Choosing the Best Bag: Travel Backpack vs. Suitcase, or Duffle

Jessie Beck

Obviously, we’re huge fans of travel backpacks at Tortuga. But, we also understand that not everyone wants to travel with a backpack all the time (thinking of you, Mom). Even I really love traveling with my duffel bag — it’s more fashionable — but I don’t use it for every trip. Some destinations are simply easier to navigate with a backpack.

Other destinations are great for any type of luggage. And, for some, it really depends on what kind of trip you’re taking in the first place. To help you out, I’ve weighed the travel backpack vs. suitcase vs. duffel bag for each of the top 25 destinations that Americans travel to each year.

And, just in case your next travel spot isn’t on the list, I’ve also included some general tips to help you figure out if you should travel with a backpack, duffel bag, or suitcase.

Making the Choice: Travel Backpack vs. Suitcase

Whether you’re going to one of the places on this list or not, you can easily figure out if you should travel with a suitcase, duffel, or backpack by answering the following:

  • What’s your transportation going to be like? If you’re renting a car, it’s much easier to bring any type of luggage, whereas a suitcase is cumbersome on public transportation (especially non-carry on sized).
  • How good is the infrastructure? Roads? Hotels? If you’re headed somewhere with good roads, sidewalks, and hotels with elevators, your luggage type won’t matter much. If not, a backpack or duffel will be easier.
  • Will you be spending most of your time in one place, or moving around a lot? Again, if you’re staying put, go with what suits you best. If not, make sure you won’t get exhausted walking around with your luggage.
  • Are there any personal considerations that might affect your choice? A bad back, for example? As much as some of us might love to take a backpack, it’s just easier to bring a suitcase.
  • Are you worried about theft? Make sure your bag can lock and, hate to say it, but hard-shelled suitcases are pretty darned theft proof.

If you’re on the fence, think about ways you can make your preferred luggage type work in a less than ideal situation. For example, if you’re a suitcase kinda gal in a suitcase-unfriendly locale, make sure you’re bringing a smaller, lighter weight one that you can carry up a flight of stairs if necessary.

The Graphic

To make it easy for you to visualize, here’s a handy graphic that breaks down the choices by traffic light color. Each country was rated on a five point scale for each bag:

  1. Don’t use it
  2. Pretty poor choice bad for this destination
  3. Meh. It’s okay
  4. Good in most situations
  5. Perfect! Choose this one!

table-countries-final-01

Backpack vs. Suitcase in Europe

Travel in Europe: Backpack or suitcase?

Europe is okay for small suitcases if you’re prepared to carry them up stairs, but backpacks and duffel bags are easier to maneuver.

In general, a backpack or duffel is the easiest piece of luggage to use for traveling around Europe. A lot of hotels, especially those in Southern Europe, won’t have elevators, and some of the quaintest areas of town (like the charming little spots where you’d likely rent an AirBnb) have cobblestone streets that make dragging a suitcase around cumbersome and noisy. So noisy, in fact, that the city of Venice threatened to outlaw roller bags (but they didn’t).

That said, you can absolutely travel with a suitcase in Europe if that’s your preference. Though not as easy as a backpack or duffel, overall the region is more accommodating towards them than some other places are. Keepp your suitcase small, around carry-on size, and opt for something with a side handle (easier to carry up stairs). Also avoid a backpack-suitcase combo, as they tend to combine the worst elements of both.

At the same time, each country in Europe is a little different. For example, Ireland and the U.K, especially if you’re staying in major cities, can be very accommodating towards suitcase-travelers. Same for Switzerland and Germany in major cities, though you might want to consider a backpack or duffel if you’re planning to go to some of their more rugged and outdoorsy sites.

France, Italy, Spain, Greece, and much of Southern Europe, again, are OK for a small suitcase, but really a duffel, or backpack, is ideal. They are so much more flexible. Personally, I’d even lean more towards a duffel bag in these countries, since I find them more fashionable and like being able to quickly put it between my feet in tiny, crowded elevators.

Backpack vs. Suitcase in Central & South America

Backpack vs suitcase in South America

You’re probably not surprised to hear that a suitcase isn’t great for travel in Central and South America. Especially if you want more adventure travel and less resort chilling, a backpack will be your best friend. Just be sure to bring a rain cover that can double as a dirt cover and keep it (sorta) clean.

On a similar note, if you’re going somewhere truly remote (like the Galapagos) remember that small airplanes, boats, busses, chicken busses,  and other modes of surface transportation are not friendly to large luggage. I can’t tell you how happy I was to have nothing but a 40-liter backpack on me while bussing around Nicaragua — and even that felt large.

Throughout Central and South America, which includes Brazil, Colombia, and Peru, opting for a backpack will give you the flexibility to really explore some of the more adventurous destinations. However, if you’re planning on staying in one spot or just in the major cities, you could pull off a small suitcase.

If you’re traveling to Costa Rica, a duffel is a good alternative option to a backpack as well. Costa Rica and it’s southern neighbor, Panama, have pretty good infrastructure overall, but I’d still steer away from a suitcase because of the dirt (or sand) roads.

Backpack vs. Suitcase in North America & Caribbean

Backpack vs suitcase in Canada

North America is the most accommodating for all luggage preferences. If you’re exploring the U.S. or Canada, pack whatever you want. The Caribbean and Mexico, however, are best seen with a backpack, but a suitcase will work for resort goers.

North America is probably the best possible scenario for suitcase-lovers. Cars are big, most hotels have elevators, and most streets are well-paved, with sidewalks, and minimal cobblestone.

As such, the travel backpack vs. suitcase debate for travelers in Canada and the U.S. pretty much just comes down to a matter of personal preference and travel style. Choose whichever is most comfortable for you.

South of the border and in the Caribbean, however, a suitcase may not always be the best choice. If you’re hiding out in an all-inclusive resort in Mexico, or the Dominican Republic, then you’re just as well off choosing a backpack, or duffel bag, as you are suitcase. On the other hand, if you’re planning to bus around Mexico (a great way to see the country, by the way) or plan to go off the beaten path in the Dominican Republic or Jamaica, then a backpack is absolutely the best way to go.

In all of those countries, roads and infrastructure can be hit or miss (though lots of guest houses are single story, fortunately) and it’s never fun to arrive in a new destination only to realize that you have to walk a few yards down a “road” made of sand to get to your hotel that you can’t quite get through with your luggage.

Choose a backpack over a duffel bag for one other big reason: boats and water. You’re more likely to have a rain cover for your backpack than your duffel bag, and I find it easier to balance with a backpack than a duffel bag if I have to walk a couple of feet to shore.

Backpack vs. Suitcase in Asia

Backpack vs suitcase in Asia

Larger, more modern cities in Asia are good for any type of luggage, but Southeast Asia and India are better navigated with a backpack. Duffels are a decent second choice.

Traveling to Asia could be split into three very different categories. First, you have fairly all-luggage-type-friendly countries with good infrastructure, like Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, Singaporeand Taiwan.

Then, you have countries in the middle, like Thailand, China, the Philippines, and most of Southeast Asia, where a suitcase is okay if you’re more of a luxury traveler, but a backpack would be the most ideal.

Third, you have countries where a suitcase is pretty terrible, like India, especially if you plan on taking busses, trains, and other forms of public transportation.

Even within these countries, however, your luggage choice could be impacted by how you’re traveling. For example, if you’re traveling with a tour group, having an urban adventure in Seoul, Taipei, or one of Asia’s bigger cities, or sticking to a luxury resort in southern Thailand, your choices are flexible.

If you plan on taking public transportation, or getting out into nature, a backpack is preferable. You’ll thank me once you and your travel partner are crammed in a tiny tuk-tuk together and aren’t trying to keep your roller bag from, well, rolling away.

Backpack vs. Suitcase in the Middle East & Africa

Backpack vs. suitcase in Africa

The Middle East and Africa are best visited with a backpack, but South Africa allows for more flexibility on your luggage choice.

As a former expat in Madagascar, I try not to generalize the entire continent of Africa. However, one thing that holds true across the region is how utterly terrible a suitcase is for travel in the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa. When I used to travel in Madagascar, I’d carry a small backpack and a local, woven market bag for carrying my camera and in-transit items.

The two exceptions include traveling to South Africa, or if you plan to have a personal driver throughout your entire trip anywhere on the continent. Basically, if you’re on a safari tour in Kenya or the like, and you know you’ll have someone picking you up at the airport and taking you from destination to destination, you can get away with traveling with a suitcase, backpack, duffel bag, or whatever you’d like.

Most hotels — even the non-luxury, mid-range ones — will also have someone there to help you with your luggage (this is especially true for older travelers, who are generally shown a great amount of respect for their age throughout the African continent).

Similarly, in countries within the Middle East, like Israel, a backpack is the easiest piece of luggage to maneuver with, but a suitcase is acceptable if you won’t be using much public transportation. If you do opt for a backpack, just take care to lock it if you know you’ll be walking around crowded areas, and keep your most valuable items either on an inside pocket or in a separate bag in front of you.

TL;DR

The travel backpack vs. suitcase debate will always have a different outcome depending on where and how you travel. Very broadly, however:

  • Europe is okay for small suitcases if you’re prepared to carry them up stairs, but better for backpacks and duffel bags.
  • North America is the most accommodating for all luggage preferences. If you’re exploring the U.S. or Canada, pack what you like.
  • The Caribbean and Mexico are best seen with a backpack, but a suitcase will work for resort goers.
  • Larger, more modern cities in Asia are good for any type of luggage, but Southeast Asia and India is better navigated with a backpack.
  • The Middle East and Africa are best with a backpack, but South Africa allows for more flexibility on your luggage choice.

Have you been to any of these countries? What type of luggage did you take, and how did it work out for you?

Photo Credits: Unsplash & Bucketlistly

Want more like this?

Get weekly gear reviews, travel hacks, and packing tips sent straight to your inbox. As an added bonus, we’ll send you a carry on packing list right away.