Lugging Luggage, The Quandary: Backpacks, Suitcases, Duffle Bags and Broken Wheels

Posted on / by Alex Berger

Broken Luggage Wheel

While the question of what and how to pack comes up quite often, there’s another question that is equally significant: what to use to transport what you finally decide upon. My recent move to Copenhagen offered several fresh reminders and new insights into how to pick luggage and the risk of heavy inconvenience if you choose poorly.

While diehard backpackers are inclined to advocate vocally for (unsurprisingly) backpacks, others will only travel with duffel bags (some of which now come with built in wheels), or more conventional suitcases.  Advocates of backpacks like myself focus on their portability and their flexibility.  In a similar camp die-hard duffel-baggers swear by their wheeled or “rolling” duffel bags, often arguing that they offer the flexibility of a backpack with less weight and without the requirement that the bag always be carried.While not nearly as comfortable as a backpack, in a pinch the rolling duffel can usually be used like a make-shift backpack despite their unpadded straps.  The third class of luggage is the traditional suitcase with built in wheels.  These offer easier access to your clothing, a firmer outer shell, and of course wheels that make transporting your luggage across flat surfaces significantly less labor intensive.

Ultimately which type of bag you choose will depend on your age, your physical condition, the type of travel you prefer, and where you’re going.  A trip to New York? You’ll probably find a suitcase to be the best and easiest form of luggage.  Heading to Europe and expecting to have to walk with your luggage a bit?  A destination with a lot of sand or dirt streets? I’d suggest going with a backpack or duffel.

Broken Wheel

I was recently reminded just how important selecting the right type of luggage was.  When I moved from Scottsdale, Arizona to Copenhagen Denmark I had a lot of clothing and gear to re-locate.  I fit it into four bags.  Three were large suitcases, each with different types of wheels and the fourth was my standard travel backpack. While able to take the heavier weight, traveling with the suitcases quickly reminded me just how much I love my backpack and hate having to use conventional suitcases.

You’ll notice that this post has a series of photos of a broken suitcase wheel.  The main lesson learned was that when picking a suitcase, one of the most important things isn’t color, handle, or size. It’s actually the type of wheels it has. As strange as it is, this is something I’ve never heard discussed before.

My three suitcases had three different types of wheels.  One had 4 small spinning wheels located on the bottom of the suitcase horizontally.  The other had 4 larger spinning wheels located vertically on the bottom of the suitcase while the last had two large fixed wheels built into the bottom of the suitcase as it stood vertically.  Of these three suitcases the wheels on two of the three were partially or completely destroyed by the cobblestone streets I was pulling them across.  The combination of the small-medium size wheels and their ability to swivel actually made them less resilient and quickly led to them being bent and eventually broken as the uneven stones combined with the weight of the fully laden bags to slowly tear them apart.  In total I covered less than a mile with the bags in tow. Despite that limited distance it was enough to turn the wheels from helpful-aid, to obnoxious nightmare.

Good Luggage Wheels

The surprising winner? The large fixed wheels built into the base of the suitcase. While seemingly less mobile/versatile and resilient, by being fixed they were able to better traverse the cobblestones and survived relatively intact. They also tended to roll better (which was partially also a matter of size).

So, the takeaway?  Not all luggage is ideal for all situations.  I think it’s easy for us to slip into a set category.  I’m a “backpacker” or “suitcaser” etc. the reality is that there are ideal types of luggage for different travel styles and destinations.  In gearing up for a trip and preparing to pack our gear one question we should all ask ourselves is, “what’s the right bag for where I’m going?” and the following five questions:

  1. How much will I be walking with my luggage?
  2. What type of ground will I be covering with my luggage in tow (sand, pavement, cobblestones)?
  3. What are my luggage weight requirements?
  4. How many different destinations am I visiting (keep in mind more destinations = more flexible luggage is needed)?
  5. What type of luggage best fits my physical/health needs?

What’s your take?  Any bags you really strongly suggest? Have a luggage nightmare?  I’d love to hear your thoughts via a comment.

This post was made possibly in part due to the support of our partner – Travel Republic who are offering cheap holidays in October

Alex Berger

I am a travel blogger and photographer. I also am involved in academic research into the study abroad and backpacker communities.


  • wandering educators
    October 3, 2011

    what a good post – and i’d not even THOUGHT of cobblestones. i’d probably have taken a taxi, myself.

    • Alex Berger
      October 3, 2011

      Yeah, Taxi would have been nice and convenient! Was more of a metro/nearly separated wrist long haul unfortunately! Much cheaper that way =p

  • Jade
    October 5, 2011

    I’ve never lost a wheel- but straps always break off! Maybe i’m packing too much, but those are always the first things to go!

  • Jack Norell
    October 29, 2011

    I’ve found the best wheels to be from large-diameter inline skates, I mean, the same type. Ideally placed on the ‘side’ of a suitcase opposite the handle.

    Those tiny swivelling things I see on Japanese tourists’ upright suitcases always looked like a good idea on the glass-smooth airport floor… and that was as far as they should be used.

    Your post just proved that!

    • Alex Berger
      October 29, 2011

      Thanks Jack! Yep, those are definitely the ones that work best! Really the only option in my opinion if you’re going to go with a suitcase!

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  • Mollie
    January 7, 2017

    I recently moved to Copenhagen and had the same experience…the little swivel wheels on my big suitcase fell apart on the bumpy sidewalks. What did you do with the suitcases with broken wheels? Did you find a repair shop? I wonder if I could donate them somewhere.

    • Alex Berger
      January 7, 2017

      Hi Mollie! Welcome to town! The suit cases that I had were second hand, in this case, so I’ve either trashed them, or use them for general storage like a freight box. Unfortunately, unless it’s a relatively new/expensive one, wheels can be a bit hard and expensive to replace.


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