Hard-shell vs. Softside Luggage: Which is Better For You?
Are hard or soft suitcases better? Deciding between softside and hard shell luggage doesn’t have to be complicated, but it should be about more than just looks. The best luggage for you is the suitcase or bag that best fits your needs. Here, we cover the top factors to compare when choosing hard or soft luggage.
Being informed helps you choose the best carry-on or checked suitcase, duffel, weekender, or garment bag when shopping for new luggage. Aside from the myriad features available, like interior organization, USB charging ports, and other built-in extras, you have color, size, style, and even shape to consider.
Maybe you’ve always carried a soft, fabric-style suitcase but like the sleek look of hardside luggage. Or perhaps you’ve been using a bag with a hard shell but want exterior pockets like most soft-side bags offer. Maybe you just don’t know what you want. We can help.
Below, we unpack the pros and cons of soft- vs hard-side luggage, along with some insider info you probably never thought to consider.
There is a perfect suitcase for you. You just need to know what to look for–and why.
Packing Space and Capacity
Can you fit more in a hard or soft suitcase? Hard-side luggage has the same packing space as soft-side luggage of similar size. Soft-side bags do have the advantage of zippered expansion options for extra space. Travelpro is one of the few manufacturers making both hard- and soft-sided luggage with zippered expansion options designed to increase the bag’s interior packing capacity when needed–a super-convenient feature when you bring home more than you left with.
Because softshell luggage has more give, a hard shell suitcase is usually the better choice for transporting fragile belongings, assuming you cushion breakable items as you pack them. Don’t forget to pick up some packing cubes if you want to maximize packing and organization.
Hard-side luggage is made with “split construction,” meaning the bag zips down the middle and opens into two main compartments, like a clamshell. The Maxlite® Air Large Check-In Hardside Spinner is an excellent example of a middle-opening hard-side case.
Middle-opening suitcases make packing and unpacking easier, as you don't have to dig into the suitcase from the top to find items. Middle opening is so popular it’s almost impossible to find hard-case luggage with a top opening.
Clamshell openings give hardshell carry-ons the same packing advantages as checked luggage. Travelpro® makes hard-sided carry-on luggage with a convenient exterior padded front pocket for electronics and small items. For items that you want to keep in close proximity when you travel, combine a hardshell carry-on with a convenient personal item, such as a slim backpack or tote.
Your luggage is something you depend on while away from home. Durability should be one of your top priorities, whether you’re buying hard or soft luggage, a large checked bag, or a compact carry-on.
Travelpro® luggage is known worldwide for its durability and is backed by reliability warranties. We stand behind every piece of luggage with our name on it and put our carry-on and checked bags through grueling quality assurance tests. No matter what type of suitcase you choose, you’ll have peace of mind that your Travelpro luggage will hold up through rigorous use.
You might be wondering, though: Does hard-shell luggage crack? Cracking and splitting are critical issues that plague poorly made hard-side suitcases and cause great inconvenience. Thankfully, Travelpro® has a long history of breathing durable suitcases – a legacy we endorse with warranties on all of our products. Our hard-side luggage with a lightweight, solid polycarbonate shell designed to flex on impact to prevent splitting and cracking. The strength and texture of suitcase shell materials also determines how well your luggage resists scuffs, scratches, and other cosmetic damage.
Traditionally, weight has been one of the major disadvantages of hard-shell luggage. Your suitcase’s weight counts towards an airline’s baggage weight restrictions, which in turn limits how much you pack. Thankfully, Travelpro® recognizes this issue and makes all our hard-side luggage from ultra-lightweight materials, unlike old-school suitcases typically made from heavy aluminum.
Cleaning and Maintenance
Hard-side luggage is generally easier to clean than soft-sided suitcases. Once you unpack the bag, wipe down the exterior with a damp cloth to remove dirt. Use a mild cleaning product, some water, and a soft cloth to remove scuffs and stains. For more information, check out How to Clean the Exterior of Your Suitcaseby Travelpro®.
Hardside: Pros and Cons
Advantages of Hardside Luggage
- Hard shell protects luggage contents
- Easy to clean
- Easy to pack
- Easy to stack
Disadvantages of Hard-Shell Luggage
- Can be heavy
- Low-quality suitcases are susceptible to cracking
- Not as much “give” as softshell luggage
Packing Space and Capacity
While hard-side and soft-shell bags have similar packing capacities based on size, soft-side luggage has a little more “give” on the sides, which can be helpful if the bag is extremely full. Consider a soft-sided suitcase with an expandable zipper if you tend to overpack.
Soft-sided luggage like the Platinum® Elite 21” Carry-On Spinner usually has exterior pockets for last-minute items and essentials you don’t want to carry in your backpack or tote–a favorite feature of new parents hauling already-overstuffed diaper bags. Front pockets are ideal for anything you wish to access while en route to your destination.
Softside Front-Open Luggage
Soft-side luggage usually opens to one main compartment that may have interior pockets, suitors, or other packing accessories. Softside luggage may allow you to pack a little more due to the flexible nature of the soft fabric. Front-open luggage allows you to access items packed at the top of the bag quickly when needed.
Soft-side suitcases have a reputation for being less durable than hard-side luggage, but this isn’t always true. Soft-sided bags can tear or rip if made from the wrong fabric but are very durable when made from high-quality materials. For built-in durability, look for luggage made from high-density fabric. Travelpro® soft-shell bags undergo rigorous fabric testing to produce durable, high-quality luggage.
Either hard- or soft-shell suitcases are water resistant if they have the right coating. Look for soft-side bags made with water-resistant DuraGuard® fabric to protect your belongings from rain and moisture. This coating helps make our ultra-tough, high-density fabrics resistant to water, stains, and abrasions. While water may get in through the zippers if your bag is submerged or caught in heavier downpours, your items will stay drier in a suitcase with the correct materials and coating.
Other important durability features that will help keep both hard and soft bags looking and performing well include corner guards, reinforced molding on high-wear points, and, for rolling bags, with well-designed, protective wheel housings. Look for reinforced stitching, resilient zippers that stay on track and stay closed, sturdy handles, and strong extension handles that don’t bend or buckle.
When empty, a soft-shell suitcase is usually lighter than a hard-shell case of similar size. This affects how much you can pack and still fall within your airline’s weight restrictions. Depending on the quality and materials used to make each bag, your choice of soft- or hard-shell luggage can mean a difference of several pounds of weight.
Softside: Pros and Cons
Advantages of Soft-Shell Luggage
- Slightly more packing room than hard-side bags
- Easy access to items packed at the top of the bag
- Exterior pockets are more common
Disadvantages of Soft-Side Luggage
- More maintenance than hard-shell bags
- Not as durable
FAQs about Hard and Soft Suitcases
Do Airlines Prefer Hard or Soft Suitcases?
While you can find some sources claiming airlines prefer hard suitcases over soft-side luggage, airlines don’t have a preference. Airlines are more concerned with the size and weight of checked and carry-on bags than with the bag’s construction.
Is Hard or Soft Luggage Better for Carry-On?
How you travel determines if hard or soft luggage is better for carry-on. Soft-side carry-ons may be easier to pack into a crowded overhead compartment, while hard case bags provide greater protection for fragile belongings. Soft-side bags are also more likely to have external pockets to easily access tablets, chargers, and other small items.
Should You Choose Hard or Soft Luggage for International Travel?
Whether you should choose hard or soft luggage for international travel depends, in part, on your destination. If you’re traveling to Europe for a shopping holiday, the extra packing room of a softshell suitcase may be necessary. If you’re planning an African safari where your luggage will bounce around in the back of a jeep as you explore dirt roads and remote campsites, hard-side bags will weather the environment better and provide more protection for your belongings.
Chose the Luggage That Meets Your Travel Needs
Ultimately, whether you choose hard-shell vs. soft-sided luggage depends on the way you travel and what you pack, combined with your tastes. Once you understand these factors, buy the best luggage that fits your budget and look for reliable warranties to protect your investment for the long haul. Happy Travels!