Hard-shell suitcase vs soft-sided luggage: which should you use when travelling?

Extra mobility or more protection? Here’s what you need to know

Hard-sided luggage vs soft-sided luggage
(Image credit: Getty)

You’ve made the call. You’re off to see the world. Armed only with a suitcase and a … wait! Is your suitcase hard-sided or soft-sided? You want to travel light and maximise your mobility, but there’s no point if your stuff gets ruined on the way. How do you choose between the two dominant styles?

Here are seven things to think about before making that all-important decision.

1. Weight

Soft-sided luggage weighs a lot less than hard-sided luggage. That's kind of the point of it in the first place. In fact, you can get some fine weight-saving soft-sided luggage designs that make a huge difference to your mobility. However, there’s a size issue to consider; if you’re buying a large piece of soft-sided luggage, the chances are you’re not going to be carrying it far anyway. Still, as well as being more easily lifted, its malleable edges means that soft-sided luggage is easier to fit into an overhead bin on the aircraft.

2. Protection

Do you know how airport baggage handlers deal with luggage? You'd be shocked if you went behind the scenes at an airport, but aside from your luggage being man-handled by staff, it gets blasted down conveyor belts, left in the rain and, finally, it often gets dropped from a height onto a luggage carousel. Is your soft-sided luggage up to all that? If you’re going to check it in, hard-luggage makes a lot more sense, particularly products with a tough polycarbonate shell. It’s also a lot more waterproof than soft-sided luggage, which can soak-up water and leave you with wet clothes (it happens).

(Image credit: Getty)

3. Mobility

Since it's lighter, and sometimes even has backpack straps, soft-sided luggage is always going to give you more mobility than hard-sided luggage, right? That's not always true, not since the invention of the wheeled suitcase. Hot on the heels of the two-wheeled, drag along model of yesteryear is the four-wheeled suitcase that’s almost always hard-sided and gives you the ability to drag it, push it along beside you, or even pirouette it on the spot if that’s your thing. If all your luggage is going to do is shuffle between airports and hotels, and at no point are you going to be lugging your belongings down busy city streets, hard-sided luggage with four wheels is the way to go if budget allows.

4. Expandability

You saw the world, and you purchased half of it. If you are the kind of traveller who likes to shop when they travel, hard-sided luggage can be a bit of a hard sell. After all, the storage capacity of hard-sided luggage is more or less fixed, and you're going to struggle to shove some shopping into it before a long flight. That's not true for soft-sided luggage, which often comes with expansion choices, usually in the form of a zip that unleashes a couple more inches of fabric to extend the depth of the bag. 

Both kinds of products often have compression straps, too, which allow you to get more into the bag that looks physically possible. Even if there are no expandable options, soft-sided luggage is made of fabric, and expands a lot more easily than hardshell moulded plastic, which has no give whatsoever.

5. Durability

Have you cracked the case? Hard-sided luggage is a lot more durable than soft-sided luggage. As well as being safer around airports, and able to cope with bumps, drops and its journey through baggage handling, hard-sided luggage lasts a lot longer. Not only is its shell more immune to water damage and general wear and tear, but hard-sided luggage doesn't get as grubby and dirty as soft-sided luggage can do. After all, there are fewer dirtier places in the world than airport baggage carousels, and although hard-sided luggage can and does show signs of use quite quickly, it’s not unknown for soft-sided luggage to turn up on the carousel with stains or rips. 

It might not seem like a big deal, but there's nothing worse than putting a dirty case onto a clean hotel bed; while hard-sided luggage can be wiped down, that's not true for soft-sided luggage.

(Image credit: Getty)

6. Accessibility

Although hard-sided luggage is a much better option for protecting things like laptops, cameras, tablets and other electronics from the rigours of travel, it does have one massive downside, and that's accessibility. If you like to access your electronics frequently during a journey, know that soft-sided luggage very often has pockets, laptop sleeves and built-in sunglass cases accessible from the outside of the bag. This only applies to people who are travelling without checking in their luggage; you should never send valuable electronics into the hold of an aircraft.

7. Style

Surely hard-sided luggage is brighter and more colourful than soft-sided bags and backpacks? That’s probably true if you think uniform plastic looks good, but if you’re choosing luggage on how it looks, you’re doing it all wrong. Luggage is the ultimate travel tool, and if you choose wisely, it can be with you for many years and countless memorable trips, so don’t go just on looks. 

That’s a few things to think about, though the ultimate decision about whether you choose soft-sided luggage or hard-sided luggage will come down to you, your priorities, and your travel plans.

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Jamie Carter

Jamie is a freelance journalist, copywriter and author with 20 years' experience. He's written journalism for over 50 publications and websites and, when he's not writing, spending most of his time travelling – putting the latest travel tech through its paces.