Should You Use a Wheeled Suitcase or a Backpack in Europe?

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Traveling to Europe is something that everyone should cross off their bucket list at some point. There’s just something charming about all the narrow cobblestone streets in most European capitals. But unfortunately, Europe isn’t very forgiving for wheeled suitcases, so a lot of people wonder what’s better for Europe – wheeled luggage or a backpack? In this article, we’ll compare the pros and cons of both.

Traveling in Europe With a Suitcase

a man using a carry-on suitcase in southern europe

Personally, ninety percent of the time when I’m traveling across Europe, I use a suitcase as my carry-on and a small backpack as my personal item. Nowadays, Europe is pretty welcoming to suitcases, which means the streets are paved pretty well and a lot of stairs have been replaced with escalators. And fortunately, I don’t have any back problems, so I can easily carry my suitcase by the handle if needed.

Pros of Using a Suitcase in Europe

  • Better for people with back problems. If you’re suffering from back pain, then using a suitcase should be a better option for some European cities, where there aren’t too many stairs or cobblestone streets.
  • Easier to move around in modern cities. The larger cities in Germany, Scandinavia, UK, and Ireland (and most EU capital cities) are usually very friendly for suitcases because they don’t have too many stairs and the sidewalks are usually pretty smooth.
  • Less likely to be stolen. If you remember to always keep your suitcase in your eyesight, it’s basically impossible for someone to steal something from it, unless they openly threaten you.
  • Clothes get fewer wrinkles. If you’re traveling for business and you need a wrinkle-free suit for meetings or trade shows, a backpack probably isn’t a smart idea. Instead, you should use a suitcase with non-flexible walls and preferably a dedicated suiter compartment.
  • Carry-on restrictions are used up more efficiently. Carry-ons are usually made to be just below the most common carry-on size restriction 22 x 14 x 9 inches, so you can pack more stuff inside.
  • Easy to organize everything in packing cubes. Suitcases are very easy to pack and unpack, especially if you’re using packing cubes. I mean, I get frustrated just imagining finding something packed at the bottom of my backpack.
  • Good for hotels. If you’re staying in hotels, and aren’t switching between them every other day, then a suitcase is a perfect choice because most hotels have elevators and they’re located at easily accessible locations.

Cons of Using a Suitcase in Europe

  • Can get stolen if left unattended. The only instances when suitcases get stolen are when they’re left unattended, for instance in a cafe, train, bus, forgotten in your taxi, or stolen from the back seat of your rental car. So make sure to keep an eye on your suitcase at all times and you should be good.
  • Bad for stairs and upper compartments. If you want to make the job of lifting your suitcase up to the upper storage compartments in trains, planes, and buses, make sure to get a suitcase with a side handle, as it’s much easier to use.
  • Hard to move around in older or less-advanced European cities. If you’re traveling to older European cities with very narrow cobblestone streets (France, Spain, Italy, Greece,) or to less-advanced European cities with less-than-ideal sidewalks (most of Eastern Europe,) a backpack might be a better choice. That said, nowadays, the situation isn’t that bad anymore, so a backpack isn’t really a necessity.
  • Harder to follow the carry-on size restrictions. Some cheaper European airlines have very strict carry-on restrictions, which is a bad thing if your suitcase ends up being one inch above the limit.
  • Difficult to use if moving between different hotels. If you’ll be constantly moving from one location to another, a suitcase isn’t really ideal.
  • If a wheel or a handle breaks, you’re in a bad situation. Wheels and handles break very commonly on suitcases, especially if it’s a cheaper one and if you’re using it on rough roads.
  • Adds a lot of weight. If your luggage is constantly above the weight limits for airlines, then maybe try using a backpack instead, as they’re about two or three times lighter.
  • Harder to store in lockers. Most suitcases are slightly oversized to store in hostel lockers or publicly available ones, and it’s not like you can just squeeze them inside. If it’s too large, you’re out of luck.
  • Bad for crowded locations. In crowded European cities, especially in the rush hour, getting to your hotel with your luggage on public transport can sometimes be very difficult.

Traveling in Europe With a Backpack

A girl using a large red backpack in southern Europe

Sometimes, traveling in Europe with a large, checked backpack, and a smaller daypack as your personal item makes more sense. Of course, carrying two backpacks isn’t ideal, so you should be able to pack everything inside the larger checked bag, and just use the daypack within the airport for carrying valuables. There’s just way more flexibility in that, and you aren’t limited only to “civilized” attractions and hotels.

Pros of Using a Backpack in Europe

  • Perfect for people who switch between a lot of hotels. If you’re constantly switching between different hotels, this means that you’ll have to walk up all kinds of different stairs, and commute between different hotels, so having a backpack instead of a suitcase is a great advantage.
  • Easier to stick to the carry-on size restrictionsIf you get a smaller backpack and avoid overpacking it, the airline staff won’t make you check in your backpack.
  • Less likely to experience any durability problems. There’s just so much that can break on a suitcase – wheels, handles, the frame itself, e.t.c. Backpacks are usually less likely to break, thus making them a more reliable option.
  • Great for older or less-advanced European cities. Smaller cities in Spain, France, Greece, Italy, or in Eastern Europe usually don’t provide that good infrastructure for a wheeled suitcase.
  • Great if you’re traveling for hiking. If you’re traveling for a long hiking trip, just get a large checked backpack and a smaller foldable daypack for your valuables that fits within your backpack.
  • Lightweight. A lightweight backpack can weigh about 2 lbs, while a similarly-sized lightweight suitcase will weigh about 5 lbs.
  • Easy to store in lockers. Unlike suitcases, backpacks are flexible, which means they’ll fit inside most paid public lockers and the lockers in most hostels.

Cons of Using a Backpack in Europe

  • Commonly targeted by pocket thieves. With a backpack, you have to be very careful, because anyone can snatch something from the back pockets when you’re distracted. Also, they’re commonly stolen in restaurants and public transport if left unattended, even if it’s just for a few seconds. Always keep an eye on your backpack.
  • Clothes get more wrinkles. Backpacks are ideal for people who don’t care about having a few wrinkles on their clothes.
  • Harder to pack and unpack. Compared to suitcases, it’s much harder to pack and unpack a backpack. To make it slightly easier, you can use two or three packing cubes for storing your clothing.
  • Not always practical if used as a carry-on. I’d use a backpack as a carry-on, only if I could fit all of my stuff inside and wouldn’t have a personal item. You could use a small duffle or tote as your personal item, but I think it defeats the purpose of using a backpack because then it becomes hard to carry both of them at the same time. I’d rather get a carry-on suitcase and a smaller backpack as a personal item.
  • Carry-on size restrictions aren’t used up efficiently. There are some backpacks that are made in the ideal size to max out the most common 22 x 14 x 9-inch carry-on size restriction, but most of them aren’t in the perfect shape – they’re slightly slimmer. That’s because if they make the backpack too wide, it will become uncomfortable because it will be placed too far off from your back.
  • Bad for people with back problems. If you’re getting a backpack for traveling, definitely consider investing in a very comfortable one, like the ones from Osprey, or else you risk your vacation being ruined by back pain.

Best of Both Worlds – Using a Wheeled Backpack

What if I’d tell you that you don’t need to choose between a backpack and a suitcase? You can choose both. At the same time.

Wheeled backpacks are becoming pretty common, and that’s because it’s a genius idea. For instance, you could get the eBags Mother Lode wheeled backpack carry-on. Of course, it won’t be a full replacement for a backpack because it won’t be as comfortable.

However, if you’ll be, for instance, arriving at your destination early in the morning, and you’ll want to stroll through the old town while you wait for the hotel check-in to be available, this is a perfect option. If you’d have a suitcase, you’d be pretty limited, and you’d probably just spend that time in a restaurant. But with a backpack, you’re more flexible to move around and explore. Personally, I think that a wheeled backpack is a perfect option for a carry-on.

So Which One Is Better for Europe – a Backpack or a Suitcase?

An open carry-on suitcase next to a backpack in airport

Sometimes a backpack is better in Europe, and sometimes a suitcase just makes more sense. But in the end, the best option depends on three factors – how minimalist of a packer you are, the destination, and how many times you’ll be switching between different hotels.

Personally, I find that for me the best option is a suitcase carry-on used in combination with a small backpack (personal item.) But it really depends on these three factors, and sometimes I might use something else, so down below I’ll go over a few scenarios and list my favorite options for them.

Using a Single Carry-On

If you’re a minimalist, and you’re able to pack everything inside a single carry-on, I’d probably choose a carry-on sized regular backpack or a wheeled backpack. This will give you the ultimate flexibility to move around. Honestly, I think that this is a no-brainer unless you’re traveling for business and you need to have some wrinkle-free formal clothing.

Using a Carry-on and a Personal Item

If you can’t fit everything inside a single carry-on, you should probably use a suitcase as your carry-on, and a small backpack as your personal item. I personally use this combo ninety percent of the time, as this still gives you enough flexibility to move around, but at the same time is pretty spacious. You can always stow your backpack on top of your suitcase on smooth surfaces, and if needed, lift the carry-on suitcase by the handle, as it isn’t too heavy anyway.

Using a Single Checked Bag

For a single checked bag, I’d probably go with a large 60-80 liter backpack and carry a small foldable daypack or tote inside to use a personal item, just for carrying your valuables and electronics with you on the airplane. This option is great, because it provides a lot of flexibility, and it’s the most common choice for younger backpackers. Frankly, if you’re cautious about what you’re bringing, having just a large, checked backpack will be enough for even several-month-long trips.

Using a Checked Bag and a Carry-On

If you aren’t a minimalist, and you’ll be traveling for a long time, you should probably get a checked suitcase and a carry-on-sized backpack. This will provide a lot of space, but it won’t be easy to move around, so I wouldn’t really recommend this unless you’re traveling to modern European capital cities, and you won’t be switching between different hotels a lot. In simple words, if it’s just home-airport-taxi-hotel, then there’s nothing wrong with this choice.


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