Hard sided vs. soft sided suitcases

With all of the one million suitcase options out there, picking out the right one can be a definite challenge. Spinner or not? Hard side or soft9-10-14-1 side? Spend a lot or save money? How many pockets??

For years, I have been a proponent of soft-sided carry-on bags with plenty of pockets and rollerblade wheels. My first suitcase was similar to the Ogio Blitz 21” upright, which I used for seven years and hundreds of trips before replacing. My current bag is the Victorinox Werks 20” two wheeler, and it is fantastic. However, a friend cornered me at a recent get together, asking about the merits of hard-sided suitcases. “Don’t they protect your stuff better?” she asked. So I did some research.

Related: Budget friendly suitcases.

A recent Yahoo article testing out hard-sided suitcases wasn’t a ton of help. The author tried out six or seven different options and basically hated all of them. Even the one she said was really good she wasn’t excited about because it didn’t have an external pocket for her iPad, but the one that did have an external pocket didn’t have enough room for her stuff. Le sigh. One can’t have everything, no?

I think generally a soft sided suitcase is going to be a better bet for most travelers. They are more flexible and therefore able to squeeze into oddly sized overhead bins. There are usually more options for expanding, so if you do come home with more than you departed with it’s not that big of a deal. Plus there are so many available there are options across the budget spectrum.

However, if you have specialized equipment that needs extra protection then a hard-sided suitcase may be a good option for you. A couple of issues to watch out for are that they often will weigh more, plus they won’t compress to fit into tight spaces. My recommendation if you need a hard-sided bag is to be very sure of the dimensions allowed for your typical airline and then buy as small a bag as you can. Before you travel with it wheel it around to see how it maneuvers, and try to lift it (filled) to ensure you can get it into the overhead bin unassisted.

Related: Top 5 Travel Gear: Packing Light

If you decide to go with a hard sided option, here are some that readers have recommended. (The full list of readers’ favorite suitcases is here.)

Readers, do you have a hard sided or soft sided suitcase? Why did you pick that one?

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  1. Hard sided cases are silly for carry on bags. The bag is with you almost all of the time (except for gate checks) so why do you need protection from yourself? Most fragile items can be wrapped for extra protection as needed. That means you have a little bit of extra weight when carrying fragile items but can abandon the packaging when it isn’t needed. You can’t do that for hard sided bags. You are stuck with the extra weight no matter what you are carrying.

  2. My local luggage store repairs damaged bags for many of the major airlines in NY. He discouraged me from buying a hard sided case as he said they are constantly in his shop for the repair of cracked cases-even Rimowa.

  3. I switched over to hard sided cases about five years ago and I am SO happy I did. I could care less about protection of my stuff, since as Lady Light Travel points out, I don’t check my bag and it’s with me 99% of the time. But my hard sided bag is very lightweight (it’s the relatively cheap Heys X-Case) and VERY small – to the point where colleagues have commented in an impressed way on its small size.

    With a hard sided case, you can compress your clothes as you’re packing them (i.e., push them into the suitcase), so I find I can actually fit just as much as I can in my old larger soft-sided case. Then, once I get on the plane, I am never that clueless-looking person who’s trying to shove their bag in the overhead because they didn’t realize they’ve overstuffed it – it’s already compact and glides in easily. The X-Case in particular is small enough that I’ve frequently been able to find space for it even when everyone else is taking their bags to the front to be checked.

    Just my two cents.

  4. On the off chance that you are forced to check it in because of a cranky desk agent or worse yet are forced to GATE CHECK!!!! You’ll be better off with a hard shell. I love my hard shells. Been around the world a few times and 10 years later, no cracks yet and for protection per dollar it can’t be beat.

  5. I prefer hard shells because of the gate check situation, but more because I can lock valuables in it and be better protected from theft in hotel rooms. If it gets damaged on a flight, the airline buys me a shiny new one (and has several times).

  6. I prefer soft-sided for the reasons stated, even though I always check my bag, where one might imagine hard-sided would be better. I have never had anything broken, stolen, or damaged in 60 years of flying….. My last bag lasted well over 10 years and the new one is doing well too-it is 6 years old and looks like new after multiple business and personal trips. I got it at REI. I never pack or travel with true valuables so the locking issue doesn’t bother me.

  7. @Gary – I think that having a hard sided wheelie bag increases the probability of a gate check. Many times I’ve been allowed in the plane with my soft sided bag when the wheelie bags were force checked.
    It seems like your bag has failed multiple times. Why do you stick with it?

  8. I don’t use spinners that might not fit in an overhead, but a Delsey hard case with two inset wheels so it always fits onboard. I currently have a Heluim that is no longer made. The way airlines trash luggage and crack wheels is a great way to get new suitcases – especially the larger ones that must be checked. I’ve recieved at least three new ones (with some negotiating/complaining) over the years.

    In hotel rooms with no safe box, I lock my cash, PC, passport, etc. that we all travel with. This can also be cable locked to something if necessary.

  9. Definitely soft-sided. Much easier to cram in limited overhead space, and when flight attendants are confiscating all the hard-sided wheelie bags and forcing passengers to check them, they pay no attention to me carrying on my soft-sided bag.

    I hate checking bags. They get lost too easily, and much of what I’ve got in my bag–laptop and other devices, jewelry, prescriptions–should be kept with me.

  10. I love my hard-sided luggage!

    For me, it’s all about security. Nothing beats a hard-sided suitcase with latches – not zippers. Zippers can be quickly opened using anything pointy (like a pen) and then resealed – you won’t know they were in your case until it’s too late. There are plenty of stories out there about innocent people doing hard-time for smuggling. I never want that to be me!

    I also lock my valuables in my case, foregoing the in-room safe. Years ago, while on vacation in Turks and Caicos, we had a problem with the safe and watched a hotel staffer come to the room, retrieve a key from behind a painting in the room and unlock the safe!

    Another item that guides my decision is how hard the baggage handling system is on our luggage. There are big machines aptly referred to as “kickers” because they kick our bags from one belt to another. Every bag is kicked as hard as if it was the heaviest bag allowed in the system – ouch!

    I have always had Samsonite bags. I have one that is over 20 years old. Unfortunately, they don’t make them like that any longer…

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