How to Choose a Study Abroad Backpack

For students on a short-term trip of a month or less, a large travel backpack is probably enough luggage. If you'll be abroad for a semester or a year, pack a suitcase to leave in your new home and a carry on backpack to use for weekend trips.

In this article, we'll discuss the features that make a study abroad backpack ideal for your semester abroad.

Save Money with a Carry-On-Sized Backpack

The most important feature for your study abroad backpack is its size. Your bag should be carry-on-sized. Exact measurements vary by airline, but 22 x 14 x 9 inches are the most common dimensions.

Being small and light is helpful, but the real reason to travel carry-on-only is money.

Using a carry on bag means that you won't have to pay for checked bags which can run $25 or more each way. Between your home and host city, you've already saved $50 by going carry-on-only. The savings will really start to add up if you travel while abroad. Study abroad students, especially those in Europe, travel 1-4 weekends per month. Baggage fees on those flights will add up quickly. Ryanair, a popular budget airline in Europe, charges as much as €75 for your first checked bag.

Exact measurements vary by airline, but 22 x 14 x 9 inches are the most common dimensions. Depending on the bag, this will work out to 40-45L. Budget airlines have stricter rules about the size and weight of carry on luggage so a medium sized carry on (30-35L) might be more practical if you’ll be traveling a lot while abroad.

Most airlines in the US and Europe allow carry on luggage up to 22 pounds (10 kg). This limited weight allowance makes carrying a suitcase, which has heavy plastic wheels, nearly impossible. Carrying a backpack will allow you to use your luggage's allowed weight for your clothes and electronics, not for plastic handles and wheels.

Always check your airline's rules before flying.

Stay Organized With a Front-Loading Backpack

The stereotypical "backpacking" backpack is tall and cylindrical. Students buy these bags because they're huge and can fit a lot of stuff. They don't realize that these bags are made for hiking, not traveling.

Don't worry, I made the same mistake on my first big international trip. I bought a giant bag from GoLite and ended up hating it by the end of my trip.

Aside from being too big to carry on to flights, the biggest problem with these bags is that they're top-loading. They open from the top, like a garbage bag, not from the front, like a suitcase.

Top-loading bags make packing and unpacking difficult. Since everything is stacked up, you have to take out everything above the clothes you want. Then, you have to repack the entire bag.

Front-loading bags are as convenient as a suitcase. When the entire front of your luggage opens, you can easily grab what you need without moving anything else. You only have to pack it once, not every day.

This convenience is especially helpful when on a train, or a bus, or while sharing a dorm room, or hostel. With a top-loading bag, your clothes end up strewn across the room every time you grab something. Your roommates won't appreciate the mess. Mine didn't.

Instead, keep your stuff organized and in your personal space.

After you've chosen your luggage, check out this study abroad packing list to know what to bring -- and what to leave at home.

Stay Comfortable

You’ll be walking around a lot -- especially during those weekend trips -- so make sure you choose a backpack with a weight-distributing suspension system, sufficient padding, and the right fit for your body.

The most comfortable travel backpacks have a padded hip belt that will take the weight off your shoulders. The shoulder straps and back panel should also be padded for the best weight distribution and comfort.

Measure your torso and compare against the manufacturer’s description to make sure your backpack will fit your frame.

Keep Your Stuff Safe With Locking Zippers

As a student traveler on a budget, you'll often find yourself traveling by train or bus and staying in hostels. These options are great. I've used them myself in the past and still do today.

When you're in a communal space with strangers, security is important. Trains and hostels aren't necessarily dangerous, but, with so many people coming and going, petty theft is inevitable.

Protect your stuff by locking it up. Some suitcases can be locked, but the hiking backpacks described above cannot be. Instead, they close with a simple drawstring that can be opened in seconds.

A backpack with locking zippers will deter petty theft and give you peace of mind. Your backpack won't be 100% theft-proof, but a small padlock will be enough to prevent most theft.

Don't be the easiest mark. If you keep everything in your bag (not lying around) and put a lock on it, a potential thief will just move onto the next bag, the one with the easy-to-open drawstring.

Here’s the Study Abroad Backpack You Should Buy

Studying abroad is an amazing experience. You'll learn even more outside of the classroom than in it.

You'll be in a new country, meeting tons of people, mastering a new language, and exploring the world. Don't let your luggage be an added burden. Buy a travel backpack that will meet the needs of a student on the move. Make sure your backpack is carry-on-sized, front-loading, has a good suspension system, and is lockable.

In 2009, Jeremy and I (Fred) took a backpacking trip to Eastern Europe. Despite a ton of pre-trip research, we couldn't find a bag that we loved. After being disappointed by our luggage choices, we found that the perfect travel backpack didn't exist. So we made it. Today, Tortuga has a selection of perfect travel backpacks for different packing styles.

For Organization Enthusiasts

The Outbreaker Backpack combines the ergonomics and portability of a backpack with the obsessive organization and easy packing of a suitcase. With the Outbreaker, you have a place and a compartment for everything.

It’s height-adjustable so you can get the perfect fit and made with waterproof sailcloth so you can protect your stuff in a downpour. It even has a TSA-friendly lay-flat laptop compartment. The Outbreaker Backpack is our most ergonomic, most organized, and most adjustable backpack.

For Light Packers and Short Trips

The Setout Divide Backpack was designed with light packers in mind. For light packers and short trips, a large carry on is too much bag. The Setout Divide is just the right size for a weekend or week-long trip.

Expand the Divide from 26L to 34L for extra packing space when you need it. Use the two-compartment layout to separate and organize your clothing.

The Best of Both Worlds

If you like internal organization, lots of packing space, and a hip belt but still prefer a lightweight bag, the Setout Backpack is your holy grail. It has most of the organization and all of the packing space of Outbreaker in a lighter weight package. It has the right amount of features for most travelers at a more affordable price range. 

Here's what Sunny, a student from New York, had to say about her backpack from Tortuga:

I am [a] 17 year old girl who just got back from a ten day trip to Germany, Austria and Switzerland. This bag was a gift from my mom and it was great! I was able to carry it on my flights and by rolling my clothes tight, I had plenty of room for everything. I actually had too many clothes! It was lightweight and I loved not having to worry about checking bags. I especially loved that it wasn't top loading like a lot of backpacks - everything was easily accessible and stayed neatly packed. It made my first trip to Europe super easy.

Compare travel backpacks here and find the right one for your semester abroad.