I was traipsing through Bangkok Airport before my flight back to Sydney when the wheel of my carry-on suitcase broke.
When I’d first arrived in Bangkok 6 days earlier, I’d noticed the rubber casing on the wheel had started to come off. I didn’t think it was a big deal, so I’d continued to use my suitcase for the rest of the trip. I’m not one to throw something out when it breaks – I planned on fixing it up with some glue once I got back home.
Now though, continued use had become impossible. The rubber had completely disintegrated, with chunks flying off the metal wheel. As I rolled the suitcase along the smooth airport floor, the bumps I felt through the handlebar were accompanied by annoying thumping noises which repeated with each rotation of the damaged wheel.
This carry-on suitcase had been my trusty companion for many years of international travel. I’ll admit, I was a little heartbroken that it had finally kicked the dust. I’d bought it back in the days that I worked as a travel agent and it had been all over the world with me in the 8 or 9 years since.
I flew back to Sydney then emptied out my little red suitcase for the last time.
Rob and I had shared the use of this suitcase for our respective business trips, and he was due to attend a conference in Serbia in less than 2 weeks time. We needed a new suitcase, stat. The two of us ventured into the depths of a department store and sought out the luggage section to stake out our options.
My old red suitcase had been a soft shell suitcase by JAG (who I discovered have ceased to make luggage!). My thoughts were to replace it with something similar, but the soft shell suitcases in the store weren’t particularly appealing – they mostly came in bland colours like black, grey, or navy. I wanted some bright and colourful suitcases to match my personal style.
The hard shell suitcases came in a much greater variety of colours. Rob spotted one by Antler that was a good carry-on size and came in a lovely teal-green. As he was opening it up to look inside, I spotted a red version of the same suitcase. AND they were on special with a 40% discount.
We walked out of there with brand new matching his-and-hers suitcases – mine in red and his in green.
We’ve now both had the opportunity to test our new suitcases. I’ve put together this comparison of soft shell vs hard shell carry-on suitcases just in case you’re wondering which one to buy!
What’s the difference?
- A soft shell suitcase has a reinforced fabric frame.
- A hard shell suitcase has a tough plastic or polycarbonate frame.
- Both options come in a range of sizes, so it doesn’t matter which one you choose in this regard. Make sure you pick one that is the right size to fit all your things! I can generally fit most of the items in my minimalist wardrobe into a carry-on size, so I went with a 40-43 litre capacity suitcase.
- One more thing to look out for is an expandable suitcase. My new hard shell suitcase has an extra zipper that allows me to fit a few extra few items into it (hell yeah!), but not all suitcases have this feature.
Winner: Hard shell
- Suitcases are often advertised for their weight rather than their capacity. The hard shell suitcase I purchased is 2.5kg (5.5lbs) and can fit the same amount of clothing as my old soft shell suitcase.
- My soft shell suitcase is definitely heavier than my hard shell (to hazard a guess, I’d say it’s an extra 0.5-1kg). There are definitely lighter soft shell suitcases available, but it’s likely that their capacity will also be less. If you’re concerned about airline weight limits, you might be better off going with a hard shell.
Winner: Soft shell
- Soft shell suitcases usually open at the front, so when you lie it down, you’ll have one big space to stack all your things. This can be great if you’re taking bigger items like a winter jacket, bulky shoes, or camera gear as you have a larger space to play with. They also have exterior pockets, making it easy to access some of your items without opening the whole bag.
- Hard shell suitcases usually open in middle of the case, so when you lie it down, there will be two smaller spaces to stack your things. This means that you can separate items more easily, and it also means that your things will be more likely to stay tidy inside the suitcase. This does have a downside, as it means the suitcase will take up more space when you have it lying open.
- My old suitcase had 2 wheels at the back but my new suitcase has 4 wheels, making it way easier to drive around. This isn’t necessarily a reflection of soft shell vs hard shell, though – both are available in the 4-wheeled version (which in my opinion is definitely better).
Winner: Hard shell
- My soft shell suitcase lasted 8 or 9 years with fairly frequent use (probably a few times per year on average). There are signs of wear (a few small fabric tears and stains) but it was perfectly usable until the wheel broke.
- The hard shell has super tough plastic exterior, Which is easy to wipe clean and hard enough to withstand being knocked around. I haven’t been able to see the long-term effects of frequent use, but my guess it that it’s going to fare better than the soft shell.
- Note that many suitcases come with a long-term warranty (here in Australia it can often be a 10-year warranty) so if something breaks, you can get a repair or replacement within that time.
Winner: Hard shell
- Both suitcase types have the ability to be locked, either through a built-in lock (which is what my hard shell suitcase has, pictured above) or through an external lock that fits in the zip.
- The hard shell arguably provides better protection of your possessions, as it’s less likely to get damaged by other bags knocking into it or water seeping in (it happens – my bag once came off the plane completely soaked from being transferred in the pouring rain and all my clothes were damp as a result!).
Winner: Soft shell
- This is a tough one to solve as there is very little information out there on the environmental aspects of luggage. I tried to find out the sustainability aspects of my new Antler luggage with zero success. After emailing them for more info, they responded to let me know that while my current luggage doesn’t have any eco certifications, they are making that a priority for future products. It’s exciting to know that travel brands are taking this issue seriously!
- My guess is that if we disregard the specific bands that are trying to make their products environmentally friendly, the soft shell option made of fabric would be a better choice as the hard shell is made of plastic. Generally, plastic is bad for the environment. It lasts for many years without bio-degrading and it pollutes our oceans.
- There are plenty of companies making luggage that is eco-certified, so if you want to ensure your purchase has minimal environmental impact, read this article on sustainable luggage.
- There is no significant price difference between soft shell and hard shell – the price is more likely to vary with the brand or quality of the suitcase. I definitely advise that you choose something of decent quality as it will last much longer than a cheap suitcase! This is an investment in your travels, and also an investment in reducing waste by not having to replace it after a year or two.
- Generally, the larger the suitcase, the more expensive it will be, but I’d say you could expect to pay between $100-$250 for a carry-on suitcase, and $250-$400 for a full-size suitcase.
So, which is better? Hard shell or soft shell?
I have enjoyed using a soft shell suitcase for many years, but I’m also excited to be using a hard shell suitcase from now on. I plan to cover it in stickers from the places I visit as a way of collecting minimalist souvenirs.
It’s hard to say whether one option is definitively better than the other, though it seems like the hard shell might have slightly more pros than the soft shell. It really is just a matter of personal choice, and for me, the choice was swayed significantly by the colour options!