In this article, we’ll explain everything that you should know about different luggage materials – hardside as well as softside ones.
There are quite a few suitcase brands that sell “luxury” suitcases when in reality they’re just overpriced ones made from cheap materials. By learning the basics about different luggage materials, you’ll learn how to differentiate between well-made suitcases and overpriced ones.
Some of the data mentioned in this article is based on our research, where we compared 374 different suitcases.
Hardside Luggage Materials
Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS)
Short for Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene, ABS is a mix of three different materials. Although it’s widely used in other industries as well, it’s one of the most popular materials used for hardside suitcases, especially in affordable luggage due to its cheap production costs. Our research shows that about 28.5% of hardside suitcases are made from ABS.
When compared to other plastics used in hard-shell suitcases, ABS is the most rigid one. However, the rigidness doesn’t account for durability because polypropylene and polycarbonate are much more durable and will last longer. Due to the non-flexible nature of ABS, these suitcases are much more likely to eventually develop cracks in the hard case.
ABS is also one of the lightest plastics used in luggage – it’s a bit lighter than polycarbonate, but not as light as polypropylene. That’s why cheaper hardside suitcases are often lighter than the more expensive ones made from PC (Polycarbonate).
Our research shows that ABS suitcases are usually priced between 50$ to 179$, with an average price of 105$. For short-term travel, ABS is good enough, but you shouldn’t really pay more than 90$ for an ABS suitcase.
Our research shows that 42% of hardside suitcases are made from polycarbonate, which makes it the most popular material used in hardside suitcases. Upon first picking up a Polycarbonate suitcase, the first thing that you would probably notice is that it’s really flexible, maybe even too flexible. But because polycarbonate is so flexible, it’s much more resistant to cracks, which is why it’s the perfect choice for applications where high durability is needed.
In terms of weight, Polycarbonate is the heaviest luggage plastic, but not by much. The weight differences between all luggage plastics are very minimal (it’s only 12% heavier than the lightest luggage plastic – polypropylene), so the weight shouldn’t really be much of a concern.
The improved durability comes at a cost because PC is more expensive than ABS and polypropylene. Our research shows that they’re priced between 99$ – 925$, with an average price of 315$. You can find quite a few PC suitcases under 200$, and most of them are durable enough for frequent travel.
The Travlepro Maxlite 5 hardside is a really good choice for polycarbonate luggage – it’s inexpensive, durable, and it’s the lightest hardside carry-on that we’ve found.
Another popular material used in affordable hardside luggage is an ABS/Polycarbonate composite, which is essentially an ABS frame layered with an additional polycarbonate film. About 13% of all hardside suitcases are made from ABS/PC composites.
It’s definitely an improvement over regular ABS because adding a layer of Polycarbonate on the exterior highly reduces the chances of cracks. This material is a bit more rigid than pure polycarbonate, but it’s still much more flexible than regular ABS.
In terms of weight, it’s one of the lightest plastics used in hardside luggage, right after polypropylene. But although it’s very lightweight, this material is somewhat durable (not as durable as polycarbonate, but more durable than regular ABS).
ABS/PC suitcases are usually priced between 79$ – 275$, with an average price of 154$. If you manage to find an ABS/PC suitcase below 120$, such as the Coolife hardside spinner, you can consider it a very good deal, and our advice would be to not pay over 200$ for ABS/PC suitcases.
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Polypropylene is pretty rarely used in luggage when compared to ABS or Polycarbonate. Only 8% of all hardside suitcases are made from polypropylene.
Polypropylene is the lightest material used in hardside luggage. In terms of durability, it’s very similar to ABS/PC composites – it’s more durable than ABS but not as durable as pure polycarbonate. Polypropylene suitcases are usually good enough for frequent traveling.
One thing I’ve noticed with polypropylene suitcases is that they feel somewhat cheap in real life. Because of their weight and flexibility, I’ve always perceived polypropylene suitcases to be less durable, but they aren’t. Because polypropylene is so flexible, it’s much less likely to develop cracks.
Polypropylene suitcases are priced very similarly to polycarbonate suitcases, they range between 110$ – 850$, with an average price of 314$. You can find quite a few polypropylene suitcases under 200$ and we wouldn’t recommend paying more than 250$.
As a really solid choice, we would recommend the Samsonite Freeform spinner. It’s durable, lightweight, and not too expensive.
Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)
Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) is a material that you’ll find pretty rarely in hardside suitcases, but sometimes, you will. From our study, only 1.5% of all hardside suitcases are made out of PET.
Essentially, PET or rPET (recycled PET) is the same material that’s used in plastic bottles. In terms of durability, it’s comparable to ABS, which means that it isn’t really too durable. It will be good enough only for leisure travel, and mostly only cheaper luggage brands choose to use PET.
The only advantage to PET is that it’s more environmentally friendly than other plastics, and the final product doesn’t produce any odors, unlike ABS. It can even be made from recycled plastic bottles, which makes it the most environmentally-friendly option.
On average, PET suitcases cost 109$, and we wouldn’t really recommend paying anything above that.
Roughly 6.5% of all hardside suitcases are made from aluminum. Out of all hardside luggage materials, it’s the most durable one. Instead of cracking, aluminum usually dents, which means that even if you’d hit it with a hammer, you could dent it back by hitting it from the other side.
It’s also one of the heaviest materials used in luggage. On average, aluminum suitcases weigh 55% more than polypropylene alternatives (the lightest hardside luggage plastic) and 37% more than polycarbonate (the heaviest hardside luggage plastic).
It’s definitely a high-end material though because aluminum suitcases usually cost between 505$ – 1570$, with an average price of 1148$. You’ll also find a few no-brand aluminum suitcases on Amazon, which usually cost 250-450$, but we didn’t include them in our study because we only looked at the most popular brands. That said, some of the cheaper alternatives are quite okay, such as the Level 8 Gibraltar series, but they won’t have good warranty terms and they won’t be as durable.
Softside Luggage Materials
Polyester is the most common and the most affordable fabric used in luggage. In fact, about 70% of fabric suitcases are made from polyester.
Polyester, just like all other fabrics, is measured in Derniers (the mass of a single 9000m long thread). It’s used in all kinds of applications, but for luggage specifically, usually, 600D – 900D fabric is used. The Dernier rating directly correlates to durability, so polyester with higher Derniers (for example, 900D, instead of 600D) is usually more durable because it’s made from thicker threads.
Polyester in itself is actually somewhat durable. However, it’s often associated with poor durability because it’s commonly used in cheap suitcases, which have poorly-stitched seams that break apart fairly quickly. In terms of scratch and tear resistance, polyester does a pretty good job (though, not as good as other luggage fabrics). Out of all luggage fabrics, polyester is one of the lightest ones, similar to nylon.
Polyester suitcases cost between 40$ – 379$, with an average price of 156$. A well-made polyester suitcase would easily withstand frequent travel, although nylon would be even more durable. We wouldn’t recommend paying over 200$ for a polyester suitcase though.
A really solid option is the Travelpro Maxlite 5 carry-on, which is one of the lightest suitcases out there. I’ve personally owned it for a few years now and it hasn’t developed any issues.
You’ll find only a few suitcases made from oxford cloth. Usually, it’s used only in cheap luggage.
Essentially, oxford cloth is almost identical to polyester, meaning that it’s lightweight, affordable, and somewhat durable. In fact, oxford cloth actually is made from 100% polyester. It’s called oxford cloth only because it’s weaved in a slightly different pattern, but it doesn’t really make it more durable.
Nylon is another popular material used in fabric suitcases. Roughly 15% of all fabric suitcases are made from nylon.
Compared to polyester, nylon is more durable because it’s more abrasion and tear-resistant. In deniers, nylon fabrics usually range lower than polyester, but they also tend to be stronger. For instance, 450D nylon is going to be stronger than 600d polyester. This may be something you’ll want to keep in mind if you’re considering luggage made from either of the two.
Nylon is also very lightweight. In fact, our research revealed that nylon is the lightest fabric used in luggage.
It’s more costly though, which explains why Nylon is most commonly used only in medium and high-end luggage. Nylon suitcases cost between 170$ – 890$, with an average price of 404$. You can find quite a few nylon suitcases priced below 300$, and we wouldn’t recommend getting anything more expensive than that. A suitcase of this caliber should easily withstand frequent travel. The Osprey Transporter is a really solid nylon carry-on, which is often used by a lot of frequent and business travelers.
Ballistic nylon is another somewhat popular material used in high-end fabric luggage. In fact, about 14% of all popular fabric suitcases are made from ballistic nylon.
This material came into existence during the Second World War, as an American company’s attempt to make a “flak jacket”, i.e a form of body armor that might protect against bullet and artillery-shell shrapnel. Unfortunately, Ballistic nylon failed to achieve this goal, but it is still being used for various high-stress applications, such as travel.
Although ballistic nylon is made from 100% nylon, its properties are not exactly the same. It’s weaved differently and built from thicker and heavier threads (Usually 840D or 1050D). Ballistic nylon is the most durable fabric used in luggage. Although they couldn’t make it bulletproof, they did create a fabric that’s virtually travel-proof.
It’s mostly used in backpacks and other travel gear, which needs improved resistance. It has a rough feel to it, and it’s heavier than regular nylon. Compared to regular nylon or polyester, it’s more tear-resistant and abrasion-resistant.
Ballistic nylon is only used in the most expensive suitcases. It’s priced between 178$ – 1225$, with an average value of 569$. In our opinion, the best ballistic nylon suitcase is the Briggs & Riley Baseline, which is used by a lot of pilots and flight crews.
Cordura is another type of nylon that’s very similar to Ballistic nylon. It was developed in the same era, and it’s similarly durable. Cordura is also made from nylon threads in 1050D thickness. The only difference is that Cordura is a trademarked name, which means that it’s only manufactured by a single manufacturer.
This material is used in high-end travel gear that needs to be super durable and weather-resistant. The key difference from Ballistic nylon is that Cordura is more abrasion-resistant and looks more similar to Canvas. Also, it’s not as tear-resistant as Ballistic nylon. Both materials are exceptionally strong, and both are good choices for fabric travel products that need to take a beating. That said, Cordura is more frequently used in backpacks and duffel bags, not suitcases.
Canvas is a woven fabric made from cotton, hemp, or a blend of the two. Although it’s rarely used in luggage, it’s pretty common in backpacks and duffel bags.
It’s stronger than regular polyester, but not as strong as nylon. Because it’s made from organic materials instead of plastics, it’s not as weatherproof and can start to rot if left in damp conditions. It’s also heavier than polyester or nylon and can get pretty expensive.
Although leather was widely used for suitcases in the ’50s, it was quickly outperformed by fabric, aluminum, and plastic. Nowadays, it’s hard to find leather suitcases, except for some high-end options that celebrate the old-fashioned look, like Globe-trotter. However, leather is widely used in handbags, backpacks, and duffel bags.
Leather bags are much more durable than polyester and most nylon bags. If properly treated, leather can last a lifetime. The main disadvantage of leather bags is that they’re incredibly heavy, not as weather-resistant, and expensive.
Comparing the Weight of Different Luggage Materials
To find out which materials are lighter than others, we accumulated data for 374 popular suitcases, made by 32 different luggage brands.
For fabric suitcases, nylon is the lightest fabric, followed by polyester, and then ballistic nylon. However, it’s worth noting that in weight polyester is almost identical to nylon, with nylon weighing only 5% more. Ballistic nylon, on the other hand, is 41% heavier than regular nylon.
For hardside suitcases, the lightest material is polypropylene, followed by ABS/PC composites, ABS, PET, Polycarbonate, and finally aluminum. Even though polypropylene is the lightest plastic used in luggage, the heaviest luggage plastic (polycarbonate) is only 13% heavier, so all plastics are very similar in terms of weight. However, aluminum is significantly heavier (55%) than the lightest plastic used in hardside suitcases (polypropylene).
Hardside luggage is about 10-40% heavier than softside. On average, hardside suitcases weigh 0.5-2.5 lbs (0.22-1.13 kg) more than similar softside alternatives.
Which Is the Best Material for Hardside Luggage?
For someone looking for lightweight luggage: You should go with polypropylene, as it’s the lightest luggage plastic and it’s still sturdy enough for most uses.
For leisure travelers: Preferably, go with ABS/PC composite, as it will be sturdier than regular ABS. If you aren’t traveling that frequently, ABS/PC composites should do just fine.
For business and frequent travelers: Go with polycarbonate luggage, as it’s the strongest luggage plastic. It’s sturdy enough, very resistant to cracks, and it isn’t too heavy.
For airline crews and extra-frequent travelers: Go with aluminum as it’s the most durable material used in luggage.
Which Material Is the Best for Softside Luggage?
For someone looking for lightweight luggage: Polyester and nylon suitcases are both very lightweight. That said, there’s a huge variance in the weight, so make sure to get the lightest possible options.
For leisure travelers: Go with a polyester suitcase made by a reliable brand. It should be durable enough to even withstand light frequent travel and pretty affordable.
For business and frequent travelers: Go with nylon, as it will be more durable and weigh slightly less than polyester. It’s more expensive, but it’s worth it because of its improved durability.
For airline crews and extra-frequent travelers: Go with ballistic nylon, as it’s the most durable luggage fabric.
Hard vs. Soft Luggage
Both, hard and soft luggage have their benefits. We can’t give a clear answer on whether hardside luggage is better than softside because it depends on what kind of a traveler you are. So let’s compare the pros and cons for each one:
Hardside Luggage Benefits
- Can’t overpack due to fixed, rigid frame
- Better protection for electronics and fragile items
- Waterproof or water-repellant
- Can be easily cleaned
- Often comes with TSA-approved combination locks
- Zipperless options are available, which are more secure
Hardside Luggage Disadvantages
- Cracks can start to appear due to airline damage
- Can’t be squeezed in tight overhead compartments
- 10-40% heavier than fabric luggage
- Split-book style openings aren’t too useful for packing cubes
- Get’s scratched. Consider using a luggage cover for minimizing scratches
Softside Luggage Benefits
- 10-40% lighter than hard suitcases
- Easier to fit in tight spaces as the frame is slightly flexible
- Looks new longer, because scratches aren’t visible
- Good for packing cubes
Softside Luggage Disadvantages
- Can get tears in the fabric
- Harder to clean
- Water easily penetrates through the material
- Less protection for hard objects and fragile items
- Rarely comes with luggage locks
Should You Get Hardside or Softside Luggage?
The popularity of the two has definitely fluctuated over time. In the 60s and 70s hardside luggage was more commonly used, however, changes in technology have to led to changes over time, with softside luggage becoming more popular. Nowadays the world of luggage material has flipped again, and hardside has made a comeback.
What you can take from this anecdote is that there will always be reasons to choose hardside over softside, and vice versa. As you can see both luggage types have their advantages and disadvantages. It’s up to you to figure out what your priorities are in choosing a suitcase.
However, if weight is your #1 concern, then definitely go with softside luggage, as it’s 10-40% lighter.