ABS vs Polycarbonate Luggage: Is there a big difference?


Alright, you’ve done some research and settled the soft side versus hard-side luggage debate to your satisfaction. You know your next set of luggage is going to be hard-sided. No more stained, ripped, beat up fabric cases! Now all you need to do is find the best price on a hard-sided case, and you are ready to take off for your next dream vacation, right?

Well, not quite so fast. While staying within your budget is always important price should not be the only deciding factor in determining which hard sided luggage to buy. There are 3 primary types of hard sided cases; ABS, Polycarbonate and Aluminum. Aluminum is the hardest and most durable, and therefore typically the most expensive.  For the purpose of this discussion we will compare the 2 most common types of plastic luggage – ABS vs Polycarbonate.

Here's a summary of how they did in a head-to-head match.

ABS

Polycarbonate

Price

Durability

Impact Resistance

Weight

Availability

Types of Plastic

If you are not familiar with the different types of plastic, you might assume they are all pretty much the same. However, there is a wide range of plastic substrates available, all with unique properties to suit a multitude of manufacturing needs. Consider the difference between the soft, pliable translucent contact lenses that let you see clearly and those brightly colored Lego blocks that you don’t see until you step on them in the middle of the night. Both are commonly called plastic, yet lenses are made with polycarbonate while colored blocks are made with ABS.

Without getting technical ABS is an acronym for an opaque composite material made up of 3 types of plastics (Acrylonitrile, Butadiene, and Styrene), whereas polycarbonate is a tough transparent plastic resin.  Both materials are easy to form, heat resistant, fairly sturdy and are widely used in manufacturing.

Polycarbonate’s transparency and impact resistance properties make it an ideal substrate for a diverse range of products including lighting fixtures, greenhouses, large highway signs, and bullet-resistant car windows.  The less expensive ABS is great for smaller consumer items including computer keyboards, power tool housings, and remote controls.

So, what do the differences between ABS and polycarbonate mean when it comes to choosing your next luggage set?

ABS Luggage Example

Example of ABS Luggage Material (also used in LEGO bricks)

polycarbonate example

Polycarbonate Material (also used in contact lenses)

Price

Of the two types of luggage, ABS is generally a lot less expensive than polycarbonate.

In fact, quite often you can purchase an entire 3-piece ABS luggage set for roughly the same price as one medium size polycarbonate rolling upright.

Winner: ABS

Durability

Luggage is subjected to a lot of wear and tear; you bang it against the trunk of your car, drag it up the stairs and stuff it into storage compartments.  Even if you handle your luggage with extreme care, on each trip your bags can travel up to 20 miles on an airport conveyer belt, getting bounced around like they are in a pinball machine, then they are stacked on a luggage cart and piled into a cargo hold.

All that banging around can leave dents and dings on the surface of your luggage even though the fragile items inside remain intact. Cases constructed with ABS are rigid and not pliable so it is harder to remove indentations and your bag can crack or discolor if you apply even light pressure to try to get it back in shape. Polycarbonate is much more flexible and dimensionally stable, so it returns quickly to its original shape even when it has been squished at the bottom of the baggage pile.  You can push out the indentations easily, and your case will continue to look almost as good as new.

Winner: Polycarbonate 

This video goes extreme and does a test between the two materials using a shotgun to further illustrate the difference.

Impact Resistance

Impact resistance is a key factor when choosing a quality suitcase. While you might not normally think about your luggage falling from great heights just picture it tumbling off the top of the luggage cart and landing on the frozen tarmac as you are boarding the flight for your mid-winter tropical vacation. Even falling a relatively short distance a suitcase landing on a very hard surface encounters a lot of force. Chances are if it’s constructed solely with ABS material your bag will break open and the contents will be scattered ruining your hard-earned holiday before it even starts.

On the other hand, polycarbonate is very impact resistant, so if your bag drops, it’s much more likely to bounce than break. Your case might end up with a few dents which you can later remove, but it will not burst open, and your contents will remain intact.

Overall polycarbonate has almost twice the impact strength of ABS composite material.

Winner: Polycarbonate 

Weight

ABS is heavier than polycarbonate, with a medium sized ABS upright typically weighing approximately 2 pounds more than its polycarbonate counterpart. Two pounds may not sound like much, after all, it only equates to one pair of jeans and your favorite running shoes or a few more must-have souvenirs, but with airlines ever increasing weight restrictions and overweight fees you want your luggage to be as lightweight as possible.

Winner: Polycarbonate 

Availability

Due to the shorter life span of ABS luggage, many of the most trusted brands like American Tourister and Samsonite don’t manufacture luggage constructed exclusively with ABS.

It’s typically manufactured by less well-known companies focusing solely on the low price point, and therefore you might face difficulties with warranty or customer service concerns.

Winner: ABS

Summary

Luggage is an investment that can make or break your trip.

There are definitely times when ABS might be a better option due to the cost savings. If you are a very infrequent traveler and only use a carry-on bag that you can keep an eye on; if your daughter absolutely must have that princess bag even though she will outgrow it in a few months, or if you’re taking inexpensive gifts to family overseas and returning without the bag saving money by purchasing ABS luggage is a good idea.

However, if like most travelers, you require a durable, lightweight and impact resistant bag that you can count on than polycarbonate luggage is a much better option.

Overall Winner: Polycarbonate 

Lastly, once you have decided whether you are going to purchase an ABS or polycarbonate case be sure to examine the other important features including wheels, handles, and zippers to ensure that you are getting the best luggage to suit your needs.