Hard-Shell vs. Soft-Shell Luggage: Which One Is Better for (Not Only) International Travel?

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When buying a new piece of luggage, there are a couple of things you need to decide.

First of all, you have to choose whether you are going to get a duffel bag, a backpack, a suitcase, or something else. Then, in case you decide to get a suitcase, you have to pick the brand, size, and whether you want a hard-shell or a soft-shell suitcase.

And, the last in the list above is what this article looks at. Keep reading to learn about the advantages and disadvantages of both hard and soft-side suitcases, as well as how they compare against each other when it comes to using them as a carry on and as a checked luggage.

Hard-Shell vs. Soft-Shell Luggage: Which One Is Better for (Not Only) International Travel?


Hard-Shell Luggage

There is generally two types of hard-shell luggage – both of them are designed to be less flexible with minimal room for movement.

While some hard-shell suitcases have rigid sides but may have canvas around the zipper area, others are actual hard cases that are fully made of rigid materials. The latter type of suitcase will usually only have a single compartment, although sometimes it might have an additional smaller one in the lid.

Hard-shell cases are made from a materials that can take heavier impacts. The materials used can vary, but many manufacturers make this type of suitcase from polycarbonate or similar composites. Such thermoplastic materials provide a useful combination of strength and flexibility.

Because these suitcases have a rigid surface, they are often available in bright colors and even with unique printed designs. As such, depending on your preferences, they can often be more stylish and fun compared to soft-shell luggage.

Advantages of Hard-Shell Luggage

Hard-shell luggage is perfect if you value protection over ease of use.

This type of suitcases is designed to take impacts and to keep your belongings in-tact. The hard shell will ensure that any valuables you store inside such as electronics will (likely) remain in one piece.

Moreover, it is generally believed that hard-shell suitcases offer better security. Their lack of external pockets means that someone can’t simply unzip a compartment and take your belongings. Furthermore, the polycarbonate plastic cannot be slashed with a knife in the same way that a canvas suitcase could. That said, you should always lock your suitcase whether using a built-in lock or an external one.

Finally, hard-shell luggage provides you with optimal packing space. The rigid outer shell retains its shape and thus allows you to cram it full of everything you could possibly need for your travels.

To recap, here’s a list of the main advantages of hard-shell luggage:

  • Increased protection for your belongings
  • A packing space that retains its shape
  • More variety in terms of designs

Disadvantages of Hard-Shell Luggage

Despite their numerous advantages, hard-shell suitcases also have several drawbacks.

As you would imagine, a rigid suitcase takes up more space than a soft-shell one would. You cannot compact the case in any way – if it won’t fit, then it won’t fit. Even if you take some belongings out, it still likely won’t fit.

Furthermore, a rigid case takes up nearly double the space when it is open. You literally have to open it in half and lay each side flat to pack your belongings.

Aside from space issues, hard-shell suitcases generally have fewer organization options. If you like organizing your belongings and putting certain items together then hard-shell luggage is not the right choice.

In most cases, hard-shell luggage may only have two compartments – the main compartment, and a smaller compartment in the lid. This can make it difficult to find items within your luggage, especially if you are in a hurry.

To recap, here’s the list of the main disadvantages of hard-shell luggage:

  • Little to no flexibility
  • Takes up more space than a soft-shell suitcase
  • Lack of pockets and compartments

3 Hard-Shell Suitcases Worth Checking Out


Soft-Shell Luggage

In contrast to hard-shell luggage, soft-shell luggage offers greater flexibility and movement.

A soft-shell suitcase is usually made entirely of fabric but may be supported by a semi-rigid frame inside. Typically, soft-shell suitcases will have a main compartment and several sub-compartments in the suitcase lid. Moreover, the front of the suitcase will usually have a zip pocket.

Soft-shell cases are usually made from a flexible fabric such as canvas or nylon. Materials such as this can compact under pressure and thus allow your suitcase to fit into small spaces. You can literally squeeze the suitcase and force it into a tight luggage hold for example.

Advantages of Soft-Shell Luggage

Soft-shell luggage is essential if you value space and flexibility over actual internal space.

If you are traveling often and continually jumping from one flight to the next, soft-shell luggage is preferable. Moreover, if you have to take your luggage on public transport such as trains and buses, soft-shell luggage is also preferable. This is due to its flexibility – you can squeeze and compact this type of suitcase and force it to fit into tight spaces.

In addition to this, soft luggage provides you with greater organization. Most soft-shell cases will have a zip compartment in the lid. Moreover, the lid may contain several sub-compartments and pouches. Some soft-shell cases may even have multiple internal storage compartments too. You can organize your belongings easily using this type of luggage.

To recap, here’s a list of the main advantages of using soft-shell luggage:

  • Greater organization options
  • Take up less physical space
  • Easier to transport

Disadvantages of Soft-Shell Luggage

As you can expect, soft-shell luggage is less secure. Even the toughest of fabrics can be cut open – all it takes is someone with a knife to cut through the material and they have access to your belongings.

Moreover, the softer fabric could mean that your belongings gets damaged more easily. Soft-shell suitcases simply won’t absorb any hard impact in the same way that a hard-shell suitcase would.

To recap, here’s a list of the main disadvantages of using soft-shell luggage:

  • Less secure due to the fabric covering
  • Doesn’t provide the same level of protection for your belongings

3 Soft-Shell Suitcases Worth Checking Out


Hard-shell vs. Soft-Shell Luggage: Carry-on

So which type of suitcase would you use as your carry-on luggage?

Personally, I prefer using soft-shell suitcases as I can’t count the number of times I had to try and cram my suitcase into the overhead compartment. This can be beneficial especially if you are one of the last to board and the overhead compartments are already full of rollers.

Aside from the above, though, it’s also useful to have the extra compartments – especially the exterior pockets – of a soft luggage. This makes it easy to store things such as itineraries, etc. that you might not necessarily want to carry in your neck wallet but might still want within easy reach.


Hard-shell vs. Soft-Shell Luggage: Check-in

With checked luggage, the choice of the right type of luggage is a bit more fuzzy. And, it largely depends on the kind of trip you are about to make.

For longer, single-destination trips with only an outbound and return airport journey I will use a hard-shell suitcase. I know that I do not need extra space and will not continually be rooting through my case. The extra internal space and security a hard-shell suitcase provides are preferable for this type of journey.

That said, on shorter trips, I use a soft-shell suitcase. But then again, that is just because of what I have in my luggage collection. And, a hard-shell one would serve the purpose equally well.



When choosing the right suitcase for your travels, one of the main things you will have to decide on will be whether to go with a hard-shell suitcase or a soft-shell suitcase. Given that they both have their advantages and disadvantages which you can read about above, you will have to take those into account and make your own choice – there is no right or wrong answer.

However, personally, I prefer soft-shell suitcases for carrying onboard an aircraft, and hard-shell suitcases for checking in.

If you are thinking of buying a new suitcase, make sure to also check my list of the best luggage sets you can get.


Click here to see more luggage-related buyer’s guides


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