Guide to Luggage Shell Materials
Luggage shell materials must be strong enough to protect your possessions while resisting the wear and tear associated with frequent travel. The quest for the toughest, most durable, and most lightweight luggage material has led to fierce debates that often require explanation — few travelers fully understand the pros and cons of polypropylene vs. polycarbonate, for instance.
To help you choose the right luggage material for your needs, we’ve put together this guide to different bag materials, with commentary on the pros and cons of each.
Hard-Side vs. Soft-Side
To start, let’s take a brief look at the two broadest categories of luggage: hard-side and soft-side.
- Hard-side luggage has a rigid protective shell made from materials such as ABS, polycarbonate, or polypropylene. Hardside luggage materials offer maximum protection for suitcase contents and can withstand rough baggage handling. While stronger than most soft-side bags, hard-side luggage can be more difficult to fit into crowded overhead compartments, as you cannot compress the bags to fit in small spaces.
- Soft-side luggage, in contrast, is made from nylon, polyester, canvas, or other flexible materials. Soft-side bags are not as rigid than hard-side suitcases but are easier to stow as carry-on.
Hard Side: Polypropylene (PP)
Polypropylene (PP) is a hard hydrocarbon resin made from propylene, a petroleum byproduct. Polypropylene is a little less rigidity as other hard-side luggage materials, but it does have some advantages:
Polypropylene Luggage Pros
- Lightest hard-side luggage material
- Well-suited for frequent use
- Chemical and temperature resistant
Polypropylene Luggage Cons
- Not as rigid as polycarbonate bags
- The color can degrade when exposed to UV light
Comparing Polypropylene vs. Polycarbonate
When comparing polypropylene vs. polycarbonate bags such as the Platinum® Elite Medium Check-In Expandable Hardside Spinner, it’s important to remember that while polypropylene is lighter, polycarbonate is the sturdier choice. A polycarbonate suitcase may cost more but will offer more rigid protection.
Hardside: Polycarbonate (PC)
Polycarbonate is an extremely tough polyester compound used to make over 40% of hard-side luggage. While heavier than polypropylene and ABS suitcases, polycarbonate bags are flexible and highly resistant to cracks. The Maxlite® Air Medium Check-In Expandable Hardside Spinner is an excellent example of a polycarbonate suitcase.
- Moderately priced
- Strong and durable
- Water resistant
- Crack, scratch, and impact resistant
- Not as flexible as soft-side luggage
- Higher price than polypropylene luggage
- More difficult to repair if damaged
- Heavier than polypropylene and ABS bags
Hard Side: Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS)
ABS stands for Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene, a petroleum byproduct. ABS is a popular luggage material that accounts for almost 30% of hard-side suitcases. ABS is suggested for infrequent travel, as the material is durable but can suffer damage when exposed to high temperatures or rough handling.
ABS Luggage Pros
- Attractive price
- Water resistant
- Heaviest of the hard-side luggage materials
- Plastic wheels, handles, and other elements may break
- Most expensive hard-side luggage option
- Quality and appearance may attract unwanted attention
- Will get dented up or show character from their travels
Soft Side: Polyester
Polyester soft side bags are popular due to their lightweight, flexible, and durable nature. Polyester bags typically have Deniers scores of 600D to 900D (One Deniers is a unit of textile measurement. A higher Denier indicates stronger fabrics made from thicker threads). When treated with DuraGuard® coating, polyester suitcases such as the Maxlite® 5 21" Carry-On Expandable Spinner are water and scuff resistant. Oxford cloth is a polyester woven in a slightly different pattern, sometimes used for soft-side luggage.
Soft Side: Nylon
Nylon bags resist tears and abrasion better than polyester. Nylon tends to have a lower Deniers range than polyester but is nonetheless stronger. The Platinum® Elite 25” Check-In Expandable Spinner is an excellent example of a high-density nylon bag.
Two variants of nylon are often used to make bags. Ballistic nylon has a thicker, heavier thread than regular nylon and is the most durable fabric used to create soft-side luggage. Backpacks, which need extra resistance, are often made with ballistic nylon. Cordura, a similar nylon product, uses nylon threads that are 1050D thickness.
Soft Side: Leather
Leather was a popular choice for luggage in the 1950s. Today, however, leather has lost ground to more effective luggage materials, and today is mostly used for handbags, duffel bags, and backpacks.
Leather can last for decades if properly cared for, but it has some definite drawbacks. Leather is heavier than other soft-side luggage materials and soaks up water if it gets wet, causing unsightly stains.
Soft Side: Canvas
Canvas is made from cotton or hemp and is often used for backpacks and duffle bags. The organic material used to make canvas makes canvas bags less weatherproof than nylon or polyester bags. Exposure to dampness can result in canvas rotting, and the material is heavier than nylon and polyester. On the plus side, canvas is extremely durable when cared for properly.