Laptop bags vs. backpacks… my opinion is slowly changing

In addition to a 22″ (or so) rollaboard, every road warrior has either a laptop bag or backpack. I’ve always been firmly on “team laptop,” with my primary laptop bag being a Tumi Alpha.

If I’m not checking my rollaboard, then this combo works perfectly, because as I shared in this post, I simply hang my laptop bag over my rollaboard.

It works great, since the laptop bag essentially counter balances the weight of the rollaboard when rolling it.

But the more I travel, the more I realize how much laptop bags suck whenever not used in conjunction with my rollaboard. Perhaps it’s false causation, though my left shoulder is starting to develop some issues compared to my right shoulder (at least that’s what my doctor, er, massage therapist in Thailand, told me), and I can’t help but think it has to do with all the years I’ve been carrying a laptop bag over my left shoulder. For what it’s worth my laptop bags are super heavy, but I think it has to do more with the “crooked” stance than anything else.

So I’ve actually started taking a backpack on some trips instead of a laptop bag. I’m not sure I actually have to explain the benefits of backpacks, as Dora the Explorer does a pretty good job of it here:

My change of heart is probably due to flying Alaska Airlines. They have an amazing 20 minute baggage guarantee, so checked bags always arrive at the carousel within 20 minutes of the door opening. Given that Alaska seems to start boarding their flights on average about 56 minutes before departure, I’ve found it’s more efficient to just check my bag and not have to get to the gate an hour before departure to secure overhead bin space. And when walking more than a few feet it’s always more comfortable to have a backpack than laptop bag hanging off your back.

So are you team laptop or team backpack?

Filed Under: Advice, Travel
  1. What do you usually carry in your bag? I’ve found that when I carry a backpack, I end up loading it with more stuff, defeating the point of switching bags in the first place.

  2. Team backpack! Better for your back/shoulders and if you have to lean down or bend it doesn’t shift or fall off your shoulder. Also, with a backpack it’s easier to navigate crowded terminals and it’s more hands free.

  3. I’m on team rolling laptop bag – it’s easier than the other two. Although I haven’t found the perfect one yet, it’s only a matter of time.

  4. You need to switch to the Alpha T-Pass backpack. I made the change a few months ago and am very happy with it

  5. Definitely the backpack, specifically for spreading the weight around and for the hands-free aspect.

  6. The problem does not seem to be your laptop bag, but all the stuff you are carrying in it. Cut that down, and then you can use a nice small laptop bag, and won’t look strange checking into a 5* hotel with a backpack. 🙂

  7. Laptop bag. If I only take my iPad then a Tom Bihn Ristreto which is kind of a very small backpack.

    Of course I have a closet full of bags and backpacks. I would probably use a backpack more often if I checked bags.

  8. Kensington makes a wonderful laptop saddlebag that can convert to a backpack. I’ve used the same one since 2005, including 3 years of daily use on a college campus. I’ve replaced one shoulder strap, and that’s it.
    I generally carry it as a laptop bag. With backpacks, it’s much easier to get stuff stolen, since you can’t see people behind you.

  9. I was a dedicated laptop case person for many years (it was a standing joke at a former employer that I carried enough stuff in my laptop case to get a 757 fixed up enough to MEL her out), and some of the cases I used ran to easily 20kg when filled up. I carried way more stuff than I probably needed to and like you, piggybacked it more often than not.

    Then in 2010 I took a 2 week vacation through Europe. With lots of sectors on Ryanair. So I had to keep myself within 10kg and within a size limit. I bought a decent quality backpack and carried that around. And since then, I’ve been hooked.

    Today, I’m a backpack person all the way and have not looked back. My dad has inherited my laptop cases and he likes to use them as portable filing cabinets. 🙂

  10. Laptop backpack! I used to carry around a company-given standard black laptop bag, but I did experience shoulder problems like you. I switched to a backpack and found it easier to carry, especially when travels require a lot of walking and use of public transit, like San Francisco or New York. I’m saving up money for a Tumi backpack. They are more stylish and professional looking than the one I currently have.

  11. Been using a backpack daily since the first day of Law School in 1975 currently with a NorthFace Surge w/ laptop padding. It sits on top of my Briggs & Reilly 21″ wheelie, with the straps wrapping around the wheelie handle to hold it both together. Always have one arm/hand free 🙂

  12. Team Rollaboard here.

    Even though I have free checked bags on a few airlines I don’t normally check luggage unless it’s a favor for a friend or family member traveling with me.

    There wasn’t as much of a problem finding space onboard until the airlines started charging separately for checked luggage.

    Everything would still work fine today if people didn’t bring more than they could easily carry and lift onboard.

    I travel light relative to most of my fellow Americans but it’s still a little too heavy to keep everything on my back for more than a short trip.

  13. Last year I switched from a rolling laptop bag (which stacked nicely on my 21″ B&R rollaboard) to a Swiss backpack and have never looked back. The main reason for my switch was the infuriating number of deplaning via mobile stairs (quite common at FRA, Mexico, and other non-US locations). It is difficult (and not very safe) to carry a bag in each hand down stairs, particularly in inclement weather. The backpack solves this problem nicely, leaving one arm free to grip the handrail.

    it also has many added benefits (fits nicer in UA 747 side bins, can be taken to beach, etc. plus it also balances well atop the B&R.

    I am kind of shocked that U check a bag, Lucky. Yes, AS is among the best at baggage delivery, but one of the first lessons you learn is never ever check a bag. I’ve seen too many instances where a traveler was greatly inconvenienced when the bag didnt arrive on time. Particularly traveling internationally when it may take more than a day and they dont always deliver. I never check a bag unless I am traveling with my children (and that will change when they get older) or flying Qantas which idiotically prohibits 21″ carryons.

  14. Backpack with another vote for the Tump Alpha T-Pass. Unfortunately the T-Pass part only works in the US but even with this its still great.
    Not all areas you walk around are level and you might need to lift even your rollaboard once in while (or quite often like using the Ferry to China in Hongkong just 2 days ago). It is nice to still have a hand free then.

  15. Have a High Sierra Elite backpack that I picked up at Costco for around $35. It has a TSA freindly pocket where I don’t have to remove my laptop in the US. Also, it has a strap where I can put it on the handle of my rollaboard. Great system.

  16. I am a four-wheel junkie. I walk through the airport with my left hand gently nudging the rollaboard, and my right hand holds only ID and cc.
    And my back loves me for it : )

  17. Messenger bag!

    Specifically the Patagonia MiniMass, blue in my case, grey/pink for Mrs. Vicente.

    It’s a smallish shoulder bag and is wonderfully limiting. I look for small/light items, and anything that won’t fit in the bag I probably don’t need it!

    I have done a couple of 2/3-day trips with JUST the contents of the messenger bag.

  18. I got rid of the laptop bag and am never going back. I try rolling suitcases and other things depending on the trip but just end up wishing I simplified to my backback.

  19. Backpack. I normally only have a backpack when I travel. The only change I ever make is the size of backpack. SAdly, I think I am needing a new one.

  20. Laptop bag. My clients equate backpacks with college students. (I also use a Tom Bihn.) no issues atop a four wheel Rimowa.

  21. I use an Eagle Creek laptop bag that i got from Magellan’s in Santa Monica, you can also purchase online, but whenever in LA, i like to browse that shop.

    In any event, it has a sleeve that fits over the rollerboard handle and also has the interior TSA sleeve for the laptop.

    I also usually just check my bag for trips longer than a weekend. I figure i lose more time waiting at the gate to secure space than just checking it and waiting a few minutes on the backend.

    The only problem is that here in HNL, one must have checked bags going to the U.S. scanned in that ridiculous agriculture machine that the operators don’t even seem to look at. Even if connecting through Guam, i have to do it, since Guam is a U.S. territory, although outside the U.S. customs zone.

  22. I decided to jump in here as an occupational therapist and addicted world traveler. I started to use a crossover type backpack which basically sits in the front. I just got finished a few months ago traveling for two months thru Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim and India. The beauty of this pack was that it was safer to have more of my valuables close at hand. Okay not quite as large as a backpack but I took a 2 night/3 day trip in the desert with this pack.

  23. What do you carry in your brief case these days (perhaps a new post)? I don’t see why you need a bag that large for a laptop, camera and some chargers essentially, but perhaps you carry more.

    I have an old Timbuk2 laptop messenger bag that I have had for a little over 5 years. It is holding up pretty well but it is starting to fray/look a little more aged. I was eyeing the B&R Verb bag ( but I decided it was just a little too oddly shaped. It is a vertical laptop bag, if you will, that can be converted to a backpack if desired.

  24. After reading the whole post, I can think about ‘Thailand’ and ‘massage therapist’ only. I have heard about their famous sandwich massages.

  25. I use a Timbuktu messenger bag that I can carrry behind my back, on side, or in front. I still have to avoid over filling it (I have poor discipline here). I don’t like carrying an computer bag, seems lile a hightened target for theft.

  26. @ AdamH — My laptop bag more or less doubles as a full size carry-on. In it I have my MacBook Air, Bose headphones, all my toiletries, a folder with all my travel documents and a notepad, a passport holder, a large amenity kit with all my cords, and I usually try to stuff amenity kits in there as I travel as well.

  27. I carry a messenger bag, but all I keep in it is a 13″ MacBook Air, a pad of paper, and a newspaper. Anything else (including the charging cable) goes in the carry on. Most true laptop bags are far bigger than I would need.

  28. Switched from laptop bag to over night laptop rolling carryon to backpack.
    Backpack for me.

  29. hey Lucky, long time reader, thanks for updating…this blog rocks.

    Quick question if you don’t mind.

    Racked up 120,000 miles with saphire preferred and milege explorer card. my anniversary has arrived so 96$ fee for both cards is about to appear.

    Should i diversify my miles and apply for british airways and a citi AA card? or maybe stick with united rewards and apply for a chase ink card ???

    thanks for any advice. keep up great work and thanks for updating us with your travels.

  30. I don’t bother with the Bose headphones anymore, they bother my ears after a while and it is just one more clunky thing i have to carry.

    I just use standard earbuds or the provided set for IFE and the disposable ear plugs for sleeping. Have been doing this for quite a while and don’t miss the Bose at all.

  31. Stay laptop bag, but get a smaller bag. I have the Tumi version of your bag that is about 1/3 as thick, and is not expandable. I’m in the software biz and carry two ultra books, one apple air, and one Lenovo yoga. With the chargers, I still have room for Beats, and some other small light stuff.

    bags are like bandwidth, the more you have the more you use.

    get a smaller bag 🙂

  32. I rarely travel so I am on neither team 🙂 but my husband who travels all the time is a huge fan of goruck laptop backpacks.

  33. The bag isn’t only for the airport. I’m not walking in to a presentation with he CIO of a bank with a backpack. So laptop bag it is.

  34. Neither. After 35 years of heavy domestic travel, first with a briefcase (remember them)then a laptop case with a shoulder strap, then a backpack, I have gone to a laptop case on rollers with a sleeve to slip over a carry on or over a suitcase.

  35. Switched to a tablet months ago for travel. Will soon switch from my big laptop bag to a small backpack.

    Big recommendation to everyone- put your luggage in a sealed bag and wash your clothes immediately upon getting home. Bedbugs!

  36. Go with the Briggs and Riley family of bags a 22 inch roller bag with a rolling briefcase that can be attached with included straps work perfectly. The only issue is rolling your laptop bag in a place with uneven roads. Even carrying both suitcase and briefcase up / down stairs is not an issue as their weight counter balances each other.

  37. Backpacks are good for the younger set, but I have a bad back, and if there is any weight in it, it is hard to maintain good posture (I need to do more situps). So laptop bag and roller for me.

    I’m always getting whacked by the backpack people’s backpack as they move through the plane. People don’t realize what their “turning radius” is with a back pack on.

  38. Before my first trip to Europe I bought a backpack from Rick Steves (who is local to me; I used to make his coffee at Starbucks when I worked there). I’ve used it for 18 years now and taken it all over Europe via train, to Mexico, to Jamaica and on dozens to trips w/in the US…and it still looks like new. I kind of wish it WOULD wear out because he’s made changes to his different styles over the year that make a lot of sense but I can’t justify the $$$ when the one I have is still perfectly good.

  39. Regarding Bose, the Shure in ear earbuds are much better sound fidelity (for the comparable price) and are 1/5 the size. The drawback is that there isn’t any noise reduction without music playing.

    However, you can sleep with them on, Bose are pretty uncomfortable if you are lying down on your side.

  40. Backpack is better from an ergo standpoint but you really should use both straps not just one shoulder or you will develop neck, back or shoulder problems.
    I trade off between a laptop bag and a backpack but I don’t use the messenger type shoulder strap.

  41. Team Backpack.

    I used to be team laptop bag when I first started my job but after running through enough airports to catch late connecting flights, the backpack is the way to go. The only downside is the backpack doesn’t look very professional. For those occasions where I had to pull out all the stops, I would switch to my nice laptop bag.

  42. Backpack. Haven’t carried a laptop bag for years. On a short ‘mileage run’ all I take is a backpack. Laptop, iPad, a couple of books and a change of clothes all fit very nicely.

  43. Switched to backpack 15+ years ago due to uneven shoulders leading to back issue. Never looked back, never had an issue since. Do yourself a favor and switch BEFORE it causes a bigger problem!

  44. I seem to be the only one convinced that carrying a backpack for long walks in the airport is NOT good for your back. I have a great swiss Wenger Laptop backpack. But I switched to a Rimowa 4-wheeler + leather laptop back a few years ago and did not regret it for a second. I never carry my laptop back, it always sits on the 4 wheeler. Sometimes I even take the 4 wheeler to a meeting with clients just to support the laptop back so I don’t have to carry it. There are escalators and elevators everywhere, so I only have to carry it when we have to use stairs to board/deboard a plane. I have the 4 wheeler in my right hand and the laptop bag in my left, after 1 minute I can just put both to the ground and again – never had any trouble with it. I wouldn’t mind taking a backpack to a client meeting. Backpacks just don’t make a suit look well… But the single main reason why I choose 4 wheeler + laptop bag is actually because IMHO it puts LESS strain on your back than a backpack.

  45. I carry a rolling backpack with laptop inside. It’s comfortable to wear on your back and sometimes to roll when it’s possible.
    Moreover it’s lighter than a laptop bag + you can stuff it with other things than a laptop.

  46. Patagonia MLC. You will have the best of both worlds. Shoulder strap, and back pack straps that tuck away when not required.

  47. I have been using laptop backpacks for many years now. Tumi and Tumi T-Tech have wheeled backpacks that have wheel covers when used as a backpack.

  48. Personally I always go the backpack route. I can put more in it, I can wear it on the back and free up one hand to hold onto railing if necessary or drape over my rolling bag.

    In my case I have no need for a laptop and can use the ipad for my needs. Obvious they aren’t great for some business needs.

  49. It depends.
    When carrying my cameras, I use a camera backpack that also has a slot for the laptop.
    When not carrying cameras, the laptop bag works well. You should switch shoulders every so often with the laptop bag. I usually have the strap long enough to switch between regular shoulder carry & bandolier style.

  50. For the ladies. I use a Baggallini Rolling Tote Bag in combination with an 18″roller bag. The Baggallini has a flat panel on the back that allows me to sit atop the roller bag securely. The small size of the roller bag allows it to fit under almost any (even the small planes) seat. I can usually also get the Baggallini under the seat as well, but if not, it will fit in even the small sized overhead bins. For some weekend trips I am able to fit everything in the Baggallini alone. I never ever check a bag. I have had too many no shows in the past and I have given up taking chances. The Baggallini has the added benefit of coming in a number of attractive colors and prints. Additionally, I use the Baggallini every day for my business. I have been using it for 3 years and it is holding up very well.

  51. I have both types – I bring a shoulder bag for work, backpack for personal. I’m a young professional and a back pack doesn’t help people take you seriously when you walk into a room.

    Love the crack about boarding 56 mins before departure – so true! They are the only airline you can show up at T-25 and regularly be admonished for being the last person on the plane.

  52. Not all backpacks are equal on the shoulders. Evan a small pack with an internal frame (and waist belt) will make a huge difference over one that rides against the back. My preference is for a Deuter.

  53. backpack all the way for me. Same thing with camera bags. Some people love shoulder/messenger bags but it puts way too much strain on my shoulder and neck. A good backpack with a waist belt is best since you can transfer some of the heft to your hips which are much better equipped to handle it.

  54. I hate backpacks because 99% of the people who wear them on their backs while walking down the aise of the plane are oblivious. They don’t give a damn when they turn around and bash you in the face when you are sitting in an aisle seat. No apology, no recognition of their rudeness what-so-ever.

  55. I use a Rick Steves backpack,since I like keeping my hands free. His luggage is light weight and wears like iron.

  56. Team backpack (was taught to put the weight on both shoulders rather than just one). I do have a shoulder-style bag with backpack-style straps along with the shoulder strap which I used on a trip last month, but I didn’t schlepp my laptop that trip.

  57. Team backpack.

    I started with an ATA-style briefcase years ago, and then moved to a laptop bag but that proved to be too small and inconvenient.

    I moved to the Thinkpad backpack and it was great. Big enough for my electronics as well as other items on the shorter trips. I used it so often I wore out two of them!

    I just bought the Tumi Alpha T-Pass back pack and love it. Can’t wait to use it when going through the security lines.

  58. Backpack. I just recently decided to try a rollie laptop bag, and it was so inconvenient during my commutes that I went back to the backpack. But then I picked up the North Face Surge 2, and it is a DREAM! It has a waist and chest clip taking much weight off of the shoulders and making the commute a breeze.

  59. I have both, usually backpack with laptop and clothes for short trips. Long trips it’s a laptop bag and checked in bag.

  60. Backpack all day. I wanted one that I could carry everyday for work and when I travel. Additionally I wanted it to be versatile enough to take hiking, out on the boat, etc. I went with The North Face Box Shot. Great backpack.

  61. Team Backpack 100%

    More key, as some other folks have mentioned, I’m also on Team Small Backpack. If you buy a small-ish sized one, designed to carry only what you need, it eliminates any temptations to carry WAY MORE than what you need, and the constant problems that come with that.

    I personally have a Kata Digital Rucksack, which has a laptop sleeve and DSLR space sectioned off in the bottom – if I’m carrying my big camera, it’s got room. If I’m not, the dividers velcro out or can be rearranged for other electronics.

    Full with my DSLR, a couple lenses, chargers, sunglasses, laptop, Kindle, and iPod, I have just enough room to shove in an amenity kit and go. Over half the weight stays in my hotel room if I’m out and about the city, and it still fits under the seat comfortably.

  62. Made the switch to a Logitech Backpack last year. It slides over my carry-on handle…absolutely love it

  63. I’m in tech and I rarely take a laptop with me, only a phone and iPod for entertainment. But in all cases (laptop or not) I use one backpack for all of my luggage needs and pack accordingly. I have a few – one I use for Spirit Airlines, another for non-Spirit carriers, and a packable backpack for wandering around a destination.

    Oh I forgot “Team Backpack”

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