Welcome to AFARguments, a new series where editors go head to head about divisive travel issues.
Buying a new suitcase is an investment. Before you even commit to a certain luggage brand, first you have to make an important decision. Are you a hard-shell or soft-sided luggage kind of person? AFAR editors have strong feelings about both. AFAR’s digital content director Laura Dannen Redman and destination news editor Lyndsey Matthews debated the merits of each in a heated Google Docs chat. Here’s what they had to say.
Lyndsey Matthews: For the sake of this argument, we’re talking hard-shell versus soft-sided roller luggage, yes?
Laura Dannen Redman: Yes, fair. Duffels are their own . . . bag. Womp womp.
LM: Now that we’ve cleared that up, whenever I travel with wheels, I’m team hard-shell luggage all the way. I’ve been loyal to my Away Bigger Carry-On for at least . . . three years now?
LDR: OK wait, how dinged up is your suitcase after three years of travel-editor travel? That’s my greatest OCD fear with hard shell: the scratches. The wear and tear.
LM: On a whim I picked the white one because it made a statement. I’m looking at it right now and it has black marks here and there on it—but nothing that a Magic Eraser won’t wipe off in a few seconds. I’m also a big fan of the worn-in look. My luggage dream is an aluminum Rimowa covered in stickers from my travels. Structurally, though? My Away still works just as well as the day I bought it. The wheels spin perfectly, the polycarbonate shell has no dings or scratches even though I checked it a bunch of times (have to bring wine back from my travels!), and the handle still comes in and out smoothly.
LDR: I mean, who wouldn’t want an aluminum Rimowa? They’re gorgeous! And $$$. I’ll admit that soft-shell luggage kind of gets a bad rap nowadays—the clichéd basic black bag that you can’t find on the baggage carousel. But I had a workhorse Delsey featherweight carry-on for a decade that circled the globe with me multiple times, and it never showed a mark. Zippers and wheels never fell off, even if I packed a week’s worth of stuff in it (actually, I moved to Australia in it, so a week is conservative). And it was extraordinarily light, living up to its billing. Basic? Maybe. But damn, I miss that bag. It finally died last year when the handles came off and couldn’t be replaced.
LM: OK, it didn’t show any marks on the black nylon, but aren’t you worried about all the dirt that’s hiding in there that you can’t see?
LDR: Ha! What dirt? I didn’t drag it through a construction site or a tar pit.
LM: But I’m sure you rolled it through many an airport bathroom and when you check it you don’t know where that’s going—you can’t exactly wash a soft-shell suitcase and that’s why I prefer hard shell. You can Wet Wipe that thing down each time you come home and not worry about all the germs it’s toting around. Am I being a germaphobe here?
LDR: Yes. :)
LM: I swear I’m not usually! (You’ve seen me eat pizza with my hands and use a bowling ball two seconds before.) A white suitcase has taught me just how dirty suitcases can get even if you think you’re not carrying it through dirty places. Water resistance is also important. But I think most soft-side luggage now is made with nylon, which is water resistant, so that’s a moot point.
LDR: I think I was probably less concerned with the germs and muck and such and more interested in how much I could stuff into my suitcase and still be able to lift it up. [Full disclosure: I’m not a large human being.] Soft-shell has one big thing going for it that hard-shell doesn’t: It expands. And in the days before we had to pay for carry-on luggage (thanks, basic economy, grumble grumble), I could almost always stuff it in an overhead bin.
LM: That’s one of my travel pet peeves—people with overstuffed carry-ons on planes. When it’s fully expanded it looks ridiculous! Hard-shell luggage never leaves any guessing room as to whether or not it’ll fit in the overhead bin. Sure, you can pop your sweater into the front pocket of an expandable but then it bulges and I’ve had to help people squish that in. Hard shell? Slides right in between everything.
LDR: Then they need to stop charging so much for checked bags and losing our shit on nonstop domestic flights!
LM: Let’s talk about weight. I was under the impression that soft-sided luggage would be lighter, but I was flabbergasted to see that Away’s new soft-sided Expandables collection is heavier. The hard-shell Bigger Carry-On is 8.4 pounds vsersus 9.92 pounds, and it comes with nearly a liter more packing space compared to the soft side when it’s not expanded.
LDR: As someone who carries a 26-pound toddler on a daily basis, a pound difference doesn’t frighten me. What’s the cost difference, and how big does the bag get when it expands? Like, are you buying a carry-on and getting the equivalent of a checked bag at the same time?
LM: Since I’m a sucker for numbers, I just checked. The Away Medium hard shell weighs ever so slightly less than the soft-side Bigger Carry-On and carries 68.8 liters of stuff while the expanded version of the Bigger Carry-On maxes out at 52 liters—and comes with this warning: “Depending on the size of the plane, you’ll most likely be asked to check it on your flight when fully expanded.”
Hard shell is also amazing because I’ve used mine comfortably as a seat before. Last summer, I was delayed out of New Orleans for several hours because of a thunderstorm and the gate was totally full and there was nowhere to sit. My hard shell is about 9 inches across on the top and sturdy enough it could carry my weight as I sat there and waited out the delay.
Ultimately, it comes down to preference. Do you like how hard-sided luggage opens like a clamshell, making it easier to see everything at once? Or do you prefer the one-big compartment versus two smaller ones that most soft-sided luggage gives you?
LDR: So, final defense: I had a soft-shell at a time when budget was more of a concern, and I wasn’t alone. Soft-shell suitcases were a reflection of the democratization of travel. By the 1970s and ’80s, flying was no longer an elite activity—passenger totals increased tenfold—and suitcase makers had to respond to the times. Remember that soft shell was actually an innovation—made of nylon for durability, and with wheels added because porters weren’t gently moving your bag from car to plane. Soft shell spelled freedom! And flexibility of travel—good for a weekend or a week—and accessibility (so. many. pockets). The bags were made lighter to respond to restrictions on weight on planes. It wasn’t until fairly recently that hardshell truly became accessible as well. What took hard-shell so long?
Though I have a confession to make: I use an Away hard-shell suitcase these days. It’s the Dwyane Wade line and I succumbed to the two-tone blue and his charms. (We swear this isn’t an ad for Away! This is just how prevalent and relevant the company has become. Also, soft shells’ “variety” of color is basically a spectrum from Tumi “anthracite” to Away navy.)
LM: Ha, did I just win?
The Bottom Line
Hard-shell luggage wins this round of AFARguments. Still not convinced? A staff poll revealed twice as many members of Team AFAR prefer hard luggage to soft-side when using a roller suitcase.
>> Next: The Best Carry-On Luggage