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Pros/Cons of a roller bag or backpack

My husband and I are planning a 10 day trip through Italy and Switzerland (4 stops, flying in, then taking trains). I have read a lot of comments on taking a rolled suitcase versus backpack and it seems to be personal preference to love one or the other. I have even packed my things into a backpack and wore it around the apartment to get a better understanding of the weight. After all of this, we still can't decide which is right for us. I like the convenience of rolling the bag through the airport but understand when getting to the location having a backpack may be nice. Have people who have traveled with a roller bag regretted their decision once getting to Europe?

Posted by
1070 posts

One major consideration is the surface over which you'll be rolling the suitcase. If you're going from airport to cab to sidewalk to hotel, a roller may do just fine. If you're going over cobblestones (Bruges) or step-bridges (Venice) or getting on and off a lot of public transport ("mind the gap") then you will curse a roller.

I'm 53 and I still backpack. I haven't found an improvement on my MEC travel backpack for general travel through Europe (backpack, but with shoulder strap and luggage handles for alternative use, and backpack straps tuck away for air travel).

Posted by
4010 posts

Regret? The opposite -- I EMBRACE the two-wheel pullman upright. Backpacks hurt my back; there is no way I would have a backpack as my main carry-on bag.

I don't curse my pullman bag on cobblestone roads. The wheels are strong and well made. I manage. I also don't move hotels every 1-2 nights like a bucket list tourist.

Posted by
166 posts

I use a backpack but my wife uses a rolled carry-on, therefore there is no “right” answer. I use the backpack because I like the freedom of having my arms free hooping on and off of trains & metros, etc. My wife has had back issues for several years so the wheeled carry-on is ideal for her. The benefits of “packing light” are numerous, I enjoy going to the airport and not dealing with checking bags or lost luggage at my destination. I’ve got my bag down to around 17-18 lbs. I think for the majority of travelers that the wheeled carry-on’s are the ideal choice and when I hit 70 years old I will probably switch to one.

Have a great time on your trip!!!

Posted by
4989 posts

No regrets at all about using a roller bag. Much easier on the back and so far we've not encounter any surfaces / bridges the rollers (or our arms) couldn't handle. Not saying we wont, but not so far. We also carry a Rick Steves Veloce bag as a "personal bag" for use as a day bag that holds quite a lot and does have hide a way back straps.

Posted by
1443 posts

I love having my hands free walking through airports, train stations, city streets when I've just arrived. A backpack allows me to do that. Probably not great if you have a bad back or bum shoulder.

Added benefit: a soft-sided backpack can be forced into tight overhead bins. Many, many times I've gotten mine to fit into a seemingly full bin when it would have been impossible for a comparable-sized hard-sided case to fit.

Posted by
1229 posts

I use a backpack and would not want to roll a bag from a train station to lodgings, and back on departure day. In Florence and Rome, the walk was 20-30 minutes from train to apartment. In Bacharach Germany, the walk was all cobblestones. My backpack is soft frame, so it is easier to squeeze into overhead compartments (not tight fit but adjustable fit).
I think it is individual, but I also think it has to do with the pack, and understanding how packs fit. Because we are backpackers, we know how packs are meant to be constructed for best load dispersal, and how they are meant to be worn for same, so we shopped around for the best backpacker-minded pack (i.e. a proper fitting backpack should not hurt your back). I think fitness has something to do with the choice too, although I find a well-fitting pack much less arduous to manage than rolling something along side/behind me.
We have switched to using packs even for domestic travel. Now we have roller suitcases in the garage we need to give away ;)
The type we have is the Osprey 46, bought at REI with our member's 20% discounts
I think you'll be fine either way :)

Posted by
14159 posts

I started out my European travel in 2013 with the RS Convertible backpack. I used it for 2 years on several trips but by the end of the last trip (8 weeks long) I could hardly lift it around to my back. The EIGHT scarves I somehow acquired on the way plus general paperwork etc added to the load. On the last morning I had to put the backpack on the bed and sit down to get it on. I could stand up with it on my back but my arms were bruised from slinging it around to position it.

Next trip...I changed to the RS roller and have never looked back.

Posted by
3240 posts

I'm a roller bag person. I've easily pulled it through all kinds of conditions: cobblestones, woods, snow, etc. with no problem. I'd rather lift my suitcase over the gap or up a few stairs for 30 seconds than carry it all.the.time. Plus, I feel more put together with a roller rather than a backpack...I'm not going camping.

Posted by
1492 posts

I'm not convinced it's an either or question. We have used backpacks on all of our trips with the exception of one solo trip I did to the UK which included a RS tour. On our last trip my back was getting tired and sore by the end of the trip. I'm 57 and in reasonable shape. For our upcoming 5 week trip we are both using the Osprey Ozone 22" 50L rolling backpack. I got myself one and tried it out on a couple of domestic trips. My husband then borrowed it for a domestic trip and has since ordered himself one. My plan is to roll it in places like airports, but to use it as a back pack for trains and short trips to / from hotels. If it's a long walk to the hotels I will probably try and roll it. This backpack is the most comfortable rolling backpack I've tried.

Posted by
2712 posts

As you can see, devotees of both. Interestingly looking at these replies and others you rarely find folks who switched from a roller to a backpack, but numerous who went from a backpack to a roller. For me, not a choice. The backpack hurts my back. If you want to consider a backpack a stroll around your apartment won’t do it. Carry it fully loaded outside, up and down hills, hours at a time. Any shoulder issues, back discomfort? Multiply that by 10 and there you’ll be in Europe. If no problems, then you’re one of those fit folks who can do this. I love my assortment of spinners. I have taken a spinner all over Europe including cobblestones, the bridges of Venice and the like. No problem. (Note that most of those posters who speak to this being an issue are being theoretical-they actually have not experienced this). But, if you get a spinner don’t cheap out as the wheels are the Achilles heel and you’ll risk one breaking.

Posted by
50 posts

I'm a backpack fan because of all the reasons that have been given previously--hands free, squishable into smaller spaces, no worries about steps or failed wheels. BUT the content weight makes the difference. I'd suggest you pack your backpack as you would for the trip and take it for a mile or two walk rather than just around the apartment. If you do just fine with that walk, then a backpack will probably work. If you're dying to get that thing off your back, go with the rolling bag. There will surely be times you wish you'd chosen the other bag but that will happen regardless of which bag you choose.

Posted by
408 posts

I use either, depending on the trip, and if there is no physical impediment on your part, it absolutely is a matter of personal preference. My preference these days is to use a backpack, but my wife uses my old rolling bag.

This comment from above made me chuckle:

" I don't curse my pullman bag on cobblestone roads."

No, probably not, but those living on those cobblestone roads probably do curse the noise those darn wheels make as tourists drag them up and down the street every day.

Posted by
4171 posts

Hmmm? Let's see here. Pam, you're singing my song.

✔Used Convertible backpack for 3 years including 2 European trips of 8 weeks and 4 weeks each.

✔Could hardly lift it around to my back, even though I kept the weight down to less than 20 pounds.

✔Had to put the backpack on the bed and sit down to get it on, or set it on a counter and back into it.

✔Arms were bruised from slinging it around to position it. I hate it when that happens.

So for the last 6 years I've used a Lipault spinner or an Eagle Creek 2-wheeled bag. I pack so that neither weighs more than 20 pounds total. Both are carry-on size. I still prefer the spinner and have had no issues with it on rough terrain.

I have never regretted having a roller bag. Keeping the weight low makes it easy to put on racks and in bins above my head. I travel by train or bus most of the time. Roller bags are convenient in lots of situations besides the airport.

But I'm now looking at the Appenzell Day Pack as my main bag, so that I can have my hands free to use a cane if I need to. It's going to be a decision about adding the weight to my annoying knees.

My roller bags each weigh 5-6 pounds empty. Doing the math, I should be able to keep the weight below 15 pounds. I'm really working on that. It's amazing how much some stuff weighs, so I'm having to be very disciplined about what I need to take vs. what I want to take.

Posted by
27352 posts

I would never under any circumstances use a backpack. The only time I've regretted having a wheeled bag was when wheels failed mid-trip. They were spinner wheels on a rather cheap bag; those tend to be more fragile than the wheels on 2-wheeled bags or spinner wheels on good-quality luggage.

Even a cheap spinner will probably survive a relatively short trip if you verify that the wheels are in good condition before you leave home. On a really long trip, there can be enough distance covered on challenging surfaces for problems to develop. There's always the possibility of damage by the airline if you have to check the bag, but that can apply to any sort of luggage with a frame and/or wheels.

This is a very frequent topic on this forum. You can find the opinions of additional travelers by scanning back through earlier threads, if you haven't already done so.

Posted by
7396 posts

It’s a personal choice, but I have always used a roller bag packed light for European yearly trips. My husband started with the RS soft-pack backpack and switched to a roller for his third trip to Europe. I do use a cheap backpack for some domestic trips.

Some reasons I like the roller bag:

- the bottom half of my suitcase is firmer (top half is a thick fabric), so it protects souvenirs from damage.

- we travel a lot by train and metro in Europe, and I don’t like that a backpack is sitting at pickpocket arm height when worn. Also, I don’t want to wear it on my front for better protection, and then have a greater chance of falling when I can’t see the steps off the train.
- waiting at the airport and for trains, the suitcase isn’t heavy sitting on my back
- this type of luggage is easier for me to find the exact item without pulling out several packing cubes when using my backpack.

Some reasons the roller isn’t as nice:
- the wheels can be noisy on cobblestones. Sometimes I just carry it over a section.

Posted by
23428 posts

At 75 we are still using backpacks in Europe for most of the reasons stated in favor of backpack - hands free especially important. However, we do use rollers in the US because the surfaces are smoother and frequent rent cars. However, if you have back issues then it is really is no discussion. You have to use a roller. Had an old two wheel that finally died about about 20 years. Hated the replacement spinner especially on rough surfaces. Just recent bought a two wheel at Eddie Bauer. Will see how that goes later. Until it becomes a physical problem will continue to use backpack style luggage in Europe.

Posted by
991 posts

Like everyone says, it’s a personal choice, but my choice is a backpack. I did previously use a 25 inch roller before I was converted to smaller bags. I moved to a backpack because I love being hands free. I’ve also found that it seems less likely to get gate checked than any bag with wheels. More than once when waiting at the gate for a flight, airline staff have come around checking bags to gate check. My travel companion who had the same sized bag as me, but with wheels, had her bag taken. My backpack wasn’t. I much prefer the backpack when I have to go up or down stairs. One down side of the backpack is you have to be very careful in tight spaces not to hit anyone. In a too crowded area, I take it off and carry it in front of me. In moderately crowded spaces I still have to check before turning when wearing it.

Posted by
3521 posts

I have never found the need for wheels. They seem to just add weight. Even with my progressing mobility issues, I still use the RS convertible bag and carry it like a suitcase and rarely wear it like a backpack. But then I travel super light and can go a month with the 18 pounds of stuff I have in my RS bag.

Posted by
11387 posts

Use a roller bag--- Never once wished for a backpack

Posted by
1194 posts

How much does your stuff weigh? That’s going to determine your happiness with a pack Vs a roller.
Many people on this forum consider 20 lbs to be light. I consider it to be very heavy and would be unhappy carrying that kind of weight on my back.
My pack weighs around 7 kg (15 lb) or less. That’s a good weight for a backpack.
If you pack heavy then get a roller. If you pack light then a pack has several advantages over the roller.
BTW. I am a 60 yo woman with 2 bad discs. A good pack with a good suspension is still the best choice for me.

Posted by
8590 posts

My wife and I have this argument every trip, foreign and domestic. I like backpacks; she uses a spinner. I like to have hands free, she prefers to walk slower. I would suggest that backpacks get more uncomfortable the longer you have them on, and if you've not had previous experience wearing one for camping, military, school, etc., a wheeled bag probably makes more sense. Also note that if you have any other bag (e.g., daypack or shoulder bag) you need to accommodate that too, either on your back, in your hand or attached to your roller.

Posted by
2529 posts

Me? Use a backpack--- never once wished for a roller bag. Find the bag that's right for you. Also, Rick's advice about packing is good, although I travel even lighter. Don't over pack.

Posted by
3961 posts

Use what works best for you. It's a matter of personal preference. My tried and true Travel Pro 2-wheel roller bag has held up over cobblestones and rough terrain throughout Europe. I wouldn't change a thing.

Posted by
2136 posts

My wife and I bought the original RS convertible backpack in 2002 for a trip to Scotland. We've been using them ever since, including last October for a trip to London and Paris. I think they weighed in at 24 pounds. We were gone 8 days and my wife had to take business clothes. They worked great on the Eurostar. I think if you are going to be on the train a lot, the backpack may be a better choice. If you are staying in big towns in won't much matter, but I remember watching tourists struggle up the narrow and steep cobbled streets of San Gimignano with their roller bags.

I have to help her get it on, but we both enjoy being hands free, although you have to remember they are back there and not to whack somebody with them. We like them for the reasons stated. We are both 67 and in good health.

I travel frequently for work in the States and take a larger roller bag then, since I'm often gone for 2 weeks at a time and need to take a little more clothes, including business clothes. Checked bags are free for me and I don't like fighting folks for room in the overhead bin.

Whichever you choose, be sure to pack light. It's amazing how little you can take. Avoid bulky items. I went to the famous Barrows in Glasgow and bought a great wool sweater instead of packing one. I wore it on the way home.

Posted by
1056 posts

I've used both but I'm now a roller bag person. One other thing not mentioned often about back packs in Europe in the summer is that they are hot to wear. My first trip with a backpack was Italy/France/Germany for 7 weeks in July/August. I just wore it from train stations to apartments and back, not for any length of time. But I was always absolutely soaked in sweat, head to toe, by the time the short transfers were done. Very unpleasant to walk around sightseeing with your clothes clinging to you and looking like you fell into a fountain. And I agree with others about the moments of lifting it onto my back. It was fine to carry once in position but the grunting, bruising and adjusting were not much fun. And it only weighed 17 lbs total iirc. I used it on one more extended trip after that, but I'm done. Roller bags for me.

Posted by
2136 posts

One other thing not mentioned often about back packs in Europe in the summer is that they are hot to wear.

Good point Nelly! I didn't think of that because we travel in the cooler shoulder months.

Posted by
129 posts

I get a sweaty back wearing a backpack. Ugh. These things bother me, so it's a wheeled bag for me.

Posted by
156 posts

Good point about the “sweat factor”. It doesnt take that long, even in temperate weather, for your back to get soaked, especially with a more heavily loaded backpack.

I’ve pretty much gone with roller bags the last few years, mainly due to age and not being in as good shape as I used to be. And I really see the utility of a smartly loaded backpack for, say, train trips in Europe, as the OP is going to be doing. If the train travel is extensive, maybe the backpack is the way to go. But for the kind of travel I do these days, mainly airport—> hotel or driving, the roller bags are better for me. Though I nearly always have a small to medium sized backpack for touring around town at my destination.

Posted by
5837 posts

Backpack advantages.
Pros: Having hands free; mobility up/down stairs.
Cons: Need to be reasonably physically capable; need to take care in turning around in a tight space.

Roller bag.
Pros: Easier to pull 50# bag on wheels than lift a 50# bag.
Cons: Uses hand(s); Dragging up/down stairs and escalators; Rotating doors; Takes more personal space

Posted by
996 posts

I have never - as in literally, never - been able to comfortably put on a backpack of even the lightest weight. I think it's due to untreated scoliosis, but whatever. It's just not an option for me.

I have done a roller back through many parts of Europe as well as Central America. It's not always convenient going up or down things, but I have never NOT been able to roll it along, even on the most uneven of roadways.

At the end of the day, I have never regretted my lightweight roller bag. I have cried about trying to carry an overpacked backpack on one shoulder. YMMV.

Posted by
1194 posts

Also note that if you have any other bag (e.g., daypack or shoulder bag) you need to accommodate that too, either on your back, in your hand or attached to your roller.

This isn’t true if you have a cross body bag. It’s very easy to slip the cross body bag over the shoulder and have it hang in front of you. And you remain hands free.

Posted by
4428 posts

I like to use a backpack, 15 lbs max, when using public transportation. l confess I've only used it in England, where it's usually not too hot. Although I use a rolling bag in other situations because it can carry more stuff, I also find that the backpack gives me a better chance of keeping up with my husband when walking through airports! If I ever take a RS tour, I will have to use the backpack because I don't think I can carry/drag my rolling bag up all those steps!

Posted by
6363 posts

Stephanie, the poster who suggested you try whatever you're thinking of using by walking at least a mile gave you good advice. Load your bag or pack with whatever you plan to take, then go walk for at least a mile. Throw in some hills, steps, and rough ground. Then see what works for you.

We use backpacks exclusively. But we pack light; my loaded Appenzell comes in at about 14 pounds. The only time my back got tired was an extremely long day of flight delays. Wearing the pack for about 10 to 12 hours did finally get old. My DH carries a smaller, lighter pack, but his "personal item" is bigger and heavier than mine.

BTW, he's 72; I'll be 70 in about 2 months.

Posted by
2529 posts

Sweat? Never been an issue for me. Maybe upwards of a mile or so is the normal maximum distance with the bag on my back. Also, I just sling my day bag over my shoulder, so both hands are free. Experiment near home and learn what works for you...I know what works for me.

Posted by
8206 posts

If I used a backpack, I would end up towing my wife's TravelPro 21" swivel wheeled suitcase. That would break my family rule that everyone handles their own luggage.
We'!l just stay using our swivel wheeled carry on bags.

Posted by
2531 posts

I've been using the RS convertible carryon backpack for a couple of years now, and it's the best overall solution for me,
but I do want to bring out what one comment above said about being 'put together' --
if I'm wearing a suit or a blazer, then I think it's true that having the pack on looks a bit outre,
so if that concerns you, it's a point against the backpack.

But if I get to that point, I feel like I'm not being a true ricknik -- it's a slippery slope from worrying about what they'll think of my ensemble to not wanting to be seen in the two-star close-to-the-ground venues that RS travelers seek out.

Posted by
9770 posts

I always like the idea of trying a backpack (which I haven't done since my true backpacking days), but ultimately the roller (two wheels) works well for me and I'm reluctant to spend the money to try a pack I'm not sure I'd end up using that much.

Anyway I always make use of a decent-sized backpack in conjunction with my roller because I am a person who likes her STUFF!!!!!! (even with Kindle these days instead of books!!)

Posted by
1790 posts

Spent a month traveling all through Europe-8 countries, 18 cities with trains, planes and automobiles and two of us used a roller bag each and a light day pack. Not a problem. The key is LIGHT PACKING. If it is light, picking it up isn't a problem on trains, metro stairs, etc. Keep in mind that suitcase will be with you a lot and your biggest question is your shoulders and back for 10 days. The biggest plus with a roller bag is the addition of a day pack you can hook on your roller bag or carry on your shoulder, but with a backpack that's all you can carry.

Posted by
2529 posts

“The biggest plus with a roller bag is the addition of a day pack you can hook on your roller bag or carry on your shoulder, but with a backpack that's all you can carry.” Well, my simple solution for carrying a back pack and day pack is described in my prior post. Three other solutions Include putting my day pack into my back pack, attaching my day pack to the hand loop of my back pack via a small carabiner always at the ready and finally carrying the day pack in reverse form in front (what I’ve seen others do, including a RS’s guide!).

Posted by
453 posts

I regretted bringing a backpack on my trip to Greece a few years ago. I felt like a pack mule (ok, I didn't pack as lightly as I should have). I especially hated having the backpack while riding on the metro and going through the airport. When I went to Italy (including Venice) a couple of years ago, I took my 21" roller bag and had no problems at all, even in Venice. I considered bringing a backpack instead on my trip to Madrid two weeks ago and am so glad that I didn't, since I pulled a back muscle while on the trip and would have been even more miserable with wearing a backpack.

Posted by
5360 posts

I dislike backpacks, both wearing one and others wearing them. I've lost count of the number of times I've been swiped in the head by someone turning around in the aircraft corridor whilst I'm sat down. I don't like wearing them because they make my back sweat.

On those rare occasions when I'm travelling short haul and without family for a few days I will take a roller suitcase on board. I rarely have to worry about there being enough space in the overhead bins as I pretty much fly BA within Europe and my frequent flyer status enables priority boarding. If I don't fly BA I'll pay extra for priority. Wheeling it around is no problem, it glides along the airport floor with barely a push, pavements are no problem and even cobbles are fine. If the terrain becomes too much of a problem I'll simply pick it up by the handle and carry it like a bag, it rarely exceeds 10kg.

Travelling with large suitacases and family? Hire car or taxi, I'm not messing around with trains, buses or slogging it through the streets.

Posted by
1194 posts

The biggest plus with a roller bag is the addition of a day pack you can hook on your roller bag or carry on your shoulder, but with a backpack that's all you can carry.

This statement simply isn’t true.
As stated by several (including myself) a cross body bag or pack slips over the shoulder and hangs down in front of you. There is no conflict with a backpack.

Posted by
1194 posts

I’m probably going to get blasted for this.

I’ve noted that many people advocating roller bags like to bring a roller plus a personal item.
That means they are bringing a lot of stuff, and it is going to be heavy.

  • Heavy is going to be hotter on your back
  • Heavy is going to be uncomfortable on your back

You really need to stay under 15 lb if you take a pack. Then it is comfortable under most conditions. But that does require that you don’t bring a lot of stuff. It does not mean you dress casual or sloppy. It does mean that you are careful what you bring. I have traveled with just a personal item and dressed nicely. But it took planning and discipline in how I packed. The payoff occurred during the trip itself. I had a lot of freedom.

I have found that I need a lot more discipline when planning a trip with a backpack than with a roller. A roller allows a lot more slop.

Posted by
19149 posts

I have found that I need a lot more discipline when planning a trip
with a backpack than with a roller.

The problem with a roller is it just facilitates overpacking.

Posted by
1229 posts

You've received many good responses. The take-away seems to be:

-personal preference
-pack light
-wear/use your choice around the neighborhood first
-you will wish for the other choice at some point in your travels

I only wanted to add about Backpacks that:

-you should never carry it on one shoulder
-the weight should sit on your hips, NOT your shoulders
-the pack should fit properly (so that the weight is carried on your hips with the belt, and the shoulder straps are adjusted to the correct height slightly above your shoulders, and with the pack sitting upright, not leaning out. Shoulder straps are for stability and keeping the pack next to the body, not for carrying weight).

Posted by
1841 posts

I’ve done both and each has its merits. For me it comes down to how I’m traveling. If it’s mostly trains and mass transit and lots of stairs then a backpack is definitely easier. If it’s just cab to and from the airport then a roller works fine.

I have mostly been using my roller. My recent travels have mostly been RS tours with days tacked on at both ends of the tour. But the key to the roller for me is that I can carry it for distances of maybe 100 meters or so at a time if needed. So up and down bridges in Venice was not an issue. Also I found that carrying my bag by the side handle makes it much easier to navigate stairs such as in metro stations. I can let my bag just hang at my side which is more comfortable than trying to lift it by the top handle.

Posted by
6363 posts

I do want to mention that those of us who carry backpacks, as well as those who use roller bags, need to be aware of how much space we take up. Several people have commented on this, but it bears repeating.

Folks with backpacks are prone to forgetting, and whapping someone as they (we!) swivel around. And folks with roller bags take up just as much space, if not more, but on the ground. More than once I've had to jump aside to avoid tripping over, or being run into by, someone's roller bag. The four-wheelers are not as bad; a person with a pull-behind bag can take up 2 to 3 times as much walking space as an unencumbered person.

So all of us: Heads up! Be aware of how much space we're taking up, and be respectful and courteous.

Posted by
7 posts

I use a backpack because of the weight of the bag. I have taken several flights with an 8kg (17.6 lbs) and most others have a 10kg (22 lbs) limit. Rolling bags just take up too much of that allowance. For example, the Rick Steves rolling carry-on is 6.65lbs versus the Convertible Carry-On at only 2.7lbs. I personally use a bag that is just under 2lbs which allows me to pack what I need even in an 8kg limit, I would have to check a roller bag.

Posted by
602 posts

My solution is a bit different. For my first trip to Italy several years ago I purchased an eBags Weekender (no wheels) that could be used as a backpack or as a traditional piece of luggage. But I found that it was too difficult for me to use as a backpack, in part because I am very short (under 5'). Rather than buy a new bag, I bought a Samsonite luggage cart ( The cart has worked fine for me over the course of three additional trips. It folds to such a small footprint that it easily fits under the seat on planes or into my luggage if necessary, eliminating concerns about the overhead bins. It has enabled me to get the best of both's great through airports, has done adequately on cobble stones, and is lightweight. When going up and down stairs, I just pick my luggage up by the handle. I do pack lightly, so that helps too. This solution might not be everyone's cup of tea, but it works for me.