Until recently I’d just assumed that we’d be taking backpacks on our trip around Europe – we are staying in backpackers hostels after all! But after talking to friends who have travelled there, doing a bit of research and trying on bags I wasn’t quite so sure. Here’s how I ended up reasoning out the various options.
The Rolling Suitcase
I’m determined to travel light on this trip, so here when I say ‘suitcase’ I mean a teeny cabin-sized suitcase, not the monsters that you see some people dragging around. It might sound counter-intuitive to go backpacking with a suitcase, but it does have its benefits – such as the fact that I already have one so don’t have to spend any more money on luggage!
On the plus side, I’m used to travelling with a suitcase and know that even full to the brim I can easily pull this little guy around or carry it up stairs as necessary. On flat, even ground suitcases rule – they take barely any effort to move and cause very little strain on the pulling arm. They open up fully so it’s easy to get to everything inside, and are the exact rectangular shape that makes the most of cabin luggage restrictions. It’s easy enough to maneuver through crowds or on a train, and if when standing still you don’t have to bear any weight at all.
On the other hand, when the road is not smooth all is not smooth sailing. Stairs and curbs are annoying obstacles; uneven paths, bush or mud are completely impossible. Messing around with retractable handles is a pain, but leaving it out means it could easily snap off. Wheels can be fragile on less than ideal surfaces, and if one breaks the suitcase has to be carried. These suitcases were designed to be rolled from airport to taxi to hotel – not wandering for hours. And of course, some say that people with backpacks are travellers, whereas people with suitcases are tourists (which personally I think is a pointless distinction, but whatever).
The Trekking Backpack
Probably the kind of backpack that you think of when you think of backpacking, and what we were going for originally. These backpacks were made to be carried through tough outdoor conditions, and seem to be the luggage of choice for a lot of budget travellers.
On the plus side, trekking backpacks leave your hands free, are fine over any kind of terrain, are built to be carried comfortably for long distances, have good airflow, can easily be covered with a rain cover, are quite light and give you that backpacker street cred. We’re also planning to do some actual trekking and trail walks in the future, which we’d most definitely need one for.
On the down side – the barrel-like shape, whilst ergonomic, isn’t really made to make the most of flight cabin-luggage restrictions – the 32L ones we looked at probably wouldn’t pass if measured. They’re also not really designed for being thrown in with checked luggage, and I’ve read about backpacks being destroyed coming through the conveyor belt. They’re not ideal for standing in lines or in crowded areas, and take time to get on and off to get to the contents. And even with the most ergonomic backpack, it’s going to get a bit painful after a while!
Travel Packs and Rolling Backpacks
Travel packs are sort of a compromise between a suitcase and a trekking backpack. They don’t have wheels and are designed to be worn on the back, but aren’t intended to be carried long distances comfortably. Most of them are more squarish to maximise storage and cabin luggage restrictions, and open up like a suitcase for easy access.
Rolling backpacks try to be both a rolling suitcase and a backpack, and in my opinion marry the worst of both worlds to give you something that’s heavy, not the greatest to carry and not as sturdy as a regular suitcase. I didn’t look at these too carefully as they tended to be on the big side and I was after something more compact.
With both these options I had to wonder when I would want such a pack as opposed to a rolling suitcase or trekking backpack. Personally I’m not so much a fan of things that try to do everything and end up doing it all worse than more specialised items, but if you’re not travelling so light these might be better options for you.
For this trip, we’ve both decided to stick with the little rolling suitcases that we have. A big part of this is the fact that we then don’t have to actually buy anything new. Various friends have done Europe before – all have used suitcases (much larger and heavier than ours!) and were pretty much fine. Since we’re travelling quite light it won’t be an issue to carry our suitcases up stairs or along a cobblestone road, and I think I’ll be glad of the ability to just pull my load behind me on smoother pathways. I don’t really care if snobby hostelers dismiss me as a ‘tourist’. I’m glad I looked at trekking backpacks though, because I do want to see South America and more of South East Asia later on and it would be much more handy for those places.
What kind of luggage do you travel with?