Hard vs Soft Luggage

The luggage industry has made wonderful improvements in manufacturing materials in the last few decades, allowing for excellent choices for travelers. And while the choice of hard vs soft luggage may seem like an easy one for some, there are several factors to consider. Whether your trip is for business or pleasure, the type of transportation you will be using, and what kind of extra or special items you will be taking or bringing home will all affect your choice.

Know What Your Luggage is Made of

There are advantages and disadvantages with both soft- and hard-case luggage. And the manufacturing materials for each span a wide range of durability and security options.

Hard-case Materials: The Cold, Hard Facts

There are several different plastics used in hard-shell luggage. Knowing at least some of these plastics is important to the safety of your personal items.

ABS is the most common low-end plastic. It’s inexpensive to produce, making it the choice for most economically-priced luggage. However, ABS is inflexible and fairly weak, making your chances for damaged luggage much greater.

On the other end of the spectrum, Polycarbonate is an excellent luggage material–nearly indestructible, lightweight and easy to form into many stylish designs. Aluminum is also a durable choice for hard-shell cases, but it is a bit heavy for children or the elderly.

For taking or bringing home breakable gifts or memorabilia or taking expensive items such as cameras or skiing equipment, a hard case may indeed be a good choice for the extra protection and security it provides.

Soft-case Materials: A Little Give and Take

Although hard-case luggage may offer more protection for certain items, soft-case luggage also has its advantages. Soft cases often fit better under seats or into overhead compartments for frequent flyers or short trips.

Most inexpensive soft luggage is made from polyester fabric, but that doesn’t mean it’s weak. Look for the Denier number, which denotes the strength of the fabric by the fiber used. Look for a bag with at least a 500D rating. 

Probably the most durable soft-case fabric is ballistic nylon. Ballistic nylon resists tears, stains, and abrasion. The only drawback is it comes in only a few colors, mostly dark, making style choices limited.

Keeping Your Valuables Secure

There are a number of precautions you can take to ensure your luggage is not vandalized or damaged, especially when using public transportation.

Theft Deterrents

Hard-shell cases may seem the obvious winners of the theft-deterrent category, but that’s not necessarily true. Quality materials make a big difference for any suitcase. Also, consider the type of closures used. Zippers can be a definite weak point. Chain zippers, like the ones found in your heavy jeans, are much more difficult to compromise. Avoid coil zippers, which may be pried open with items as ubiquitous as a key or pen. 

If you decide to add luggage straps or travel locks to your case, make sure they are TSA approved or airline officials may forcefully remove them to inspect your case. The same goes for zipperless cases with latching-lock systems. 

Weather and Spill Deterrents

You will want luggage that is as water-proof as possible in case you have to wade through adverse weather conditions. Ensure all zippers have covering flaps and inspect any inside seams for moisture-resistant reinforcement. This can also protect your clothing from the stains or smells resulting from broken containers such as perfume or alcohol.

Organizing Your Adventure

Your personal organizational needs are determining factors in the hard vs soft luggage debate. Here are some benefit and limitations of each type of case:

Hard Cases: Big Compartments, Little Access

A hard case is especially appealing when taking a trip requiring mainly clothing and personal items. Most have equal-sized sides (top and bottom) secured by either straps or zippered netting, many offering “double-sided” packing. It’s easy to stack clothing, shoes, and a toiletry bag within easy reach without them falling out when you open the case in a hotel or guest room. A note on hotel rooms; cases with lots of items packed in the top and bottom may need to be opened on a bed or the floor as standard hotel room luggage racks are not designed to accommodate a fully opened case.

Person packing shirt into open suitcase

The disadvantages of hard cases include a lack of external pockets for easy access and an inability to be flexible should you do some shopping during your trip. Also if a hard case incurs a dent, it is very difficult to fix it, where soft cases can bounce back slightly better.

Soft Cases: Easy Access, Greater Vulnerability

Soft suitcases often include convenient outside pockets for items such as tablets, phones, plane tickets, or other needed personal items. Smaller cases are ideal for carry-on with immediate access to important travel documents. And many larger soft cases are expandable as well as flexible for bringing home souvenirs and gifts.

The downside of soft luggage is an increased vulnerability for any fragile contents to be damaged in luggage compartments or when dropped during transport. 

Mobility: Wheels and Handles

If you have to do a bit of walking or if your bag is large and heavy, you will depend on wheels and handles to protect you from the stress and strain of transporting that weight.

Smooth Wheeling

Except for some small personal-item-bags, either hard or soft luggage will usually have wheels. Durable, multifunctioning travel wheels are especially important in transit from car to airport or from airport to taxi or over uneven terrains, such as cobblestones, to overnight accommodations. 

The most hard-wearing wheels are made of resilient polyurethane, with ball bearings for greater ease of movement. If you anticipate doing a bit of walking or maneuvering tight spaces with your suitcase, four wheels may be preferable to two. However, two-wheel options are generally recessed, lessening the possibility of them breaking off, and four-wheel or “spinner” cases are not designed to ever be pulled behind you.

Wheels connected with screws instead of rivets can be more easily repaired if necessary. Bottom-corner plastic bumpers are also a plus to protect both the wheels and cases.

Handling the Weight

Telescoping handles should pull out and retract smoothly and have no wriggling or rattling during use. Look for an ergonomic handle that will comfortably fit your hand and be long enough, or short enough, for easy pulling. Don’t forget to consider the quality of the handle you will use to lift luggage onto counters or into luggage racks. These handles should be able to easily support the weight of the bag as necessary and be comfortable in your hands.

Consider Your Options

Some important considerations when choosing your luggage include:

  • Length of your trip: A carry-on bag may be sufficient for a couple of days. But you’ll need a larger bag or combination of bags for a longer trip.
  • Type of transportation: Soft luggage is great for car or travel wheels trips. Hard luggage may be more appropriate for bus, train, or air travel across the country or internationally.
  • Purpose of the trip: A business trip may require carrying more electronic devices or important files. A secure hard-shell case for checking or an appropriate pocketed soft carry-on bag will be needed. A pleasure trip may require an expandable soft-side bag for carrying memorabilia purchases home. 

Summing It Up

When choosing hard vs soft luggage, high-quality materials for the highest security of the contents, along with ease of carrying and appropriate organizational qualities should all be considered. Then, once your bag is packed and you’re on your way, you can have the confidence that your choice of luggage will not be a worry.

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