Suitcase or Backpack: Choosing the right luggage

Before you do any packing, you will need to decide what you are going to pack all your stuff in, and this can be a challenging decision in itself. I wrote a blog post about my choice of backpack and carry-on, which might help you get an idea of what works abroad.

If you don’t plan to be moving around a lot or climbing onto a lot of buses or trains, or if you’re going on a leisurely vacation, you may consider bringing a suitcase. Alternatively, if you’re going on an adventurous trek or will constantly be taking public transportation and moving around every two or three days, bring a backpack. If you’re studying abroad, I recommend bringing a medium suitcase to leave at your housing and also a backpack for your shorter trips. If you are convinced you only need to bring one piece of luggage to study abroad, I would recommend a backpack over a suitcase so you can use it for shorter trips.

Whether you pack a suitcase or a backpack, you should bring a big purse or messenger bag of some sort as your carry-on, something very comfortable that you can carry for days (because you will be doing just that). Make sure it is comfortable and compatible to wear with your backpack on, because you will have to carry both whenever you’re in transit, and the lighter and smaller your luggage, the better your attitude will be. A small backpack you can wear across your front is good for this, or an over-the-shoulder purse or bag is also fairly easy to manage. Word to the wise: make sure your smaller carry-on/day bag has a zipper (your first line of defense against pick-pocketers).

How to Choose a Good Suitcase

There are a few things to keep in mind when looking for a good suitcase: size (not just the obvious capacity), structure, and quality. Have you ever seen those oversized suitcases? Yeah, don’t go there, they encourage overpacking and are anything but convenient on the road. Somewhere in between those oversized suitcases and carry-ons are ideally what you should look for. Just remember, more space is not always a good thing because not only does it encourage overpacking, but it also becomes extremely heavy in the process. Also keep in mind that if you will be towing it behind you down narrow aisles, whether it be on planes, trains, or buses, you will want a narrow suitcase. Sometimes narrow and deep is better than shallow and wide. Don’t be that person who hits everyone’s elbows and causes traffic jams down the aisle; plan ahead.

Take a look at the structure and organization of the suitcase and make sure it has all the compartments, wheels, and pulleys that you might need. Lastly, keep in mind that no airline employees care about your bag. Period. This is where quality comes in. The stronger and better the quality of the suitcase, the less likely that it will rip in transport, especially with hard plastic siding.

How to Choose a Good Backpack

If you don’t have a good backpack and you plan on doing a lot of moving around, I suggest you buy one. It is very important that you find a good backpack that fits you. There are three specific things you should look for when you go searching for a good backpack, the three C’s: comfort, convenience, and capacity. Comfort is ultra important as you will be wearing this backpack for days on end sometimes, and nobody likes a sore and grumpy travel buddy. Convenience has to do with how easy it is to pack, unpack, access things at the bottom, and stuff items conveniently where you need them (like easy-access top or outside pockets). Capacity of course is how much it will hold, and this is a really important factor when deciding on a backpack. Don’t decide on capacity simply by the length of time you will be traveling; rather, let your body size and strength be your deciding factor. 

Watch this video for How to Choose the Perfect Travel Backpack:

The first backpack I traveled with was not only a size too big for me, it was entirely too large for what I needed, which led to over packing and very sore shoulders, not to mention a bad attitude. This is why it is important to get measured for the right size. When you go in to get fit for a backpack, ask them to fill it up for you (if they don’t have the means to do this, you might as well leave and go to the next store). Test it full and heavy, because it will be full and heavy when you actually use it. You should be able to tell right away what you can handle. If you can’t tell, maybe my story will help. My first backpack was a medium 65 + 10, which means medium torso with a carrying capacity of 65 liters that can be expanded to 75 liters. My current backpack is a Gregory Jade 50, size small. That’s a huge and critical difference! It fits me well and is still comfortable when it’s packed full. This comfort should be your deciding factor for determining capacity. Then you just need to get creative with packing light to work with the capacity that you have, which is the weight and comfort that you know you can handle.

best backpacking backpack

Watch my review of the Gregory Jade 50 to find out why I recommend it.

Where can I get a good backpack?

I have done a bit of searching for backpacks, and the best service I have experienced is at REI. If you are lucky enough to have an REI near you, I highly recommend paying a visit and asking their experts to fit you for a backpack. As in, don’t bother looking anywhere else; you will find all your answers at REI.

If you don’t have an REI near you, you can still check out their website for expert advice about choosing the right backpack (size charts, etc.) or make a visit to your local recreational sports store. Once you have been fitted and/or figure out which backpack size you want to get, buy it. If you want a budgeting secret, then I recommend ordering one from the REI-Outlet website. This is where they sell their clearance and marked down items, and I can almost guarantee that you will find a good deal on the right backpack for you, and you’ll save a few bucks! Just keep one thing in mind: when it comes to a backpack, don’t sacrifice comfort for money. It will be worth the few extra bucks to get just the right backpack for you.

And now, on to the packing list!