The choice to bring either a travel backpack or a rolling suitcase 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 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 Travel 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 Travel 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 a 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.
- Read More: Our picks for the best carry-on backpacks.
- 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 our 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 still use wheeled suitcases when they visit Europe. 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 with your bags.
- Ease of Packing/Organization: Packing a suitcase is pretty straightforward and getting to your stuff us simple.
- Airline Safe: Suitcases are designed to survive being checked.
- 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 hauling it around on your back.
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. You’re sure to encouter stairs with public transportation, hostels, budget hotels, and rental apartments so keep that in mind when picking your luggage.
- Broken Wheels: European streets can put a beating on those wheels. Once a wheel breaks, you might as well get a new suitcase.
- If you do being a wheeled suitcase, we suggest getting one with two sturdy wheels rather than one with four wheels.
- 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.
- Rough Streets and Sidewalks: Rolling a suitcase over cobblestone is about as fun as it sounds. Also, many medieval cities have tiny sidewalks that are difficult to navigate.
- 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.
- Not Hands-Free: 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 have to consider airline weight limits.
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.
That said, Susan sometimes uses a suitcase and I have to admit that there are lot of advantages of using a suitcase.
More Packing Advice For Traveling Europe
We’re always looking for the best travel gear! Here are some of our favorite gear articles and packing tips:
- The Best Travel Shoes
- Our In-Depth Travel Backpack Buyer’s Guide
- Backpacking Europe Packing List
- Europe Packing List For Women
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Thanks For Reading! — Susan and James