What kind of luggage to take inter-railing in Europe
July 26, 2012 9:11 AM   Subscribe

In October we're going travelling around western Europe by train for several weeks and I need to buy some kind of luggage. I had thought that a ~35-45 litre backpack would be about right, sizewise and for portability. But I've heard from people with direct experience that pickpockets are a big problem in several of the places we're going and that makes backpacks a bad idea. So what kind of luggage should I use that will be reasonable to carry around but still secure given we're changing locations (and thus hotels) regularly.

I'm not interested in tips on how to travel light or what to pack. I know there are travellers who sell everything and take off with just a pair of clean underwear in their pocket but I'm not one of them, and it will be fairly cold while we're travelling too. Also, if it matters, we're planning on checking bags for the flights and have already paid for them, so I'm not asking for a small overnight or weekend bag because that is not appropriate for the trip we are taking (plus I have one already).

But I don't want to be dragging a heavy suitcase around with me either so some kind of portable luggage item seems necessary. Backpacks are designed for this kind of carrying but I don't see how I can carry one safely in a crowd so that it can't be stolen from. Pickpockets are a real issue but long train holidays are still popular, so I assume there's some solution or best practise that people use for carrying stuff in this situation. What would it be?

I don't currently own anything at all suitable so have to buy something regardless of what it is. I'll probably need to make my husband buy something too because he currently thinks he's going to take his 90 litre travel pack which is both way too big and super easy to unzip. We're good for sekrit bags for hiding our money in and that kind of thing, it's the big stuff that we need to sort out.

So what kind of luggage, bag, suitcase, pack, whatever - generally or specifically (noting that I live in Ireland and will only buy online from within Europe) - should I be buying for my inter-railing holiday round Europe? I'm specifically worried about the safety/non-stealability aspect since just finding a comfortable pack or rugged carry bag is pretty easy.
posted by shelleycat to Travel & Transportation (24 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
There are backpack things with wheels on the bottom that you can carry on your back or wheel around like a suitcase. And backpacks can often be locked simply by putting a little padlock through the zip(per)s. So it's not an option to be ruled out, necessarily.
posted by pipeski at 9:16 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yes - get a backpack lock or even, low-tech, some twisty ties to tie the zippers together. The more a thief has to futz with getting your bag open, the less likely they will even bother and the more likely that you will notice.

Another advantage of having a smaller pack is that you will be more likely to feel it if someone is trying to open it.

If you're sleeping on the train or whatever, use the pack as a pillow, or keep it close to your head, or loop your arm through the straps, again so that you will probably wake up if someone is messing with it.
posted by nakedmolerats at 9:26 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I got pick pocketed once when someone slashed open my bag with a knife.

I like pipeski's suggeston of a wheelie backpack. I was going to suggest a wheelie duffel bag.

I think the thing to plan for is not toting everything you own all over creation. Find a safe place to store your gear while you're out and about seeing the sites. When on trains, or in transit, check your bags.

Don't take anything valuable with you that you can't keep on your person, close to your body.

If you keep your underwear and sweaters in your duffel and your passport and money on your body, that's about as much precaution as one can take.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:28 AM on July 26, 2012

Personally, I think your first instinct was right - a backpack is so, so much better for running up and down flights of steps when you're dashing to catch a tight connection. I have always travelled with a backpack since stupidly taking a suitcase to Japan and having to really struggle with it on the Tokyo metro.

However, I don't keep my valuables in it - they either go in a money belt underneath my clothes, a very small daypack carried on my front or a handbag with a strap I can wear across my body. I've been to all kinds of pickpocket paradises (Prague! Rome!) with this arrangement and have never had a problem.

The other tip is to minimise the valuables you are taking. If someone walked off with my entire luggage I'd lose my camera but most of my photos are on other memory cards, which are stored along with my passport, money, credit card etc in a money belt. If they took my handbag too then I'd be annoyed at the loss of my purse (with the money for one day) and I'd have to reprint my insurance details and all my maps and tickets, but that's OK because electronic copies are sitting in my email account. Everything else is replaceable and not expensive. No laptop, no watch, no phone, no jewellery, no expensive clothes, nothing of sentimental value. I guess the only other thing I've taken that's been expensive is my sleeping bag. Also means I can use my backpack as a makeshift seat without worrying about what I am breaking.

You said you're not the minimalist kind of traveller - have you gone and looked at 35L bags? It's really not very big. My backpack is 65L and although it's normally not full, I don't like not being able to put my coat in my bag.

Since you're female, you might benefit from looking at backpacks designed for women or smaller people. Mine has an adjustable back length which makes it much more comfortable for me. I found backpacks with wheels and things like that weren't as comfortable when you wanted to walk for a couple of kilometers to get the 6am train before the buses start running.

Enjoy your trip!
posted by kadia_a at 9:30 AM on July 26, 2012

I say go with a backpack, without wheels, because wheels just add weight. I've done the kind of trip you're proposing as well as other parts of the world with an Eagle Creek travel backpack. As long as the zippers can be locked (you want them to have rings that align to hold a small lock) then you're fine. Be careful about what you put in external pockets, but otherwise if you lock your zippers you're ok. (You can get decent and much cheaper locks than these, I just linked to show the style)

When traveling on subways and stuff, I try to take my pack off and put it at my feet, which reduces someone's ability to get into my bag unnoticed. Plus you aren't hitting people when you turn around, which is a bonus.

If you are concerned about train travel and your entire bag walking off, then get yourself a cable lock like this. Or - go old-school and use some zip-ties to tie your bag to the rack. You're trying to prevent someone from just grabbing your bag and running off. Zip-ties offer resistance so they can't do that. Yes, they can cut them if they have a knife and the time to do so.

Also I just got one of these and I like it because it's multi-purpose.
posted by cabingirl at 9:35 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, and pro-tip: if you use zip ties in lieu of locks or cables, use a nail clipper to cut them. No need for scissors or a knife. However, remember to leave the nail clipper OUT if you zip-tie your bag shut!
posted by cabingirl at 9:36 AM on July 26, 2012

IMHO, wheels are worth the weight and space they take up as soon as you are tired and walking on fairly level ground. Also, it's so nice to be able to take off the backpack that has been making your back sweaty for three hours. I have a bag that has wheels, straps and three handles so it can be carried in just about any direction. It also has a zipper that expands the bag from carry on dimensions to a larger size so that you can take it on the plane, expand it to carry around food and water bottles and then zip it back up for the flight home. Check out TJ Maxx and Marshalls for good deals on luggage, but you may need to try a few times/locations as the selection is not very wide.
posted by soelo at 9:51 AM on July 26, 2012

I used keychain rings - split loops - to keep my zippers zipped when I didn't want to padlock them. It adds just enough difficulty to keep a pickpocketer from stealthily sliding them open.
posted by PussKillian at 9:53 AM on July 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

I have used PacSafe whole-bag mesh with success on an RTW trip (not a PacSafe bag, but rather a collapsible steel cable mesh that completely enveloped my backpack, such that it could be worn while enclosed or else locked to something sturdy). Any security can be defeated by the dedicated thief, but it's only a matter of being the harder of two targets...

As for backpacks, I am a recent convert to the Osprey Porter series, having previously used RedOxx (I still love it, but not for long trips) and Dana Design. I most recently used the Osprey on a multi-week multi-country Europe trip and found it eminently reasonable.
posted by aramaic at 9:59 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Rick Steve's bags are pretty well regarded if you want traditional luggage. But honestly, a backpack would be fine as long as you didn't keep valuables in the smaller outer pockets and/or used zip ties to keep them closed.
posted by ikaruga at 10:19 AM on July 26, 2012

My wife and I spent 5 weeks in Europe with the Osprey Porter 46. Its a great backpack and I highly recommend it.
posted by bajema at 10:24 AM on July 26, 2012

So it looks like a backpack is still a viable option as long as we take some precautions, which is awesome. I used to go tramping with both a 35 and 45 kg pack and I think that is about right (probably the larger size), with the caveat that my husband will carry a somewhat larger one to make room for all the cheese and mustard I plan on accumulating along the way.

I particularly like the idea of a whole mesh thing to cover it, because I'm probably over paranoid, but I imagine that will make my husband totally roll his eyes. But the triple lock linked by cabingirl above looks perfect and I'm totally going to track down something like that.

posted by shelleycat at 10:53 AM on July 26, 2012

Backpacks don't make any sense to me, unless you're actually going hiking or biking or something, where every ounce counts and comfort is extremely important. Or if you're going somewhere where roads and infrastructure is less developed and you'll be walking around on dirt roads, or through rough villages.

Traveling in much of Europe is much more about arriving at a train station, standing in line, getting a ticket, juggling documents at the ticket window, walking over to get a coffee, walking down the track, get on train, then get out at the destination and to a bus or taxi or walk a short distance to the hostel/hotel.

Backpacks are a royal PITA in those situations. If you're in line, you're either wearing them (looking like major tourists and kind of jostling others in line) or they're balanced awkwardly against your leg. You can't stack another bag on top of it, while using another arm for groceries or a handbag or umbrella. If one person needs to go do something, it's difficult for the other to handle two bags at once. Personally, I also like not sticking out by announcing I'm a backpacker to everyone within the immediate area. Dark jeans or black pants, and semi-decent luggage makes you look more like a local than an out and out foreign tourist, which in my experience has meant a dramatic decrease in people trying to hassle us or pick our pockets.

Anyway - it depends on the type of travel and location. For regular travel in most of Europe, I'd definitely bring a rolling suitcase, or more likely my Eagle Creek which has serviceable backpack straps and wheels and an extendable handle. I wouldn't go hiking with it, but it's perfect for the rare occasion when a rolly bag isn't useful.
posted by barnone at 11:35 AM on July 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

My wife and I have taken many multi-week trips to Europe using two of these. We swear by them. They fit in most overhead rack on the train when most "normal" suitcases don't

I realize a non-wheely suitcase is pretty much an anomaly these days, but damn those things are annoying.
posted by humboldt32 at 11:57 AM on July 26, 2012

barnone: this is obviously a huge YMMV, but hauling a suitcase behind me for any length of time messes up my shoulder. Plus the hassle of going up and down stairs with a suitcase, ugh. I'd rather carry the weight on my back. Of course, I also tend to dump my pack in a baggage locker or in a hotel room as soon as possible so I only have it when I am actively traveling to a new location.
posted by cabingirl at 12:11 PM on July 26, 2012

If you're traveling in cold weather, make sure you take into account the bulk of your coat/jacket, in terms of both fit and space. Also, if you're in a crowded place and need to stand still for a while to study a map, try to stand with your back to a wall so it's not exposed while you're distracted. Select a pack with very few outer pockets, especially those that bulge out (which are easier to open without making the mark aware).

IMO, backpacks > suitcases because it's so much better to have two hands free at all times. Plus, cobblestones UGH. I always travel with a backpack that I bought for ultralight hiking; it only has one massive pocket that's really unwieldy for a pickpocket to open. In addition, I always walk around with a purse (a shoulder bag with a thick strap) so it's obvious that my backpack doesn't contain any valuables.
posted by acidic at 12:24 PM on July 26, 2012

Those mesh safes are a bit heavy, so you might be better off with a cable lock, and the hope that they don't just slash open your bag. I've had my bag stolen from my hotel room, and I'm still not really willing to lug around a mesh safe. I do still keep my zippers locked. I like Eagle Creek bags, and I think they all have a way of securely locking the bag shut.

Carrying a smaller bag has the advantage of it always being in your sight. If you've got a big bag that doesn't fit in the overheads on the train, it might have to be located elsewhere in the train car, whereas a smaller bag will be just above or below you.
posted by backwards guitar at 12:40 PM on July 26, 2012

I would recommend One Bag. Disclaimer: I own and adore the main bag they (non-Pepsi Blue) recommend.
posted by digitalprimate at 1:40 PM on July 26, 2012

I haven't done the multi-country Euro trip thing, but I have traveled in places where pickpocketing is a concern. A much worse concern than in Europe, even.

By and large, your luggage stays at your hotel. Aside from a few moments in the train station, you should not need to worry about your luggage being pickpocketed. Just be vigilant in the station and you'll be fine on that score.

You should also be careful on trains overnight, though this will depend more on the class of travel. If you're doing this on poky local trains in the cheapest possible seats, you will have to be careful about your bags while you sleep. If you're getting a berth or traveling on the super fast luxurious trains, it's going to be less of a big deal.

In general, when I travel with a pack I try not to keep anything valuable in it at all. If someone is dead set on stealing my dirty socks, they're welcome to it. The valuables are in either my day bag which I can have more control over moment to moment, or they're in a money belt (an especially good idea on potentially dodgy overnight trains and on traveling legs in general). Or best of all, left at home.
posted by Sara C. at 8:05 PM on July 26, 2012

Also, if you're going to be traveling so often that you'll be getting off a train, sightseeing, and then boarding another train a few hours later (which I don't recommend doing too often, though YMMV), look out for a Left Luggage Room rather than shlepping your bag all over town while you sight-see.
posted by Sara C. at 8:13 PM on July 26, 2012

barnone: this is obviously a huge YMMV, but hauling a suitcase behind me for any length of time messes up my shoulder.

Me too actually, which I had forgotten. Plus we'll regularly be arriving in the morning but unable to check into our hotel in the afternoon or checking out many hours before the train leaves. We're going to make use of luggage lockers and left luggage facilities but that still entails lugging stuff around crowded train stations (which are often the places I've been warned most about with pickpockets), plus the getting to and from hotels without spending a fortune on taxis thing.

We've both had recent trips which involved dragging a suitcase around behind us so, after some discussion last night, we've decided that wheels are out.
posted by shelleycat at 12:17 AM on July 27, 2012

The Osprey Porter looks really great but it's not available in Europe, ug. Importing one would be super expensive thanks to international postage, VAT and the courier company's made up customs charges, so I really need something I can buy in person or online from within the EU.
posted by shelleycat at 1:04 AM on July 27, 2012

For situations where you arrive before check in time or have to check out long before your train, ask if the hotel will store your bags. I've never had trouble with this, and I never stay anywhere nice.

My recommendation for finding a pack is to go to a camping/outdoors store or wherever travel packs are sold near you, and try a bunch on.

Last time I went shopping for a pack, my criteria were:

~45 L capacity
Zip closures around the sides of the bag as opposed top loading and closed with a latch.
Under $200

I ended up with an Osprey Kestrel, which has three out of four of those: it's a top loader, which is definitely still my least favorite thing about it.
posted by Sara C. at 7:38 AM on July 27, 2012

It turns out that pack shopping in Ireland was a bust, nothing even remotely suitable available anywhere I could get to (to be fair, I live in a small city). But I went to visit my sister in Scotland recently and both pack shopping and outdoor shopping in general over there is awesome. So I came back with an Osprey Ariel for myself and just ordered an Aether for my husband. I ended up with a 65L pack because I could not find the 55L one available anywhere, but it's really adjustable so I'm just going to partially fill it then cinch it down (then try not to use it as an excuse for shopping).

We did look at a lot of different packs and bags, keeping in mind the really great advice from here, and the Osprey ones won hands down. I'm super impressed with the quality and looking forward to lugging them around the place. So thanks!
posted by shelleycat at 1:13 PM on September 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

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