Monday, January 10, 2011

Backpacking vs Suitcasing

My room with a view in Rome.
Last night I was at a party in Santa Monica discussing the pros and cons of backpacking around the world. As you may know, I'm planning to travel in the near future and am currently investigating my options. My friend Magda is a hardcore backpacker and hosteler and was convincing me to do the same. She had some pretty compelling arguments for backpacking and staying in hostels.

"Tourists have suitcases. Travelers have backpacks."
-- Magda
Magda's top three for backpacking:
  1. It's easy to meet people in a hostel.
  2. A backpack is easier to lug from place to place than a suitcase. 
  3. It's a cheap way to travel.
Janice's top three reasons for not backpacking:
  1. A backpack is heavy to lug from from place to place.
  2. A backpack means less fabulous clothing options.
  3. I google image searched "backpacking" and was immediately horrified.
Do I even want to backpack across Europe? What about my blogging? I imagined typing up dispatches from the comfort of my own wee flat that I rent for a couple weeks or even a month at a time. One with a view of the Eiffel Tower or some such urban icon. I imagined sipping fantastic coffee and nibbling on vittles procured at my neighborhood cheese/fruit/bread monger whist telling you, dear reader, of my adventures.

I didn't imagine not that.

Last May, when I was at the train station in Rome, I saw many backpackers. I was shocked to notice one common look on their faces. It wasn't happiness. It was fatigue.

I'm not really into fatigue. That's what my job was for. That's why I quit it

But Magda had some good points. Backpacking and hosteling does make meeting people easier. And I must admit, my biggest fear is eating alone, seeing sites alone and just plain old being alone. Then again, I like alone time to write which is one of the main goals of this trip. And I'm not sure if I'll take the time to write if I'm hanging with a group of travelers 90210-style everywhere I go. So I'm a little flummoxed by my options. I want to meet people easily, but I also want a certain amount of alone time. And comfort. Let's not discount my desire for comfort.

Here's what I know about backpacking vs suitcasing.
  • Having a 75 pound bag on my back doesn't sound appealing.
  • Rolling a suitcase down a bumpy cobblestone street doesn't sound appealing either. 
  • I don't want to eat alone in restaurants. 
  • It's easy to meet people in hostels.
  • I want to meet people but also want a certain amount of alone time.
  • I like the quiet and privacy of my own living space.
  • Backpacking has a certain level of adventure. 
  • An apartment with a suitcase of clothes has a certain level of living as a resident of the city vs a person traveling through the city with a backpack.
  • I actually can afford to stay in something a little more comfortable than a hostel.
And in true blogger form, when I can't figure out something, I turn to you, dear reader. What do you think? Do I backpack and stay in hostels? Do I pack a suitcase and stay in apartments? Do I take a backpack to an apartment? Or do I take one carry-on and figure the rest out when I get there?

Frig I suck at traveling and I haven't even left yet.


  1. The Not So Corner OfficeJanuary 10, 2011

    You go with your gut and do what makes you happy. And judging from your post above, I'd say your gut is telling you to pack a smaller, less heavy backpack in your suitcase and get an apartment, submerging yourself in your traveled environments.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Thoughts:

    The traveler vs. tourist semantics gave is really lame. Don't get sucked in.

    We took backpacks (mine was a deuter 45L, which I HIGHLY recommend) and I am eternally grateful that I had so few things. Made getting dressed easier and moving from city to city a piece of cake. We got used to it very quickly. I bought some clothes while we traveled, threw some away, shipped a lot of things home to my parents, etc.
    In our experience, in Europe in particular, backpacking was rough. We aren't 20 years old, and we enjoy more adult experiences: nice dinners out, galleries... It was pretty hard wearing my backpack grubbies around the EU, and we didn't even go to some of the better-dressed countries, like Italy. We felt pretty under done in Spain.

    When we do this kind of travel again, we wouldn't be attempting to hit so many destination in one year, we'd likely try to rent an apartment and stay put in each location for a month or so, and then the issue of suitcase becomes more real.

    We had to walk through lots and lots of train terminals and airports where there aren't luggage cards. The backpacks made us very self-sufficient, but then again, don't kid yourself. You'll need an extra bag on top of the backpack to carry fragile/extremely important items like your document bag (if you're crossing borders), laptop, camera, etc. I had Jeremy to split the burden, but it would have been hard for me to carry the computer and camera alone.

  4. My comment was too long, so continued:
    You can stay in hostels with whatever luggage you have, and in fact, I recommend it — esp. for the first few nights. You get free internet almost always, there is a ton of hip and current travel info available, you can meet great other people, and they will help you find an apartment! Even if I could afford "nicer" digs, I would rather stay in a private room in a hostel if I'm a long-term traveler, than in a private room somewhere where everyone is in one day and out the next. Apartment sounds nice, but you'll need a place to connect with others.

    If you were going to Asia, I would say bring a carry on and figure it out there, but shopping in EU is pretty dear, and you'll want to spend the money on other things. Tough call. The key to me would be trying to reason out how long you'll be at each stop.

  5. I've done backpacks and suitcases and your friends are right - there are pros and cons to both. I definitely felt like I could slither through crowds a lot more easily with my backpack. But then there were the moments I felt like "Get this mother loving thing off of me immediately!" Rolling suitcases on cobblestone are a pain in the ass. And I don't remember if there were any turnstiles in Europe, but getting through them in NY with a suitcase is also a pain. The thing to consider is how much walking you'll actually have to do with your luggage. Hopefully just from a hotel/hostel to a train or taxi. If you think you'll be in-flux and wandering a lot, maybe the suitcase is better because it won't weigh you down. Or you could do a small backpack and a small suitcase - split the difference. :)

    As far as lodging goes...I'd vote for a step up from the hostel. We're in our 30s, we like having our own bathrooms, etc. etc. Maybe you could try to frequent cafes near hostels - thus putting yourself in spots where you might meet other travelers like yourself. I have a feeling that you won't have trouble meeting people, though. Just blast the Janice charm out into the universe and you'll be fine.

  6. Try the Osprey Meridian. It is a roller suitcase with a backpack option. It also has a detachable front pack that can be used as a carry-on.
    As to whether or not to stay in a hostel vs. apartment, I say to do both. Base it on the city that you're in and the amount of time/quality of stay you want in that city. Ask your friends for recommendations. I stayed in an amazing hostel in Florence, for example called the Academy Hostel.

  7. Regardless of the backpack or suitcase, chances are you'll be happier than me ;)


  8. Don't pack either. Just buy what you need from city to city. And take a computer bag. How light is that? And look at the conversations you'll start, "do you have luggage?" "No, I'm traveling light."

  9. Some great comments! Let's have an actual conversation about this sometime. But my initial response is (a) take a super-fun outing to REI and to a luggage store to explore your various options; (b) join Hostelling International so you have that option, but plan on small hotels (hostels have curfews, theft, and too many people talking about where they're going next and where they've been, as opposed to experiencing where they are; and (c) start thinking about -- gulp -- your vaccinations. xo

  10. No Brainer...
    You take a can up the cobblestone streets and ask the driver to carry your bag to the apartment you have just rented with your view of the Eiffel tower.
    You leave your laptop in your new apartment where it won't be smashed by foreigners from all over the world.
    You put yourself out there by immersing yourself in your new local community,,,and if all else fails you meet people the old fashioned way...through the internet. There has to be a site that hooks up travellers from all parts of the globe.
    I don;t back pack,,, so wherever you are n July or August, it better be with some luxury because that is the only time I have to come and be alone with you in another part of the planet! I will give you lots of alone time, demand little from you, and enjoy discovering the cities with you when you have the urge.



  11. Everyone is off-base on this one. The solution is simple: you need a Sherpa.

  12. can = cab. I should have spell checked!

  13. I know this is old, but if you can't carry your things on your back for several hours, you are *carrying too much*.
    Lighten up!
    Packing into a backpack, then walking around with it, is a fantastic exercise packing light. If you then put it in a suitcase? No problem. Wouldn't it be better to come back from Paris with things you found there, rather being chained down in Europe with a bunch of non-essentials you dragged half-way across the world?
    A backpack does mean freedom. I've seen far more tourist stuck somewhere, struggling with suitcases and frustration.
    Backpackers tend to be younger, the *want* to hit everywhere, fast-fast-fast! They have given themselves the flexibility to do so.
    The best move, of course, is to give yourself that flexibility, then go as slow as you want. :)
    If you get invited to a wedding, a picnic, a daytrip, or roadtrip some other lovely opportunity in France?
    All you have to do is grab your backpack, and rest assured that there *will* be cheap hostels where ever you end up, should they be needed.


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