Duffel vs. Suitcase

Duffel or Suitcase: How To Choose For Your Next Trip

Different travelers have different needs. Different destinations have different challenges. In as much as we would like to have a one-size-fits-all solution, every experience is different and would need to be complemented with the right tools and accessories. One big consideration is and always will be the kind of luggage you will bring. It essentially depends on personal preferences and comfort, but sometimes it's better to have one kind than another. Here, we explore a big debate when going on a trip - is it better to carry around a duffel, or roll a suitcase down the streets?

Carrying a duffel is convenient and you can pack more stuff in it, but it's only comfortable for a few minutes before it weighs you down. Rolling around a suitcase doesn't put much burden on you until you try to pull your luggage through cobblestones and make a racket with all the noise. Then there are some destinations that are great for any type of luggage.

Before we go into the nitty gritty ​of what your next purchase should be, here are some general tips if your destinations are as varied as your preferences.

General Tips: Duffel vs Suitcase​

  • Transportation: If you'll be riding cars and chauffeured everywhere, then a suitcase won't be a problem. But if you'll be getting on and off buses, trains, boats, and bikes, then a duffel will be more convenient.
  • Infrastructure: Pavements and smooth floors are perfect for suitcases. Otherwise, carry a duffel over dirt, cobblestone, brick, and up buildings with no elevators.
  • Itinerary: If you have a place to keep all your things, it doesn't matter what luggage you bring. But if you'll be moving around a lot, then consider how tired you'll be carrying your luggage around.
  • Personal considerations: Bad back, spinal injury, or tense muscles? Probably rule the duffel out.

Comparing The Important Stuff

Security

In general, duffel bags are more vulnerable to theft than suitcases. Duffel bag materials are easier to slice open than a hardcase suitcase, for example.

They also have external pockets which can bring two problems - items inside it can be easily stolen, or contraband can be easily slipped inside.

There are several ways around this, of course. Some duffel bags have lockable zips where they overlap and have a hole/eyelet for an actual luggage lock. If you can't find a lock, then you can simply thread a cable tie through the zips to make sure they close as tightly as possible. At least for the plane journey.

Note: Find the best locks for your luggage reviewed here.

Suitcases, on the other hand, are always built to accommodate a lock whether it's built-in or an actual padlock. Some suitcases are also designed to close with a latch, which will be harder to break into.​ And these days, most suitcases come with a TSA approved lock too. So, there are no worries about having your lock cut while you are traveling and having to find another for your return journey (that happened to me on a flight from Frankfurt to Denver, and I had to settle for not locking my bag on the way back - not a great idea!).

Capacity

Duffel bags come in all shapes and sizes, from over-nighters to carry-ons to cargo. It also doesn't have a frame, which means it can accommodate more irregular types of items such as tennis rackets or dive equipment. Duffel bags are roomy and flexible, so you are able to pack a lot more things in there than a regular suitcase. There are also more organizational options in terms of more side and inner pockets for you to store your stuff in.

While this sounds tempting, consider how much walking around you will do. You may be able to cram more stuff in your duffel, but if it gets too heavy for you to carry then it loses it's purpose. Soft duffel bags also lose their shape and flop around when they're not filled.​ So, if you don't aim on filling it...have a think about your options

Suitcases come in all shapes and sizes, but have a bit more restriction. They're not as flexible as duffel bags, that's for sure.

Some suitcases have expandable versions (like the Delseys or Samsonites), so you can have little bit more space by simply unzipping a zipper. However, because of their fixed shell, it's harder to slip suitcases under beds or into cramped areas if you're staying in shared spaces, so this can is definitely a big consideration.

Ease of Transport

This is usually the make or break for any luggage. How you will move your bag around will weigh heavily on which kind of bag you will bring to your travels.

A trip to Europe is exciting, but it also means a lot of uneven roads. Most of the dreamy destinations in France, Spain, or Switzerland ​are lined with cobblestone streets, wide expanses of grass, and narrow alleys filled with people. If you're renting an AirBnB in a quiet neighborhood, it is also highly likely that you'll be going up the stairs of a building with no elevator. While it's still possible to bring a suitcase here, the best option is to carry around a duffel bag where you can maneuver more easily. (Trust me, I have been to enough quaint Airbnbs in Italy in the back streets to know how long a walk over cobbles can be, and then the 3 flights of stairs after that - no concierges there!)

There are also versions of duffel bags now that you can convert to carry in different ways such as a backpack, a sling bag, or even as a duffel with rollers.

On smooth surfaces, suitcases are easy to use. Good suitcases can make it feel like you're carrying next to nothing. If your travel plans are predictable and you know exactly where you'll end up, a suitcase is probably the most convenient luggage for you to bring. Duffel bags can be painful on your shoulder after a few minutes, but you can pull/push around a suitcase for as long as you need to. When you encounter grass, sand, or stairs, however, then it's going to be a completely different story.​ That is where the duffel excels!

Durability

The durability of any luggage depends on how much beating it is going to endure during your travels.

A well-built hardcase can stand up to pretty much anything, but more moving parts mean more things to worry about. Wear and tear on the wheels can usually be a problem (at least over the long run). Sometimes, suitcases that close with a latch also come loose. This doesn't happen too often, however, so you'll most likely get a few good years out of your suitcase.

Duffel bags have less loose ends to look after, but it carries a lot more strain on the straps and handles. Look for waterproof materials and heavy stitching on the handles to ensure that you have a duffel bag for years to come.​

Which One Should You Buy?

Regardless of the pros and cons of each type of luggage, it really all boils down to what you like because that matters first. There are many things to consider when making a choice, but all things equal:

Casual travelers will find more use in duffel bags. They are less likely to stuff their bags to full capacity, so carrying a duffel around won't be too much of a pain. These travelers also tend to have a less defined itinerary, so ending up at a location with less than smooth roads and bus travel won't be too much of a problem because you have carrying options.

For more formal travelers or refined travelers, suitcases would be the best option. There's no arguing about the ease of carrying stuff around in a suitcase simply because very minimal weight is placed on the traveler. If all you'll need to walk through are airporta before you leave your luggage at the hotel, then you might as well bring along a suitcase and as many items as you can fit in it.

The best of both worlds

Still not sure which one to choose? Fear not! ​

With the versatility of luggage nowadays, many manufacturers have tried to eliminate as many cons as possible by combining duffel bags and suitcases.

Duffel roller bags are a big thing right now, and they come in all shapes, sizes, materials, and prices. Duffel roller bags are narrower than a normal suitcase, have more structure than a normal duffel bag, and can be lifted as a duffel or rolled as a suitcase. They have their own pros and cons, but are the perfect option for those who either have no idea what kind of travel they will be doing, or someone who really just has a very diverse itinerary.​

About the Author Roger Timbrook

Roger is a little obsessed with travel. He has been to over 40 countries, broken 3 suitcases and owned over 10 backpacks in 12 months. What he doesn't know about travel, ain't worth knowing!

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