Decades ago, most luggage was hard. Remember the metal-framed valise? But in the 1980s, composite fabrics that were pliable, strong, and lightweight led many people to start buying soft-sided luggage instead.

Today, soft-sided luggage makes up the bulk of the market, but hard-sided luggage is making a comeback—thanks to new materials that are rigid and lightweight. In a recent survey of our subscribers, the Consumer Reports National Research Center found that 21 percent of respondents who were part of our luggage-rating sample chose hard-sided luggage for their medium- and large-sized pieces, and 14 percent chose it for their carry-on pieces.

If you’re shopping for new luggage, here’s what to consider. 


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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 abrasions will not 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.


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All three come in a variety of denier counts, which denote the weight—not the quality or strength—of the fabric, although when it comes to ripstop nylon, 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 may 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.


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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 it 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 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.