Sometimes we need to hop our luggage up on our backs, but when we can we prefer to roll it around. So what's better?A dedicated wheeled backpack, or a backpacker's pack accompanied by a separate, foldable cart? We ran a full analysis of the options.
We've previously run comparisons on some top wheeled carry-on backpacks as well as full-sized rucksacks with wheels. We've also taken a careful look at the best portable, foldable luggage carts. But until now we had never pitted the luggage categories against each other. So here we go.
Spoiler: In general, we strongly favor the integration of wheeled backpacks for their durability, portability, and features (here's the complete guide to the wheeled carry-on backpacks we recommend). But for some, the flexibility of a collapsible luggage cart can be useful, and so here we detail its advantages too.
Advantages of Portable Luggage Carts
• Use with existing luggage: Useful if you have a beautiful piece of luggage that lacks wheels, and that you just can't bear to part with, but that you no longer want to heft around.
• Use with multiple bags: If you're travelling with a family or other small group and have several pieces of luggage, they can be combined and placed together on one of the sturdier luggage carts.
• Flexibility: Various luggage pieces can be swapped to use with the same cart.
• Status: Some people want to keep their backpacker status, or even their retro trunk-travelling status — but also have the convenience of wheels. They think they can keep this status if they're wheeling around their packs on a portable cart. It all seems a bit odd to us.
Price: Generally the best wheeled backpack options run $250-$400; the best similarly featured backpacker's backpack without wheels are often about $100 cheaper. Then the portable luggage cart will run you about $20-$40. (But do note that there are some cheaper wheeled backpacks out there that are suitable for less frequent travelers.)
Advantages of Wheeled Backpacks
Portability: You will save on both space and weight if the wheels are incorporated into the housing of of your luggage.
Durability: Luggage designers are better able to solve the durability vs. portability problem when building a frame and wheel system that is directly built into a piece of luggage. There are many more quality complaints from customers for the more portable luggage cart solutions.
Svelte, integrated design: The better-designed wheeled backpacks like the Eagle Creek Switchback International and the Osprey Meridian series are beautiful, coherent pieces and look and function much better than a bag strapped to a pair of wheels.
Features: There are a variety of full-featured wheeled bags out there with detachable daypacks; integrated hydration packs; full, comfortable backpacker hip and sternum straps; and more. We have yet to find extant backpacker features that are not also covered in one of the good wheeled backpack options.
A few more notes to consider about luggage carts:
If you're planning on using a backpack, duffel bag or rucksack with a luggage cart, note that many bags sag in places and will scrape along the floor in between or around the luggage cart's wheels. Even if you make this partially work, you'll add wear and tear to your bag.
If your plan is to have a carry-on that will never get gate-checked in small planes, the luggage cart plus tiny carry-on bag option is probably not going to save you. Sure, when they call on all wheeled carry-ons to get gate-checked, you can fold up your mini luggage cart and hide it in your bag. But if your bag is big enough to at all warrant wheels (and have space for a luggage cart), you're likely going to have to check it anyway. A better solution for keeping at least your most important stuff (laptop, etc) always right by your side is to have a carry-on with a detachable daypack like the Osprey Ozone Convertible 22".
An Integrated Cart/Bag Alternative: The EC Lync System
One alternative to consider is the EC Lync System from Eagle Creek, which has a detachable wheel system that you can use for trips where you want to roll, but just leave at home when you're happy to carry your bag as a backpack or need to fit strict airline weight requirements. The collapsed frame can be stored in in a small included sack. Eagle Creek tends to get excellent ratings from critics and travel bloggers and offers an excellent lifetime warranty that they have a history of following up on. There are a few differently sized models of the EC Lync pieces.
Roundup: Luggage Carts vs. Wheeled Backpacks
Opting for flexibility, or a cart to go with existing luggage? Check out our full coverage of top luggage carts.