Duffel vs. Suitcase for Your Next Trip

Young woman using smartphone and pulling suitcase, China skyline in view
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There are many kinds of luggage out there, and it's not always easy to know which option is best. Here are the differences between suitcases and duffel bags, along with recommendations to help you decide which type is ideal for your next trip.

Suitcase vs. Duffel

Pros and Cons of Duffels

Security: Many duffels aren't particularly secure. When shopping for a duffel bag, look for models with proper lockable zips. If you can't find one, threading a padlock or cable tie between the holes in the zipper pull tags is a less-effective alternative. External pockets are also a cause for concern since it's easy for contraband to be slipped inside by someone without your knowledge.

Transport: Duffels are good for one thing: stuffing a lot of gear into a (typically) weatherproof bag, and carrying it short distances. This is great if you're going on a sports or diving trip, but not so much for general travel. Whether using the handles or a strap, duffels become painful to carry within a few minutes.

Realizing this, manufacturers have tried to bridge the gap with "travel duffels," virtually a duffel bag with wheels and a handle grafted onto the back. These make the bag easier to transport, but unless you need to be carrying vast amounts of equipment, they're still heavier and less practical than a suitcase or backpack on most trips.

Capacity and Packing: Duffels come in all shapes and sizes, from carry-on to 200 liters (12,200 cubic inches) or more. The amount and shape of the equipment you're carrying will help determine the capacity you need. While the traditional duffel bag is broadly cylindrical, a flat base and rectangular shape let you pack more gear into a given space.

Large soft-sided duffel bags can lose their shape when not completely full, making them prone to flopping around and even harder to carry than usual.

Durability: A well-made duffel is typically very durable, especially if it has a quality zipper. Look for waterproof materials, and heavily-stitched handles and straps that can handle the weight of the bag. Be careful with travel-specific duffels though, the extra wheels and other accessories are the most likely parts to break.

Pros and Cons of Suitcases

Security: When it comes to security, a quality suitcase is the best choice. A hardshell case prevents the luggage from being sliced apart. If it secures with latches rather than zips, it's also much harder to force open.

Good suitcases usually have integrated locks, either key or combination, but make sure they're TSA-approved. Agents will happily force or break any lock they can't open by other means. It's often difficult, if not impossible, to replace locks when they're built into the case.

Transport: On smooth, hard surfaces, pulling a wheeled suitcase is easier on your body than anything that needs lifting or carrying. As soon as you come across stairs, rough ground, grass, or sand, though, it's a different story.

Think about where you're planning to go. Cobblestones and multi-story buildings without elevators in many European cities cause problems for travelers with suitcases, as can beach holidays or trips to developing countries.

Capacity and Packing: Suitcases tend to be the most efficient way to transport your gear. The rectangular shape and firm sides let you make full use of the available space. If you opt for a softshell case, it will often include an expandable section to accommodate those souvenirs you couldn't resist buying.

A word of warning if you're planning to stay in a shared or small accommodation, suitcases can be bulky and often won't fit under beds or in luggage lockers. This is especially true of the hard shell versions, as they won't compress.

Durability: A hardshell suitcase will stand up to most abuse, but like anything with moving parts, there are some things to look out for. Wheels and handles are the most likely things to break, especially on rough surfaces or thanks to overzealous baggage handlers.

Hard cases with latches are also waterproof even in heavy rain, so if you end up soaked, everything you own won't be. If you're traveling to places where there's a good chance your luggage will get wet, it's worth shelling out the extra money for a hardshell case.

Making Your Decision

For most people, the answer is clear: unless you're carrying large amounts of bulky equipment, a suitcase is a better option than a duffel. Easier to pack, move around, and secure. It's simply a more practical piece of luggage for almost every traveler.

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