Hard vs. Soft Luggage—Which Is Superior? Two AFAR Editors Hash It Out

There are two types of travelers: hard-shell luggage devotees and those who remain loyal to their soft-sided suitcases.

Pile of blue, black, and red hard-shell and soft-sided luggage

Are you team hard-shell or soft-side luggage?

Photo by Shutterstock

Welcome to AFARguments, a series where editors go head to head about divisive travel issues.

Buying a new suitcase is an investment that can set you back anywhere between a few hundred and even a few thousand dollars. 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 editor at large Laura Dannen Redman and senior commerce 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 and backpacks 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 six years now and recently swapped it out for the updated version the brand released this summer.

LDR: OK, wait, how dinged up was your suitcase after six years of travel-editor travel? That’s my greatest OCD fear with hard shell: the scratches. The wear and tear.

LM: After six years of frequent use, my white Away Bigger Carry-On had black marks here and there on it that a Magic Eraser could 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? After stacking five other suitcases on top of it in the car on the way to the airport, a three-inch crack appeared in the top corner of the hard-shell exterior. (If I had to guess, there were roughly 200 pounds on my bag for the hour-long ride.) However, I found Away’s customer service and lifetime warranty so efficient and easy to use that I’m still glad I invested my money in this product.

White Away Bigger Carry-On

Destination news editor Lyndsey Matthews’s original Away Bigger Carry-On has been everywhere from Los Angeles to the Galápagos.

Photo by Lyndsey Matthews

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 the other 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’ve been known to be one. But 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!

AFAR editor at large Laura Dannen Redman with her Delsey soft-side before she retired it.

AFAR editor at large Laura Dannen Redman with her Delsey soft-side before she retired it.

Courtesy of Laura Dannen Redman

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 the Travelpro Platinum Elite 21-Inch Carry-On Spinner—one of the most popular soft-shell suitcases out there—is basically the same weight as Away’s hard-shell equivalent. The hard-shell Away Bigger Carry-On is 7.9 pounds versus TravelPro’s 7.8 pounds, and the Away comes with nearly two liters 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 few ounces 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 Bigger Carry-On starts at $295 these days, while that TravelPro is $370 (but marked down to $314 on sale right now). Though the TravelPro carry-on does expand an extra two inches, it comes with this warning: “This carry-on bag has been sizer bin tested to accommodate overhead bin space on most major U.S .airlines. Fully expanded carry-on may not meet airline restrictions.”

Hard shell is also amazing because I’ve used mine comfortably as a seat before. The other 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 nearly 10 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 hard shell 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 TravelPro “metallic sand”.)

LM: Ha, did I just win?

Bottom line: Hard luggage is better

Hard-shell luggage wins this round of AFARguments—for now. In 2019, when this article was originally published, a staff poll revealed twice as many members of Team AFAR preferred hard luggage to soft-sided when using a roller suitcase. However, in October 2023, that number is nearly tied, with hard-shell luggage beating out soft-shell suitcases by just one person.

This article was originally published in 2019; it was updated on October 11, 2023, with current information.

Lyndsey Matthews is the former senior commerce editor at Afar, covering travel gear, packing advice, and points and loyalty.
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