It’s a tough decision to make… hard or soft luggage for international travel. We know that luggage often takes a battering going from one place to the next. We prey that it comes out the other end in one piece.
What do you go with…a hard or soft case? Well some of the arguments are quite obvious. A hard case will offer better protection to valuables. A soft case is more flexible when it comes to fitting into tight spaces.
Of course, there is more to it than that and we will cover those areas.
At the end of this post, you will have a better idea of what you should opt for. We look get some opinions from people who are definite about their choice of hard and soft luggage, we will look at the advantages and disadvantages of each and finally, the things that you need to consider when making your decision.
So, let’s hear from supporters on either side…
I asked for some of our readers to send me some reasons why they opt for one side or the other. Here are two opposing points of view that you may be able to relate too.
Ben Roberts – Hard side luggage fan
“I was a user of soft side luggage, for many years in fact. Not only were they cheaper back then but I never saw a reason to switch over. That changed a few years ago when I started to travel more internationally.
I started to buy more and more artifacts and souvenirs from my travels. I was always in fear of the trip home. Would they survive intact?
It was always a nervous case opening and my decision was made for me on one occasion, when a very expensive glass bowl was shattered to pieces.
After that incident, I purchased a hard case. I like the reassurance that the items within are protected by a hard shell. Of course, there are never any guarantees but the chances of things being protected increase significantly.
I still own soft cases and I still regularly use them on short internal trips. However, when I do travel internationally, I know that the hard case is a necessity to protect my souvenirs”.
Joe Leesing – Soft side luggage fan
“My first piece of luggage was a hand me down from my mother. It was a hard case and it served me well as most my travel was on the train system. When I started to fly, it was a different story.
The lack of flexibility always gave me issues if I wasn’t one of the first on the plane. There was little danger of getting my carry on into the overhead lockers if I wasn’t. The rigid case meant that it was often stored well away from my seat, something I always found inconvenient especially if I wanted to access my things.
Having seen other people with soft side luggage squeeze theirs into spaces I couldn’t, my decision was made. Sure, hard cases look cool but for carry on luggage they are not necessary as you are in control of them.
I own a couple of soft side cases now and the convenience is obvious, especially with all the storage pockets with easy access”.
Hard or soft luggage for international travel – A closer look at the advantages and disadvantages
When purchasing luggage, the first thing people are asked is whether they want hard or soft luggage.
People often have a preference based on experience but if they cast aside their preconceived preferences, they may actually suit another.
Let’s take a look at the advantage and disadvantages of hard and soft luggage.
Hard side luggage
Advantages of hard side luggage
- Better protection of goods inside your suitcase. The solid outer shell means that things will not get crushed
- Increased security because there is no zip to puncture. It also offers better protection as the outer shell cannot be slashed. There are also no outer pockets in which something could be planted
- Lightweight with strong construction
- Increased capacity. The inners are not lined with fabric which optimizes the space available.
- Greater water resistance
- Generally, more modern styling
Disadvantages of hard side luggage
- Difficult to transport in cars if you have more than two. Their lack of flexibility in shape means that it is difficult to fit occasionally
- They do not have an expander section so you are limited to the space internally
- No outer pockets so keeping things at hand is not possible without opening the case
- They take a lot of space when they open because of their center parting. This can be problematic in smaller hotel rooms
- You have to open the whole case to get something out unlike a soft case, where you can undo the zip a little
- They are also more difficult to store given their rigid nature
- They are more expensive than soft cases generally
- Increasingly they are offered as 4 wheel versions. Over rougher terrain, they are more difficult to handle if you need to pull them
- Easy to scratch the glossy finish on some cases
Soft side luggage
Advantages of soft side luggage
- They are more flexible when it comes to packing them into boots and cabins…depending how rigid they are
- More convenient when on the move. It is easy to add things into the side compartments without having to open the main case
- They take up less room when accessing as you can lean the lid against the wall
- You can access things inside the main compartment without opening the whole suitcase
- They often have expander sections that can give you much needed extra room
- Flexible fabric makes them easier to store
- Often, they are lighter than hard sided suitcases
Disadvantages of soft side luggage
- Less protection for your goods inside
- Fabric is less water resistant in comparison to hard cases
- More vulnerable to thieves who can slash the fabric to gain access. The zips are also vulnerable areas
- Fabric cases are not as robust as hard cases and are more prone to damage like tears, rips and fraying of the edges
- Some soft sided cases are quite flimsy so they will not stand up to rugged tests
- Designs can feel a little dated when compared to modern hard cases
Why international travel takes its toll on luggage
International travel can test a suitcase to the limits…quite literally. The bumps and knocks that they take sure does put a lot of stress on them.
Many of you will have experienced checking in pristine looking luggage only for it to come out the other end barely recognizable.
According to SITA, over 22 million items of luggage were mishandled in 2017…and that doesn’t include a host of things like some kinds of damage and theft.
The chances are that your suitcase will have to endure some rough treatment.
The treatment they suffer is often down to the process once your luggage is checked in. An airplane often has to be turned around in an hour. This means that the crew have to work fast. Baggage handlers will literally throw your luggage around to speed up the process. Hence why you see so many suitcases with missing wheels and dented corners.
Generally, it is accepted that soft shell luggage is more likely to endure brutal treatment.
The way they are stacked, the falls they take, the way they are unloaded…the damage adds up.
This is why you need to think about the robustness of luggage. There are good reasons why seasoned travelers keep duct tape in their luggage…they have to use it occasionally to patch up their luggage.
Factors to consider when buying luggage
Your looking for new luggage and you’re not quite sure where to start?
There are so many options out there that it can make the mind boggle. From, styling to materials, number of wheels to capacities…it can be quite daunting if you don’t really know what you need.
The reasons listed below may be a good starting point in your decision making.
- Accessing your luggage
- Durability & Robustness
Accessing your luggage
This is the stand out perk of soft luggage. A host of outside compartments and pockets can keep things at hand and make life a little easier for you. Whether it is somewhere to store your documents or somewhere to keep your Kleenex. Either way, having this option is convenient.
You also need to consider how wide you need to open the case to access it. For many hard cases, you need to open them all the way which means you need room to do that. Some hotel rooms may be small…which makes life difficult.
Soft sided cases have an advantage here. You can simply unzip a small section and slide your hand in to pull out what you need. If you do need to open it fully, the top section is essentially a lid so it can be rested against a wall.
Essentially, it is half the surface area required when compared against a hard side case.
Durability & Robustness
Some cases can be quite expensive and you want to be sure that you are getting value. You want your new piece of luggage to last especially when tested against the stresses of flying.
These days especially, you are travelling with gadgets such as iPad’s and laptops that can amount to serious money. You need to ensure they have the best protection.
Hard cases will do a better job of that given their rigid structure. They are also considered ‘more’ waterproof although none actually state they are fully waterproof.
Generally, they provide better protection against the elements too. They are more robust in this way. A soft shell case will struggle against wet weather, be it rain or snow. T
here is also a danger that it will end up smelling of damp…we all know what that smells like.
In these circumstances, a hard case option is better for you. They may scratch and dent a little over time but they will last longer than an abused soft sided case.
Hard cases offer less flexibility in terms of size. They may have a little ‘give’ in them especially polycarbonate versions, but that is not extended to fitting extra items in them. Sure, hard cases offer more protection but they don’t allow you to fit more in.
This is where the expandable sections of soft cases win. They allow you the flexibility of bringing souvenirs and mementos of your trip back with you.
Almost all suitcases now come with wheels. Soft sided suitcases normally have two wheels with the hard sided cases normally sporting four. There is very little exception to that rule.
You would automatically assume that the 4 wheeler are better. Over smooth surfaces like you find in airports, they handle much better, are easier to move and are more balanced. Over a rougher terrain…mostly outside the airport, they don’t perform as well.
The rougher terrain is where two wheels come into their own. You can simply pull them around a lot easier than you can with a four-wheel version.
This is a big issue with many travelers as once your luggage leaves your sight, it is vulnerable.
Historically, soft sided luggage has been very vulnerable as thieves will slash the sides to gain access. There is also an issue with the zippers. You can puncture the zip with a pen and access the contents.
Once you are done, you can simply zip it back up. Nobody will know that the contents have been interfered with until well after.
This is where hard cases offer better security. Most do not have zips so that vulnerable risk is removed. Most also come with TSA locks integrated so technically only TSA agents with the keys can access luggage for a check.
Summary – Soft sided luggage
Soft sided suitcases are generally more flexible and can be squeezed into tighter spaces. This can be very helpful when trying to squeeze into an overhead locker and also when you store them at home.
This flexibility comes from the material. Usually, there are three types of woven nylon that are used in the construction of soft sided luggage. They are Ripstop, Ballistic and Cordura.
Ripstop nylon is incredibly lightweight but is normally used on unstructured bags such as duffel bags. Ballistic nylon is increasingly more common. It is strong but not very abrasion resistant, especially over time with the rigors of travel. However, it does not weaken the strength of the fabric. Cordura is abrasion resistant but offers a more textured finish that is smooth and shiny.
When looking at these, keep an eye out for the denier count. This reflects the weight of the material…not the strength.
Generally, they are not as secure as hard sided luggage in terms of access and security. Increasingly though, you are seeing integrated TSA locks which is a welcome move.
Where soft shell luggage has the real advantage is accessibility and ease of use. The pockets make life a little easier and allow you to fit more things into it.
Summary – Hard sided luggage
Aside from the fact that they look modern and sleek, there are distinct advantages that hard shell luggage offers.
They are more secure, more robust and protect contents better than any soft sided suitcase.
There are various forms of hard shells available. ABS is the lightest of them all but the more premium suitcases are polycarbonate which is a much more durable material. The heaviest of them all is aluminum but is also the strongest.
In the vast majority of cases, they have a 50/50 opening like you see on Delsey and Samsonite’s. However, you can get lid opening designs…Victorinox being an example.
The split does allow you to better balance your luggage but it can be a pain to open especially if you are short on space. The lack of outer pockets may well be an inconvenience to some.
The downsides also include a lack of expansion room and the rigidity making them less ‘squeeze’ friendly.
There is no right or wrong answer to the question of hard or soft luggage for international travel. It always comes down to the needs of the individual and what they value.
The best thing you can do is to write down your needs and expectations and start on that basis.
I would always suggest buying a reputable brand with an excellent warranty, especially if you plan to travel frequently. Often the best warranties will repair your luggage for free. It is well worth paying a little premium for this.
Remember, it can be a false economy buying cheap luggage, they are cheap for good reason…poor materials and construction…backed by worthless warranties.
Let me know your thoughts on the matter…what do you prefer and why? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts.