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I'm about to buy a suitcase (something I don't do often). I've only ever had fabric-shell rather than hard-shell cases, and I'm almost sure that's what I'm going to buy again, but I was wondering - why ever buy a hard-shell suitcase? I mean, some websites says it better protects what's inside, but the thing is that the case itself will bang against what's inside - so you seem to be trading protection against pressure for protection against being thrown around; and I would think the latter is more important.

Are there any significant advantages to hard-shell suitcases that I'm ignoring (and might change my mind)? And - is my reasoning about protecting the contents correct or am I missing something?

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Ignoring things like aesthetics, personal taste, etc, it's more or less what you said:

you seem to be trading protection against pressure for protection against being thrown around

...but of course you can mitigate the loss of protection against being thrown around by packing strategically to fill the space and use soft items to protect fragile items (e.g. wrap clothes around things, wedge things in place, fill gaps).


Hard cases can bring a benefit when your luggage includes fragile / hollow items that would squish or crush in on themselves if weight is piled on them in a soft case. For example, I went with a hard case when transporting an unusually shaped musical instrument that didn't fit any proper purpose-designed touring-grade hard cases - but I've used soft cases (backpacks, sports holdalls, fabric wheeled cases) almost all other times, with normal luggage like clothes, books, bottles wrapped in clothes, etc.

Don't rely on hard shells alone, however - as people have said in comments, hard shell cases tend to be quite thin and flimsy and crack disappointingly often. I'd recommend taking additional precautions. For example, my fragile musical instrument was:

  • Wrapped in clothes to reduce movement and protect it if it did rattle around
  • Filling a quite sturdy cardboard box
  • With other hard items strategically placed around it to act like struts, plus more clothes to stop the carboard box rattling in the case
  • Inside a hard shell case
  • Which was stuffed sufficiently full that the shell sides didn't bend or buckle more than a little when weight was put on them (I tested)
  • Which I think as a final precaution I then wrapped with that plastic wrapping stuff at the airport (probably doubling the thickness of the flimsy outer shell!)

All together, it worked very well. To be honest, with all of that it may well have been okay in a soft case too... but the hard shell probably helped as one factor among many.


As for waterproofing, there may be a small benefit, but only a small one. One time I wished I had a bag with waterproof sides after a trip in an unexpectedly waterlogged canoe in unexpectedly choppy water, but even then, it was only the outer clothes that were slightly damp. It'd need to be virtually submerged in water for it to soak through layers of clothes in a tightly packed soft case, and most shell cases can let water in at the zip. If waterproofing is a major concern, a better solution is to use dry bags inside whatever case you use, or do the thing where you wrap the case in plastic at the airport.

Under normal circumstances, soft cases are probably slightly preferable because they're easier to pad out and less likely to be seriously/irreparably damaged (e.g. it's easier to fix or patch a tear or stretched seam than a hard case that cracked after falling).

  • 4
    +1, But I would also think weight is a factor you didn't mention. Hard cases tend to be heavier than soft cases, and if you're packing a lot of stuff, a lighter case might be desirable, if only to avoid over-weight fees. – senschen Mar 1 '17 at 15:53
  • A lot of newer hard shell cases are surprisingly light. But they're also quite flimsy, so it's a bit of a trade-off again... – user56reinstatemonica8 Mar 2 '17 at 10:57
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Security would be one reason, as can be seen on this forum thread when an unscrupulous airport employee tried real hard to get inside the bag:

Pelican with TamperSeal hasps

I do not think there's any softshell that would've protected its contents against such an attempt.

Another reason would be caring for the bag itself. One my bags once developed a tear from what was clearly dragging on oily tarmac. I was fortunate enough to make it home with it and Eagle Creek fixed it (for free, because EC has a warranty like that, that's why we buy EC) but just as well the bag might have given it up completely. There are horror stories of other suitcases or bent conveyor parts acting like an knife. It takes a lot more to tear my Samsonite Firelite apart than a softshell -- even if it's made of such sturdy materials like 1000 denier Cordura fabric that Red Oxx uses. In the past I had a Pelican 1620 which probably could have withstood anything short of a direct nuclear strike (the photo is a Pelican 1514) but I have parted with it because I can't justify the weight vs sturdiness ratio and now just check the Firelite in. It's sturdy enough for me.

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    Some more detail would help make this a better answer. Was there evidence that this was caused by machinery, or did it appear to be caused by malicious people? Also, that looks to be an equipment case for some sort of fragile equipment, not a standard suit case for general purpose clothes packing. (Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's a bit outside the realm of the OP.) – FreeMan Mar 1 '17 at 20:18
  • This was a person. photography-on-the.net/forum/showthread.php?t=910667 – chx Mar 1 '17 at 21:07
  • It would be worthwhile editing that into your answer - comments can get removed. – FreeMan Mar 1 '17 at 21:15
  • I've rewritten the answer. – chx Mar 2 '17 at 0:12
  • very nicely updated! – FreeMan Mar 2 '17 at 14:51
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The advantage or lack there of is totally dependent on your packing practices. What do you take when you travel and how full is your luggage each trip.

If you take clothes and a simple toilet kit, then there is really no added advantage to a hard sided suitcase, other than perhaps some waterproofing if the cloth sided suitcase is not coated nylon.

On the other hand if you take fragile bottles of perfume or a few bottles of whiskey to drink yourself to sleep in the room, then then the added protection of a hard sided suitcase comes in handy.

From a fullness point of view, a hard sided suitcase is subject to items being thrown around during handling if it is not filled completely with clothing and such. But whether this matters or not again depends on what you pack and whether or not you compartmentalize your packing using things like Packing Cubes.

Ultimately there is no singular answer. You need to consider what you take on your travels, what souvenirs you might buy to bring home and how fragile all these are. Then buy a bag that works best for your specific needs, not what the advertisers claim.

  • 1
    For full bottles of whisky/perfume, I'd favour soft cases because it's easier to surround them with clothes and other padding stuffed in so it's in the middle and it doesn't move/can't bounce into each other. Benefit of hard cases is mostly hollow/empty things that can break in on themselves under pressure. – user56reinstatemonica8 Mar 1 '17 at 13:35
  • @user568458 - if bottles are surrounded by clothes and tucked in the middle of the bag, what difference does the suitcase make? They aren't going to be safer in soft sided versus hard sided. – user13044 Mar 1 '17 at 14:52
  • It's easier to tightly fill / pad out a soft case (especially backpacks) so that the stuff inside is held in place and doesn't bounce around. It's not a big difference (none of this is really), just slightly easier – user56reinstatemonica8 Mar 1 '17 at 15:04
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    @user568458 and if you tightly pack a soft case and it gets crushed then all your stuff gets crushed. – Stop Harming Monica Mar 1 '17 at 15:05
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    @user568458 - "It's easier to tightly fill...", you obviously haven't seen my wife pack her hard sided suitcase. – user13044 Mar 1 '17 at 15:38
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Protection for both things inside and people outside.

Since I have changed to exclusively getting hard-sided suitcases I have never had any item inside the suitcase get damaged. With soft-side ones, every one out of five or so flights, something would get at least a little damaged or bottles squeezed out.

The other reason to buy a hard-sided case is to make it harder for handlers to get at your stuff. There is a difference, although that does not mean they won't be people who still get it. Note that you must look at suitcases specifically for that purpose if that is important to you. If the suitcase has zippers or built-in TSA-Locks, it won't be hard opening.

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Not only can it have protective value for fragile stuff, but it can have protective value for stuff that won't appreciate being crushed. I owned one hardside (unfortunately, it was a spinner and the wheels didn't survive it's last flight) for transporting packets of powder. The only protection needed is to keep them secure against moving around. Anything the container will survive they'll also survive. However, they do not fare well with a container that can deform. When I transported some in a softside bag multiple packets failed. My first try in a hardside had a couple of failures where I didn't adequately secure them against movement. Secured against movement, no damage even when the airline smashed the wheel.

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Another angle then protection:

Compliance with regulation and optimization.

I fly often on trips where I only have carry on luggage. I have a hard-shell suitcase that's exactly the maximum dimensions allowed to bring as carry on. This way I can cram the maximum amount of stuff within the allowed dimensions.

If you try the same with a soft bag, it will start to lose shape and you run the risk that "it won't fit" and you have to pay extra fees.

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    I think it's the opposite actually. A soft bag can cram more easily into non-box spaces - and it can't break or crack because of lack of space. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Mar 2 '17 at 8:57
  • @einpoklum Sorry, I was talking about before you get into the airplane. You suitcase has to fit in something like this: cdn.images.express.co.uk/img/dynamic/1/590x/secondary/… – Pieter B Mar 2 '17 at 10:16
  • I don't see much advantage of a hardshell over a softshell in that case: yes the hardshell won't distort at all so you know it'll always fit but a/ dimensions vary from a company to the next and b/ if the softshell is roughly the right size, you can always take an extra sweater out, wear it, and readjust the straps to fit in the box. (of course, you need straps on your softshell carry-on) – njzk2 Mar 2 '17 at 21:11
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There are two kinds of hard case suitcases being sold, or at least named. The lightweight and the more massive non lightweight (?) ones.

The lightweight kind is somewhat of an hybrid- it's not nylon but still have some elasticity to it. It's not easily punched, but it's not bullet proof.

I have experience with two kinds of Delsey cases, the lightweight one survived for less than a year- it fell on its corner during delivery and was punched, this is something that would never happen in other kinds. The "real" hard one survived for years, but was much more heavier.

protected by JonathanReez Supports Monica Mar 3 '17 at 13:49

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