What is the Best Backpack-Suitcase Combo?

Suitcases are great for air travel and keeping your stuff organized.

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 -- but 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. Plus, many train stations, hostels, and hotels in Europe don't have elevators or escalators -- good luck hauling that heavy suitcase up and down staircase after staircase.

Backpacks are convenient for urban travel. Flexible enough for any terrain, you can easily grab your bag and go.

The problem with most backpacks is that they're either too small to bring everything you need, or too large to qualify as carry on luggage. Normal backpacks are tough to pack and unpack, making most options ill suited for travel. Regardless of size, most backpacks must be packed from the top leaving your stuff a disorganized mess. You'll be dumping your dirty laundry on the airport floor looking for that one thing hidden at the bottom -- and getting dressed in your hostel or hotel room won't be much more fun either.

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 so you can get a travel backpack that is an ideal companion on your adventures.

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.

Weight

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 11 pounds (5 kg), meaning that you could carry a mostly empty backpack with a change of clothes and a water bottle 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.

Wheels

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.

Ergonomics

Most wheeled backpacks have terrible ergonomics due to the wheels and handle that had to be accounted for in the design meaning when you do have to carry it in backpack mode, it’s not even comfortable.

Packing Space

Every added feature inevitably takes away valuable packing space. In a carry on, you're limited to 22 x 14 x 9" on the most generous airlines, less on budget airlines. Taking away a couple inches in depth for the handle and some more for the wheels eats into your packing space.

So what features should you look for in a backpack-suitcase combo?

Backpacks and suitcases each have benefits and drawbacks, but the right combination of features will make traveling a breeze. Here are the features to look for in a backpack-suitcase combo.

Opens Like a Suitcase

The best travel backpacks open like a suitcase. Unlike hiking bags or school bags, which open from the top like a garbage bag, your ideal travel backpack will zip open on 3 sides like a suitcase so you can easily see and pack everything you're bringing with you. When you need something from your backpack, you can grab it quickly without shifting everything else around. Packing cubes can assist in keeping your main compartment organized.

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 or damage your bags, and minimize your time at the airport.

A good travel backpack will keep carry on restrictions in mind so you don’t have to worry about getting stopped by a gate agent and being forced to check your bag because it’s too big for the overhead bin.

Ergonomic Suspension System

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. Your best bet is to measure your torso and find a travel backpack that fits your body.

Organized

You’ll want your travel backpack to have a spacious main compartment to organize clothing and other large items. Aside from that, dedicated pockets outside of the main compartment for small things like your toiletries, passport, pens, toiletries and your laptop can help you stay organized.

Easy access to these items means 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.

The Ultimate Backpack / Suitcase Combo

We learned these lessons the hard way after making terrible luggage choices on a trip to Eastern Europe in 2009. We did extensive research before the trip, but couldn’t find the perfect piece of luggage. The top-loading backpack I ended up with couldn’t be kept organized. My clothes were embarrassingly wrinkled, and I made a mess of the hostel every time I got dressed. Plus, it was too big and had to be checked. Jeremy’s shoulder strap ripped on our first day due to cheap materials. We couldn’t find the perfect travel backpack so we made it.

 

 

The Setout Backpack 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, all Tortuga travel backpacks open from the front, just like a suitcase so you can stay organized.  They all feature ergonomic suspension systems for a comfortable carry. We use high quality materials so you can focus on having a good trip.

We stand by our products with our Common Decency Guarantee -- if your backpack fails due to a defect or poor craftsmanship, we’ll make it right. 

 

Learn more about how the Setout Backpack combines the best elements of a backpack and a suitcase and compare travel backpacks to find the right choice for your trip.