The choice to bring either a backpack or a suitcase with wheels (rolling luggage) to Europe depends on your travel plans and your personal travel style. This guide will describe the advantages and the disadvantages to both travel backpacks and rolling luggage for traveling Europe and will hopefully help you choose which option is best for you.
Backpack For Traveling Europe
When “backpacking Europe,” most people use a backpack — no surprise there. We’ve already discussed how to choose the perfect backpack for Europe and we have a list of our favorite travel backpacks for Europe — so be sure to read those two articles if you choose a backpack.
Benefits To Using A Backpack
- Hands-Free Travel — Having full use of your hands makes navigating European streets and public transportation much easier.
- Easily Navigate Stairs and Streets — Traversing cobblestone roads and the myriad of stairs is made easy with a backpack. Don’t expect to find escalators and elevators in most European public transportation. Trust me, every day, I see people in the Paris Metro trying to lug a huge suitcase up its multiple flights of stairs, and it isn’t fun.
- Comfortable — Assuming your backpack fits well and isn’t overpacked, it can actually be pretty comfortable.
- Ease of Movement — Walking through crowds and tight spaces is much easier with a backpack.
- Easy to Store — Hostels usually have personal lockers and a backpack will fit in those fine. Most of the time a suitcase is too large, so you’ll need some other way to secure your stuff.
Drawbacks To Using A Backpack
- Airline Travel — Between the baggage handlers and the conveyor belts used to route luggage, airlines aren’t exactly known for being gentle on backpacks. Most backpacks have lot of straps that can get caught on the conveyor belts and sometimes they get ripped off (not fun). I aim to always carry on my backpack to avoid these issues. However, many newer travel backpacks have zip-away shoulder straps which make the bag safe for being checked.
- Packing Light — A lot of travelers tend to pack a lot… like way too much. I always try to promote traveling light, but if you find yourself needing to travel with your entire wardrobe, you might want to save your back and just use a suitcase.
- Cost — A quality backpack isn’t cheap (although there are some nice budget-friendly options — see my article about buying travel backpacks). By contrast, you can usually get a decent wheeled suitcase at discount stores like TJ Maxx or Marshalls for about $40-90.
- Some People Don’t Like Them — Some people just don’t like having anything on their backs.
Wheeled Suitcase For Traveling Europe
While most budget and younger travelers choose to travel with a backpack, the majority of “traditional” travelers who visit Europe use wheeled suitcases. This is probably largely due to the fact that everyone already has a suitcase and they don’t want to spend more money to buy something new. But for many travelers, a suitcase with wheels is actually their best option.
Benefits to Using a Wheeled Suitcase
- Not Having to Carry a Bag — Obviously, with wheeled luggage, you don’t need to carry any of your stuff. This works great if you’re traveling to places with smooth streets. A suitcase is probably the best option if you plan on using a taxi to get from the airport/train station to your hotel since you won’t be spending much time traveling with your bags.
- Ease of Packing/Organization — Packing a suitcase is pretty straightforward, and it’s simple to get to your stuff.
- Airline Safe — Suitcases are meant to travel well in checked luggage (assuming a baggage handler isn’t having a bad day).
- Able to Pack More — You don’t have to be as concerned with weight when you use a wheeled suitcase since you won’t be carrying it.
Drawbacks To Using A Wheeled Suitcase
- Stairs, Damn Dirty Stairs — Stairs are the enemy of wheeled suitcases. Wheeled bags are designed to be wheeled around but they are difficult to carry. I’ve helped people carry their huge suitcases up four flights of stairs… it is terrible.
- Broken Wheels — European streets can put a beating on those wheels. Once a wheel breaks, you might as well get a new suitcase.
- Crowds — Trying to roll a suitcase around in a crowd can cause a lot of frustration.
- Trains — The majority of luggage space on a train is above the seat, so be sure you can lift your bag above your head. Note: Some trains do have luggage storage areas, but they fill up quickly and you won’t be able to keep an eye on your bags.
- Streets — Rolling a suitcase over cobblestone is about as fun as it sounds.
- Harder to Store in Hostels — If you’re staying in a hostel, be aware that most lockers are too small for standard luggage. There might be other places to store your bag, but they probably won’t be as safe as a personal locker.
- Hands Full — You’ll always have to keep one hand on your bag which will hinder your mobility.
- Added Weight — A suitcase with wheels is a lot heavier than a backpack. Keep that in mind if you plan on carrying-on.
Final Thoughts on Backpacks vs Wheeled Luggage for Europe
Like I stated before, the choice between a backpack and a rolling suitcase comes down to personal preference. Personally, I prefer using a travel backpack. That’s what I recommend for budget travelers and people who are going to be visiting a lot of places. I’d guess that a vast majority of younger travelers use backpacks and older travelers tend to use suitcases.
There are convertible wheeled backpacks available that have both backpack straps and wheels — which allows you to choose how to haul around you bag. While I haven’t personally used them, I have checked out the Osprey Sojourn Wheeled Luggage, Osprey Meridian, and the Patagonia MLC Wheelie at my local travel store.
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Thanks! — Susan and James