Choosing New Luggage – Hardside vs. Softside

If you’re thinking about new luggage — for yourself or perhaps a family member like a son or daughter heading to college or perhaps traveling to study abroad, you will quickly find there are many options and price points, but the most blairing decision is Soft Side or Hard Side. There are lots of choices among soft-sided luggage brands and styles far more than that of hard-sided bags but things are changing all the time.

Insites, Suggestions and a Comparison of Hard & Soft side Luggage.

Soft-sided bags make up the bulk of what we sell at Traveling Bags. They come in a wide variety of styles, from garment bags and wheeled backpacks to standard suitcase shapes in various sizes and massive rolling duffels.

Hard-sided luggage on the other hand is typically limited to the same old rectangular standard suitcase shape in both carry-on and checked-bag sizes. Some consumers are showing a growing interest in the hardside category, thanks in part to new materials that are touted as lightweight and strong. Even though they say lightweight, often in our experience with quality luggage, there is little to no difference in the weights of comparable sized hard & soft side luggage. 

Hard vs Soft Sided Luggage

Softside Luggage is made of fabrics that are usually woven nylon, such as cordura, ballistic, or ripstop. Cordura is more textured than ballistic, a little softer and more abrasion-resistant. Ballistic is the smoother and shinier of the two. Over time, ballistic can abrade, but that won’t compromise the fabric’s strength. Ripstop nylon is the very lightweight fabric commonly known as “parachute material,” often used in unstructured or semi-structured bags.

All three types of materials come in a variety of denier thread counts, which denote the weight (not the quality or strength) of the fabric. When it comes to ripstop nylon, a higher denier will be more likely to ensure that even a lightweight fabric will be heavy enough to hold your belongings.

One major plus for softside is that many come with exterior pockets, and they often have two or more interior compartments. The outside pockets are in my opinion a requirement for carry-on luggage.  This allows a lot of flexibility to store items such as documents, ID, phones & devices as well as snacks. All great to have easy access to whether going through security or sitting in a terminal waiting for departure. 

The downside, of course, is that a softside doesn’t offer as much protection as a hard-sided piece of luggage. It also is vulnerable to ripping if it’s not high-quality.

Today’s hard-shell or Hardside luggage pieces are made with high-tech plastics such as ABS and polycarbonate, which are lightweight and durable. ABS is the lightest, but polycarbonate is more durable. The most durable, but also the heaviest, is aluminum.  Be cautious of “combination plastics” as these are usually just different layers of plastics glued together. This doesn’t always increase strength and can actually be a cause for failure.

Hardside luggage most often features a 50/50-split Clam shell opening, allowing you to pack two sides equally and stabilize the contents with an interior strap or a middle divider. But the clamshell design requires double the surface space to spread it open. Most hard-sides are built this way, but there are some on the market that have a lid opening.  Most people don’t think of this but if you are like me and often live out of the suitcase the clamshell is a pain. Whereas the softside you just prop up the lid at the hotel.

You may want to buy hard-sided luggage if you’ll be packing breakable items. It may offer better security than soft-sided baggage because it can’t be ripped open as easily and usually has integrated locks.  There are in fact specialty luggage inserts and luggage manufacturers depending upon what you are transporting. Some suitcases can carry up to a case of wine ! 

Another great thing about hardside luggage is that it comes in many many vibrant colors, prints, and patterns.  This makes it easy to find in the sea of black bags, but note that they still get scratched and don’t maintain their pristine shiny look forever.

Aluminum luggage can be even more secure. It often has metal drawbolt latches instead of zippers. If you tend to overpack, a hard-sided piece will rein you in; there’s no chance of overstuffing it. For a carry-on, as long as you buy the right size, you’re guaranteed a no-bulge fit in your airline’s luggage sizer. Hard-sided luggage also stacks easily, making it ideal for cruise ships, where bags are stacked in the belly of the ship before departure.

Of course, it scuffs and scratches easily, too. It’s also rigid, so you can’t squeeze in extras if the need arises. You’ll need a fixed storage space, which can be a challenge for apartment and small-house dwellers.

My Recommendation

As for what to choose, I have sort of tipped my hand. For me, my carry-on must have the pockets and ease of access so only Softside for me, plus it is more overhead bin friendly.  But for checked luggage it is a personal preference. I could go either way. Stop in to Traveling Bags and see the difference and how they work. No matter what you choose, make sure to buy from a store that can explain to you the differences between the luggage and the warranty that comes with them.  Most big box stores offer luggage lines that carry well known names that are custom made and have different levels of quality and warranties. Be sure you are making an educated decision before you buy.


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