UPDATED: August 18th, 2018. Originally Posted: June 2014.
Companies are finally starting to design travel backpacks specifically for urban travel! In the past, people traveling to Europe were forced to use normal hiking backpacks that were designed for all-day hikes in the wilderness. However, hiking backpacks aren’t designed for city-hopping via train, plane, and bus.
But now there are multiple travel backpacks on the market and we’ve tested about well over a dozen of the most popular to help find the best travel backpack for your travel style.
NOTE: We first posted this guide in 2014 and we continue to update the list as we test new backpacks. In this update, we added new bags from Osprey and AER, and we removed a few bags that were discontinued.
Hiking Backpacks Vs Travel Backpacks
Before my first trip to Europe way back in 2006, I use a top-loading hiking-style backpack — Osprey Atmos 50. However, after a few weeks of traveling with the bag, I became well-aware the shortcomings of a hiking backpack.
When you’re hiking, a top-loading bag is perfect because you haul all your gear to a campsite and then unload it as you set up camp. But when you’re traveling, you don’t want to unload your entire bag every time you change locations. You want to open your bag, get whatever you need, and then be on your way.
- The main problem with hiking backpacks is gaining access to your clothes and other stuff. Hiking backpacks generally only open from the top, so trying to get to anything inside the bag requires you to unpack your entire bag. It is a huge pain.
- Hiking backpacks are covered in all sorts of straps. These straps adjust the fit of the shoulder harness and hip belts, compress the bag’s load and hold a sleeping bag/sleeping pad.
- These straps can get caught on things if you’re not careful. The biggest concern is if you check your bag at the airport because the straps can easily get caught on the luggage conveyor belt. If you’re lucky, it will only cause minor damage, but there is the possibility of the strap being ripped completely off the bag — which isn’t good.
- Many hiking backpacks are long and narrow, which is good for keeping the stuff in the bag centered on your back, but it makes it difficult to pack. This is a feature you want when hiking for miles at a time, but it is a bit of a nuisance for urban travel.
- Finally, top-loading backpacks are closed with a drawstring so they can’t be locked.
Travel Backpacks: A Quick Overview
Travel backpacks zip open like a normal suitcase — none of that top loading nonsense. This way you can easily access whatever you need without much hassle. Additionally, most travel backpacks don’t have extra straps and the suspension system (i.e. the shoulder straps and hip belt) can be stored away behind a zippered panel so it’s safe for transport in buses, planes, etc.
Travel backpacks are still relatively new, so they’re not as advanced as traditional hiking backpacks. Therefore, there are still a few drawbacks:
- The suspension system: The shoulder straps on travel backpacks are not always as advanced as on a traditional hiking backpack – although it does depend on the backpack. Travel backpacks are designed to be worn for maybe an hour at a time. This should be plenty of time for most city-hopping trips where you’ll be using public transportation. However, you should think twice about buying a travel backpack if you plan on doing any long-distance hiking on your trip.
- Hip belt: A lot of travel backpacks skimp on the hip belt — some don’t even have one. The problem here is that most of the weight of your backpack should actually fall on your hips — not your shoulders. Only a few travel backpacks include a fully functional hip belt. This shouldn’t pose too much of an issue since you won’t be wearing the bag for an extended amount of time but it’s something to consider.
- Zippers are the weak spot: The zipper will always be the weakest point in any bag — there is no getting around that. Generally, most major manufacturers use heavy-duty zippers so you don’t have to worry too much about breaking one but cheaper bags may use weaker zippers.
- Another concern is that traditional zippers aren’t waterproof. Nicer bags now come with waterproof zippers, but if yours doesn’t have one, you may consider purchasing a rain cover for your bag.
- Boxiness: Travel backpacks are a little boxier than the average hiking backpack because they’re designed to be more like a suitcase. This is a minor complaint, but if you’re used to using a hiking pack, you might notice the difference.
Our Favorite Travel Backpacks
Quick Note — Airline Carry-On Sizes
Each airline has their own rules about carry-on size limits so check out their maximum length x width x depth measurements. It gets a little confusing because a backpack might be under on the width and depth but slightly over on the length.
Unlike suitcases, most travel backpacks aren’t super rigid, so the sides will compress if you need to force your bag into one of those size templates that airlines use.
That said, the airlines are usually much more strict about the weight of the bag. As a general rule, a 45L bag is about the max size for carry-on luggage, so we don’t recommend going over that size.
Ok! Let’s Get On To Our Favorite Travel Bags!
Osprey Farpoint & Fairview
Two of our favorite travel backpacks are the Osprey Farpoint and the Osprey Fairview — they’re both essentially the same backpack but the Fairview is a female-specific version that’s slightly tweaked to better fit females. That said, Susan (5’3″) has used the Farpoint multiple times and found it very comfortable.
The Farpoint and Fairview are two of the most fully-featured travel backpacks on the market because they incorporate many features that you’d find in a traditional hiking pack. Furthermore, they’re priced competitively, so the bags are affordable. Both bags are available in three different sizes — 40L, 55L, and 70L.
40L vs 55L
The 40L and the 55L are similar backpacks but they’re not exactly the same. The 55L is actually a 42L backpack with a detachable 13L daypack. The 40L is a 40L backpack with no daypack. As you can see, the main compartments of each backpack are similar in volume but the 55L is a few inches taller. Additionally, the 40L does have some additional organization that’s not found on the 55L.
What We Like About The Osprey Farpoint & Fairview
- Real Suspension System: The Farpoint actually has a suspension system that you’d find in a hiking backpack, so this bag is a great option if you value comfort.
- Comfortable Padded Hip Belt: The hip belt on the Farpoint is a legitimate hip belt that is fully padded and adjustable.
- Different Sizes: Each model (40L, 55L, and 70L) comes in a Small/Medium or a Medium/Large size. This is great because someone who is 5’3″ will want a different backpack than someone who is 6’1″. Most travel backpacks don’t offer this feature. The Fairview comes in an X-Small/Small.
- Carry-on Size: The 40L is easily carry-on sized. The 55L is a tad too tall for some budget airlines but we’ve used ours multiple times without an issue. The 70L is probably too big to be a carry-on but you may be able to sneak it by.
- NOTE: Be sure to check the airline’s rules as they’re always changing.
- Carry Handles: The Farpoint has two carry handles — one on the side and one on the top. It probably doesn’t seem like a huge deal now, but these come in super handy when you’re moving your bag around.
- Fairly Lightweight: The 40L model weighs just under 3lbs, and the 55L weighs about 1lb more. These aren’t the lightest weight backpacks, but they’re far from the heaviest.
- Zip Away Shoulder Straps and Hip Belt: All the shoulder straps and hip belts fold and can be zipped away for safe transportation.
- The Farpoint 40L retails for around $160 (check Amazon for the latest price)
- The Farpoint 55L retails for around $180 (check Amazon for the latest price)
- The Farpoint 70L retails for around $200 (check Amazon for the latest price)
- The Fairview 40L retails for around $160 (check Amazon for the latest price)
- The Fairview 55L retails for around $180 (check Amazon for the latest price)
- The Fairview 70L retails for around $200 (check Amazon for the latest price)
The Osprey Porter is one of the most popular travel backpacks. We like to think of it as the Osprey Farpoint’s little brother — although it can actually carry more stuff.
It has a fairly no-frills shoulder harness system so it’s better suited for basic point A to point B travel urban travel. That said, it’s still a comfortable and well-made backpack. It was also redesigned in 2018 so it’s better than ever.
The Porter comes in three sizes — 30L, 46L, and 65L. The Porter is streamlined, so there aren’t a bunch of extra straps hanging off the bag. The shoulder straps are pretty basic (but still comfortable) and the hip belt is minimal. The straps and hip belt do zip away if you need to check your bag or just want to carry it like a suitcase via its handles. The Porter is also fairly lightweight at 3.4lbs (46L version).
If you’re traveling light then we suggest the 30L version but we think most people should get the 46L version.
The porter is also one of the less-expensive bags on our list so it’s a good value.
- The Porter 30L retails for $120 (check Amazon for latest price)
- The Porter 46L retails for $140 (check Amazon for latest price)
Read our Osprey Porter 46L review for more information about this backpack.
Tortuga Travel Backpacks
Tortuga is an independent backpack company that was started by a few friends who became frustrated with their backpacks when they traveled through Europe. That’s how the Tortuga was born. Tortuga is now one of the most popular travel backpack brands thanks to their three travel backpack models — Outbreaker, Setout, and Setout Divide. Each is an excellent option and we’ll cover them below.
The Outbreaker is a fully-featured panel-loading backpack that comes in two sizes — 35L and 45L. The bag’s material is sturdy and the hip belt is has a ton of padding. The suspension system is solid and the shoulder straps have a lot of padding. The bag is a little bulky/heavy but it’s honestly not that bad since it’s designed to carry a lot of stuff. The bag is a beast (in a good way).
The straps and hip belt do not stow away but the 35L is small enough to carry on any airline. The 45L can be carried on as well but it might be “officially” too large for some airlines (we’ve never had an issue traveling with our 45L Outbreaker).
The Outbreaker costs $269 (35L) or $299 (45L) and is available via the Tortuga Website.
You can read our in-depth Tortuga Outbreaker Review here.
The Setout is designed to be a more streamlined and budget-friendly travel backpack. It’s 45L so you can fit a ton of stuff inside but it’s much less “beefy” than the Outbreaker. The shoulder straps are less robust and comfortable than the Outbreaker but it should be fine for short-distance city travel. We do like the overall look of the bag and it’s certainly more stylish than the Outbreaker.
The Setout costs $199 (45L) and is available via the Tortuga Website.
You can read our in-depth Tortuga Setout Review here.
Tortuga Setout Divide
The Setout Divide is essentially a smaller version of the original 45L Setout. The Divide is a 26L travel backpack that can be expanded to 34L. So this is a nice alternative for people who are into ultralight travel.
The Setout Divide costs $179 and is available via the Tortuga Website.
AER Travel Pack
The AER is another small independent backpack company that has hit the scene a few years ago. We’re really digging their Travel Pack. This pack is designed specifically for urban travel — it’s pretty sleek (it’s a tad boxy but not too bad), durable, has a ton of useful pockets, and fits well. It’s 33L so it’s specifically designed to be carry-on compliant on all airlines — but 33L also means you’ll have to be a fairly minimalist packer.
There isn’t a ton of padding on the shoulder straps but it’s pretty standard when compared to other minimalist travel bags.
The AER Travel Pack also looks really nice (in our opinion) so you don’t have to worry about looking like you’re headed to the wilderness. It weighs a 3.7LBS so it’s fairly lightweight.
The Aer Travel Pack costs $230 directly from the Aer Website
NOTE: Aer just replaced their Travel Pack with the Travel Pack 2. We are currently reviewing it but it’s essentially an improved version of their original Travel Pack.
Want more information on this bag? Read our in-depth review of the AER Travel Pack.
The Kelty Redwing is one of the best-selling travel backpacks for a reason — it’s super comfortable, it has many advanced features, and it is affordable.
The Redwing has a great suspension system with well-padded shoulder straps and nice hip-belts. Additionally, it has a vented back to help ward off a sweaty back. The Redwing is also panel-loading and has a few exterior pockets.
The Redwing comes in a 44L and 50L version. It also comes in a female-specific 40L version. The Redwing weighs 2 lbs 10 oz so it’s very lightweight.
The only real downside to the Redwing is the looks — it looks like an outdoorsy hiking backpack (because it essentially is a hiking backpack that opens like a suitcase). So if you can get over that, then you have yourself a solid travel backpack.
The Redwing is officially listed for about $115-$145, However, you can usually find the Redwing closer to $115 — which makes them an excellent value.
Minaal 2.0 Carry-on Backpack
The Minaal created quite a splash with its super successful Kickstarter campaign, so people are obviously interested in sleek and stylish carry-on backpacks. It has a lot of the features you’d expect to see on a travel backpack — it’s streamlined, the straps can be stashed away, it has a rain cover, and it has solid carry handles on the side and top.
It’s quite stylish and it won’t draw a lot of attention to itself, which is a something a lot of people love.
The bag weighs just a little over 3lbs and is listed at 35L — so it’s on the small side. This is best for travelers who know how to pack super light so skip this bag if you’re not a minimalist. The Minaal has a basic hip belt, but it doesn’t have any padding, so it isn’t designed to support the weight of the bag.
The Minaal looks like a really nice bag, but priced at $300, it is one of the most expensive travel backpacks on the market. It is available at Minaal.com.
Patagonia Blackhole MLC (Maximum Legal Carry-on)
Ok, the Patagonia Blackhole MLC isn’t technically a travel backpack… it’s a travel duffle bag. Yes, it has basic backpack straps but we prefer to carry this bad-boy as a shoulder bag.
The Patagonia Blackhole MLC (maximum legal carry-on) bag has gained a bit of a cult following. It’s basically a soft-sided suitcase with a shoulder strap and it’s a great choice for travelers who don’t want a backpack.
The 45L Blackhole MLC is a sleek and minimalist travel backpack with no dangly exterior straps. It has urban styling so you’ll look like a super stylish urban dweller.
Packing Cubes and Accessories
If you want to take your organization to the next level, you should pick up a few packing cubes. Packing cubes allow you to easily compartmentalize your clothes into different cubes so you can keep everything easily accessible. These handy travel accessories make one-bag travel 10x easier. Trust us.
There are multiple brands and sizes available, and I’ve always found the best price on Amazon.
Check out our guide to the best packing cubes to see our favorite brands.
Full Packing Lists
No Funny Business
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Thanks For The Support! — Susan and James