What to Consider Before Buying Soft or Hard Shell Luggage

luggageCan’t decide between soft and hard shell luggage? There are a lot of options out there, and making the right choice can seem tricky. Price points for both soft and hard shell luggage can vary greatly, so it’s important to identify your needs before making a big purchase. Here are some things to consider before buying soft or hard shell luggage.


Durability is a common concern for travelers, especially considering most people travel with laptops, iPads, cameras, and other delicate electronics. Hard shell cases are appealing if you want to protect anything fragile. Though most cases are not considered completely water resistant, hard shell luggage is much easier to keep dry in rain, snow, or puddles, and it provides better protection against general spills and accidents.

The same is true for keeping the luggage clean, which is a huge perk for anyone who has been stuck carrying a muddy, smelly suitcase from city to city (or country to country). Softer cases can absorb water, and are more susceptible to stains and smells. If you plan to travel in the winter, or to more rugged locations, you may be better off with hard shell luggage.

LuggageX, a newcomer from the UK, has proven itself as both practically indestructible as well as inexpensive. During a durability test, its suitcase was one of the few that survived being crushed by a Prius. Prices range from $50-$200.

Hard Shell Luggage Has Changed

Hard shell luggage pieces have been known to crack and fall apart more easily than softer cases. The good news is that companies have been making changes to improve overall quality. Many pieces are currently made with polycarbonate, a softer material that actually flexes a little bit to absorb impact when dropped or thrown onto hard surfaces. It’s a material so flexible it is commonly used to make contact lenses. Polycarbonate luggage is scratch resistant and lighter than plastic or aluminum cases, and can be even lighter than some soft luggage.

Traveler’s Choice hard shell suitcases are made of the revolutionary polycarbonate ABS, which will be less likely to crack or scratch during travel. Single suitcases run anywhere from $60-$170.

If You’re Going Shopping

Travelers who plan to do some shopping along the way may find it more difficult to fit extra items into hard shell luggage. Although many hard cases, especially those made from polycarbonate, are expandable, soft luggage can still stretch more around the edges. Soft luggage is also easier to manipulate into small spaces, such as overhead bins or luggage racks on buses, whereas hard cases really compete with other bags.

If you want soft luggage that can fit into an overhead bin, one option is the Samsonite Luggage Hyperspace Spinner. The suitcase weighs only 11.4 pounds and is great for compact packing and expandability. You can find it online for $129.59.

Two Wheels vs. Four Wheels

Hard shell luggage tends to be easier to handle in airports or train stations since most have four wheels rather than two. Although it is possible to find soft luggage with four wheels, it is less common, whereas it is a standard feature for the hard shells. It makes maneuvering cases much easier and, since they tend to utilize 360 degree wheels, it’s harder to flip, drag, or lose the balance on heavy bags. This is a huge perk for those who need to get to multiple flights or have heavy items in their luggage.

Some companies offer reasonably priced luggage with four wheels. Rockland is one brand whose suitcases feature 360-degree turning spinner wheels, which, combined with the lightweight design, make traveling a little bit easier. You can find three-piece sets starting at $139.

Customizing for Convenience

Different colors and patterns are more common with hard cases, making them easier to spot among the dozens of black bags that come bouncing onto the baggage carousel. Soft cases do come in various colors, however, colored luggage tends to get dirty after a few trips, and general wear and tear is easy to see.

Customizing your luggage, regardless of which kind you prefer, is always a good idea. Personalized luggage tags, ribbons, stickers, or even duct tape can help your bag stand out and remain easy to spot.

If you want to make sure your luggage visible at the baggage claim, opt for suitcases with unique colors, patterns, and prints. Heys USA has a range of options, including prints of world maps to Disney princesses. Individual suitcases run from $109 to $300.


Accessibility is another perk of soft luggage. Having pockets on the front of the bag is very convenient. You can reach for things you’d like to keep handy, but may not need in your carry-on, such as a change of clothes, toiletries, a sweater, or an extra book.

This is especially true for parents traveling with small children. Having an extra blanket, pacifiers, a favorite toy, or extra clothes in an outside pocket is a nice alternative to jamming extra supplies into a full diaper bag.

When you’re looking for accessible luggage, check for exterior pockets. REI luggage has a panel-opening main compartment and three exterior pockets. You can find a 21-inch, carry-on capable wheeled duffel for $149.

Deciding What Fits Your Needs

Finding the right kind of luggage depends on a lot of variables. Here are the pros and cons of soft shell luggage and hard shell luggage:

pros & cons

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By Jessica Hobbs for PeterGreenberg.com