with ease, there are very few of these products on the market that can do this and bridge gender-specific aesthetics seamlessly.

■ Mess Containment

Cause a suitcase is pretty much just a travel box, it’s much easier to shove everything in there and just zip it up. Instead of spreading my junk all over the bed, I can toss it in the suitcase with very little issue and my inner neat freak can ignore how unorganized it is until I unpack or open the suitcase.

That is, until I open it back up again.

■ Work Travel

Though this clearly depends on the type of work, suitcases are better suited for more formal engagements. This has nothing to do with fitting in with your peers but has everything to do with keeping suits and clothes looking sharp.

Suitcases do a much better job of transporting pressed clothes and unfortunately, appearance does matter when it comes to business.

I’ve carried suits and dresses in a clothes bag with a backpack strapped to me before but I always find I’m constantly worrying about wrinkling clothes that have been recently pressed. It makes me wince to shove a garment bag into an overhead bin, while someone tries to cram their goliath suitcase in there. (No issues shoving heels in a backpack, though.)

Though most people suggest rolling clothes to yield more suitcase space and keep them wrinkle-free, its hard to keep this same treatment with business clothes. My clothes always end up somewhat mangled if I do that, which means I’ve got to carry on a travel iron or lay them flat from it ever happening in the first place. 

Besides, the last thing I want to worry about are my clothes when I’m trying to close a business deal. I’d rather spend that extra time going over the notes for the meeting. Business is, after all, business.





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