How to Choose the Right Travel Luggage by Jenny Xu June 28, 2022

Man wearing a backpack and holding onto multiple suitcase and bags
The main types of luggage include backpacks, duffel bags, and suitcases

The first official day of summer on June 21 has arrived and passed, time off at work has been booked, and moods have been collectively uplifted.

Coupled with this timing is the CDC lifting its negative COVID-19 testing requirement for airline travelers entering into the US a couple of weeks earlier on June 12. This means we are now in the thick of summer and long-awaited travel plans (although we still recommend wearing masks while traveling by public transportation, because why tempt fate)!

Choosing the right luggage for your next trip is as much a function of your personal preferences as well as the type, length, and location of your trip. Below we’ve included a summary table of the three main types of luggage, their best use cases, and general pros and cons.

We follow up with the two main questions to ask to determine what luggage, or combination of luggage, will work best for your travel plans. Finally we point out where you can find new luggage pieces if you do not already own what you need.

Overview of the main types of luggage

Type Best for Pros Cons
Backpack 1-2 day trips. As a second bag or personal item Can keep hands free. Keeps personal items close to you Less storage space. Can cause sweaty back
Duffel bag 2-5 day trips or adventure travel. As a carry on or personal item Easier to fit into spaces such as car trunks during group travel Can be wieldy to carry. Doesn’t protect items inside as much
Suitcase Longer trips where you do not relocate often. Leisure or business travel Can roll suitcase instead of carry. Protects items inside Can be bulky and hard to find space to open up the suitcase. Difficult if road is not paved
Man carrying one large and one small hard-shell suitcase in each hand
Hard-shell suitcases are increasing in popularity

Within each luggage category there is a lot of variation in the size and type of backpacks, duffel bags, and suitcases.

Backpacks: these can range from smaller functional daypacks to larger backpacks specifically to store as much as possible into a Basic Economy personal item-only airline ticket.

Duffel bags: duffels can range from smaller bags that can pass as a personal item up to larger bags that rival suitcases in storage capacity.

Suitcases: suitcases differ primarily on whether you want a carry-on or checked bag size suitcase, although these days there’s a lot to choose from between hard or soft shell suitcases.

For both backpacks and duffel bags, if you plan to also use a suitcase at any point you may really appreciate bags that have a luggage trolley sleeve. You can then slide your backpack or duffel over your suitcase handle, securing the bag on top of your suitcase, and push both bags instead of having to carry it.

Besides personal preference (and any restrictions based on your mode of travel or budget), here are the two main factors to consider when deciding what luggage pieces to use for your trip.

Consider where you will be traveling to

It is important to consider where you’re going and the practicality of having certain types of luggage there. The main concern here is whether wheels will translate well to wherever you’re going. Are you traveling somewhere where there are paved roads or smooth ground to easily push and pull your suitcase on?

For example, when traveling to Antigua, Guatemala, be aware that the entire small city is paved with cobblestone for its streets so anyone bringing a suitcase will inevitably have to lift their suitcase to walk around more frequently than they’d expect to. Depending on where else you go, such as the relaxing Lake Atitlán or the more remote Semuc Champey, there may still be lots of stairs or unpaved terrain to navigate.

Based on experience traveling and going on safaris in Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, it is best to bring a duffel bag because of the frequency of dirt roads and dust. It is also easier to bring a bag that can be tossed into the washer or easily wiped down after the trip ends without worrying about any damage to wheels or outside casing.

Going on a more leisurely vacation and staying in a more spacious Airbnb or hotel room? A suitcase is a great pick for you.

Open suitcase filled with clothes, camera, and a sun hat
Suitcases work well for leisure travel

For more local travel, such as visiting family, consider how much space there is at your final destination. For example, is there enough room for a hard-shell suitcase that needs double the floor space to open up, or would a soft-shell top-open suitcase or small duffel do a better job?

Consider what type of travel you will be doing

Closely related to the first question of where you are traveling to is what type of traveling you are doing.

When traveling with a group and sharing cars, consider using a duffel bag instead of a suitcase. This will help free up space in the trunk of a full vehicle and let your bags fit under seats or places that a suitcase can’t easily squeeze into. As a bonus, duffel bags usually get placed at the top of baggage so you can have easy access to your bag.

If you plan to do a more adventurous trip where the roads and sidewalks are not as developed for tourists, again a duffel bag or backpack might work better here.

If you plan to take public transportation to transport between cities, be mindful of how that might affect where your luggage goes. On a train you may be able to have your suitcase with you by your seat. However, if you’re taking a public coach bus you may be expected to put your suitcase in the storage compartments below the bus. If that does not appeal to you, because there is less control over what happens to the bag, a duffel or backpack would be better so you can store the bag in an overhead compartment or even sit with the bag on your lap.

Suitcases are the golden standard when you know you’re going for more comfortable travel. For example, business trips and relaxing vacations are often best suited for suitcases because you can be reasonably certain to be able to roll your suitcase easily wherever you’re going and to have space to store and open your suitcase as needed.

A group of hikers wearing backpacks walking towards a mountain
Backpacks work well for adventure travel

Where to find new luggage pieces

Take inventory of the luggage piece you own and whether or not they will work well for your upcoming travel. If you don’t already have a piece of luggage that you need, or would like to upgrade what you already have, here are a few places where you can find what you’re looking for.

Walmart has a large selection of luggage from a variety of brands to meet all types of budgets.

L.L. Bean is known for their high quality, durable products and is a great place to look for luggage for adventure travel.

Rolling Stone magazine recently recommended nine places to find and buy luggage online directly from the manufacturers, in addition to Amazon as the tenth retailer. The brands they recommend shopping from are:

  1. Paravel for sustainable, eco-friendly luggage
  2. Roam for premium customizable luggage
  3. Incase for tech-friendly luggage
  4. Osprey for durable, lightweight, and rugged luggage
  5. Calpak for more accessible, modern luggage
  6. Away for a wide variety of modern luggage
  7. Rimowa for high-end, luxury luggage
  8. Arlo Skye for design-forward, luxury luggage
  9. Monos for minimalist, sleek luggage

Another brand we really like is Travelpro for a combination of great quality and value, which comes highly recommended by NYT’s Wirecutter.

You can find more brands and shops selling luggage using Delomore, a shopping discovery platform that helps you find the stores that sell what you’re looking for.

Where are you heading for the summer? Tell us about your trip and what luggage you are bringing at We'd love to hear from you!