Wheelie Bag Vs. Backpack and Carry-On Vs. Checked Luggage - Which is Better?

To some people, it seems that travelers who travel with a backpack vs. a wheelie bag were more seasoned travelers than others. And, those who opted for a wheelie bag instead of a backpack — and, one that was carry-on size — were still more experienced travelers than those who needed to check a bag.

But, lately, there's been a debate. Roxane Gay recently wrote an article about considerations and complaints while traveling, including why you should check a bag vs. carrying-on. Meanwhile, travelers with back problems certainly prefer a wheelie bag over a backpack any day. Unfortunately, depending on where you're traveling, a bag with wheels — no matter the size — is simply no match for cobblestone streets of Europe.

So, what's better? A wheelie bag or a backpack? A carry-on size bag or one you can check? If you're hoping to travel some day soon, you're probably wondering what travel bag to buy.

We're here to help.

Pros and Cons of a Wheelie Bag

A wheelie bag has SO many benefits. If you play your cards right, a wheelie bag can last you a long time and be a reliable option no matter what trip you're going on. Additionally, some other pros of a wheelie bag are:

  • You don't have to carry it (good for people with back problems).

  • They come in various sizes and shapes, so you can choose what's best for you.

  • You can place your personal item on top of it, so you don't have to carry that, either.

  • You can rest your legs on it while you're waiting in the airport.

  • Wheelie bags usually have frames, which can help to keep your clothes neat.

  • You'll probably look much less disheveled when walking through the airport.

Unfortunately, a wheelie bag does have some downsides to it as well. They can be a schlep, hard to maneuver, and, well, expensive. Some other cons of a wheelie bag are:

  • While being able to wheel one through the airport, wheelie bags are not as graceful on city streets.

  • It can be tricky to find a bag that definitely fits within the airline's size requirements.

  • A wheelie bag can get damaged and/or crushed easily, especially those with a plastic exterior.

  • If a wheel breaks, you'll probably be S-O-L.

  • The bag itself tends to be heavy, which can take away from your overall weight limit.

  • It can be hard to lift/carry a wheelie bag up or down the stairs.

Pros and Cons of a Backpack

Backpacks are definitely an attractive option, especially to the traveler that's about to take off on an epic, long-term travel journey. Those who use a backpack or some type of duffel bag tend to give off a more laid-back, go-with-the-flow kind of vibe. These traveling bags have other benefits, too, like:

  • The ability to just "get up and go" quickly.

  • Available in different sizes, for instance, ranging from 30L to 55L.

  • The opportunity to stuff more clothes into the bag in case you don't have time to pack well.

  • You don't have to worry too much if your bag gets dirty. Most are easy to wash, but also come with rain covers and are made from materials that can be wiped down.

  • Easy access to whatever you need with many pockets and versatile features.

  • Doesn't get in the way as much when you travel on public transportation. Bonus: You can sleep on it if you get tired!

Everyone should try traveling with a backpacking backpack at least once in their lives, but if you're about to take off on your trip for the first time, it's important to consider the cons of traveling with a backpack, too:

  • It's heavy, especially if you're not used it. And, if you have a history of back problems, then a traveling with a big backpack can aggravate it.

  • After a while, it can become a bit of a nuisance to carry your backpack.

  • In many ways, your bag is like an accessory. Are you comfortable with your backpack being in every picture?

  • If you buy something along the way, that's automatically more weight on your back.

  • A backpack can begin to smell after a while.

A Carry-On or Checked Wheelie Bag?

If now you're sure that you want to bring a wheelie bag instead of a backpack, the next step is to decide whether or not you want a wheelie bag that's carry-on size or a wheelie bag that's checked size. Every airline has slightly different size requirements when it comes to carrying on a bag, but it's generally between 9 inches x 14 inches x 22 inches (22 centimeters x 35 centimeters x 56 centimeters), according to United. Always check your airline's carry-on requirements before getting to the airport.

The great thing about carrying-on a wheelie bag is that you don't have to risk losing your luggage. And, you can generally fit quite a bit inside your rolling bag, especially if you roll your clothing or use packing cubes. It's easy to transport and lightweight, so you can cruise through the airport. And, with a carry-on wheelie bag, you're forced to bring less, which means it's guaranteed that you'll be traveling light.

The downside, of course, is that you're limited on space and if you need to stuff in your clothes to fit, chances are that extra bulge in your suitcase will prevent you from carrying it on, anyway. It will be hard to buy things during your travels, and you may have to buy an extra bag to fit your purchases. On the other hand, if you choose to check a bag, you can be hands-free while in the airport, have room for more clothing and other items, and you can bring liquids. But, checking a bag may cost you depending on the airline's policy, and there is always the risk that your bag can get lost or damaged.

A Carry-On or Checked Backpack?

So, you're interested in bringing a backpack over a wheelie bag. The first thing to understand is that what's allowed for carry-on can be unclear compared to wheelie bags, so be sure to check the bag's dimensions (which would more or less be the same as a carry-on, but just shaped differently). According to Tortuga Backpacks, a 45L backpack will do the trick. Of course, there are smaller bags at 25L and larger bags at 65L, but 45L is right in the sweet spot and you shouldn't have any issues carrying that on. (Though, again, be sure to check the airline's requirements).

The nice thing about getting the right backpack size is that you really have the option to carry it on or put it under the plane. If you get tired, you can always check your carry-on backpack, and it's less likely to get damaged than if you were to check your carry-on wheelie bag. However, if you feel that a 45L is too small, you can always go bigger and then just plan on checking it. But, remember that you still have to carry it from Point A to Point B!

Choosing the Right Bag

There is absolutely no wrong or right when it comes to choosing the right bag for travel. But, it's important to consider the pros and cons of both options to see what's right for you. And, you're also not limited to just a wheelie bag and/or just a backpack. These days, it's easy to find a bag that truly fits your needs. In fact, there are some bags that are a combination of both.

Pro tip: Before your big trip, take a small trip with the bag you're thinking of using to see how it feels (and to make sure you have no problems getting through TSA with it if it's a carry-on). Keep the tags on and you can usually return it or exchange it if it's not the bag for you. Though, be sure to ask the store what their return policy is, first!

The Strait Up Travel Choice

Now, if you're wondering what we use, well, it's a combination and a lot of different factors and it depends on our trip; where we are going, how long we'll be there, and what climate we'll be traveling in. Most of the time, we use our Travelpro carry-on, which has four wheels and fits a decent amount of clothing. We've done month-long trips with these bags. One of the problems we had though was that if we needed clothing for colder weather, it was much harder to fit jackets and sweaters inside.

We do have backpacks, too — (Hana - 35L and Max - 55L, which we bought when we lived in Korea at a mall sale). But, I have a bad back, so I prefer a bag with wheels. On our upcoming trip, we're going to bring both the wheelie bag and the backpacks, so we have a bit more space altogether and the weight will be spread out.

Finally, we sometimes use a checked bag which we share. We're actually much more likely to do this when we go on a shorter trip than a longer one, because we're going to be in one place and want to have more clothing options. (Or, in our case, the space to bring back stuff from the States that we can't buy in Mexico!). We have two amazing large duffel bags from High Sierra that are for checking, which are great when we are moving from one country to another. Best of all, they roll up and fit into a backpack, so you can bring it with you and use it on your return.

Pro tips: To maximize your luggage space and keep weight and size down, there are a few things you can do:

  • Use packing cubes or Ziploc bags to keep clothing compressed and organized.

  • Stay in accommodations that have laundry machines or access to a laundromat so that you can bring less clothes and do a wash while you're traveling.

  • You can always buy liquids (shampoo, soap, etc.) when you arrive to save space. Or, use dry shampoo bars.

  • Bring a duffel bag that you can roll up and shove inside whichever bag you're using. If you buy stuff along the way, you'll have some extra space!

  • Get a portable luggage scale so you can always be sure of how much your luggage weighs.

  • If you find that you have too much stuff, you can always ship it home. If this is too costly, find a courier or utilize a website like Airmule.

At the end of the day, which bag you use is entirely up to you. But, it is helpful to look at what other experienced travelers are recommending, and perhaps have a few options at your disposal to see what's best.

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