Lindsey was shopping for a new suitcase, but she couldn’t decide between hardside or softside luggage. The choice wasn’t easy to make because both had their benefits. She did her research and finally ended up going with a hard suitcase.
But then she was overwhelmed with the choice of different materials – Aluminum, polycarbonate, ABS, polypropylene, and other poly-something options. She had to do more research.
By the way, Lindsey isn’t real. I just made her up to demonstrate how hard it is to find something good in the endless sea of different suitcases. In this guide, I’ll explain everything that you (And Lindsey) need to know about different luggage materials, so that you can make the best choice.
Which one is more popular – hard or soft luggage
In the ’60s-’70s, everyone had aluminum, leather, and plastic hard-shell suitcases. That quickly turned around a decade later, when advancements in fabric suitcases made them a more popular choice. Until today, fabric suitcases have taken the first spot. Though, the tide is starting to turn in the last five years.
According to Consumer Reports, only 23% use hard suitcases for their checked luggage, and 15% for their carry-ons. That’s a bit shocking, considering that right now around 40-50% of new suitcases are made from hard materials.
So today, fabric suitcases are clearly more popular. Nevertheless, people are still confused which one is better.
Hard vs. Soft luggage
Both, hard and soft luggage have their benefits. Hardside luggage offers more protection, it’s easier to clean and waterproof. On the other hand, fabric suitcases are more flexible, lightweight, and don’t crack. In durability and price, both are pretty similar.
Let’s take a look at all the benefits that each type offers.
Hardshell luggage benefits
- Can’t overpack. That’s good for carry-on luggage, where size restrictions play a significant role;
- Better protection for electronics and fragile items;
- Waterproof or water-repellant;
- Can be easily cleaned.
- Often comes with TSA-approved combination locks.
Hard side luggage disadvantages
- Cracks can start to appear after normal wear;
- Can’t be squeezed in tight overhead compartments;
- Often heavier;
- Split-book style openings aren’t too useful for packing cubes;
- Get’s scratched.
Fabric luggage benefits
- Often lighter than hard suitcases;
- Can be overpacked. That’s good for checked luggage if you’re still within the weight limit;
- Easier to fit in tight spaces;
- Looks new longer, because scratches aren’t visible;
- Good for packing cubes.
Soft side luggage disadvantages
- Can get tears in fabric;
- Harder to clean;
- Water easily penetrates through the material;
- Less protection for hard objects and fragile items;
- Rarely comes with luggage locks.
Personally, I prefer to use fabric suitcases. For instance, I own the Travelpro Maxlite 5 fabric carry-on, which is also available in hardside. Although the prices are almost identical, I like the fabric model better.
It’s black, so I don’t care if it gets dirty, and the durability is basically identical. I know that the fabric case won’t ever crack, and I don’t care too much about the luggage locks. Also, I like to use packing cubes, so the fabric option offers me a more packing-cube-friendly main compartment. And lastly, the exterior pockets are nice for smaller items.
So for me, a fabric case is better. That doesn’t mean that it’s better for you though. You have to evaluate the benefits of hard and soft luggage and make your own decision.
Next comes the choice between all the different materials. I’ve given a small overview of the most popular materials down below.
Hardside luggage materials compared
In the table below, I’ve rated each hardside luggage material by their price, durability, and weight.
Which hardside luggage material is the most durable
If you’re looking for the most durable hardside luggage material, I’d suggest choosing polycarbonate or aluminum. Although aluminum is much more durable than polycarbonate, it costs 2-5 times as much and is heavier, so often polycarbonate luggage is a smarter choice.
Here’s a quick video that shows why polycarbonate is better than ABS (Actually, a mix of ABS and polycarbonate was used in the test. So a pure 100% ABS suitcase would be even less durable than the pink bag used in the test).
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 the most popular material used for hardside suitcases. Especially in affordable luggage, due to its cheap production costs. Often, you can get a full ABS luggage set for the price of a single polycarbonate suitcase.
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 both polypropylene and polycarbonate are more durable and will last longer. Due to non-flexibility ABS suitcases are more likely to get cracks in the hard case.
Lastly, ABS is more lightweight than polycarbonate, but not as light as polypropylene. Which is why often cheaper hardside suitcases are more lightweight than the more expensive ones that are made from PC (Polycarbonate).
PC is much more impact resistant than ABS or Polypropylene. Upon first picking up ABS and Polycarbonate suitcases, you would think that ABS is more durable, because of its rigidness. But it’s actually not. Polycarbonate is much more flexible and offers more resistance to cracks, which is why it’s the perfect choice for applications where high durability is needed.
However, the enhanced durability comes at a cost, because PC is much more expensive than ABS and polypropylene, and also heavier.
When compared with polycarbonate and ABS, polypropylene is the most lightweight material out of all. And it’s also pretty durable – It’s more durable than ABS but not as durable as polycarbonate. In terms of costs, it’s also not as expensive as PC and priced somewhat similarly to ABS suitcases.
One thing that I’ve always noticed with polypropylene suitcases is that they feel cheap. Because of their light weight and flexibility, I’ve always perceived polypropylene suitcases as less durable than ABS or PC, which isn’t true. The perceived durability might be the reason why polypropylene isn’t so popular in luggage.
A clear icon of aluminum suitcases is Rimowa. They’ve been making aluminum suitcases since 1937, and their cases are almost indestructible. The durability hides in the material itself because aluminum is tough to break. When put under high pressure, most likely aluminum will bend, instead of cracking.
However, aluminum is pretty rarely used in suitcases. Mainly, because it’s heavier than plastics and costs much, much more. Usually, aluminum suitcases cost 500$-1200$, and that’s a lot when durable polycarbonate suitcases can be bought for 100$-200$.
Softside luggage materials compared
In the table below, I’ve rated each soft luggage fabric by its price, durability, and weight.
Which softside luggage fabric is the most durable
The most durable fabric suitcases are made from Nylon, Cordura nylon, and Ballistic nylon. Nylon in itself has very high abrasion and tear resistance, which is perfect for luggage. Although nylon is more expensive than polyester, it’s much more durable, so we’d suggest always going with nylon suitcases.
All fabrics are measured in deniers – the mass of a single 9000m long thread. I know, it’s a weird way of measuring fabrics. I’ll try to explain though. For instance, a single silk thread that’s 9km long weighs 1 gram, which is one denier or 1D. Polyester threads usually range in the 300D-1800D, which means that a single polyester thread 9km in length would weigh 300g-1800g. Generally, the more deniers, the more durable the material is.
Polyester is usually used in cheaper fabric suitcases because it’s less expensive than nylon. When looking at its properties, polyester is less durable and less scratch & tear resistant than nylon or canvas. However, it weighs slightly less than nylon, which is a good thing. When looking at polyester suitcases, try to get at least 800D nylon, which is somewhat durable.
In deniers, nylon fabrics usually range lower than polyester but are stronger. For instance, 450D nylon is stronger than 600d polyester. Also, nylon is more abrasion and tear resistant, which is perfect for fabric suitcases. One thing to note though is that nylon is slightly heavier than polyester.
Although ballistic nylon is made from nylon threads, its properties are different. This material came as a result of WW2 when they tried to make a bulletproof fabric material. It’s weaved differently and built from thicker and heavier threads (Usually 840D or 1050D). Although they failed to make it bulletproof, they did create a fabric that’s basically 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.
Cordura is another type of nylon, somewhat similar to Ballistic nylon. It was developed in the same era, and it’s similarly durable. Cordura is also made from nylon threads in the 1050D thickness.
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, like backpacks and luggage.
Canvas is a woven fabric made from cotton, hemp, or a blend. Although it’s rarely used in luggage, it’s pretty common in backpacks and other travel products.
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. Due to its more-natural looks, it’s more common in backpacks, duffel bags, and jackets, instead of suitcases.
Although leather was widely used for suitcases in the ’50s, it quickly got outperformed by fabric, aluminum, and plastic suitcases. 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 still widely used in handbags, backpacks, and duffel bags.
In its properties, leather bags are much more durable than polyester and most nylon bags. If properly treated, leather suitcases could last a lifetime. The main disadvantage of leather bags is that they’re incredibly heavy, not as weather resistant, and expensive.
Things to consider when buying softside fabric luggage
I’ve researched way too many fabric suitcases, so I know a thing or two. Here are the main things that you should look out for when looking for fabric luggage.
- Invest in nylon luggage. Whether that’s ballistic nylon, Cordura, or regular nylon, it’s worth it to spend 30-100$ extra for a more durable material.
- Check the zippers. Spend a few minutes browsing the reviews and seeing if broken zippers are a thing between the customers. Often, the cheaper fabric cases are fitted with cheap zippers that break easily. Ideally, you want thick and durable zippers, like the YKK zippers.
- If there are no spinner wheels, make sure that the bottom part is made from thick fabric. In a lot of affordable fabric suitcases with skate wheels, the bottom portion will be the first to show tears and scuff marks.
- Consider getting your fabric suitcases in black. Brightly colored fabric luggage can get ugly pretty fast with oil stains and scuff marks.
- Check if the case is expandable.
Pro tip: The Travelpro Platinum Elite 21-inch spinner is one of the most durable fabric suitcases out there. Although it’s pretty costly, we swear by it.
Things to consider when buying hard shell luggage
I’d be more careful about buying hard-shell luggage, just because often the cheaper suitcases can break after one or two trips. If you’re getting a cheap suitcase, it’s better to buy a fabric one with skate wheels. For hardside cases, you should spend at least 100$ or more.
- Choose polycarbonate or aluminum. Most of the times, polycarbonate is the best option, because it’s moderately priced and durable.
- Buy a case with a scratch-resistant finish. All the glossier models get scratched just after a few trips. Instead, get a patterned finish.
- Check the weight of the suitcase. Some manufacturers make incredibly heavy hardside suitcases, so be sure to check the weight before buying,
- Make sure the dimensions are correct. Ideally, you want hardside carry-ons to be below 22 x 14 x 9 inches with the wheels and handles included. Often, the dimensions listed are without wheels and handles, so make sure to get the correct dimensions.
- Read the reviews first. Often cheap hardside suitcases get cracks, broken spinner wheels, broken handles, and broken zippers. Make sure to spend five minutes reading the reviews before buying.
- Get a case with expandable width and TSA-approved locks. For new hardside suitcases, these features are a must-have.
Pro tip: If you’re looking for a hardside suitcase, check out the Samsonite Winfield 2, which is one of the most durable and affordable hardside options out there.