Tips for Choosing the Best Travel Bag

Cobblestones aside, Europe's generally well-suited to rolling bags.
Rick loves his Convertible Carry-On backpack (and his Civita Day Pack).
By Rick Steves

A fundamental packing question is your choice of luggage. Of all the options for travel bags, I’d consider only five:

  • a carry-on-size soft backpack,
  • an internal-frame backpack,
  • a carry-on-size soft-sided bag with wheels,
  • a carry-on-size hard-sided bag with wheels, or
  • a carry-on-size rolling backpack.

Each of these options has its advantages and drawbacks. Before you decide, consider these factors:

  • External dimensions: Is it small enough to work as a carry-on? (If not, are you willing to put up with the likely delays and extra fees that come with checking your bag?)
  • Weight: The lighter the better (even rolling bags need to be carried from time to time)
  • Comfort/Ease of carrying/Mobility: Consider not just airport terminals but uneven surfaces (cobblestones, gravel) and stairs, and the advantages of carrying your bag while still having both hands free…as well as how easily you can carry 20–25 lbs on your back
  • Efficiency of space: Look for the most (usable) capacity within the external dimensions
  • Expandability: A nice option, especially for the trip home
  • Quality of materials: Go with a well-established and/or well-reviewed brand
  • Cost: Worth considering, but not at the expense of decent quality

Frankly, no one bag is ideal all the time for every traveler. When weighing your choice of bags, think about which of the above factors matter most to you. Go with the bag that meets your most important needs, and make sure its downsides are ones you can live with. Here’s how your main options compare, generally speaking:

 

Soft backpack

Internal-frame backpack

Soft-sided rolling bag

Hard-sided rolling bag

Rolling backpack

Carry-on size?

Yes, if you pack light

Can be, though most are too big

Yes*

Yes*

Yes*

Comfort/

Ease of carrying/

Mobility

OK if your back and shoulders are strong enough; great for train travel; leaves both hands free

Good if you’re sturdy enough and packed light; great for train travel; leaves both hands free

Great except for uneven surfaces; uses up a hand

Great except for uneven surfaces; uses up a hand

Best — gives you best option for any circumstance

Efficiency of space

Great

Good (though hip belt takes up room)

OK (though wheels and handle take up room)

OK (wheels and handle take up room, plus shell can’t squish to accommodate bulk)

OK (wheels and handle take up room)

*Of course, bags come in all sizes; look for one that’s no bigger than 14" x 21" x 9" without wheels or no more than 14" x 20" x 9" if with wheels — but always check with your airline(s) for their current regulations

Bag Breakdown

Here’s my personal take on your main options:

Soft backpacks: To me, this kind of bag makes the most sense for my style of travel. Unlike an internal-frame backpack, these soft bags basically hang on your shoulders (even those with hip belts). That means they’re not as comfortable for long hauls — but they work fine for getting from the train station to the hotel. They’re also well-suited as carry-ons, since they can squish down to fit virtually any overhead bin, provided you’ve packed light enough. And I really appreciate the mobility and practicality of having both hands free while en route — I can eat a sandwich or buy a bus ticket and hop on board without breaking my stride. I live out of my Rick Steves Convertible Carry-On for four months each year — and I absolutely love it. (I supplement it with a separate day bag that’s exactly to my liking; I’m not wild about the zip-off day bags that come with some backpacks.) The day will come when I’ll be rolling my bag through Europe with the rest of the gang. But as long as I’m hardy enough to carry my gear on my back, I will.

Internal-frame backpacks: Some travelers backpack through Europe with an internal-frame backpack purchased from an outdoor store. These are the most comfortable bags to wear on your back, as the internal frame and hip belt keep the weight off your shoulders and balanced over your hips. However, these bags can be expensive. Most importantly (to me, at least), these are often built “taller” than carry-on size. While the comfort of an internal-frame bag is plenty nice, I wouldn’t get one that couldn’t fit in most overhead bins — I don’t think it’s worth the trade-off. If you pack light, a soft backpack won’t cause too much strain (and shorter carry-on-size bags force you to limit your stuff).

Soft-sided rolling bags: Of course, the main advantage of a rolling bag over a backpack is that you can effortlessly wheel your gear around without getting sweaty. A rolling bag also frees your back for a smaller day bag, and gives you the option to set your smaller bag on top and roll that one as well. The drawbacks: Bags with wheels usually cost more, offer a little less capacity than backpacks of similar dimensions (since wheel wells and the retractable handle cut into the space available for your stuff)…and weigh a few pounds more. Remember that, unless you’re traveling with your own butler, you’ll still be carrying a wheeled bag from time to time — up stairs, into and out of overhead compartments, on and off transit, over muddy footpaths, etc. Even if you prefer a rolling bag, you still want one that’s as lightweight as possible — and don’t let it delude you into thinking that you don’t need to pack so light. Also consider that rolling bags are awkward to carry and cumbersome to maneuver when negotiating narrow B&B staircases, crowded subways, or a series of train cars. They’re ideal in airports, but less so when walking to your hotel in a village with stepped lanes — and can be embarrassingly loud when clackity-clunking down cobbled streets. But otherwise rolling bags are generally well-suited to Europe’s towns and cities, and plenty of the wheeled bags out there are well-designed and deservedly popular — most of my staffers prefer to roll with one. Look for one with strong fabric that’s as roomy as possible while being small enough to fit in a plane’s overhead bin.

Hard-sided rolling bags: While I see more and more of these in airports every year, I don’t think they offer many advantages to independent travelers. Sure, they look cool — but they tend to be expensive, and even the newest ultra-light models are still a pound or two heavier than most soft-sided bags. Many models don’t expand, either. Their only major advantage is the protection they offer any breakables you’re hauling home. My solution: Don’t bring breakables home. If you must, pack them carefully in a protective container within a soft-shell bag that’s almost certainly lighter and cheaper than a flashy hard-shell.

Rolling backpacks: Some travelers appreciate the best-of-both worlds flexibility of a bag that has both wheels and backpack straps. Having both options can indeed be great — but the tradeoffs are significant: The wheels add weight when used as a backpack, and having wheels and a retractable handle eats up an awful lot of interior space. A lot of travelers tell me they end up using their rolling backpack almost exclusively as a wheeled bag (because of the wheels’ extra weight). Personally, I’d go with either one or the other.

Extra tips

It’s easy to spend a fortune on your luggage, but you don’t need to. If your bag costs more than $250, you’re probably paying more for a name brand than quality. Just make sure your bag is well-made enough to withstand at least a few trips’ worth of wear and tear; a product guarantee (like my bags’ guarantee) is a good sign. Sturdy stitching, front and/or side pouches, padded shoulder straps (for backpacks), and a low-profile color are virtues.

Be aware that some airlines, especially many of Europe’s budget carriers, have carry-on size restrictions that are smaller — and usually much more strictly enforced — than what we’re used to in the US (where 14" x 22" x 9" is the general standard). They may also have more stringent weight restrictions for carry-ons. (When in doubt, for flights within Europe — especially on cheap-o airlines like Ryanair or EasyJet — opt to check your bag when booking the flight, as on-the-spot fees for checking can easily top the cost of the flight itself.) Even if you play by the rules, airline personnel may still ask you to check your bag, as higher fees for checked luggage are causing many travelers to carry more on board, overwhelming the plane’s overhead-bin capacity. Be prepared to check your bag if asked, and always double-check with your airline to confirm carry-on size and weight limits (gate-checking your bag at the airline’s request won’t cost you as long as your bag complies with their published regulations).

Pack your bag only two-thirds full to leave room for souvenirs, or bring along an empty, featherweight nylon bag to use as a carry-on for your return flight, then check your main bag through (this is when expandable compartments really come in handy).

Packing cubes are a worthwhile supplement to any bag purchase. They help compress your clothes, keep them organized, and allow you to easily access your bag’s contents without risking spilling all of them out on the airport or train-station floor.