In Defense Of Suitcases (Or, Backpacking Without A Backpack)

Now that the presidential elections are over, it’s time to move on to a more pressing debate: suitcases vs backpacks!  As I prepared for my around-the-world trip at the beginning of the year, I had a hard time deciding which type of luggage to choose.  As someone with Type A tendencies who likes to be ready for any situation, I didn’t want to skimp too much. Rolf Potts, I am not. On the other hand,  as I learned from previous travel, I didn’t want to be  weighed down unnecessarily.  As innocuous as this decision seems, it was a downright controversial topic; to eschew the time-honored and romanticized backpack was  blasphemous! After all, it IS called backpacking, and apparently, there are a lot of people that just can’t get over the vision of the gap year, hippie backpacker. But as a cosmopolitan woman in my 30s, I certainly don’t fit that stereotype, so why should my luggage?

Early on while researching mid-size luggage pieces, I narrowed it down to two options: A mid-size backpack and a 21 inch rolling suitcase . I wasn’t sure which direction to go in, and came thisclose to ordering the backpack online to test it out.  But I lucked out and found a 21″ Samsonite spinner suitcase, which retails for $400.00,  at Marshall’s for just $59.  And after six months of travel, I couldn’t be happier with that decision! 

Let’s start out with the most obvious reason I chose a suitcase over a backpack: there was no actual need for me to carry all of my belongings for an extended period of time. If hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro or trekking through the Sahara were on my itinerary, it would have been a different story. But my itinerary consisted primarily of visiting large cities and towns. When I took side trips, I was easily able to leave my luggage at the hostel/hotel. Many airports even offer secure luggage storage if you’re looking to explore the town for a few hours.  I traveled via planes, trains, buses, boats and taxis, and never had any trouble with a suitcase. Quite the contrary, I’m glad that I didn’t have carry the weight of my bag on my back.  The rolling suitcase is ergonomically designed, with spinner wheels on my suitcase allowing for easy maneuvering, as well as decreased arm and shoulder strain.  Additionally, I like the organizational compartments and features of a suitcase, and the way that all contents of a suitcase are visible when opened. Many of the backpacks I saw are top loading, and the only way to reach items on the bottom was to empty out the entire bag.

Just because you travel with a suitcase doesn’t mean you’re a high maintenance traveler with multiple outfit changes per day! I specifically went with a carry-on size suitcase so I wouldn’t have to check luggage; this way I eliminated hefty checked luggage fees, and didn’t have to worry about my luggage getting lost or stolen. And on that note , I preferred the added security of a suitcase over a backpack. While both types of bags can be locked, backpacks are worn on your back where there is little visibility and can easily be pick pocketed or slashed without your knowledge. A suitcase is lower to the ground, and can be watched more easily. A minor point, but something that gave me more peace of mind.

“Good job, girls. At this rate you’ll be on the weight lifting team in no time!” Image Credit: Wikipedia

And lastly, what screams “I’m a tourist” more than a large, unwieldy backpack? While there are plenty of other reasons why you may be pegged as a tourist, this is the most grievous! Think about it; when we travel domestically, or for a weekend trip, most of us use a small suitcase, not a large backpack. The same is true for every other part of the world. So, unless you are trying to simultaneously increase your upper back strength while traveling, I just don’t see the point of wearing your luggage.

I’m sure the suitcase vs backpack debate will loom on indefinitely, but  I’ve found that a carry-on sized suitcase works best for me.  Travel friends, what are your thoughts?

8 Comments on “In Defense Of Suitcases (Or, Backpacking Without A Backpack)”

  1. While in Paris I found that a suitcase was a bit of a pain for navigating the cobblestone streets. But while touring in South East Asia (on an actual tour where I didn’t have to worry about a thing) a suitcase was just fine. Think I am going to try out the backpack on my next overseas trip, plus my backpack has side access slots which is a MUST! I think it depends on the type of transportation you will encounter and what you plan on doing from the airport to your first destination. Other than that you can leave your luggage at your hotel, hostel, train station locker, etc.

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences! Having lived in NYC for a couple years, I’m used to carrying suitcases up and down stairs and in subways, etc, so navigating through cities didn’t bother me. Let me know how the backpack works out on your next trip!

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  3. This is something else that’s taking up too much of my brain at the moment. My backpack has two openings and unzips at the top on 3 sides like a suitcase and isn’t too big. Also the suitcase I could take is the right size (maybe a tiny bit too small) but has silly wheels. A new suitcase could solve this dilemma but then again, it’s the expense. Hmm, decisions!!

    • It really is a big decision. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what would work best for me. As I mentioned in the post, I went with the carry-on size roller suitcase, and I’ve gotten a ton of use out of it since I’ve been back home, so I feel that the expense was worth it. Good luck – let me know what you decide Gemma!

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