Buying a new suitcase is always a difficult decision. You want to find something that fits best with your traveling style, as well as something that looks aesthetically pleasing to you (after all, you should be seeing a lot of it). But that’s not all. The most important aspect to consider, is actually the durability of your new luggage. Ultimately it’s the durability that will affect how long your new suitcase lasts. You want to find a piece that will be in it for the long haul.
After all the last thing you want is a case that’s going to tear or otherwise break down on your first trip. It can happen. There are loads of different luggage materials to choose from: aluminum, polycarbonate, ABS, polypropylene, nylon, ballistic nylon, cordura nylon, polyester, canvas, oxford cloth, and leather. And some of them are going to withstand the pressure of a long-haul flight better than others.
For a lot of people these names are going to look like the table of elements. Recognizable words, but they don’t mean much. That’s we’re going to explain the differences between them, so you can figure out which material is the right choice for you.
Hardside Luggage Materials Compared
In the table below, I’ve rated each hardside luggage material by its price, durability, and weight.
Which Material Is the Best for Hardside Luggage?
Again, people’s luggage requirements tend to be unique to their particular travel style or situation. There are four main materials used for hardside material: Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS), Polypropylene, Polycarbonate (PC), and Aluminum.
If your decision is going to be based on cost alone, ABS will be the choice for you, being the cheapest of the group.
If you’re looking for something that fits your budget while also being sturdy enough for long-term travel, consider luggage made from either Polypropylene of Polycarbonate
And finally, if the cost is not an issue and you’re looking for the most durable kind of suitcase, go for Aluminium.
In the table above we’ve compared the four materials used for hardside luggage, by price, durability, and weight. You’ll also find more information below specific to each material. Hopefully this will help you judge what material is going to work best for you.
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 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. This is why cheaper hardside suitcases are often more lightweight than the more expensive cases made from PC (Polycarbonate).
PC, short for Polycarbonate is the second most popular material used in hardside suitcases.
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.
Polypropylene is pretty rarely used in luggage when compared to ABS or Polycarbonate.
It’s the most lightweight material of the three, 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.
Unfortunately, one thing I’ve always noticed with polypropylene suitcases is that they feel cheap. Because of their weight and flexibility, I’ve always perceived polypropylene suitcases as less durable than ABS or PC, which isn’t true. In actuality, the perceived durability might be the reason why polypropylene isn’t so popular in luggage.
Out of all hardside suitcase materials, Aluminum is the most durable.
A clear icon of aluminum suitcases is Rimowa. They’ve been making aluminum suitcases since 1937, and their cases are almost indestructible. The durability lies in the material itself because aluminum is so tough to break. When put under high pressure, aluminum is likely to 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$-1200$, which is expensive when compared to say, durable polycarbonate suitcases, which 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 Material Is the Best for Softside Luggage?
Choosing a material for your softside luggage may be a little more complicated. There’s a far wider variety of materials that include: Polyester, Oxford cloth, Nylon, Ballistic Nylon, Cordura Nylon, Canvas, and Leather.
If you want something cost-effective, and don’t mind if the case is going to be less scratch and tear-resistant, Polyester and Oxford Cloth may be a good choice. However, if you want something more durable, you will have to pay a little more for a Nylon suitcase. Out of all nylons, Ballistic is the most durable, followed by Cordura and lastly regular nylon.
If you have a bigger budget and want something on the high-end of suitcases, try leather or canvas. For some, leather is also more aesthetically pleasing, though it is very expensive.
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. As a rule, 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.
Oxford cloth is a breathable basket weave cloth originally made from cotton, however today it’s often blended with other fabrics such as rayon and polyester. It’s the result of a particular basket weave process known as the Oxford weave, from where it gets its name.
In its time Oxford cloth has most commonly been used for clothing, particularly casualwear. However, it has recently become somewhat popular for its use elsewhere, such as window treatments, wall hanging, and duvet covers. It’s not unusual to see Oxford cloth used for suitcases as well, and the fabric has even been used by some leading brand names. For suitcases, the cloth is usually around 600D for water-resistance though material as high as 1680D, with exceptional abrasion and tear-resistance, can be found.
Nylon is more expensive than polyester, hence the reason expensive luggage is usually made from this material.
In deniers, nylon fabrics usually range lower than polyester, but they also tend to be stronger. For instance a 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 also happens to be more abrasion and tear-resistant, which is perfect for fabric suitcases. One thing to note is that nylon is somewhat heavier than polyester.
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. Interesting huh? Unfortunately, Ballistic nylon failed to achieve this goal, but it is still being used for durable products today.
Although ballistic nylon is made from nylon, its properties are not exactly the same. It’s weaved differently and built from thicker and heavier threads (Usually 840D or 1050D). 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.
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 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 still widely used in handbags, backpacks, and duffel bags.
Leather bags are much more durable than polyester and most nylon bags. If properly treated, they could last a lifetime. The main disadvantage of leather bags is that they’re incredibly heavy, not as weather-resistant, and expensive.
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;
- It can be easily cleaned.
- Often comes with TSA-approved combination locks.
- Zipperless options are available.
Hardside 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;
- It 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.
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 lead 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. Choose your parameters, and deciding on what to buy will be much easier.
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 suitable 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. One of the benefits of softside luggage is its ability to expand if you need to pack any extras. Make sure to check this feature is included as you never know when you’ll need 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 time, 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.