Hardside or Softside luggage – which is best for you?

Turquoise Luggage, Pink Walls, White pantsIf you’re in the market for new luggage, you’ll need to decide between softside luggage (has some give) or  one of the molded hardside bags that are increasingly popular these days.  Just so you know, there really is no ‘right’ answer – they’re both great options.

In this post, my goal is to break down the pros and cons of each:

Durability

If you buy a decent quality bag, the material used to make both hardside and softside luggage these days is pretty tough.  The polycarbonate shells used for hardside luggage and the ballistic nylon weave  that most softside luggage is made of have both revolutionized the manufacture of luggage in recent years.

But you also have to look beyond the bag’s material and focus on craftsmanship and the quality.  It does you no good that the shell of your suitcase can withstand the weight of an elephant if the zipper breaks, the stitching of a seam rips or your telescoping handle stops working.

Remember – handles, wheels and zippers are where most luggage issues happen, so buying an overall good-quality bag is your best durability ‘insurance’ in the long run.

Lightweight

Keeping the weight of luggage to a minimum is a big deal these days, both for the airline weight fees and your own personal comfort while travelling.  There’s a lot of buzz around the light weight of the polycarbonate materials used in most hardside luggage these days and it’s true – hardside bags are incredibly light compared to the old heavy plastic luggage that many of us got for graduation gifts years ago.  The new molded polycarbonates are extremely light, tough and can come in some very cool colors and designs.

But, don’t be fooled into thinking that they are any lighter than the softside bags being produced today, too.  Incredibly light weaves of nylon are as tough as nails these days and if you put a dozen hardside up against a dozen softside, you’ll find virtually no difference in weight.  See my blog post on this subject.

Where does the luggage weight come from?  The add-ons, the bells and whistles.  Extra pockets and the flaps and zippers that are needed for each, 4 wheels instead of 2, an extra handle, or that built-in interior separator.  All this stuff is great, but every ounce counts, so just keep an eye on the extras.

Functionality

This means ‘ does this bag do what I need it to do’.  Things like pockets where you need them, is the size right for my needs, 2-wheel vs 4-wheel, can I stack another bag on top, is the telescoping handle the right height for me, and all the other items that make this bag right for you.  See my Luggage Buying Guide for more info on this.

No right or wrong, but here are a few things to remember when choosing hardside or softside luggage:

1)  For a carry-on bag, many people prefer softside luggage because it has exterior pockets (hardside is just a molded shell).  I know this is personal, but if you’re anything like me, your carry-on spends many hours as your faithful companion in terminals and in-flight and you need quick access to all the stuff that makes your journey comfortable – reading material, documents, water bottle, mobile devices, your tissues, glasses, etc.

Also, if you need to push a little to get your bag in the overhead bin (and who doesn’t), a softside bag is what you need.

No pockets? Can’t jam it into the bin?  Not good.  Softside wins the carry-on decision IMO.

2) Some hardsides are a little more rounded on top (up by the handle) which looks sleek, but can make it tough to stack a smaller bag on top.  This is critical, so just be conscious of this when shopping.

Appearance

There’s many choices these days for color, pattern and texture  beyond the basic black bag.  Hardside luggage seems to win this one, since the polycarbonate can be molded and manufactured with unique patterns and colors fairly easily.  You see that a lot in all the cute hardside luggage made for kids these days.

Many of the incredibly lightweight, tough-as-nails nylon weaves used these days for softside bags don’t lend themselves to color variation – the dye just doesn’t ‘take’ to the compostite material all that well.  As a result, you tend to see the higher-quality softside bags in a limited number of colors. Polyester bags are different, but be careful as they are not nearly as strong as the nylon bags.

Price

Hardside vs. Softside is generally not the determinant when it come to price.  Quality materials, overall engineering and design, attention to craftsmanship and any special warranties will have more of an effect.  That being said,

1) There are hardside bags that are made of pure polycarbonate hard shells ( they will run from $600-$2,000) vs. the more commonly sold polycarbonate-coated shells that are used on most hardside luggage sold today ($175-400 range).  The latter is are still very tough bags, and generally fine for what normal travel needs.

2) With softside luggage, you’ll find that many of the cheaper bags are made with polyester materials vs. the stronger nylon weaves more commonly found in quality bags.  Don’t think you’re saving here.  There are many good quality bags made with nylon that will cost you only $100 or so  extra to purchase than the cheaper bag.   They’ll last much longer.  Product reviews are full of people crying the blues because they ‘cheaped out’ and the bag fell apart after only a few trips.

The Bottom Line:

It’s up to you.  There are tons of great choices . But whether you choose hardside or softside luggage, make sure the bag fits your specific travel needs. I go into a little more detail in my Luggage Buying Guide, so hop over to that page if you need more info.

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