Best Soft-Sided Luggage

Updated August 2021
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Buying guide for best soft-sided luggage

Whether you travel once a year on vacation or are a seasoned frequent flyer, you’re going to need luggage that won’t let you down. While hard-sided luggage used to be the go-to workhorse of the traveler, the past few years have seen a steady growth in the popularity of soft-sided luggage.

This category of luggage features bags that are expandable, lighter than their more rigid counterparts, and easier to fit into tight spaces, whether on the road or stored at home. While selecting soft-sided luggage definitely is affected by personal taste, there are many factors to consider before ultimately deciding what luggage to buy.

This buying guide examines factors such as size, durability, and luggage sets. In addition to covering the various price points, we also dive into features like materials, wheels, and organization options. Finally, we highlight a few of our favorite pieces of soft-sided luggage, those bags that our research shows stand above the rest in terms of quality and longevity.

soft-sided luggage
Soft-sided bags have an advantage when it comes to space on cruise ships and small hotel rooms: open hard-sided bags take up twice as much space as they do when closed.

Key considerations

One bag vs. set

Do you want to buy a single bag or a set? While you can buy a single piece of soft-sided luggage, you might find that purchasing a set of different-size bags provides you with greater flexibility when you travel. Luggage sets can include from two to four or more pieces and usually include both large and carry-on bags. Some soft-sided luggage sets include a duffel bag, which can be a great go-to bag for short overnight trips. If you’re contemplating picking up additional pieces in the future, buying a set of soft-sided luggage now can save you money in the long run.

Size

While sizes can vary considerably in soft-sided luggage sets, single bags usually range from 20 to 28 inches.

Size is an important consideration when buying a piece of soft-sided luggage. Buy one that’s too small and you might not have enough space to carry all the clothing or other items you need to take with you. Buy one that’s too large and you could be traveling with empty space in a bag that’s more cumbersome to tote around. The rule of thumb here is larger bags for longer trips, but if you travel for business and need to pack a variety of clothes, a small bag might not suffice even for short trips.

Weight

Empty soft-sided luggage tends to be lighter in weight than hard-sided luggage (by an average of 2 to 5 pounds), but even among soft-sided bags, the weight varies, typically anywhere from less than 4 pounds up to around 10 pounds. Factors that can affect the weight of a soft-sided bag include the bag’s size and the material it’s made of. Airlines tend to place strict limits on the weight of luggage, so this can be an important factor to consider when comparing soft-sided bags.

Durability

You want your soft-sided luggage to hold up to a certain amount of abuse from you as well as airline baggage handlers.

Weight: A heavier bag may be more durable, depending on the material it’s made from. You’ll have to decide if that’s a trade-off you’re willing to make.

Zippers, seams, and corners: Examine traditional weak points, such as zippers and seams, which should be sturdy. Bumpers or corners should be padded or otherwise reinforced to withstand being dropped or pulled along the ground.

Water resistance: Water resistance or waterproofing will also help to protect not only the luggage but also your belongings.

Appearance

Soft-sided luggage ranges from classic to modern when it comes to design. While these bags tend to be less stylish than some hard-sided luggage, you can still find a range of colors and patterns. For the most options, go with a retailer or manufacturer that offers several colors and/or patterns to choose from.

How popular is wheeled luggage? Industry experts estimate that wheeled suitcases now account for more than two-thirds of all luggage sold.

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Features

Materials

Some soft-sided luggage is made of polyester, but the more common material is nylon. There are three main types of nylon: ripstop, ballistic, and Cordura.

Ripstop: Also known as parachute nylon, ripstop nylon is extremely lightweight and usually used in bags that have little or no structural support.

Ballistic: Ballistic nylon tends to be smoother and shinier than other types of nylon.

Cordura: A softer, more textured nylon, Cordura also resists abrasions better than ballistic nylon.

Organization

Soft-sided luggage employs a variety of different methods to help you both organize and secure your belongings.

Compartments: Two or more compartments are common in luggage of this type, as are compression straps to help keep everything secure.

Interior pockets: Many bags include mesh or other types of pockets for shoes and other items that you want to keep separate from your clothes.

External pockets: These are also common in soft-sided luggage. With external pockets, you can easily access travel documents, phone, and other important items without having to open up your whole suitcase.

Handles and straps

Soft-sided luggage with wheels typically has some form of telescoping handle so you can easily move the bag around. The best handles are molded to better fit your hand and padded for comfort. There should also be handles on the sides of the luggage so you can carry it like a traditional suitcase.

Some smaller soft-sided bags include a shoulder strap, enabling you to easily carry the bag on your shoulder and free up your hands.

Zipper

As mentioned, the zipper can be a relatively weak point in soft-sided luggage. No one wants to deal with a broken suitcase zipper on the road, so do some research to determine the durability of the zipper on any piece of luggage you intend to buy. Check customer comments online to see how the bag holds up to real-world conditions.

One way to improve your odds of getting a durable zipper is to go with a chain zipper as opposed to a coil zipper. Coil zippers have polyester teeth that can easily be pried apart. A chain zipper has interlocking metal teeth and is much more secure.

Wheels

While not all soft-sided luggage has wheels, many bags do, and this is a feature to look for if you know you’re going to have to walk long distances with your bag. Soft-sided luggage typically has two or four wheels, and there are advantages to each type depending on how you’ll be using your bag. Some bags have spinner wheels that go in any direction.

Locks

Not all soft-sided luggage includes locks, but some bags come with them. Locks can help you to better secure your valuables, but if you plan to fly with your luggage, make sure the locks are TSA-approved.

soft-sided luggage 2
DID YOU KNOW?
While soft-sided luggage is a great option for some travelers, those who need to carry fragile objects would be better off going with a hard-sided bag instead.
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Pricing

Inexpensive: Soft-sided luggage in the $40 to $90 range tends to be less durable, often made of polyester or a less rugged nylon. These are usually single pieces, often with no wheels. Carry-ons under 20 inches are common in this range.

Mid-range: As you move into the $90 to $180 range, you’ll find two- and sometimes four-wheeled bags. Durability is greatly impro0ved here, with bags made from a more rugged ballistic or Cordura nylon. Single bags of 20 to 24 inches or simple two-piece sets are common in this range.

Expensive: For seasoned travelers, the $180 to $240 price range offers the most features and greatest versatility. Here you can find larger sets, often four or five bags, with better quality and more color and style options. Four-wheeled bags are common here, as are high-end features like locks, rugged zippers, and larger (over 24 inches) suitcases.

In the soft-sided vs. hard-sided luggage debate, soft-sided is a clear winner in one category: sales. Soft-sided luggage is the more popular choice among buyers.

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Tips

  • Opt for “quiet” spinner wheels. When you’re trying to navigate a busy airport, 360° spinner wheels can be a real help, but they can also be quite loud, particularly on uneven surfaces. To avoid this, look for wheels that are identified as “low noise” or “quiet.”
  • Check the denier number. For soft-sided luggage, the higher the denier number of the material used in its construction, the more durable the bag.
  • Look for a sturdy zipper. In search of the best-quality luggage zipper? Look for YKK zippers, often considered to be more reliable than other zippers on the market.
  • Save space with a wheelless bag. Wheels on soft-sided luggage are handy, but they can also take up valuable space either recessed inside the bag itself or by adding to the bag’s outer dimensions. If you need all the space you can get in a bag and won’t have to carry it long distances, consider choosing a wheelless bag.
soft-sided luggage 3
One added plus of a soft-sided bag that has nothing to do with travel: it compresses more than a hard-sided bag for easier storage when not in use.

FAQ

Q. Is soft-sided luggage better than hard-sided luggage?

A. There are advantages to owning each type, which you should carefully consider before purchasing one or the other.

Hard-sided luggage: The big advantage of a hard-sided suitcase is that it’s more durable and can better protect your belongings. It’s also usually more secure and offers more protection from the elements and accidental spills. Hard-sided luggage can be a better option for checked bags.

Soft-sided luggage: These bags usually weigh less than hard-sided bags and tend to offer easier access to storage, such as outer pockets. The fact that they’re typically expandable also makes soft-sided bags more versatile. Due to its lighter weight and soft form, soft-sided luggage is usually the better choice for carry-on bags.

Q. What is a TSA-approved lock?

A. All bags taken on commercial airlines today need to be screened, and this often involves opening them up for inspection. Security authorities need to gain access to your bags, but you also want the bags to be secure from theft. The solution is a TSA-approved lock that both secures your bag and enables the authorities to access it with a master key without damaging the bag or the lock. This standard is used by a variety of luggage manufacturers, and locks of this type are required on flights to and from many countries, including the United States and Canada.

Q. Which is better on soft-sided luggage: two wheels or four wheels?

A. Wheeled bags usually have two or four wheels. Two wheels on bags, known as roller bags, are typically recessed and better at handling obstacles like curbs and uneven surfaces. Because you’re essentially dragging the bag, two-wheeled bags can cause shoulder, arm, and back pain if you need to transport your bag long distances.

Four-wheeled bags can stand on their wheels and be rolled easily through terminals, so they’re both easier on you and navigate tight spaces better than two-wheeled bags. Known as spinners, these wheels aren’t the best option for rolling over carpeting or uneven terrain. Also, if you’re on any sort of incline, you need to keep a firm grip on your bag or it will roll away.

 

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