When shopping for luggage, most people don’t pay much attention to what materials it’s made from. However, from my experience of testing various suitcases, I can confidently say that the choice of material is the most important thing to look out for because it directly affects durability. For example, suitcases made from ABS are much more likely to develop cracks than polycarbonate ones.
In this article, I’ll explain the main differences between the most popular materials used in luggage – which ones are the strongest, which ones are the best if you’re on a budget, and which ones to avoid.
Choosing Between Hard vs Soft Luggage Materials
The first thing that you need to figure out when shopping for a new suitcase is to determine whether you’ll need a hardside or a softside one. Each one has its own benefits and downsides, so it’s more a matter of preference, although fabric suitcases usually last longer.
Hardside Luggage Key Characteristics
Benefits Of Hardside Luggage
- Provides more protection for fragile items
- More colorful and modern looks compared to fabric suitcases
- Aluminum hardside suitcases offer the best durability
Downsides Of Hardside Luggage
- Gets scratched over time
- Plastic suitcases can develop cracks
- Heavier than softside bags
- Only available as 4-wheel spinners, which offer less packing capacity
- The main zipper is more likely to break
- No exterior pockets
Softside Luggage Key Characteristics
Benefits Of Softside Lugagge
- Usually lasts longer than similarly-priced hardside bags
- Also offered in 2-wheel, inline options, which offer more packing space
- Usually, come with 1-4 exterior pockets
- Lighter than hardside luggage
Downsides Of Softside Luggage
- Can tear around the stitches
- Not as water-resistant as hardside bags
- Less protection for fragile items
- Not as good-looking as hardside luggage
- Lightly-colored options are very difficult to clean
Best Materials For Hardside Luggage
- Titanium luggage costs 1500$ to 3000$
- Very heavy
- The most durable material used in luggage
- Very rarely used in suitcases
You’ll find only a few high-end suitcases made from titanium because it’s a very expensive material. In strength, it’s considered to be the most durable material used in luggage because it’s very unlikely to crack or bend under high-stress applications. It’s even stronger than aluminum, but also more expensive and heavier. Due to its heavy weight, it doesn’t make sense to use titanium for carry-ons that have strict weight limits. But for high-end, best-in-class checked bags, titanium is an excellent choice.
- Aluminum luggage costs 500$ to 1500$
- Second-heaviest material used in luggage
- Very durable
A lot of high-end suitcases are made from aluminum. Rimowa started the aluminum suitcase trend more than 50 years ago with their grooved parallel aluminum frames, which quickly became a travel icon. Over years, other manufacturers also started offering good options, like Tumi and Away.
Although aluminum luggage is very expensive, it’s still a smart choice for frequent travelers because it’s extremely durable. Aluminum suitcases usually last for decades because instead of cracking or tearing, aluminum just bends. And when it does, it can be bent back into shape pretty easily. Usually, other hardware on aluminum luggage breaks first, like the wheels, handles, or latches.
Aluminum is heavier than any other luggage material, except for titanium. So if you’ll be getting an aluminum carry-on, you won’t have much spare weight left in your luggage allowance. It makes more sense to get aluminum checked bags, which will keep your checked items protected. For a carry-on, a well-made polycarbonate or nylon suitcase will offer more than enough durability at a lower cost.
- Real Carbon Fiber Luggage costs 1500-3000$
- Very lightweight
- Rigid and strong, but can crack under high pressure
- Rarely used in luggage
Carbon fiber is used only by a few luggage brands because even though it’s very strong and lightweight, it’s extremely expensive, and it can crack or shatter. Aluminum is a better choice because it bends instead of breaking. When luggage is checked in, a lot of bags can be piled on top of it can be thrown around carelessly, which means that it’s just a matter of time before carbon fiber luggage will develop cracks. That’s why carbon fiber luggage is better suited for carry-on applications, where you control what situations your bag is being exposed to.
- Polycarbonate luggage costs 100$ to 600$, depending on the brand
- Flexes easily and is somewhat resistant to cracking
- The best hardside material for affordable and medium-class luggage
Polycarbonate, in short PC, is a plastic that’s very commonly used in hardside luggage. Compared to cheaper plastics, like ABS, PET, or ABS/PC composites, it feels less durable in real life because it’s really flexible. But it actually isn’t. Its flexibility allows it to bend when exposed to rough luggage handling, instead of cracking. This greatly improves the lifespan of the bag, especially for checked bags which are put under more pressure.
Although technically polycarbonate bags are the heaviest of all other plastic hardside bags, the weight difference really isn’t that high, only about 8-12% of the total weight. PC suitcases also aren’t too expensive, which makes them an ideal choice for carry-ons and checked bags. If you want to get a hardside bag, I advise going with a polycarbonate one.
- Polypropylene suitcases cost 80-300$
- The lightest plastic used in luggage
- Flexes even more than polycarbonate
- Not as durable as polycarbonate but more durable than other plastics
Polypropylene, in short PP, is another plastic that’s commonly used in hardside luggage. Its main benefit is its weight, being the lightest of all the common plastics used in suitcase manufacturing. In real life, polypropylene suitcases feel cheap and fragile, because they bend and the plastic feels soft. However, this actually makes the suitcase more resistant to cracking. It’s the second most durable plastic used in luggage, right after polycarbonate. Polypropylene suitcases are a really good option if you’re looking for an affordable carry-on or checked bag.
Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS)
- ABS luggage costs 60-200$
- Stiff and rigid, but more likely to develop cracks
- We wouldn’t recommend getting ABS suitcases due to the lack of durability
Most cheap hardside suitcases are made from ABS. It’s a plastic that feels rigid and tough but actually is more prone to breaking due to the stiffness of the material. When put under pressure, an ABS suitcase is very likely to develop cracks. So if you’re shopping for a checked bag, then it’s best to avoid ABS luggage, because checked bags are put under rougher baggage handling conditions. However, due to the lightness and cheap cost of the material, ABS luggage actually isn’t too bad of a choice for hand luggage if being careful with it.
- PC/ABS luggage costs 80-200$
- Somewhat resistant to cracking
- An okay option if on a budget
Another popular plastic used in affordable luggage is PC/ABS composites, which essentially are ABS mixed with some polycarbonate. This makes the plastic more resistant to cracking, while still keeping the overall costs low. If you’re on a tight budget, then suitcases made from this composite are a good option. But if you can invest more, getting a 100% polycarbonate or polypropylene suitcase is better because it will last longer.
Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)
- PET suitcases cost 80 to 200$
- More likely to crack compared to PC, PP, or ABS/PC luggage
Polyethylene Terephthalate, in short PET, is a plastic that’s widely used in food packaging (drink bottles, food containers, vitamin bottles, etc). It’s also rarely used in the manufacturing of luggage. In durability, it’s very similar to ABS, so it isn’t really an ideal choice for checked baggage. Its main advantages are that it’s cheap and that it can be made from recycled plastics, so it’s more environmentally friendly. Overall, PET carry-ons are better than ABS ones, but still not nearly as good as polypropylene or polycarbonate ones.
Best Materials For Softside Luggage
- Ballistic Nylon suitcases cost between 500-1200$
- The heaviest fabric used in luggage
- Extremely abrasion and tear-resistant
- An expensive, but necessary material for frequent travelers
The most expensive fabric suitcases will usually be made from ballistic nylon, which is a fabric invented in WW2 to provide resistance against exploding metal fragments. Today, it’s used in various functional applications, like motorcycle and logging apparel, backpacks, and luggage. It’s made from regular nylon threads, just weaved in a different, tighter weave, which increases its durability.
It’s a very expensive material, which is why ballistic nylon suitcases usually start at 400-500$. They’re worth it for frequent travelers and flight crews because ballistic nylon suitcases usually last decades of heavy use. In terms of durability, ballistic nylon bags usually last as long as aluminum ones. The only downside is that this material is very heavy – heavier than any plastic used in luggage, but not as heavy as aluminum.
- Nylon luggage costs 120-500$
- The lightest material used in luggage
- Abrasion and tear-resistant
- Doesn’t soak up bad odors
Nylon is the second most-used fabric in luggage, right after polyester. It costs a bit more, but it’s more durable and lighter. It has very good abrasion and tear resistance properties, and it’s also fairly good at resisting water. So if you can get your hands on a good, well-made nylon suitcase, it’s worth every penny. If you find one made by a reliable brand, there’s no reason why it couldn’t last at least a decade of frequent use.
- Polyester luggage costs 50-300$
- Almost as light as nylon
- Not the most durable fabric, but when used with thicker diameter yarns, it can be fairly durable
- Soaks up bad odors fairly quickly
Polyester is the most commonly used fabric in suitcases because it’s cheap and provides good-enough durability properties. It isn’t as abrasion and tear-resistant as nylon, but it isn’t significantly worse either, only marginally. It’s also a very lightweight fabric, making it a good choice for luggage.
However, not all polyester suitcases are equally good. Some are made from thinner diameter yarns and with worse-quality stitching, so it really depends on how well-made the suitcase is. A polyester bag made by Travelpro, Samsonite, Delsey, or other good brands will last a long time of heavy use. Cheap ones will only last a few uses until the first stitches start to come apart.
- Oxford cloth luggage costs 50-300$
- Similar in durability to polyester
Occasionally, you’ll find some suitcases made from oxford cloth, especially in the lower price range. It’s a material that’s made from 100% polyester yarns but it’s weaved into a slightly rougher fabric. Aside from the looks, it isn’t really that much different from polyester – it has similar durability, water resistance, and odor-absorption properties.
- Canvas baggage costs 80-300$
- Very durable
- Bad at resisting water
A lot of duffels and backpacks are made from canvas fabric, which is a strong natural fabric, often used in tarps, tents, belts and straps, and other applications. Canvas is a very durable fabric with very good abrasion and tear resistance, so if you get a canvas bag, it will likely last decades. The only issue with canvas is that this material soaks up water really easily, and being in moist conditions, it can degrade over time. That’s why often water-resistant coatings are applied to its exterior, to make it more suitable for travel applications.
- Leather baggage costs 150-700$
- Very heavy
- Extremely durable
- Good at water-resistance
In suitcases, leather is usually only used in handles and small design elements. But it’s often used as the main choice of material in duffel bags and backpacks. 100% leather is really durable and will likely last decades of use if taken care of, but it’s really heavy. For traveling, you need to keep your pack weight under the airline restrictions, so I would personally avoid leather bags.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is The Best Material For Hardside Luggage?
For hardside luggage, the best choice of material is aluminum due to its impressive durability properties. However, aluminum is also really heavy and expensive, so another good option is polycarbonate (PC), which is the most durable plastic used in luggage. It’s slightly more expensive than other plastics, but it’s much less likely to crack and offers similar lightweight properties. Polypropylene and PC/ABS plastics are also okay, but if you can afford it, then polycarbonate is a better option.
What Is The Best Material For Softside Luggage?
For softside luggage, the best choice of material is ballistic nylon. It’s often used in high-end suitcases for frequent travelers due to its excellent abrasion and tear-resistance properties. However, this material is very heavy and expensive, which is why most suitcases are made from nylon or polyester. Nylon is a slightly better option than polyester because it’s more durable, but if you get a well-made polyester bag, it can also last a very long time.
Which Luggage Material Is The Most Durable?
Although arguably, aluminum is more durable than ballistic nylon, I would argue that in luggage applications, ballistic nylon lasts longer. That’s because when put under extreme pressure, aluminum can crack. Most of the time it bends, but over time, your aluminum bag might develop cracks. Because aluminum bags are stiff, more stress is also put on other elements, like the latches, wheels, and handles.
Ballistic nylon, on the other hand, is very flexible, and it pretty much won’t tear by itself. If you get a good-quality ballistic nylon suitcase with strong stitching and premium hardware, made by Briggs & Riley, Travelpro, or Tumi, it will likely outlast any aluminum alternative with a lighter overall pack weight.
Which Luggage Material Is The Lightest?
The lightest luggage material is nylon, followed by polyester and then polypropylene. Generally, though, the weight differences aren’t that major between most fabrics and plastics used in luggage. For example, polycarbonate (the heaviest plastic used in luggage) is only 20% heavier than nylon. The only two really heavy materials used in luggage are ballistic nylon and aluminum, which weigh 40% and 60% more than nylon.
Should I Get Polyester Or Polycarbonate Luggage?
It depends on your preference of whether you prefer hardside or softside luggage. A well-made polyester suitcase will be just as durable as a polycarbonate one. That said, polycarbonate bags can crack if put under too much pressure, for example, when checked in. So if durability is your concern, for checked bags, polyester luggage would be a better option. Polyester is also lighter than polycarbonate.
But polycarbonate luggage also has its benefits. It looks better, it provides better protection for fragile items, and it’s more water resistant than polyester luggage. In price, both of them cost very similarly, so in the end, it depends on your preference.
Which Luggage Material Is Better – Polypropylene Or Polycarbonate?
Polycarbonate is more durable than polypropylene, so in terms of durability, polycarbonate is better. However, polypropylene is lighter than polycarbonate by about 10-15%. So if weight is your #1 concern, then polypropylene luggage is better. When taking both things into consideration, I usually recommend polycarbonate as the best choice of plastic for hardside luggage and polypropylene as the second-best option.
Is Polypropylene Better Than ABS For Luggage?
Polypropylene luggage is better than ABS because it’s more durable, lighter, and costs only marginally more. The problem with ABS is that it’s a really rigid plastic that cracks easily. Although polypropylene feels less durable in real life than ABS, it will actually last longer because instead of cracking, it bends.
Are Nylon Suitcases Better Than Polyester Ones?
Nylon suitcases are marginally better compared to polyester ones. That’s because nylon is better at abrasion and tear resistance, and nylon suitcases are, on average, also lighter. However, the durability differences aren’t that significant between the two materials to definitely say that all nylon bags are better. The quality of the stitching, wheels, zippers, and handles is more important because these things will break first. So a good quality polyester bag will surely be better than a low-quality nylon one.
Summing Up: What Luggage Material Is The Best
It’s hard to say with confidence that one luggage material is better than the others because each one has its own benefits and drawbacks. But if I’d have to sum up which luggage materials are the best, I’d do it like this.
If budget isn’t a problem, go with aluminum or ballistic nylon luggage, depending on whether you prefer soft or hard shell luggage. Both of them will last decades of heavy use.
If you don’t want to spend too much, go with a well-made polycarbonate, polypropylene, nylon, or polyester bag. All of these materials are solid choices, marginally outperforming each one in different categories. In this price range, going with a reputable manufacturer, like Samsonite, Delsey, or Travelpro is more important than the choice of material.
And lastly, the only luggage materials I would avoid are ABS, ABS/PC composites, PET, titanium, carbon fiber, canvas, and leather. They’re either lacking in durability, they’re too heavy, or too expensive to be used in luggage.