Pick The Best Bag For Your Travels With These Tips From Rick Steves

Choosing the right type of luggage is a crucial part of planning for a vacation. This is particularly true when your trip involves several destinations. While your trusty trunk might work for a Caribbean resort, it could be a hindrance on a two-week trek around Europe or a city-hopping break in Japan. No one knows this better than Rick Steves, America's European travel expert.

Steves spends around four months per year traveling in Europe, doing research for his tours and guidebooks and discovering new places. He doesn't want to be weighed down by his luggage, and he doesn't want you to be either. Steves lists four types of bags that he would choose from: a carry-on-size rolling suitcase, a carry-on-size soft backpack, a carry-on-size backpack with wheels, or an internal frame backpack. Sadly, your gorgeous vintage leather suitcase that looks great in Instagram shots doesn't make the cut. But how do you choose from Rick's picks?

Size and space

Traveling with carry-on sized luggage is one of Rick Steves' top tips. Many long-haul airlines now charge for checked baggage if you're traveling on the cheapest tickets. Europe's budget carriers all charge for anything larger than a personal item. The bigger your luggage, the more you pay. So, to save money when hopping between cities, travel with a carry-on. According to Steves, internal frame backpacks don't tend to be carry-on size, which might count them out.

Always check the dimensions allowed for each airline you're flying with before you buy a bag. European airlines can have smaller allowances than US ones. Another advantage to traveling with just a carry-on is that you don't need to waste time checking and then collecting your bag, and you don't need to worry about it going astray. The BBC writes that 5.7 million pieces of luggage were "mishandled" in the first half of 2023 — don't let yours be one of them! 

We know what you might be thinking. How am I supposed to pack for a three-week trip in a carry-on bag? You'll be surprised how much you can fit in a carry-on with the right packing strategies. But it's important that you choose the most efficient option, space-wise. Steves loves soft backpacks the most for maximizing space and recommends looking for expandable zip-out pockets in any type of bag (hard-sided suitcases are out).

Keeping comfortable

Comfort is an essential factor in choosing your luggage. There are pros and cons to all of Rick Steves' recommendations. Firstly, consider whether you can carry any weight on your back for an extended period. It's not just about getting from your car to the airport. You'll need to line up for security, hop aboard public transport, and maybe walk to your accommodation from the train or bus station. If you have any back issues, experts recommend rolling suitcases with four wheels that turn 360 degrees. These put the least stress on your back.

If you don't experience back problems, consider a backpack, which leaves your hands free to take pictures, eat gelato and use a map (all at the same time, if you've got skills!) A soft pack or one with an internal frame are great options, but the rolling backpack is the most versatile, Steves writes. When it gets too heavy, you can drag it along, but you can pop it on your back to go up steps or traipse over Europe's cobbles.

What you really want to know is which bag Rick Steves travels with, right? Steves goes for a carry-on sized soft backpack, offering the most space while being light, practical and cheaper than other options. Rolling backpacks tend to be heavy, even before you fill them with stuff. Backpacks with an internal frame aren't usually carry-on-sized, and rolling suitcases tend to be heavier, more expensive, and have less capacity than a backpack.