When I went backpacking I struggled to decide what luggage to take – backpack or wheeled suitcase? It really depends on your personal tastes but this guide will help you decide what’s right for you.
The choice of a backpack or suitcase for interrailing across Europe is probably one of the earliest you’ll make for your trip, along with what to pack. If you can’t decide, take a look at the pros and cons of each bag type, as well as reading what worked for me on my trip.
The majority of people will want to take a backpack for a backpacking trip, but personal preference matters more than the stereotypical image of a traveller.
Pros of taking a backpack
Keeps your hands free
With a backpack your hands are free to hold a map, check your phone, shop and eat. It can feel liberating to carry so much without having to restrict yourself in this way. It can also make communicating easier if you’re struggling with a foreign language as you can point and gesture.
Easier to travel up or down stairs
You can carry on as normal with navigating stairs, steps and steep hills and won’t get in a hot sweat trying to lug a huge case with just the strength of your arms. As the weight is better distributed with backpacks, the same weight of items can feel lighter.
Good for storage
The materials used to make backpacks are typically quite flexible and you can squeeze a backpack into hostel lockers and in train racks quite easily. This takes away some of the worry associated with security, but you should still be vigilant against theft.
Most backpacks will have a main compartment with smaller side compartments that can help organise your luggage, such as a pocket for wires and a pocket for food on the go.
Not my favourite word but backpacks align with your body making it easier to navigate in crowds and tight spaces. It is possible to forget you’re wearing a backpack if it isn’t too heavy as it’s less hassle to travel with – you don’t have to dodge other tourists, take it up stairs or lift it up to get onto pavements.
Cons of taking a backpack
It can take a while to get used to
To begin with, wearing a backpack isn’t the most natural thing in the world. They can cause your clothes to ride up, make your back sweat and dig in to your shoulders. If you don’t test them before travelling to get used to them, they may prove to be uncomfortable.
In comparison to wheeled suitcases, backpacks made for travelling will cost more overall, especially for a high quality one. This can be a frustration if you’re working to a tight budget.
For extended trips it’s easy to take a lot with you, but backpacks basically mean you have to travel lighter otherwise it’ll be a strain on your back.
They can be awkward
Most backpacks have a lot of straps, even zips and poppers, making them easy to catch on other items and get caught. The straps can also make it time consuming to get into your bag.
When is a backpack the right choice?
Take a backpack if you’re happy to travel light and don’t mind spending a bit more for better movement and easier storage.
Interrailing wheeled suitcase
Taking a wheeled suitcase might not be your first thought when it comes to travelling Europe, interrailing or backpacking, but it can be a great way to carry everything you need.
Pros of taking a wheeled suitcase
Easy to organise
You’ll have used a suitcase for holidays before and have a good judgement of how much space you need and how to pack. As clothes can be folded and lain flat, they’re easier to keep track off and clothes ready to be washed can simply be put in the other half of the suitcase, keeping everything fresh and tidy. In a backpack on the other hand, everything can get lost in the main compartment.
You can pack more
As you’ll be wheeling your case, you can carry more weight as you’ll feel it less. This means you can take more with you and reduce the challenges that come when deciding what to leave behind. This is ideal if you have camera equipment or anything heavy you need to bring.
Great for airports
It’s the same old when it comes to catching a flight and wheeled bags easily go through scanners at security as they’re self-contained with no dangling straps. As you can add a padlock, you have more peace of mind while it’s in the hold or even in the luggage rack in the cabin.
Wheeled bags are a very popular choice for all types of travel and you can pick them up quite cheaply. Once you know the size you want, check prices online and on the high street. Choose one that’s affordable but still ticks all the boxes – durable, lightweight etc.
As a suitcase can be used for weekend breaks, family holidays and any type of travel in addition to interrailing, it’s a good investment as you will likely use it again.
Cons of taking a wheeled suitcase
In instances where escalators or lifts aren’t available, they can be a pain to lift up stairs, especially if they’re steep or crooked – as you can get in old european cities. This is why the total weight will be really important as you have to be able to handle this situation.
Keeps your hands full
Unlike backpacks you use your hand to move wheeled bags, which can be annoying when you want to take a quick photo or need both hands to properly look and concentrate on a map. However, this can be a good opportunity to find somewhere to sit and take a five minute break when you need it.
Easy to get dirty
Wheeled bags are close to the ground and will knock into it when manoeuvred on uneven surfaces or worse still, cobbles. Naturally, this means they can get dirty and start to look worn. More durable bags made of tougher plastics can reduce this effect and can be wiped down.
Harder to store
If you have anything bigger than an airline carry on bag, it will be difficult to fit in hostel storage lockers and may need you to take extra security methods, such as buying a padlock or asking/paying extra for it to be stored at reception.
When is a wheeled suitcase the right choice?
Choose a wheeled suitcase if you want to save money for your trip and expect to pack a lot. They can be easier to carry, especially if you buy a bag with four wheels (better weight distribution and movement over two wheels), just keep in mind security and invest in a good padlock with either a key or passcode.
How much should you spend?
To decide this, shop around with your total interrail budget in mind. Your main expenses will be the interrail ticket and accommodation costs, followed by food and drink. Luggage, as a one of purchase, should be a relatively small expense.
I’ve seen people spend over £100, and have also seen people spend more in the region of £30. Typically, a specialist backpack that’s waterproof and comes with the latest weight distribution design, adjustable straps and cooling technology is going to set you back more than a durable wheeled suitcase.
What did I do?
Initially I was enamoured with the idea of actually taking a backpack to go backpacking, and bought a whopping 70 litre Mountain Warehouse bag (read more)! This was highly recommended to me and had great online reviews, but I found it didn’t distribute weight in the way I needed it to for my journey.
Despite being stylish, light and comfortable, I couldn’t organise my items in the way I would like, and they seemed to all get lost in the main compartment. So, after a bit of soul searching, I returned it and bought a wheeled suitcase instead. The price difference? The backpack was £85 and the wheeled suitcase £40.
Honestly, I think this saved me so much hassle during my two month trip and it was much simpler to find a high quality and affordable one in the right size. This proved to be really important as once I got home, I actually threw it away as it was a little worse for wear! However, for the price, it was a good investment for two months of constant use.
Top tips if you’re unsure
- Always try on backpacks in the store and get more than one person’s opinion; ask the shop assistant and have a friend or family member there to help as well.
- Do your research online and check reviews from real people where you can.
- Don’t choose one over the other because you think it’s what you should get – the only right choice is what works best for you and your trip.
- Be realistic when you do a practise pack; is that weight going to be OK on your back when you’re tired and rushing to catch a night train?
- Remember to take a smaller day bag so you can easily get around during your trip; a lot of the time your main bag will stay at your hostel or hotel while you explore.
Thanks for reading and I hope this helps make sense of some of the options available. If you have any questions, leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you asap. If I don’t have the answer, I may be able to point you in the right direction 🙂