Choosing Between Hard-Sided and Soft-Sided Luggage

Soft-sided bags still dominate, but hard-sided suitcases are gaining popularity

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If you're in the market for luggage—for yourself or for someone else—you've got lots of choices among soft-sided luggage brands and styles. But hard-sided bags are making modest market inroads as well.

Soft-sided bags make up the bulk of the U.S. market. You can get them in a wide variety of styles, from garment bags and wheeled backpacks to standard suitcase shapes in various sizes and massive rolling duffels.

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Hard-sided luggage is typically limited to a standard suitcase shape in both carry-on and checked-bag sizes. Yet consumers have a growing interest in the category, thanks in part to new materials that are lightweight and strong.

Of the more than 38,000 CR members we surveyed last fall about the piece of luggage they use the most, 24 percent said they chose hard-sided luggage for their medium- and large-sized checked suitcases, up from 21 percent two years earlier. Seventeen percent chose hard-sided carry-ons, an increase from 14 percent over the same period.

Each type of luggage has its merits and drawbacks. When you shop for new luggage this holiday season, here’s what to consider.

Go to Consumer Reports’ 2019 Holiday Gift Guide for updates on deals, expert product reviews, insider shopping tips, and much more.

Soft-Sided Luggage

Soft-sided luggage is made of fabrics that move and yield, usually woven nylon, such as cordura, ballistic, or ripstop. Cordura is more textured than ballistic, a little softer and more abrasion-resistant. Ballistic is the smoother and shinier of the two. Over time, ballistic can abrade, but that won't compromise the fabric’s strength. Ripstop nylon is the very lightweight fabric commonly known as “parachute material,” often used in unstructured or semi-structured bags.

All three come in a variety of denier counts, which denote the weight—not the quality or strength—of the fabric. When it comes to ripstop nylon, however, a higher denier will ensure that even this lightweight fabric will be heavy enough to hold your belongings.

Many soft-sided pieces of luggage come with exterior pockets, and they often have two or more interior compartments. The closure is a zipper; newer bags may have an integrated lock.

You might opt for soft-sided luggage if you’re looking for lightweight pieces that can flex and compress to fit into tight spaces, such as the overhead bin in an airplane. It may also take up less room to store at home.

The downside, of course, is that it won’t provide as much protection as a hard-sided piece of luggage. It’s also vulnerable to ripping if it’s not high-quality.

Hard-Sided Luggage

Today’s hard-shell or hard-sided luggage is made with high-tech plastics such as ABS and polycarbonate, which are lightweight and durable. ABS is the lightest, but polycarbonate is more durable. The most durable, but also the heaviest, is aluminum.

Hard-sided luggage often features a 50/50-split opening, allowing you to pack two sides equally and stabilize the contents with an interior strap or a middle divider. But the clamshell design requires double the surface space to spread it open. Most hard-sides are built this way, but there are some on the market that have a lid opening.

You may want to buy hard-sided luggage if you’ll be packing breakable items. It may offer better security than soft-sided baggage because it can’t be ripped open as easily and usually has integrated locks.

Aluminum luggage can be even more secure. It often has metal drawbolt latches instead of zippers. If you tend to overpack, a hard-sided piece will rein you in; there’s no chance of overstuffing it. For a carry-on, as long as you buy the right size, you’re guaranteed a no-bulge fit in your airline’s luggage sizer. Hard-sided luggage also stacks easily, making it ideal for cruise ships, where bags are stacked in the belly of the ship before departure.

Of course, it scuffs and scratches easily, too. It’s also rigid, so you can’t squeeze in extras if the need arises. You’ll need a fixed storage space, which can be a challenge for apartment and small-house dwellers.

Check our
luggage buying guide and ratings for shopping advice and details on the best luggage brands and stores.

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