Hardside vs Softside Luggage
Last Updated: August 23, 2021

Hardside vs Softside Luggage: The Case For Two Types Of Suitcase

When you enter the store looking for new luggage, the first thing that you’ll be asked is: do you want hardside or softside luggage?

If you’ve done many travels, you will most likely already have a preference for one over the other.

Truth is, there are so many nuances with each type that it all boils down to simply what you like.

But if you’re in the market for your very own first piece of luggage, here are some factors that can help you decide.

Hardside Luggage

American Tourister Hardside Luggage Set

American Tourister Stratum XLT Expandable Hardside Luggage with Spinner Wheels, Jet Black, 3-Piece Set (20/24/28)
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Delsey Helium Aero Spinner Hardside

DELSEY Paris Helium Aero Hardside Expandable Luggage with Spinner Wheels, Blue Cobalt, Checked-Large 29 Inch
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Samsonite Winfield 2 Hardside 28

Samsonite Winfield 2 Hardside Luggage with Spinner Wheels, Charcoal, Checked-Large 28-Inch
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Protection

Luggage will always be filled with something breakable or expensive. The upside of hardside luggage is its rigid frame. This means that it’s more difficult to squeeze and press into the luggage because of the hard shell, protecting valuables inside. A common concern for hardside luggage is the fear of breaking or cracking the shell.

But the good news is: with new technology and materials, it’s almost impossible to break the exterior shell through the airport and regular travels.

Another big plus is weather resistance. Most cases are not completely waterproof because of the zippers and other small openings.  But with hardside luggage, your belongings will be sufficiently protected from rain and moisture.

The same goes when it comes to cleaning your luggage. Hardside materials are more often than not easy to clean – simple by wiping the surface. Softside luggage, on the other hand, absorbs water and are more prone to retaining stains and smells.

The only downside is you might need to pay more for a really lightweight piece of luggage.

Security

It’s not all the time that strangers attempt to steal your stuff, but when they do, they’re less likely to cut through a hard shell. While both types of luggage will offer security features on the zippers or openings, there are still cases where slitting or simply cutting the bag open should be avoided.

This is almost impossible to do for hardside luggage, but quite simple to do for bags made of canvas or nylon.

Colors

While both softside and hardside luggage come in different colors and patterns, stains and wear and tear show more prominently with brightly colored softside luggage.

Hardside luggage, on the other hand, tends to come in a wide range of colors and designs. And, because the shells are usually made of polycarbonate, there are many more colors available from very bright to muted ones. Not to mention a range of patterns and textures!

Softside Luggage

Steve Madden Luggage 24

Steve Madden Designer Luggage Collection - Lightweight 24 Inch Expandable Softside Suitcase - Mid-size Rolling 4-Spinner Wheels Checked Bag (Harlo Gray)
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Delsey Luggage Montmartre+

Delsey Luggage Montmartre+ 25 Inch Expandable Softside Spinner Suitcase, Navy
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Travelpro Luggage Maxlite3

Travelpro Luggage Maxlite3 22 Inch Expandable Rollaboard (Merlot)
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Flexibility

With more softer and flexible materials, softside luggage are great for packing more than what you had planned for. It’s just far easier to stuff more things inside a softside luggage.

They also works better than a hardside if you need to pack irregularly shaped items. Hard shells won’t budge, but soft shells have a little bit more wiggle room to help you out.

This also comes in handy when it comes to stuffing your luggage into small spaces. It’s easier to manipulate something into overhead bins or luggage racks on trains and buses when it’s soft. Hardside luggage will only take up space and compete with other bags. Flexibility is not its forte!

Most softside luggage also has an expander option where you can unzip a portion of the bag (along its spine) to provide more space. This neat feature is essential for almost any traveler -unless you’ve absolutely mastered the art of packing and planning that is.

Organization

Another huge plus for softside luggage is the availability of external pockets. You can store things that will come in handy like jackets and toiletries by easily stuffing them in the bag if you don’t need them for carry-on. It’s also easier to dump things you only remembered to bring at the last minute.

For hardside luggage, you have no choice but to lay the bag down, open the main compartment and all (often) for just for one item.

Some hardside luggage has internal pockets, but it’s not very common.

Softside luggage would usually feature both external and internal pockets. It’s easier for you to separate small from large items and find what you need quickly.

Pro Tip: One great hardside 21″ carryon with external pockets is the Delsey Helium International

DELSEY Paris Helium Aero Hardside Expandable Luggage with Spinner Wheels, Blue Cobalt, Carry-On 19 Inch
5,791 Reviews
DELSEY Paris Helium Aero Hardside Expandable Luggage with Spinner Wheels, Blue Cobalt, Carry-On 19 Inch
  • Large easy access front compartment with an integrated padded sleeve for up to a 15.6 inch laptop and 2 zippered mesh pockets for computer accessories, toiletries, or any last minute items such as tickets, passport or books
  • Superior Maneuverability: The double spinner wheels assure exceptional maneuverability and keep ZERO weight on your arm.

Resilience

A big complaint for hardside luggage that put all the advantage on the softside’s court is the ability of the bag to absorb that typical airport abuse. While stains and dirt do show on softside luggage, it has the ability to be tossed and turned and squeezed and dragged but still, come out alive at baggage claim.

Hardside luggage will most likely come out scratched and bruised. If not broken.

For hardsides that have very little flexibility, dents are likely to occur. Dings and tears don’t usually make a difference to softside luggage, but can be irreparable for hardsides.

Or course, having said that, I have had a Delsey hardside for a few years now, and it has seen its fair share of travel (long haul, and short-haul). And so far, despite a few scratches, it is as good as new!

Related Post: Polycarbonate vs ABS Luggage Materials

Hard vs. Soft Luggage Comparison

There really is no one piece of luggage that will address all your needs. It’s just a matter of personal preference and what kind of traveler you are. Here’s a quick overview to help you decide and make that hard or soft luggage purchase a very happy one.

 

Hardside

Softside

Pros

  • Better protection for items inside the luggage
  • More effective in preventing theft
  • Easier to clean and comes in many colors
  • More flexible in terms of space allowance and item shape
  • Many organization options
  • Better at taking on trauma

Cons

  • Items are not easily accessible without opening the entire bag
  • Surface can be easily scratched or dented
  • Cannot be expanded
  • Absorbs water and smells
  • Can be cut through by ambitious thieves
  • Weaker protection for fragile items

Do Airlines Prefer Hard Or Soft Luggage?

Luggage

There are pros and cons to both types of luggage, but which ones do the airlines prefer? Honestly, airlines don’t care what type of luggage you are traveling with. Remember the guy who checked a single can of beer? You could carry your luggage in a garbage bag for all they care, as long as it’s under the weight limit and you pay for it.

It’s a different story if we’re talking about airline personnel. Most cabin crew members travel with softshell luggage because it offers better organizational capabilities. Consider Travelpro for a moment – the brand focuses on manufacturing luggage specifically for cabin crew, and most of their bags are softshell.

But here’s the thing – cabin crew workers usually travel with smaller bags because they’re only away for a few days at a time. They’re allowed to have checked bags as well, but there’s rarely a need for those if you’re gone just for a day or two.

While there are pros and cons to both types of luggage, it is generally better to go with a hardshell for checked bags. Although softshells are more flexible, hardshells have better impact resistance and they’re more likely to survive the tough love from baggage handlers. The materials and reinforcement matter – a $50 hardshell will probably break before a $300 softshell if the bag is made from cheap materials.

ABS suitcases have similar durability to softshells – the plastic is rigid and it will crack upon severe impact, whereas a softshell bag can absorb that blow. Polycarbonate, on the other hand, is a flexible type of plastic that bends upon impact. It’s one of the best and most expensive materials that luggage is made of, and it’s generally preferred by frequent travelers.

Polycarbonate suitcases are particularly great because they are flexible, and it takes a lot of force to make a crack in a polycarbonate shell. Aluminum suitcases are virtually indestructible and they’re generally the most secure option out there. Most aluminum suitcases have two TSA-friendly combination locks, so it’s almost impossible to break them open. They’re also the heaviest luggage in existence and you can forget about traveling light.  

A hardshell bag might lose a wheel, get scuffed, scratched, dented, and even cracked after a while, but it will still be able to contain the items inside. Softshell bags, on the other hand, can be in great condition even after 20 flights, and suffer catastrophic failure on the 21st – you don’t want to be that one person with a bag that comes out squished like a pancake on the luggage carousel.

It’s an entirely different story with carry-ons, though. It won’t have to go through the hands of a baggage handler, so you don’t necessarily need something ultra-durable to get your money’s worth. Go with any kind of luggage you want for a carry-on – anything from a simple backpack to an aluminum suitcase can work. Just make sure the dimensions check out and that’s it not too heavy.

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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