Having the right type of luggage, pack or bag for your travels can make packing up and hopping on a plane or hitting the road easier and less stressful. But with so many styles to choose from, deciding which one is right for you can be a challenge. This article breaks down the different types of luggage and offers advice on choosing the right size, weight and level of durability. It also goes over features like wheels, laptop compartments and carry-on compatibility.
Types of Luggage, Bags and Packs
There are three broad categories of luggage: wheeled luggage, travel packs and travel duffels. When deciding which one is right for you, it can be helpful to think about things like where you’re going, how you’re getting there and what you plan to do when you get there.
The obvious advantage of luggage, packs and bags with wheels is how easy they are to transport through the airport and down smooth streets and sidewalks. There are three types of wheeled luggage: rolling luggage, wheeled duffels and wheeled backpacks.
Rolling luggage: Designed for traditional travelers, rolling luggage is what you see most people pulling behind them at an airport. They come in a range of sizes and typically feature sturdy construction made to handle the rigors of luggage transport systems. They are generally best for business travel, family visits, road trips and travel to urban areas.
Wheeled duffels: Nothing swallows up gear like a duffel bag, and one with wheels is a good choice for multisport travelers. If your adventures frequently require gear of widely varying sizes and shapes, a rolling duffel is a smart way to corral it all. For light packers, a carry-on wheeled duffel offers less space but allows you to forgo the time and expense of checking a luggage bags and cases. Wheeled duffels are a good choice for adventure travel requiring bulky or odd-shaped gear, family trips and road trips. To learn more about duffel options, read about travel duffels below.
Wheeled backpacks: Popular with adventure travelers, these combine the convenience of wheeled luggage with the mobility of a backpack. You can transport lots of gear with a simple pull of the extendable handle. Facing heavy foot traffic or a long flight of stairs? Strap on the shoulder straps and hip belt for hands-free carrying convenience. Wheeled backpacks are typically best for adventure travel and road trips. To learn more about backpacks, see the travel packs section below.
These range from basic duffels that you throw over a shoulder to wheeled duffels with extendable handles (to learn about wheeled duffels, see the Wheeled Luggage section of this article.) The primary advantage of duffels over other options is their simple design. They’re easy to use and generally feature one large space for packing your gear and clothing. Of course, this could be a disadvantage if you’re the super-organized type who needs separate pockets and compartments to stay sane. (One way to stay organized in a duffel is to pack your things in travel cubes or stuff sacks.)
Duffel bags, or tote bags, are available in many sizes, from compact carry-on handbags that have a capacity of 20–30 liters and will hold a weekend's worth of clothes on up to massive duffels that hold 100 liters or more for adventures that require tons of gear.
Traditional duffel bags that don’t have wheels might seem old-fashioned given how easy wheels can make transport. But, for adventures to remote places with bumpy, unpaved streets, wheels will be more trouble than they are worth, and they will add several pounds to the overall weight of the bag. Not only are traditional duffels lighter, they are also more pliable than those that have wheels, making them easier to stuff in the backs of cars, load onto roof racks or strap to a pack animal. These duffels are also easier to store (no rigid parts, so they fold up smaller) and typically less expensive. They are a great option for climbers, adventure travelers and people on a budget who need to haul a lot of gear. Bags can also be used as cosmetic bags and cases, cooler bags, and shopping bags, etc.
These travel-friendly backpacks excel where wheeled luggage cannot: on gravel, cobblestone streets, stairs and other uneven terrain. Travel packs are like other backpacks in terms of how you wear them and the support they provide, but they have travel-specific features, such as organization pockets, hideaway hipbelts and shoulder straps, and built-in security features, like lockable zippers. They are ideal for travelers who want to be very mobile and are okay with carrying everything on their backs.
How to Determine the Right Size Luggage, Pack or Bag
The right size luggage, bag or pack depends on things like trip length, type of trip and your packing habits. Buying a bag that’s larger than you need may seem like a good idea, but we recommend against this because you’ll be tempted to fill up any extra space you have.
Here are some things to consider when determining what size bag to get:
Consider the length and type of trip you’re taking. Are you going on a serious adventure that requires tents, sleeping bags, stoves, climbing gear and more? If so, you’re going to need a large bag (or several) to haul all that. But, if you’re going on a simple weekend getaway that requires a couple changes of clothes and toiletries, then a compact bagpack will work just fine.
Here are some approximate guidelines to give you a sense of luggage and duffel sizes (by volume in liters) and how much they can accommodate:
30-50 liters: In general, luggage that has a capacity of about 50 liters or less is sufficient for a weekend trip. There are lots of carry-on duffels, packs and bags in this size range to choose from.
50-75 liters: For a trip that lasts one to two weeks, many people jump up to a bag in this range.
75 liters-100+ liters: For big expeditions, travelers typically need several large bags that can hold 75 liters or more each. (Keep in mind, of course, that the larger the bag, the heavier it is to haul. Multiple smaller bags might be easier to transport.
Are you a minimalist packer or do you bring along lots of extras? Some people can get by with a compact carry-on bag for a trip that lasts weeks, while others need to check a bag for a weekend getaway. Packing light has its advantages, like making it easy to maneuver in crowded places and avoiding checked baggage fees; to learn how to pack light, see our article, Tips for Traveling Light.
Remember carry-on restrictions if you don’t plan to check your bags. Many airline travelers strive to pack everything into a single carry-on bag to avoid the expense and hassle of checking a bag. If this is your goal, then pay close attention to luggage dimensions. Most airlines allow carry-on bags no larger than 45 linear inches when adding the length, width and height. For instance, a bag that’s 22 inches x 14 inches x 9 inches totals 45 inches. Rules can change, and sometimes vary by airline, so be sure to check with your airline about size limits (or other baggage regulations) before departure.