If you’ve ever traveled before, you’re familiar with the fact that getting around is almost impossible without the right kind of luggage.
When buying a piece of luggage, the main factors you should be concerned with are the impact resistance of the case and its weight.
Unlike their soft-surfaced counterparts, hard-sided cases provide a decent level of protection against various external factors. You may ask yourself,
Are they indestructible?
Of course not, but you can even find Kevlar cases nowadays. And if you were wondering, no, they will not protect you from bullets because Kevlar is only one of multiple materials used in their construction.
Keep in mind that even the best hard-sided suitcases can be prone to damage and dents.
As you keep reading, you will see that the perfect material for hard-sided cases doesn’t exist; they all have drawbacks.
That said, your goal should be to spend the least amount of money on the best possible luggage.
It all boils down to these five main hard-sided luggage materials:
Over 90% percent of hard-sided pieces of luggage are made from the above materials, but later in this article, we will also discuss other materials used like Tegris and Kevlar.
First, let’s take a look at ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene).
Since it’s made of plastic and is a rubber substitute, it does not fare well with rough treatment, and after a couple of drops, you will see scratches and dents on the surface of the luggage.
The main drawback with ABS is not its poor resistance to wear and tear. It’s the lack of flexibility.
The material is not flexible enough, and if enough impact force is applied to an ABS luggage, the case will crack like an egg. You could imagine that ABS is like an improved eggshell.
To make it look tougher and increase the price of their product, some luggage manufacturers present it using fancy words like “diamond pattern ABS” or “anti-scratch ABS material.” Please don’t get tricked by this marketing strategy; at the end of the day, ABS is still ABS, no matter what they call it.
The most significant advantage of this material is that it’s lighter, meaning that ABS luggage will be the first choice for people who don’t like to carry a lot of weight. Another positive aspect is that ABS is cheap to manufacture.
If you’re wondering how cheap it is, then I can tell you that in China, you can purchase ABS luggage for as little as $10. And as you can see from this video, it is thoroughly tested to endure all kinds of punishment that no traveler would ever subject it to.
ABS is the perfect choice for budget travelers because it is cheap, light, and easy to produce. Also, it is a good choice for people who rarely travel, as they will not need an expensive suitcase that would just sit and gather dust.
ABS can be combined with other thermoplastic materials to decrease its endurance flaws, thus increasing its resistance and flexibility.
The result will have better characteristics than regular ABS, though not as good as polycarbonate. If you’re more interested in functionality than aesthetics, then suitcases made of ABS might be what you’re looking for.
Another disadvantage with this material is that it will become brittle in extreme cold: -4 F (-20C) or lower. Repetitive exposure to extreme cold can also create a phenomenon known as stress cracking.
ABS will also fade when exposed to the sun for long periods. To prevent this, luggage manufacturers add additional chemicals like carbon black to the ABS mix to absorb the UV rays, thus preventing discoloration.
Now you know that if you live in a freezing environment, you should avoid purchasing ABS-made luggage.
Polycarbonate is a group of thermoplastic polymers that contains carbonates; it is effortless to mold and highly flexible.
Repetitively hitting a piece of polycarbonate luggage with a hammer will make it flex but not break. If you apply brute force to it, the construction flexes back in reaction to each hit, making it almost impossible to break.
This is an advantage but also a drawback. If you usually carry clothes or non-fragile items, then polycarbonate luggage is ideal.
However, things change when you have your case packed with electronics like laptops or photo and video equipment.
At this point, it’s better to choose another material like aluminum. Some luggage manufacturers offer a padded compartment for laptops in their hard-sided cases.
The sunlight will not affect this material because it is a natural absorbent of UV radiation meaning that the color of your suitcase will not fade with time.
It is worth mentioning that nowadays, most hard-sided cases are made from polycarbonate because it offers the best compromise. The only drawback is the price. It’s more expensive than ABS but cheaper than aluminum.
I expected this product to be durable since different industries integrate polycarbonate into products such as bulletproof glass, safety goggles, and helmets.
Polycarbonate can also be stylized and come in different colors and patterns, giving it an advantage over other materials.
Other than pricing, there are not many disadvantages to this material. Because of this, I think that its price is justified by its outstanding performance against knocks and scratches.
However, if affordability is your main concern, it might be better for you to look at some cheaper materials (ABS).
Polycarbonate vs. ABS Luggage
In general, polycarbonate is way better than ABS as a material because of its flexibility and superior resistance. If both are exposed to the same treatment, ABS will crack first. ABS is cheaper than polycarbonate and weighs less, but a suitcase made from ABS will not last as long as a polycarbonate one.
I say “in general” because most of the time, both materials are combined with others to create a more robust hard shell suitcase.
I’ve seen suitcases on the market that are not made from 100% ABS, based on their impact resistance, despite the manufacturer’s statement.
Some established luggage brands combine ABS with other thermoplastic materials to make it more robust.
Polypropylene is another thermoplastic polymer. This material is resistant to chemicals due to its oil-based plastic structure, so it can withstand sharp temperature changes during travel.
This doesn’t mean that the suitcase’s chances of cracking are nil. Polypropylene can lose its molecular mobility and become shatter-prone in winter (source).
Polypropylene is the lightest option when compared to ABS or polycarbonate. As far as its affordability and durability goes, I’d say that it’s somewhere in the middle. Overall, polypropylene does not differ that much from polycarbonate.
Therefore, I think that a piece of hard-sided luggage made of polypropylene might suit people who always like to buy products that are a combination of the two.
Which is better for luggage, polycarbonate or polypropylene?
In general, polycarbonate luggage is a bit heavier and has slightly increased resistance to wear and tear compared to a polypropylene one.
On the other hand, a polypropylene luggage piece is lighter, costs less, and is more flexible than a polycarbonate one.
Keep in mind that the difference in resistance and weight are not that big between the two materials. If you were to have two suitcases, one made from polycarbonate and one from polypropylene, and used them constantly, you would hardly feel any difference.
When choosing between these two, you should also think about your belongings and the level of protection they need. If you only pack clothes or other non-fragile items then a polypropylene suitcase will do better because polypropylene is more flexible than polycarbonate.
Aluminum suitcases are high-end products that have held their place at the top of the list for a long time. From what I’ve gathered by browsing through customer feedback, I concluded that this is the most obvious choice for many people, but not always for practical reasons.
Truthfully, the aluminum used in the luggage industry is an aluminum alloy that combines aluminum (90%-95%), copper, magnesium, and other metals. That is because pure aluminum is not strong enough. This aluminum alloy is similar to the one used to make airplane wings.
Nowadays, the best aluminum alloy used in the luggage industry comes from Rimowa, but their suitcases are quite expensive.
If you want to know more about Rimowa prices and the aluminum alloy that they use, I wrote a full article on that subject here.
Aluminum has proven to be the most durable material compared to others.
I think that this might be the most significant advantage, and their solid and inflexible shells will protect your belongings regardless of how much pressure you apply.
For fragile items, an aluminum case is ideal.
You can pack everything from clothing to breakables in these sturdy suitcases without worrying about them bending under pressure.
Unfortunately, this extreme durability creates another inconvenience in the form of excessive weight. Aluminum is the heaviest of all five materials, which can be a problem for some people.
Another minor drawback is that once an aluminum suitcase dents, it will stay that way forever. There isn’t any way to fix the dents and scratches on an aluminum suitcase.
The majority of aluminum suitcases are marketed nowadays as luxury items. Most customers prefer aluminum suitcases to signal their social status and do not actually need this type of suitcase.
In addition to the mobility problem, these cases do not come in various colors or patterns like other materials. Because of this, aluminum cases often have a dull and not so aesthetically pleasing design to them.
This could be a problem if you want a suitcase that can be easily spotted amongst other peoples’ cases on the luggage belt.
Some people like to place stickers on their aluminum suitcases to differentiate them from the rest. Despite its aesthetic flaws, I think that it’s safe to say that aluminum is incomparable to the other materials regarding durability.
If you invest in an aluminum suitcase and don’t like dents and scratches, you will need a luggage cover. The reason why there are so many alternatives to aluminum is its price. It can be costly, but it entirely justifies the saying, “you get what you pay for.”
Polycarbonate vs. Aluminum
It’s hard to compare the two because they are like water and oil. An aluminum suitcase is way more expensive than a polycarbonate one. It will last longer but at a high cost. Also, an aluminum suitcase weighs more.
Polycarbonate is a cheaper and lighter option that will satisfy the needs of most travelers.
You would only need an aluminum suitcase if you travel with expensive electronic devices since this type of material will offer the best protection from getting knocked about, not to mention an aluminum suitcase is also waterproof.
But this isn’t the incentive for most customers that buy aluminum cases. Especially in China, where aluminum suitcases sell like hotcakes, people buy them to show off their social status.
You will also not be able to overpack an aluminum suitcase.
In general, polycarbonate is better for most people when choosing luggage. This is because it will cost less, and it will do an excellent job of protecting their belongings from the elements or baggage handlers.
However, you should pick aluminum if you carry expensive items that need a high level of protection.
Polyvinyl chloride is a synthetic polymer plastic that is widely produced and used for many purposes.
For example, almost every electric cable insulation is made from PVC, also known as vinyl, and yes, vinyl records are made from PVC.
As you might guess, this material doesn’t offer much in the way of scratch-resistant properties. You will have a hard time finding a PVC suitcase, but they do exist.
Since I never got my hands on one, I suspect that these suitcases are not made purely from PVC but rather from PVC and another thermoplastic material. Nevertheless, PVC made its way into the luggage world because almost every luggage cover is made from it.
PVC is the lightest of the above options, but you need more of it when building a suitcase because it is not a resistant material.
Practically speaking, PVC luggage will weigh more than a polycarbonate one; this is another reason the luggage manufacturers avoid it like the plague.
Should you choose a piece of luggage made from PVC?
Presuming that you find one, you should not buy it because it’s the weakest material you can find in the luggage world. I still don’t get why some manufacturers are using it.
Kevlar is a heat-resistant and robust synthetic fiber developed by the Dupont Company in 1965.
Kevlar is expensive, and it also has low resistance to squashing or squeezing.
In addition, when exposed for long periods to sunlight, discoloration will appear, and after more time, even the Kevlar fibers will be damaged.
That is why military items made from Kevlar have a life expectancy of about five years, and the Kevlar used in them is also protected by a layer made from a different material.
There aren’t any hard-sided cases made from 100% Kevlar on the market right now.
From what I can tell, the suitcases reinforced with Kevlar fibers aim to find buyers who can’t decide between a hard-sided case or a soft one.
If you dream of owning a truly bulletproof Kevlar hard-side suitcase, you should know that the end product will weigh more than 50 pounds.
Kevlar is used in the luggage industry mainly for advertising purposes. So when people hear about Kevlar luggage, they automatically think that it is a quality product.
Tegris is another thermoplastic composite, but it was designed for heavy-duty work.
You could think of it as an improved form of polypropylene. Actually, when melted, Tegris contains 100% polypropylene.
It is lightweight and provides 2-15 times the impact resistance over other plastic materials. Because of its looks, people often confuse it with carbon fiber. However, this material is not affected by the change in the weather and can support even arctic temperatures without a problem.
Milliken & Company, which manufactures Tegris, demonstrated in 2012 that a Tegris-carbon fiber sandwich is 18% lighter, 178% stronger, and 55% cheaper than a pure carbon fiber one. (source)
You may be wondering by now, if this is the king of materials, why doesn’t everyone use it?
This is because Tumi acquired a license from Milliken & Company that essentially states that Tumi is the only manufacturer that can use Tegris in the luggage industry.
This is also the main drawback of this material: if you want Tegris, you have to buy Tumi luggage.
I’ve written a full article about why Tumi is so expensive where I also talk about the Tegris material that you can find here.
Main disadvantages of hard-sided luggage:
- In general, it weighs more than soft-sided luggage.
- If the plane has tight overhead compartments, you might not be able to squeeze your hard-sided case into the space.
- Limited expansion capabilities, or, in the case of aluminum, none at all.
- They will get dents and scratches with time regardless of the material used in the construction.
- The price tends to be a bit higher than a soft-sided option.
- No outside pockets. Nowadays, you can find some with exterior pockets, but they are rare.
- Interior packing options are limited. Therefore, most of the time, you will need to acquire packing cubes separately.
While I can’t say which one of these materials is the best option for you, I hope that I have helped you narrow down your choices.
To summarize their features, we will classify the mentioned luggage materials based on their prominent features:
- If you want your suitcase to be firm and sturdy and offer the maximum level of protection, then aluminum is the way to go.
- If you want an overall good suitcase that is also durable, either polypropylene or polycarbonate will do.
- If you are strictly worried about cost or only travel once in a blue moon, your best option is ABS.
Ultimately, it all boils down to what your preference is.
I realize that suitcases, like any other product, are a personal choice, so I encourage you to make your own decision.
Suppose it is the first time you’re buying a piece of hard-sided luggage. In that case, I suggest picking a polycarbonate one.
In recent years, the overall quality has increased, and hard-sided polycarbonate cases are being sold at an increasing rate.
It seems that most people prefer these types of suitcases.