Choosing Between Hard-Sided and Soft-Sided Luggage

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If you're in the market for luggagefor yourself or for someone elseyou've got lots of choices among soft-sided luggage brands and styles. But hard-sided bags are making modest market inroads as well.

Soft-sided bags make up the bulk of the U.S. market. You can get them in a wide variety of styles, from garment bags and wheeled backpacks to standard suitcase shapes in various sizes and massive rolling duffels.

Hard-sided luggage is typically limited to a standard suitcase shape in bothcarry-onandchecked-bagsizes. Yet consumers have a growing interest in the category, thanks in part to new materials that are lightweight and strong.

Of the more than 38,000 CR members we surveyed last fall about the piece of luggage they use the most, 24 percent said they chose hard-sided luggage for their medium- and large-sized checked suitcases, up from 21 percent two years earlier. Seventeen percent chose hard-sided carry-ons, an increase from 14 percent over the same period.

Each type of luggage has its merits and drawbacks. When youshop for new luggagethis holiday season, heres what to consider.

Soft-Sided Luggage

Soft-sided luggage is made of fabrics that move and yield, usually woven nylon, such ascordura, ballistic, or ripstop. Cordura is more textured than ballistic, a little softer and more abrasion-resistant. Ballistic is the smoother and shinier of the two. Over time, ballistic can abrade, but that won't compromise the fabrics strength. Ripstop nylon is the very lightweight fabric commonly known as parachute material, often used in unstructured or semi-structured bags.

All three come in a variety of denier counts, which denote the weightnot the quality or strengthof the fabric. When it comes to ripstop nylon, however, a higher denier will ensure that even this lightweight fabric will be heavy enough to hold your belongings.

Many soft-sided pieces of luggage come with exterior pockets, and they often have two or more interior compartments. The closure is a zipper; newer bags may have an integrated lock.

You might opt for soft-sided luggage if youre looking for lightweight pieces that can flex and compress to fit into tight spaces, such as the overhead bin in an airplane. It may also take up less room to store at home.

The downside, of course, is that it wont provide as much protectionas a hard-sided piece of luggage. Its also vulnerable to ripping if its not high-quality.

Hard-Sided Luggage

Todays hard-shell or hard-sided luggage is made with high-tech plastics such as ABS and polycarbonate, which are lightweight and durable. ABS is the lightest, but polycarbonate is more durable. The most durable, but also the heaviest, is aluminum.

Hard-sided luggage often features a 50/50-split opening, allowing you to pack two sides equally and stabilize the contents with an interior strap or a middle divider. But the clamshell design requires double the surface space to spread it open. Most hard-sides are built this way, but there are some on the market that have a lid opening.

You may want to buy hard-sided luggage if youll be packing breakable items. It may offer better security than soft-sided baggage because it cant be ripped open as easily and usually has integrated locks.

Aluminum luggage can be even more secure. It often has metal drawbolt latches instead of zippers. If you tend to overpack, a hard-sided piece will rein you in; theres no chance of overstuffing it. For a carry-on, as long as you buy the right size, youre guaranteed a no-bulge fit in your airlines luggage sizer. Hard-sided luggage also stacks easily, making it ideal for cruise ships, where bags are stacked in the belly of the ship before departure.

Of course, it scuffs and scratches easily, too. Its also rigid, so you cant squeeze in extras if the need arises. Youll need a fixed storage space, which can be a challenge for apartment and small-house dwellers.

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