Suitcase vs. backpack: The ultimate showdown!

We all have travel-related idiosyncrasies, and everyone’s style is just a bit different, which is why the war over suitcases vs backpacks is everlastingly entrenched. On the backpacker circuit it’s a unified front of loyal soldiers in favor of the backpack brigade, whereas the hotel faithful adore their beloved wheels.

Everyone’s favorite “I’m cooler than you” argument is bragging about who’s a cooler traveler. Been to X number of countries? This other guy’s been to X+4! Got by in Belgium on 8 Euros a day? This guy did it on 3.6! Everyone thinks their way is right, and even luggage stirs passionate bragging.

Is either side the unchallenged victor? Each side seems to think so. They have their supporters, ardent and strong, defending their choices to the death.

And thus, let the debate begin:

In defense of suitcases:

Forget being a backpacker. It’s not like the name means anything anyway. Do you play tennis whenever you wear your tennis shoes? Nah, I didn’t think so. Are you sailing along on the sea whenever you wear boat shoes? Nope? That’s what I thought.

But it would be pretty cool.
Okay, it doesn’t have to be THAT old. Photo by Alf van Beem.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a budget traveler or a fancy shmancy lover of luxury. Either way, a suitcase is the way to go. Wheeling along that trusty little guy is going to give you no end of joy as you glance at the massively overloading but diminutive people crushed under the weight of their packs, enviously looking upon you like the genius you so surely are.

Here’s why suitcases rule:

  • Wheels: Duh. Who doesn’t love wheels? You can drag it along behind you, and no matter how heavy it is, it’ll still be fine. You’ll have plenty of room for those millions of extra shoes you packed, plus plenty of space for souvenirs.
  • Your back won’t get all sweaty: Ever see a backpacker take off the pack in body-temperature heat and 100% humidity? Well, that guy’s going to have a whole lot of trouble getting the attention he so desperately wants from the ladies. You? They’ll be so eager to be all over you they’ll trample any pedestrian in the way.
  • The straps won’t get all gross: Ever set your pack down on a bathroom floor, only to have it roll right over onto its back like a drunk turtle, right into the slowly-growing puddle of urine migrating your way from one stall over? Too bad it didn’t have little feet. Like a suitcase would.
  • You won’t worry about it getting damaged on the plane: Throw your suitcase into the checked baggage carousel and let it go. It’ll be just fine. Backpacks with a million straps and zippers all over them? They’ll get torn to pieces.
  • It’s also a chair: Indulge your laziness. In a way only a suitcase can. Backpacks flat on the ground are pretty terrible in this regard.

Ignore the nay-sayers because:

  • You’ll only carry it for 30 seconds: Yeah, they’ll blather on and on about cobblestones, but it’s not all that bad anyway, and is it really so tough carrying a suitcase for a brief moment? It’ll be over soon, and you won’t even break a sweat. Unlike those backpackers with their disgustingly soaked t-shirts.
  • No panel loader is as good as a suitcase: Sure, those newfangled packs have huge zippers that let you get into anywhere…sort of. They never open up all the way, so it’s only ever half as good as you want it to be.
  • A suitcase doesn’t make you any less of a budget traveler: It’s not the carrying device that makes you a cheap bastard. It’s you being a cheap bastard that makes you a cheap bastard. And if you’re still sleeping on dirty floors and bargaining over your bar tab, you’re just as budget-y as anyone else.

In defense of backpacks:

How is this even up for discussion? Are we really going to rebrand ourselves from backpackers to suitcasers? Shall the new stereotypical budget traveler evolve to appear carefree and well-dressed while wheeling a suitcase along for the journey?!?!

Ah, external frames, you aging veteran, you.
Wow, this is old. Photo by Haolenate.

Backpacking around the world isn’t about convenience and comfort, it’s about adventure! But alright, if you’re still looking for maximizing efficiency, backpacks are hands-down the best way to go.

Here’s why backpacks rule:

  • Cobblestones suck: Sooner or later (and probably rather frequently) you’re going to be walking along some medieval town square, and if you’ve ever tried to drag a suitcase along the half-century old rocks, you’ll never want to do it again.
  • Mud sucks even harder: Oh, you’ll fall. You’ll fall hard. And then you won’t be laughing at the backpackers as they hop, skip, and jump through the mud with their trusty backpacks all the way.
  • You shall encounter stairs: Thought you were all crafty for loading up a gigantic suitcase since it had wheels anyway? Prepare to walk up all 5 flights of stairs to the hostel that has no elevator.

Ignore the nay-sayers because:

  • You can get a ventilated pack: Worried about your precious back looking all sweaty and gross? Don’t worry, backpacks can totally perpetuate the illusion of your classiness. All you need is one of those trampoline-style mesh back panels that’ll keep the sweat off your back, floating away in the air to land on someone’s face.
  • They can open like a suitcase too: More often nowadays you’ll find backpacks that have panel access, just like a suitcase. They’ll be your best friend.
  • You can run: And you will. That 6:00 AM train to Munich isn’t going to wait for you, no matter how hungover and covered in your own vomit you might be.

Final thoughts?

So there you have it. The wonderful world of backpacking vs. the tried and true reliability of the good old fashioned suitcase. Both have their proponents, both have their detractors, and at least they can both get together to hate on the duffel baggers. Seriously, those guys are just stupid.

Got any preferences in the backpack vs. suitcase debate? Join the fun and brag about which one you think makes you cooler!

About SnarkyNomad

Eytan is a pretentious English major whose rant-laden sarcastic tirades occasionally include budget travel tips and other international nonsense. You can follow his every narcissistic word on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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20 Comments on “Suitcase vs. backpack: The ultimate showdown!”

  1. Hahaha the great debate of our time. Personally, I rock a backpack. Even though I’m tiny and it dwarfs me, I can use it as a pillow, squeeze it into funky spaces…and I actually go backpacking in the wilderness, soo its helpful for that. It’s purple, has a ventilation panel, can be tied down to not be huge…and its purple. So cool.

    1. I’ve tried to get by without the ventilated trampoline-style back panel, but I’m like a Niagara falls of socially unpleasant bodily functions. Sadly I have what I think is an awkwardly-shaped body and only a very select few brands work for me. I’ve started trying the women’s versions in the meantime.

      1. Gotta go with whatever works. I’ve had to go with children’s packs before (at least its cheaper), but finally found an adult one from Osprey that worked. The folks at my local REI are total champs for assisting me in the quest for the perfect backpack/processing who knows how many exchanges.

  2. I think the biggest thing for me is that a backpack leaves my hands free. I can have my backpack on and still order and carry my coffee, walk my dog, carry a map, read a book, tie my shoe, etc.

    I also like that it feels secure. It is attached to my body and, thus, harder for someone to steal even when I’m not paying attention (which is probably a lot).

  3. As a die-hard duffel bagger, I take serious offense to those statements. I mean, what’s not to love? They’re lightweight (no extra weight from silly wheels), they’re flexible (easily conforming to airplane overhead bins), and they have only ONE strap (two straps are SO complicated).

    Anyway, no need to argue over backpacks or suitcases because the true winner is probably the rolling backpack: http://www.overstock.com/Luggage-Bags/Rolling-Backpacks/19340/subcat.html Best of both worlds!

    1. I’ve had to walk around with a pack for hours at a time, and a duffel bag over the shoulder is just completely unacceptable. I get tired carrying my laptop bag over the shoulder if I have to do it for more than 20 minutes, and that only weighs 3 pounds. I wouldn’t know what to do if it weighed 15. Even the kind that have backpack straps are still painful, since they’re just afterthoughts sewn on the outside without the craftsmanship of a serious pack. I have ever-so-fragile shoulders that require the finest engineering techniques in order to be comfortable!

  4. Man, I almost.. ALMOST bought a backpack online. Thank you. I’ve always been a suitcase type of guy. I’m going to try budget travelling though soon and I still don’t think I can handle dragging my stuff on my back.. and all the other issues you mentioned.. I do need a backpack though, a small one for a DSLR + GoPro + 17 inch macbook pro.. as a blogger you gotta do what you gotta do. I’ve got this one strap backpack for my Macbook Pro and it’s terribly painful in airports. I typically spend the next 48 hours recovering from back pain after long transits. I do need to ditch it and replace it with something more healthy and something bigger so I can take those new cameras with me. Any ideas?

    1. Although I’m a backpack person, there are definitely pros and cons. There’s really no “correct” answer. As for camera cases, I can’t really say which ones are good, as I haven’t made use of them, but I know LowePro has a great reputation, and you can probably find a camera backpack that also includes a laptop compartment. Good luck.

  5. Hi there, I just found your blog. Really funny!
    Re-the grand debate, it depends. If I’m travelling, I take my bagpack ‘cos its versatile and I can carry so much more! If I’m on an academic business trip, I take my suitcase which is convenient for running through Frankfurt Airport!
    I get more respect too as I have my “Miles and More” tabs attached to my suitcase. It’s a bit difficult on a bagpack LOL!

  6. I have a great video of my fully depressed friend who was the only one on the ferry to some small forgotten Thai island. (And he was probably the only one with suitcase there as well – ever tried “rocking it” with a suitcase somewhere without roads?
    I have another video of somebody else equally depressed in middle of Paris with a backpack.
    So – it depends. On your destination, needs, and so on. But funny post. Keep on:).

    1. That video sounds hysterical. Where do I find it!?

      After lugging a MASSIVE suitcase around Israel in January I found pros and cons to it. Having a built in chair to sit on for hours in the disgusting Tel Aviv bus station was most definitely a plus. I also like being able to hang my sweater, travel pillow and camera pack on the handle. Sometimes my arms got sore from lugging it around, but personally I have horrible posture and I have a feeling I wouldn’t do well with a lot of weight on my back.

      I’ll admit, it was a pain to have a rolling suitcase on trains– one day on a busy train I had to put my suitcase on its own in the entryway, which was a bit nerve wracking. I haven’t traveled with a backpack yet, but I’m thinking that for my first real long term trip this summer I may just stick with a smaller rolling bag + small backpack for electronics. With that, can anybody link me to a good, durable suitcase?

  7. Rolling suitcases are or backpackers with more money – pay for the cab to take you across the mud and cobblestones. Hire the porter to haul your luggage. And if you keep the suitcase small without dozens of shoes, you can still carry it yourself. Backpacking is about attitude and philosophy, not struggle to earn a street cred.

    1. I agree. I’ve seen some people use a tiny suitcase, though; people eventually have back problems, so if you take all your gear that was in a pack and put it into a tiny suitcase, you’re probably still the same person, but without the strain. But until I have severe problems, I’ll be backpacking too.

  8. Well, i use both at the same time. A suitcase with my clothes, that i only transport between my hostels, and a small backpack, that contains all the stuff, that i actually need during the day. For some reason i just feel better, having all my smelly underpants in a different location than my more “fun” stuff.

  9. I love the steamer trunk. We have one we use all the time, well my 13 y.o. daughter uses it any way – as a closet in her room at home. I haven’t taken the kids anywhere we couldn’t go in the car yet (and where we weren’t staying and playing) so we usualy pack enough for all three of us in a single large duffle. But if we were on and off planes, traines and automobiles I would prefer they each haul their own gear. Now they are getting old enough to appreciate the (non-Disney) world I have begun researching backpacks for each of us.

  10. I love my wheelie bag. I’ve been travelling my whole life and I reckon it has more to do with the art of packing as little as possible. That’s why I love your minimalist travel tips. Yes I do still see people with overloaded huge backpacks, plus a stuffed to the brim day pack on their chest plus another carry in their hands. Why bother (stuff all the crap in a bloody big suitcase when you travel like that.) Yes cobble stones are annoying and noisy at 5 am. Waking up the whole neighbourhood with your wheelie bag. And stairs, well, I just carry the bag for the whole 10 or 20 seconds it takes to get up or down. It ain’t K2 you have to ascend. But apologies for stating my case. Again it’s all about how to pack and what to pack. I love the Aer shoe compartment. It’s a big miss in most luggage items. Wheelies or packs. I don’t like stinky or muddy shoes near my clean clothes. About 7 years ago I bought the cheapest piece of travel gear I ever owned. And it is the best. Have lived out of it for 5 years and dragged it all over the planet. It’s from Decathlon. (yes it’s a massive 60 liters, but in my defense, all my earthly belongings went in there) (http://www.decathlon.co.uk/sport-60-l-suitcase-id_8361919.html)

  11. My bag of choice for the last 10 years:

    https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lowe-Alpine-TT-Carry-Rucksack/dp/B001V5O450

    Like most travel packs, it has it’s faults, but as yet I haven’t found anything to replace it.
    I have used all of the available carrying methods, and while they are all a compromise
    (which i think is an unfortunate trait of most travel packs) they all work well. My personal favourite is carrying it messenger style using the included well padded shoulder strap.
    For me though, the biggest advantage is the internal and external compression straps, which mean if the bag is not full, I can cinch it down to a much smaller size.
    It’s just a shame Lowe Alpine didn’t address the bags shortcomings when they replaced this bag with the AT carryon.

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