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Hard or Soft Luggage – Which Suitcase is Better?

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So you’re looking for some new luggage and obviously want to get the right kind of bag. But before you take the deep dive into suitcase reviews, you should figure out what type of luggage you actually need. That way you’re not wasting time researching bags that won’t actually work well for the way you travel.

Here’s the million-dollar question:

Do you want hard or soft luggage?

I have used both the hard-side ‘shell’ luggage and the soft-side fabric type luggage, and spoiler alert I prefer the hard luggage, but you might not! Before you go thinking that hard-side luggage is the better of the two, check out the pros and cons of both, as many travellers actually prefer soft-side type suitcases for specific reasons.

Hard Luggage

PROS of Hard-Sided Luggage

• More Organizational Options

Hard-side luggage cases usually have more organizational features inside their clam-shells. Since the case opens up in the middle, both sides are commonly zippered off from each other, sometimes having built-in pockets, sleeves and pouches. 
These can be particularly helpful for the Type-A traveler, or someone who hasn't started using packing cubes yet. 

Unlike the one big cavernous hole in soft-side luggage, the organizational factor of the hard-side is great for managing what's inside.

Pros of hard side luggage - more organization

• Keeps Fragile Items More Secure

When you stick fragile things in a hard-sided suitcase, the exterior of the luggage ends up taking the beating, instead of the items inside. The case itself offers more structure and protection for anything packed away in it's interior. Items like laptops, breakable make-up palettes, leaky shampoo bottles and hidden bottles of liquor stand up better than in a soft suitcase. 

• Better For Security

Theft sucks, especially when traveling! 
Hard luggage typically offers a few more security features than a typical soft case. The hard shells don't have any outside pockets, which can be a drag, until it comes to theft. Outside zippered pockets are super vulnerable for thieves to stick their hands in. 

Hard cases also cannot be slashed or cut open the way a cloth bag can, giving them an extra layer of security.

• Trendier and Better Looking Designs

Let's face it, the newest and coolest bags being released are 95% hard-side type suitcases. They are the ones getting all the newest technology and gadgets, as well as super trendy design features.
Hard luggage can be monogramed, made into a smart suitcases with GPS and iPhone charging capabilities, and has the most chic designs with chrome-like paint jobs.

Most of the influencers you see on Insta are posing with their Away titanium hard-sided luggage sets, and that's because they are super trendy right now.

Away makes trendy titanium and rose gold luggage

• Easier to Clean

Imagine spilling a 9oz glass of red wine on light colored soft-sided luggage. Not like I've ever done that or anything.
A hard shell case is super easy to wipe clean in case of spills, mud, dirt or whatever else your travel day threw at you.

• You Can Lean On Them

Not every bag, or every traveler for that matter, is built the same – but for the more part, you can sit, lean or stack stuff on your hard luggage without worry. I've made the mistake of leaning on my soft luggage in the past and the result was not good. Nobody likes squished toiletries. 

• Better Suited For Bad Weather

Hauling around a hard-sided suitcase through the snow, rain or even puddles is a breeze. You just don't have to worry like you do with a super-absorbable cloth material bag. 
Most hard luggage is pretty water resistant and  preforms better in the elements.

pros of hard luggage - good in the rain

• No More Overweight Bag Charges

Unless you are packing some crazy heavy shoes, most hard-side suitcases will save you from encountering the dreaded ‘overweight baggage fees' at the airport. Since they are so structured, you can't really stuff extra items into them last minute, the shape just doesn't allow for over-packing. 

CONS of Hard-Sided Luggage

• Usually More Expensive

Yes, the hard style luggage is usually the trendier of the two, which also makes for a bigger price tag. Some of the stylish hard cases will run you a lot more than a soft-side case of the same dimensions. Be prepared to increase your luggage budget when looking for hard-sided bags.

• They're Not As Flexible

Stuffing, cramming, and manipulating the shape of your bag is not going to happen if it's a hard-sided case.
Imagine you're on a plane with your hard style carry-on, and the person next to you with a soft style carry-on. They will likely be able to cram it under the seat, or manipulate it to fit in an otherwise full bin. You won't be able to do the same.

Also, the room you are allotted inside the case is all you're going to get. A suitcase made out of fabric can have many extra things crammed inside, but a hard suitcase has a finite amount of room.

• Not ‘Hotel Luggage Rack' Friendly

Since you'll have to open up BOTH sides of the case simultaneously, that usually means the floor is the new home for your luggage. Handy luggage racks inside hotel rooms are still designed for cloth bags that simply have the lid open up to rest against the wall, something a hard case can't do.

This can make travel tricky if two or more people in the same room have a hard case. Floor space immediately becomes valuable and scarce real estate. 

hard-side suitcases dont fit into hotel luggage racks

• Middle Seam Can Crack

Hard style suitcases are usually designed with 50% of the weight being on each side. In order to open the bag at all, you'll be swinging 50% of the weight of the bag back and forth constantly, which could be 30+ pounds! That puts major strain on the middle seam, causing it to crack or weaken over time. 

My husband cracked his middle seam by trying to open his bag like it was a cloth bag. He would set it on the luggage rack and open up one half to rest it on the wall like a cloth lid. Since 50% of his stuff was in the section resting against the wall, it put pressure on the rest of the case. Over time, the middle seam cracked and the bag became useless!

Now he only opens his hard luggage when both sides can be support equally on a flat surface. 

• No Exterior Pockets

99% of hard-sided suitcases have NO exterior pockets, which can be a bummer on a busy travel day. 

It's really nice to have the option of easily stowing boarding passes, books, phones or other small things you want instant access to, but with hard luggage this convenience isn't possible. 

Hard luggage cons - no exterior pockets

• More Prone To Exterior Damages

Hard luggage can get some pretty nasty scrapes, scuffs and marks on them from the first use. It makes sense – they are thrown around like rag-dolls and have no ‘give'.

If you love having a pristine bag, only use hard for your carry-on and consider a darker colored soft-style suitcase for your checked bag.

Soft Luggage

PROS of Soft-Sided Luggage

• Cheaper and Lighter

Cheap and Light are the kinds of words that are music to my ears, especially when travelling. Soft style bags are usually cheaper AND lighter than a hard style case, which are two major benefits.

• They're What The Pros Use

Next time you're at the airport, take a look around at the kinds of bags the flight crew use. 9 times out of 10 they are using a simple black soft-style suitcase. Success leaves clues! Frequent flyers and professionals in the industry use these types of bags for a reason. 

Travel crew always uses soft luggage instead of hard-sided

• Scuffs and Stratches Aren't As Noticable

Many travellers have met their brand new hard-side luggage at the carousel with utter shock and horror as they realize how scuffed it got after just one flight. Fabric bags (especially dark coloured ones) can really hide the beatings they get from baggage handlers. 

If you like a cleaner looking bag for years to come, dark cloth is the right choice for you.

• Hotel Rooms Were Built With Them in Mind

Even though soft style luggage aren't the only players in the game, hotel rooms are still overwhelmingly designed with fabric bags in mind. The luggage racks/stands at the end of the bed or beside the desk are made to house these types of bags perfectly. Since the inside of a cloth bag is one big capsule, that area sits on the rack, while the empty lid can rest against the wall. 

Hard suitcase users always have a tough time trying to use hotel luggage stands and usually have to resort to keeping their bag on the floor.

• Because Pockets!

Who doesn't love pockets? As a female, whenever I find a cute outfit that also has pockets, I'm absolutely over the moon! 

Soft luggage is so dang handy because of the exterior pockets along the front and sometimes even side of the case. This makes a hectic travel day much easier when you can get in and out of your bag for smaller items without having to lay it out on the floor. 

pros of soft luggage

• They Are Expandable

If you have a hard time with packing as it is, a soft-sided bag might make your life a little easier. The expandable nature of the bag allows you to cram and stuff more items than you ever thought possible. I am still a huge advocate for travelling light but having the ability to make extra room, especially in a pinch, is a really nice feature. 

• More Flexible Than Hard

When you haven't stuffed your soft luggage to the brim, it can actually be crammed into much smaller spaces than you ever though possible. Unlike hard cases, material cases have so much extra flexibility, making them a more versatile choice all around. Soft luggage fits easier into the trunk of taxis, overhead bins, under the bed on a cruise, and tons of other places you'll encounter on your trip.

CONS of Soft-Sided Luggage

• Absorbs Smells, Spills and Stains

Unlike a hard case that can simply be wiped off with a cloth, fabric bags are prone to absorbing whatever's thrown at them.
This might not even happen of your own accord! Many people have recovered their soft baggage at the carousel with strange liquids from a neighbouring bag that had exploded booze, perfumes or toiletries. 

They are also not the best types of bags for hauling through snow, rain or high levels of humidity. 

soft luggage absorb stains

• Things Inside Can Break Easier

Some cloth suitcases can feel super rigid, but still leave your valuables inside vulnerable to cracking, breaking or getting smushed. It only takes someones else's heavy luggage on-top, a big fall, or a temperamental baggage handler to realize how easily things can break inside a soft-sided bag. 

• Not The Most Trendy

For some reason it seems like all the popular luggage brands have been putting all their focus, design work and latest technology into hard-side luggage. Soft luggage has certainly been getting the shaft!

That's not to say you still can't find some attractive and modern cloth luggage, but sometimes it can give a soft-sided bag owner some major FOMO.

• Easier For Thieves

Those amazing pockets I mentioned before as a pro also come with a con. Exterior pockets are insanely easy for thieves to stick their paws into, providing there is something in there of value. 

However, even pockets aside, soft luggage is easier to break into than hard. Many soft-style cases don't have locks on them, plus their cloth is easier to slash than a hard case is to break apart.
The main pocket can be opened just an inch or two with-out laying the entire suitcase flat on the floor, which also makes them an easier target. 

soft luggage is easier for thieves to steal from

• Encourages Over-Weight Bag Charges

Since you can stuff these bad boys to kingdom come, that usually means you have a higher chance of going over your allowed baggage weight for the flight. Extra bag charges can be insanely high, sometimes even more than the luggage itself!
If you have a tendency to mindlessly overpack, a hard side case instead of a soft might be a good way to combat that.

What I Prefer:

A mix of soft and hard luggage

I personally use a hard sided suitcase for my checked bag, and a small soft sided suitcase for my carry-on. This way I get the best of both worlds.

I also bought my carry-on to fit under the seats on most planes, trains and buses as well, so it’s super tiny but very versatile.

My Checked Bag =
Hard Luggage

samsonite stryde - why i love this hard side luggage

In Feb 2018 I bought the Samsonite Stryde Glider in the ‘Long Weekender' size. It's technically a 24″ bag because of it's short size, but it's so fat that it fits as much as a 29″ checked bag would normally fit.

Weight: 11.3 lbs.
Body Dimensions: 23.5″ x 21.0″ x 12.5″

best hard luggage - samsonite stryde

Why I love this particular hard-sided suitcase:

  • Because of it’s weird shorter shape, I usually CAN open it on luggage racks in hotel rooms! It's the only hard case I've found that can do this!
  • The grey color and the grooved texture really hide scuffs and scrapes
  • I love the internal organization. It's so smart and efficient. 

My Carry-On Bag =
Soft Luggage

samsonite soft carry-on

I bought this tiny little Samsonite Spinner carry-on bag because I was so sick of either using an over-sized purse that hurt my shoulder, or trying to carry-on a big clunky suitcase. This fits under the seat on most planes and it's just so easy and light to manage. It fits the basics!

Weight: 7.0 lbs.
Body Dimensions: 14.5″ x 13.5″ x 6.0″

small soft underseater carryon

Why I love this particular soft carry-on:

  • I am so glad it's not a hard case, because opening that up on a plane to get out a book or laptop is hell on Earth
  • It's so small and light that it's easy to whip around the airport or throw in and out of bins.
  • It's just big enough to hold my laptop, wallet, headphones, a book, some makeup and a change of clothes. Perfect! (Although I actually used it on a 4 day trip to Bangkok, which I should win an award for!)

What do you prefer? Hard or soft luggage? ↓

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