Ultimate packing question: Backpack or suitcase?

I have struggled time and time again with this question. For those who are lucky enough to travel via chauffeured car and always tip the bell boy well in their fancy hotels, this isn’t likely to be an issue. Though for the majority of 20-somethings who like to visit multiple cities and countries in one trip, myself included, this isn’t a reality. Instead, we have to tackle getting on and off many different modes of transport, and hauling all of our stuff around with us.

For years I was convinced that the classic suitcase was always the best option, despite the logistical concerns it raised. On my trip interrailing around Europe this summer, though, I decided to give the humble backpack a go. But did it manage to sway me?

The convenience of the suitcase

Organisation is the top reason for wanting to travel with a suitcase. You find a lesser-used corner of your room, unzip, and everything is just as you left it in the last city. Yes, shirts may be a little crumpled, but good packing can help to lessen that risk.


Suitcase tips:

  • Take a suitcase proportionate to the amount of things you need to back. Forget about leaving room for the things you’re going to buy, because you’re going to spend a lot more on new outfits if your clothes turn up in a mangled mess after rolling around your half-empty case.
  • Keep everything in place with a cheap fluffy pillow. If you’re determined to take a large case, then use a pillow wrapped in your favourite pillowcase to fill up any empty space. The main purpose, other than giving you a much nicer sleep, is to keep all your belongings where you want them to be. Thankfully, this reduces the chance of your shower gel exploding all over your dresses, too.
  • Make sure you can lift it – especially up stairs. This was always my main downfall. I would arrive triumphantly at a hostel, check in without issue, and then be told the fateful words. The lift is broken. When will it be fixed? Probably in a few days. There’s only one option left available then, and that involves getting rather hot and sweaty carting all those things you really didn’t need to bring with you up two flights of steep stairs.
  • Pack light. Just because you’ve got lots of room doesn’t mean you have to use it all. Are those straighteners really going to make your hair more attractive when you’re going somewhere with 90% humidity?


The mobility of the backpack

When I had packed my rucksack with all the shorts and tops that I thought I would need, I could barely lift it off the ground, let alone carry it on my back. Sadly, this is more reflective of my awful upper-body strength than my packing style. It filled me with dread, quite honestly. If I could barely stand around with my backpack on, how would I navigate across Europe with it on my back?


All loaded up and ready to fly to Berlin. Don’t let the smile fool you; I could barely stand up. 

At first, it was quite tough, but it quickly became easier to carry each time I strapped it onto my back. By the end of the trip, I was shopping for dresses in train stations while still carrying it without much trouble.

In hindsight, I genuinely don’t think I could have coped without my backpack while interrailing. Hauling a suitcase, no matter how well packed, on and off multiple trains per day would have been a nightmare. With a backpack, I could just waltz straight on. Plus, there are definitely tricks you can adapt to make it a less nightmare-ish way to carry your belongings.

  • Zip-lock bags. Don’t be put off by the madness of it, but this really helped me keep my belongings organised and compact. I had one huge bag for t-shirts and dresses, one for skirts and shorts, and a third for underwear. This meant I could grab each bag in the morning, see what I wanted to wear, grab it, and then reseal the bag. It meant I didn’t have to empty the contents of my whole rucksack every time I wanted a fresh pair of socks.
  • Balance the weight. I quickly learned that keeping my books at the top of my bag was a bad idea. By moving them down to the bottom pocket, it meant that my hips were carrying the weight rather than my shoulders, which made walking longer distances a lot easier.
  • Pack light. Just the same as with a suitcase, but you will be a lot more annoyed with yourself if you’ve carried a hardback book all the way around a continent without even reading the blurb. Every kilogram counts.
  • Use all of the straps. The difference between carrying 15kg on your shoulders and 15kg on your shoulders, hips and chest is immense. Use all the support straps and tighten them on every journey. It literally made my bag feel lighter by half.

Overall, it’s important to remember to tailor your bag to your adventure. If you’re going to explore a Pacific island but stay in the same hotel for the whole trip, then a suitcase will be fine. But if you’re visiting two or more locations in one trip, especially if you plan to use public transport, then I advise taking a backpack. Before this summer I never thought I would say that, but I tried it and it worked!


Are you a suitcase fan, or will you only ever take a backpack? Why is that your favourite? 


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