What is the Best Backpack-Suitcase Combo?
Suitcases versus backpacks is a common debate among travelers. This is a decision I faced when I took my first big international trip to Eastern Europe in 2009.
Suitcases are great for air travel and keeping your stuff organized. Using carry-on-sized luggage will save you hundreds of dollars in baggage fees and plenty of time at the airport.
The problem with suitcases is that they're ill suited to urban travel. Wheeled suitcases are fine on the polished floors of an airport, or an office building. Suitcases have cheap plastic wheels that break easily on uneven sidewalks. The cobblestone streets of Europe and dirt roads of underdeveloped countries render them all but useless.
Backpacks are convenient for urban travel. Flexible enough for any terrain, you can easily grab your bag and go.
The problem with backpacks is that they're either too small to bring everything you need, or too large to qualify as carry on luggage. Backpacks are tough to pack and unpack, making most options ill suited for travel. Regardless of size, most backpacks must be packed vertically leaving your stuff a disorganized mess.
Suitcases and backpacks each have their own strengths and weaknesses. The ideal piece of luggage would combine the best parts of each into a suitcase/backpack hybrid.
Unfortunately, many travel backpacks blend the worst features of suitcases and backpacks into a hybrid piece of luggage that doesn’t really work for anyone. Let's take a look at your options and try to avoid getting the worst of both.
Should You Buy a Backpack with Wheels?
The most obvious suitcase/backpack combination is a rolling backpack with wheels. You've probably seen other travelers carrying them or spotted them, in stores.
The problem is that backpacks with wheels combine the worst elements of backpacks and of suitcases. You might be able to roll them through an airport, but that convenience is far outweighed by the disadvantages of wheeled backpacks.
Adding plastic handles and wheels to a backpack significantly increases its weight. The increased weight makes the bag more difficult to carry and more likely to exceed airlines' carry on baggage weight allowances.
A random sampling of rolling backpacks on eBags showed an average weight of nearly 7 pounds (3 kg). The bags ranged from 4.5 pounds (2 kg) to 8.5 pounds (4 kg).
Airlines' rules for carry on bag weight vary dramatically. Most North American and European airlines allow carry on luggage up to 22 pounds (10 kg). Some are as low as 5 kg, meaning that you’d carry an empty backpack and still be charged for an overweight carry-on.
On average, a wheeled suitcase would take up 20-40% of the allowed weight. Good luck filling that bag without going over the weight allowance.
Rolling backpacks are heavy. You will want to put them down and take advantage of their wheels as often as possible.
Using the rolling backpack as a wheeled suitcase leaves you at the mercy of easily broken plastic wheels and eliminates the benefit of carrying a backpack.
Once your wheeled backpack hits the streets, the wheels are likely to break. When they do, you'll be left carrying the bag exclusively as a backpack. But, because it has wheels, you'll be carrying an extra two to six pounds of now-useless plastic.
Rolling backpacks have the worst features of suitcases (delicate wheels and extra weight) and of backpacks (poor organization) and negate the best features of both.
Let's focus on the good features of each luggage type that should be combined into a high-quality backpack/suitcase combo.
Backpacks get a bad rap, but they aren't all bad. Backpackers carry them for a reason.
Easy to Carry
Backpacks are easy to carry and convenient to pick up and go. If designed with adequate padding and a hip belt to distribute weight onto your hips and off of your shoulders, backpacks can be comfortable even when fully packed.
Unlike in the scenarios above, you will not have to worry about broken wheels. A backpack’s broken-wheel equivalent is a broken strap. Ripped straps are only a problem among the lowest-quality backpacks. If you buy from a reputable company with good reviews, you won't need to worry about this.
Backpacks offer more organizational pockets than suitcases. While the insides may get jumbled in a typical top-loading backpack, the external pockets allow you to have important items within arm's reach.
Store your toiletries and passport in an external pocket so you can quickly remove them in the airport security line. Keep your map, guidebook, and water bottle within easy reach while walking from public transportation to your hotel.
A dedicated pocket for laptops or tablets will keep your electronics safe, allowing you to easily slide your laptop out at airport security.
At best, suitcases only have one external pocket. Hard shell cases don't have any, making them inconvenient for getting through airport security.
Carry On Sized
Many suitcases are designed to be carry on luggage. Too many backpack companies ignore this concept and make giant bags, sometimes taller than the torso of the person wearing them.
Experienced travelers know never to check luggage. By using hand luggage, you avoid hefty baggage fees on roundtrip flights, ensure that the airlines can't lose your bags, and minimize your time at the airport.
Accessibility and Organization
Suitcases are far more accessible and organized than backpacks are, which means you can grab anything you need out of your bag without moving anything else.
Backpacks open at the top. Only the items at the top of your bag are easily accessible. To reach something farther down in your bag, you have to unpack everything above it, then repack it afterwards. This is unmanageable on planes and trains, and an annoyance in a hotel room.
Packing a top-loading backpack is like "packing" a garbage bag.
The Ultimate Backpack / Suitcase Combo
Meet the Setout Backpack: the ultimate backpack/suitcase combo from Tortuga. The above lessons were learned the hard way and lead us to design the original Tortuga travel backpack after making terrible luggage choices on a trip to Eastern Europe in 2009.
Before the trip, we did extensive research, but couldn't find the perfect piece of luggage.
Obviously, suitcases couldn't handle the streets of Europe and were too bulky for a trip where we were constantly on the move.
The top-loading backpack I bought couldn't be kept organized. My clothes were embarrassingly wrinkled, and I made a mess of the hostel every time I got dressed.
The Setout is the result of those frustrations. A carry-on-sized backpack that's light and ergonomic, so you can carry it on your back.
Unlike traditional backpacks, Tortuga travel backpacks open from the front, just like a suitcase. The front-panel folds down giving you full access to your entire pack.
Learn more about how the Setout combines the best elements of a backpack and a suitcase and compare travel backpacks to find the right choice for your trip.