When you travel often, be it for business or pleasure, having the right suitcase can be nearly as important as having the right underwear. One question I am so frequently asked is: Should I get a hard case or a soft suitcase? And just like underwear, this decision is a personal one—but I’m going to tell you where my own preference lies (at least on the luggage part).
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Luggage: hard versus soft
Before going any further, let me caveat this by saying that I own both hard-sided and soft-sided luggage, and I’ve tested them out in various situations, both domestic and international. My husband and I are also carry-on-only kind of travelers except in extreme circumstances like a ski trip where I am flying with my gear. Just ask my Namibia travel pals about me conning them into packing in only a carry-on for 17 days! If they can do it, so can you.
With that said, the soft-side luggage wins for me every time. Here’s why—and even if you decide a hard-shell suitcase is for you, here are some things you need to look at when choosing a suitcase.
Flexibility, size and purpose
Before buying any bag, whether it’s hard-sided or soft shell, you need to make sure it fits the TSA standards assuming you plan to carry it on board with you.
For flights originating in the United States, all carry-on luggage must be at most 45 linear inches (that’s combined length, width and height). Though the U.S. is lax when it comes to carry-on bag weight, the width and height may not exceed 22 x 14 x 9 inches.
There’s no shortage of carry-on options, though I find many business travelers choose hard-sided luggage because not only are they just pretty to look at, but they have built-in features like charging ports and laptop sleeves. That’s great and all, but know that they also limit the space you have to pack, you know, the essentials.
That said, if you take a lot of one- to two-day business trips, a small hard-sided bag may be perfect for what you need. Here are some that are both stylish and will fit in your overhead bin:
Ultimately, why I choose soft-sided luggage to fit my own needs, it’s because I like the option to pop out the expandable pocket when I return from a trip should I go shopping or bring back souvenirs. With my hard-sided bags, that’s simply not feasible as the pop-out barely gives me any extra storage. I just find it, well, limiting.
So if you, like us, prefer the flexibility—which is great, in particular, if your travel is a mix of road travel and larger aircraft—having a soft suitcase is nice because you can use the expandable zippers when you have more space or leave it “shrunk” when you’re traveling in more confined quarters. Here are some soft-sided options that check all my boxes:
If you’re someone who lives in a smaller city and you travel a lot for a work, you’ll likely want to take into account that overhead bin space is a premium and unless you have a super small bag, you’ll have to gate check it more often than not. If this is your reality, I recommend looking into wheeled duffels or smaller rolling bags that can be smashed to fit into the much smaller overheads inside commuter planes like these:
- Osprey Sojourn Shuttle 22″/45L Wheeled Duffel
- Thule Aion Carry-On Spinner Wheeled Luggage
- Eagle Creek Cargo Hauler XT Wheeled Duffel
- Mother Lode Carry-On Rolling Duffel (currently on mega-sale!)
Durability is a hard one to gauge prior to buying a bag, which is why looking at the warranty is always smart before you make a big purchase. I have owned a handful of Tumi bags in the past that had life guarantees, which was good given that the wheels broke on one duffel and the handle on the other. That’s nothing against the brand itself, but let’s call it like it is: If you have a bag that’s large enough it has to be checked, it’s inevitable something breaks no matter how expensive or well built it is because of how roughly the airport luggage handlers sling those bags around.
It goes without saying, but if you’re purchasing online, take the time to read the reviews before you bite the bullet.
One of the first things that fails on many suitcase, at least in my personal experience, is wheels. So if I am testing out a new bag, whether in the store or upon ordering within its window of return, I make sure the wheels are going to glide effortlessly through the airport. I prefer spinner wheels that roll in all directions; this is the Samsonite bag I have owned in some iteration for years. My husband, on the other hand, prefers in-line skate wheels that only roll forward and backward, so again, personal preference.
More often than not, which luggage you choose is going to boil down to your budget. Hard-sided suitcases tend to run at a higher price point than their soft-shell equivalents, and nice luggage can be as much as $1,000 per piece. Personally, I probably spent anywhere between $150 and $250 on a suitcase every few years; I don’t believe in spending thousands on a bag that’s going to get beat up from heavy airport travel.
I’ve been pretty loyal to Samsonite over the decades, and it’s rarely failed me. I typically end up donating my suitcase only when the wheels aren’t turning properly; other than that, my bags stay with me for years.
The most expensive suitcase I own is my Monos hard shell. At $315, was it worth the price? Maybe—if you’re the type who likes to travel with a hard shell. And I’ll be honest, it was the aesthetic that drew me in in the first place. I mean, how cute is this?
Again, if you’re a road warrior flying several days every week, it might be worth it for you to invest in a nice hard set. And for others who only travel a couple times a year, spending half that may make more sense.
Your personal item
If you’re flying, you can take a carry-on and a personal item, and in the US at least, the personal item is not weighed or measured before boarding, unless you’re flying out of those super budget airlines like Frontier or Spirit (don’t do that to yourself). Arguably, the personal item you choose is just as important if not more so than the carry-on bag. Here’s where I get picky.
I’ve tried just about every brand of backpack over the years, and there’s a clear winner for me: Calpak. I have multiple Calpak items for my toiletries and also my hanging garments, but the Luca laptop backpack has been a game-changer for me because it’s smaller so I can’t stuff so much in there that it becomes unbearable to carry on my back, but also large enough that I can fit my laptop, a sweatshirt or jacket, and my mirrorless camera. It also makes a great day bag when I get to my destination.
Here are some other Calpak items that I own and really love:
Calpak also makes super-cute packing cubes that are currently on sale, too. If you haven’t bought into the compression cube game yet, now’s your chance. For us Type A travelers, they’re a game-changer.
I’m also a fan of eBags for carry-ons or personal items; I bought my mom the aptly-named Mother Lode carry-on for our Iceland trip a few years back, and it’s been the perfect carry-on for her, a traveler who used to carry an overstuffed tote (a tote!) as her personal item. There’s also a Junior version if you’re shopping for your teen (or for a tiny mom like my case).
Luggage under $100
If you’re simply here to find a suitcase at a lower price, here are some similar models I found for the above luggage, at a much lower price point:
- Embark Softside Carry On Suitcase
- Eddie Bauer Traverse 22 Rolling Duffel
- Made By Design Hardside Carry On Spinner Suitcase
- Samsonite Hyperspin 4 Softside Spinner Luggage
Again, as long as it’s durable and can get you where you need to go, I don’t see any reason to spend thousands—or even hundreds—on luggage if you find something that will get the job done for cheaper.
Suitcases for kids
If you’re someone who’s traveling with littles, it’s always a great idea to get them accustomed to pulling their own bag through an airport or hotel lobby. Bonus: It will double as a seat when their legs are so tired from standing in the TSA line! Here are a few cute ones your kiddo would love:
- Children’s Ride-On Hard Luggage
- Crckt Kids’ Softside Carry On Suitcase
- Paproos 16 Inch Suitcase
- Crckt Kids’ Hardside Carry On Spinner Suitcase
I think for kids’ bags, hard-sided suitcases are often the way to go simply to limit what they can take with them on a trip—not to mention, the weight of the bag, which can be cumbersome for a small child to pull—particularly if you’re flying. And look, while I won’t fault you for spending as much on your kids’ luggage as your own, there are plenty of cheap suitcase options via Amazon, Target or Walmart that are cute to boot.
I would just advise you to not buy a bag too large for the frame of your child, lest you wind up carrying their luggage, too (not to mention, most of us will fill any empty space we have at our disposal!).
Now your turn to share the goods: What suitcases do you love? And are you a hard-sided or soft-sided bag kind of traveler?