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30 Days to Packing a Better Bag – Day 4: Choose Your Luggage… Wisely

Welcome to Day 4 of 30 Days to Packing a Better Bag.

Now that you’ve selected an airline and know all about its baggage restrictions, it’s time to choose your luggage, but do so wisely. If you bring a large bag, and fill it, you could subject yourself to injury when it comes time to lugging it around town (try running to a train with all that extra weight). If you bring a tiny bag, and pack poorly, you’ll be running around looking for essentials in a foreign city (the simplest things can be the hardest to find). A backpack will keep you from looking classy in a nice hotel, but a suitcase will be like torture on cobblestone streets. Each type of luggage has its own drawbacks and benefits, as you’ll soon learn.

How to Choose Your Luggage

Backpack or suitcase? Soft case or hard case? Wheels or no wheels? You name it, we cover the pros and cons in this post. Suitcase: Antler 25L. Backpack: Tom Bihn’s Smart Alec 26L.

Suitcase vs. Backpack

The endless debate continues, and the truth is there are benefits for both suitcases and backpacks. It all comes down to where you’ll be traveling and staying, and how active you’ll be (also known as your trip style). Both suitcases and backpacks come in carry on only variety as well, which should be considered for, in our opinion, every trip.

The Suitcase

  • Pros: Suitcases tend to look more professional, particularly if you’re staying in a nice hotel. The wheels take pressure off your back and efficiently fit into overhead bins.
  • Cons: If you are constantly hopping on trains and going from city to city, rolling your suitcase can slow you down.

The Backpack

  • Pros: When faced with a building with no elevator, you can walk all the way up instead of lugging your suitcase.
  • Cons: You’re less likely to be upgraded if you’re wearing a backpack. If you fill it too heavy, it can hurt your back.

Wheels vs. None

Duffels and backpacks will go into the same category here, as you will be relying on your arm and shoulder strength to lug them around. Wheels have plenty of advantages, but there may be a few things you haven’t considered.

Wheels

  • Pros: There’s less strain on your back and you can travel with ease.
  • Cons: They can get jammed or broken as you drag them along.

No Wheels

  • Pros: You don’t have to worry about the wheels breaking.
  • Cons: Risk of injury from carrying a bag.

Hard Case vs. Soft Shell Suitcase

When planning to go for a suitcase option, you can choose between a hard case or a soft shell.

Hard Case

  • Pros: Hard Cases can be better at protecting belongings inside the suitcase, and they often are made of super lightweight material, helping to cut back on overall baggage weight.
  • Cons: They cannot be “stuffed” into certain places, and if not of a high quality, they could possibly crack, break or dent.

Soft Shell

  • Pros: Great for absorbing hits from luggage handlers, and better for being able to expand or contract as necessary (like stuffing a bag into an overhead bin). Stuffing a suitcase full also happens a little easier when the material can give slightly.
  • Cons: Material often wears and tears easier than hard cases.

Check vs. Carry On

As airlines are adding fees onto nearly everything, it’s becoming more prudent to fly carry-on only. But what if you’re traveling for an extended period of time like a round-the-world trip? You also have to think about what you would do if your bags were lost or you couldn’t fit them into the overhead compartments.

Checking Bags

  • Pros: You can pack full sized toiletries and have more space in your carry on bags. You also aren’t responsible for fitting it into the overhead compartment.
  • Cons: It could get lost or delayed to your destination, leaving you without clothes and necessities.

Carry On Only

  • Pros: Your bag can’t be lost or stolen (by the airline) and isn’t subjected to fees on most major carriers.
  • Cons: You can’t pack as many liquids due to TSA regulations.
research your airlines

What Are You Packing?

Have a general idea of how much gear you will need. At this point, it is important to take all the activities you wrote down in our defining your trip style post and decide what sort of accessories you absolutely will need to pack. This will make you more realistic when choosing the right type of luggage and deciding whether or not you will be able to carry on.

Some things to consider:

  • Try to go for the smallest size luggage as possible, and always leave extra space. Chances are you will bring back souvenirs.
  • Are you strong enough to carry your bag without assistance? Never packing more than you can carry is part of our manifesto and contributes to being and feeling in control on the road.
  • Always be sure to give your luggage a test drive in the shop with added weight before buying to see if it remains comfortable. This even goes for suitcases as handle length and overall structure can vary.

Travel Destinations and Trip Style

Ensure that the bag you’ve chosen goes with your trip style and travel destinations. Here are a few points to consider:

  • If your trip involves multiple destinations and lots of moving around, pack lighter. Repeated stress on your back and body will start to take its toll, especially when lifting and pushing (into cars, into overhead bins, up and down stairs, etc.) on a regular basis. Think about those travel days when you might have to walk 20 minutes from train or bus stations to get to your accommodation. Also consider the potential need to lug your bags up several flights of stairs.
  • If you will be in one place for most of your trip, you don’t need to worry as much about being mobile. Dealing with one or two hard travel days and then letting everything sit for longer periods of time will not be too difficult on the body. This is also more acceptable if you plan to use taxis or drive a rental car instead of normal public transport.
  • Certain destinations call for backpacks instead of suitcases, and vice versa. You don’t want to find yourself in snow covered Lapland with a rolling suitcase that just gets stuck and frozen in the snow. You also don’t want to be seen in a classy upscale hotel with a dirty backpack.
  • Choose your colors wisely. While a hot pink suitcase will get noticed quicker on the carousel, will it look right with your business attire? Will a neon green backpack blend in with all the others, or will it stick out more to opportune thieves who are curious as to what’s inside? Think about the travel destination as well. Are you heading to a rustic, dirty place (desert, Outback, camping, jungle)? If so, you might want to forego a light colored piece of luggage that will show every bit of dirt it comes in contact with.

What you think you need versus what you need.

Backpack 1: Osprey Ariel 55L. This was Brooke’s first backpack that she took with her around the world. These days, she’ll go with something more like Backpack 2: Tom Bihn’s Smart Alec, 26L. A bag this size should hold all that you need for most adventures.

Overall, pack lightly as many of you reading this right now will be taking trips that might involve running to catch trains or throwing your bag into the back of a taxi.

go one size smaller

Why? Because you will always fill a bag to the brim no matter the size provided.

See what we did there? We’ll talk later about the whole “lay your clothes out and only take half” concept. This one, however, takes that idea to the extreme. If your luggage is half the size, then you literally can’t take all the things you initially thought you could.

Extra Reading: Ultimate Female Guide to Picking a Backpack; Backpack Alternatives for Female Travelers

Take Action: Choose Your Luggage
After thinking about your trip style and your estimated packing list, choose the right luggage. Are you going for a suitcase, backpack, or a hybrid in between? After choosing, go back and choose the bag or suitcase in a smaller size. Let us know your plans in the comments below.

*Big thanks to Tom Bihn for providing gear for these comparisons. Expect thorough reviews of their products in the near future.

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9 Responses to 30 Days to Packing a Better Bag – Day 4: Choose Your Luggage… Wisely

  1. Judith September 5, 2013 at 12:53 pm #

    I’ll be leaving for a 6-month trip around Asia on October 1st and this series of articles will be of great help. This will be my second long term trip but it will be the first one where i’ll be so mobile. On top of the lentgh of my trip, I’m addicted to sports and especially running so I will be carrying my running shoes and a bit of running gear at the expense of normal clothing. I’m therefore looking at buying a 50l or 46l backpack which i’ll be able to carry around easily but still fit all the gear I need for sports and the nice beaches of thailand and indonesia.

  2. Tiera September 8, 2013 at 4:39 am #

    Argh, I wish I had read this several months ago, lol. Especially the part about picking the luggage you want and going a size smaller. I was shopping for a new luggage set and knew I only wanted two pieces, one carry-on size and one checked size. For the checked bag, I ended up going with the largest size, and now I wish I’d gone with one of the medium ones!

  3. LadyLa September 9, 2013 at 7:18 am #

    I strongly recommend the smaller bag for Asia in particular. I travelled around India for two months with my 28L lafuma and was great! Anything bigger and I would have been cursing myself and hating every transit trip. In Asia in particular you have to be quick and nimble. Those buses will not wait for you! It can be very scary to leave home for a strange land with next to nothing, but it is worth it! I literally showed up in India with the clothes I had on, good walking sandals and plenty of underwear and bought everything else I wore and used in India. Including toiletries which was the most fun! I would think you could do this cheaply and easily in any city in Asia. Bathing suits, cute tops, funky sarongs, towels, anything you need is widely available, cheap and makes a great souvenir. “Oh this shirt, just something I picked up in India.” :) One thing I would recommend you bring along is some basic meds that you know work for you, pain killer, stomach upset, motion sickness, allergy, cold and flu, contact lens. These are also cheap and widely available, but you don’t want to spend a week trying allergy meds till you find the one that works. Trust me! In general, you need way, way, way less than younthink while travelling. My husband and I travel with my trusty lafuma and one small daypack between the two of us and we do great! It’s fun to find shampoo and razors in hong kong!

    • Brooke September 9, 2013 at 7:30 am #

      Thanks for the comment, LadyLa! If you ever want to write about your bag, the 28L Lafuma, let us know :)

  4. Izzie December 4, 2013 at 9:53 am #

    I used to have a backpack but now swear by a duffle – namely a North Face Base Camp duffle. http://www.thenorthface.com/catalog/sc-gear/equipment-luggage_duffels/base-camp-duffel-medium.html?variationId=E8B&variationName=SPICY%20ORANGE%20/%20DARK%20SAGE%20GREEN

    It is durable, easy to clean, takes whatever I throw at it, doesn’t absorb smelly liquids from public transport trips, mostly waterproof (it wouldn’t survive being submerged but rain is no problem) and has backpack type straps for carrying longer distances. Not as comfortable for anything like hiking, since it doesn’t have a waist strap, but I’ve “backpacked” around Indonesia and Central America with it and I love it. No compartments, except for one internal large zip pocket on the inside of the lid. That just means I use packing cubes and stuff like that. Has a double zip with incorporated loops for a padlock.

    Also available in a wheeled version, though I have no experience with that variety.

    • Brooke December 9, 2013 at 10:26 pm #

      Thanks for sharing, Izzie :) If you ever want to write up a review on your duffle, drop me an email.

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