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Clamshell vs single “bucket” or duffel style luggage?

I’m trying to find a replacement rolling bag (I love backpacks and always travel with one but to due physical constraints and health issues, I need a small rolling bag as my primary luggage piece). I’m trying to decide which style will work best.

I love the idea and organization of the clamshell design. However, I've been realizing that it does mean that it takes up twice the space when open.

Often when we travel, we leave our packing cubes in the bag and sort of live out of the bag, rather than depending on there being drawers, etc at our location. Plus this makes us less like to leave our stuff in their drawers.

I'm unsure if the clamshell style or something that is a single open ”bucket“ or duffel style (where the top can just be folded back out of the way) makes most sense. Though the clamshell appears appealing in some ways and easy to use, it would certainly take up more floor/dresser top space at the destination when opened.

I also wonder if using small packing cubes vertically in a bucket/duffel style that’s much deeper than the clamshell might be another good option (think Marie Kondo drawer organization but with packing cubes).

What do you think? Have you used either? Which do you prefer and why? We’ll need three of these bags (one each for me, spouse, & kiddo) which is why the clamshell taking up twice the space when open is a concern when it’s three bags in one room. Any thoughts or above would be amazing! Thanks so much in advance!

Posted by
2415 posts

I prefer the clamshell, hard sided. I feel like I can fit more in and be more organized. A regular zip opening is ok, but top loading duffel style is absolutely a no-go. There is no way I will unpack my whole bag to reach something at the bottom.

I arely “unpack”, I just lay out my suitcase, maybe hang up one or two things if I have dressy clothes. Each morning I grab the clothes I need from their spot in the suitcase, and having the suitcase open, clamshell style, makes this easier.

This one is psychological but I find I worry less about fitting stuff in a hard side clamshell suitcase. It just LOOKS bigger so I can see exactly what space I have vs a soft bag where it looks tiny and I have to worry my stuff won’t fit. It always fits, but I always worried it wouldn’t bc the bag looked small, and this kept stressing me out. Weird, I know, but seeing the exact space I have makes me much more relaxed every day I have to pack up the bag and move on.

Posted by
20896 posts

We are the opposite so I guess it is personal preference. Wife uses a clam shell and it is a problem --- takes more space to open. We have some problem in packing it efficiently. When it is open and you need to more it quickly, you cannot just pick it up and move it with partially closing it. It will be replaced in the near future. I am developing a fondness for a modified rolling duffel that I picked up on sale at E Bauers. The back side with handle and two wheels is a hard plastic shell with the top side looking more like a duffel. With side pocket zippers on both sides and ends, I am finding it to be very flexible to pack. With both internal and external straps, it can handle light to heavy packing. It comes in a variety of sizes and I have the 20". Slowly evolving into my favorite bag.

Posted by
3552 posts

When I watch packing videos, the clamshell style often seems wobbly on it's hinges as you need to flip it with half the weight (or at least bulk) is on one of the sides and I am not convinced hinges are adequate. It could be a cheap bag, or too much weight on that side of the suitcase, but I then worry about the longevity of the luggage. But I am also not a hard side fan.
A duffle is always a 'no go' in my camp, but that is because size doesn't conform to carry on only (unless a small one under the seat in front.
I prefer the 'book' layout with a shallow lid that is 'hinged' along a long side. I don't tend to live out of my bag, so it works for me. When I do have to live out of my bag it is for a short duration, so I have packed it with those items accessible.
If you will always check your luggage, then I can see how the duffle with vertical packing cubes may work; particularly for a 'kiddo'. Or if you can find a soft side with just the zip flap. That design does seem to have the most usable space, but I don't see them offered very often.

Posted by
17866 posts

I know I'd hate a clamshell because of the weight, the way I pack (only two compression cubes) and the very limited space available in the budget single rooms I usually stay in. I must say, though, that as of last February (the last time I went in a store that wasn't a supermarket or drug store) it appeared the market had spoken: The overwhelming majority of bags I saw at TJMaxx and Marshalls were clamshells, at least up to about 24". I didn't pay attention to the larger bags.

Posted by
2415 posts

I'll add that a duffel could work for a trip where you go to one place, stay for a week or two, then go home. In that situation, unpacking and using the drawers/closet in your room as opposed to keeping it in the suitcase would make sense. Also, you only need to re-pack it once, when you leave. My usual trip has 3-5 night stays in 3-5 places for about 2 - 2.5 weeks, so that's re-packing the bag 3-5 times after digging through it every day to get to stuff. This would be even worse if your travel style involves a lot of 1-2 night stops.

Posted by
2714 posts

Here are some observations I posted in 2017 after buying my first hard sided suitcase. https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/packing/new-luggage-why-didn-t-i-think-of-that-buyers-remorse

BTW, I continue to use it and like it but the needing 2x as much space to access in a tight hotel room has been problematic a few times. In situations where space is tight or there is only one “normal sized” luggage rack for the two of us, I usually keep it closed on the floor or chair and put it on the bed to get my clothes out once a day.

Posted by
7963 posts

Yep, you've hit exactly on why clamshells do not work for me! Although I'm a solo traveler, I travel yearly (pre-covid) to Europe and the single person European hotel rooms are small with no room to open up a clamshell to it's flat position. I took one domestic trip with a soft-sided clamshell type bag and nope....did not ever travel with it again.

I don't like duffel bags either. To deep and not easy to see stuff inside them even with cubes.

I use a 21" rollaboard that works fine and I AM a packing cube fan!

The last cubes I got are exactly what you are talking about - they sit upright in the case like books on a shelf. They do have a learning curve as you need to pack so that things are accessible from the zipper side to avoid having to pull the whole thing out. I do flat fold my jeans/slacks in the bottom of my case. I never unpack the cubes from the suitcase and just take out a shirt the night before to hang the wrinkles.

The specific brand I use are from a blogger called Travel Fashion Girl but she's recently said she's no longer selling her packing cubes. I do see them still listed on the US Amazon and there is a link to the Amazon site from her website. She calls them "compression" but they are not. To me compression cubes have an extra zipper that squishes the contents down further. Nevertheless, I really like them. They are not as lightweight as the Eagle Creek Sil-nylon compression cubes but I like them a lot. I've had them since she first introduced them - so maybe 3 years? Anyway, I find them very functional and am willing to go with the slightly heavier fabric they are made out of.

Your profile doesn't reveal your location so if you are in the US, I found my latest bag, a Travel Pro, at TJMaxx. I haven't been into their stores since the pandemic but if you have one near you I'd start cruising thru regularly once it's safe to do so.

Welcome to this forum!

Posted by
1237 posts

Pam;
I also bought my rectangular packing cubes after watching Travel Fashion Girl and her cubes.
I got mine from Amazon, and they were much cheaper than the ones she was selling.
Made by Gonex.

https://www.amazon.ca/stores/page/3EEFF9BE-B798-4B97-9E2B-463A881F4325?store_ref=SB_A01811971RQ8MNQI46QAJ&pd_rd_w=bQ2JD&pf_rd_p=c5ada647-7c30-4547-afad-5b99ead429ca&pd_rd_wg=Mpq3H&pf_rd_r=3SRXZM56RPDZ6C01BW5A&pd_rd_r=c7e2d453-268f-48d5-b5c7-b566dc1fa7cd&aaxitk=.6fZphlngd-j.YbVr-X3Ew&hsa_cr_id=4711454220001&lp_asins=B07BNKC5RT,B07FMYFWG6,B01MTA0XLC&lp_mat_key=travel%20packing%20cubes&lp_query=packing%20cubes%20travel&lp_slot=desktop-hsa-3psl&ref_=sbx_be_s_3psl_mbd

Long link, but they are the set of four by Gonex.
I've used them three trips now, and they are great.
They fit well in a 20 inch carryon.
I also like a regular case, not a clamshell, as I treat it like a drawer and put it on a chair in my room .
A clam would take up twice the space.

BTW: So nice to talk about packing and cases....dreaming of my next trip...!

Posted by
7963 posts

@SJ, that Deep Blue color is really pretty too! I had always wished TFG had hers in aqua, lol.

"BTW: So nice to talk about packing and cases....dreaming of my next trip...!"

Truth!!

Posted by
1184 posts

I agree with Mira. We use 21 inch clamshell suitcases. We each pack tops in the side with the mesh cover and pants and shoes fit in the other half. We also don't unpack but leave the suitcase open and take what we need since it's easy to see most things. We find it's more convenient than having everything on one side with the zip off top. Clamshells do take more room when open but with the mesh zippered we can lean it against something and it the same amount of space.

Posted by
3605 posts

I have the same Eddie Bauer suitcase that Frank mentioned. I’ve used it for at least 7 years - 7 trips to Europe and double that in the US. I like that the main upper section works for all of my clothes, extra pair of shoes, etc. i use the underneath section to hold my itinerary papers, dirty clothes or any fragile souvenirs.

I just open the top zipper on the bed and pull out the specific packing cube I need and my toiletry kit. Then I zip up the suitcase and sit it on the floor in the corner. Like Pam mentioned, I’ve also traveled solo for some of those trips and some of those rooms are tiny. I wouldn’t want a clamshell type in that tight space.

Posted by
38 posts

I have a soft sided clamshell bag that I purchased at TJ Maxx several years ago and I love it. It is lightweight and the Rick Steves packing cubes that I use fit into it perfectly. It does indeed take up more room but I love the fact that when I open it I can see everything. One side can be closed up with a zippered flap so it's easy to flip the top over and close it up. I don't like to have to double layer the packing cubes as you would have to do with a regular case because you end up digging for what you want. Having said that though, with 3 people in one room, it would be a bit difficult to find the space to open 3 pieces. Maybe you could each take a different style bag, one regular, one clamshell and one duffle!!

Posted by
4124 posts

I’ve used a duffel or a similarly designed internal-frame backpack while camping, but when sleeping inside, and with a chance to spread out even a little (and not on the bare ground!), a hinged suitcase has always been the way to go ... even before there were rolling versions!

Are there more than 2 suitcase design categories? Some answers above seem to suggest there’s more than the “clamshell “ and “duffel” options. If a bag’s hinged along its long side, and flips open, is that what you’re referring to as clamshell, although some may call it book style or with some other term? Even if it folds open to take up double the space than when it’s closed, that allows quick access to the things inside. Set it on the bed if needed for available space, move things in or out, then close it again and stash it somewhere until you need in it again. It certainly doesn’t need to tension open the whole tone you’re on the room. And if you need to crack it open for a moment on a train, or in the trunk of a car, it doesn’t necessarily have to be opened wide, if you’re just pulling out a carefully positioned jacket, or toiletries sack, or whatever. That gives you the most options for organizing and accessing. And to close it when nearly full? Hinge the top portion over the bottom, and lean (or sit) on it until you can latch it shut - easy!

Duffels can have their place, but not for me on a European trip of 2 or more weeks, when I’m staying in a rented apartment, B&B, or hotel, and traveling by car, train, bus, or ship. I sometimes use some Rick Steves stuff sacks/packing cubes I got as a gift long ago, but with a duffel, you may have to remove a bunch of items to get to the one you want, if it’s at the bottom. That means more unpacking and repacking, just to have by a bag that’s capable of standing upright with an opening on top.

Some clamshells, like the super-lightweight Delsey Helium Aero hardside I’ve taken as a carry-on and used for 3-week trips to Europe, are a clamshell with a bonus flip-out panel for access to an additional compartment. I think it was designed to be a place to stash a laptop computer and a few business folders, but I use it as quick-access pocket for that jacket and other essential gear. Staying in a room with very limited space, that could be tomorrow’s underwear, shirt, or glasses, prescriptions, cosmetics, etc. without needing to spread out the whole bag to get to them.

Posted by
63 posts

Frank and Jean, do you have the medium size Eddie Bauer rolling duffel (Expedition drop bottom rolling duffel, medium)? It's listed as being 21"L x 10"W x 14"D. Can it be compressed to 9" w for airlines that limit carryons to that size, or are the hard plastic parts 10"? Thanks!

Posted by
3 posts

So much great info! I’m truly grateful for everyone sharing their experiences and opinions.

I guess maybe I should have been a little more clear about the rolling duffel. I’m not looking at a traditional duffel so much as a rolling one. Something that has a large opening of soft material that can easily fold back ( as opposed to the type with a more rigid top that takes up more space when opened. A few examples would be the Osprey Transporter 40: https://www.osprey.com/us/en/product/transporter-wheeled-carry-on-duffel-40-ROLLTRN40_202.html, the Timbuk2 Quest Rolling Duffel: https://www.amazon.com/Timbuk2-2529-6-6114-Quest-Duffel/dp/B07B9W2NY8, the Big Agnes Stagecoach: https://www.bigagnes.com/Stagecoach_2, Patagonia Black Hole Rolling Duffel 45: https://www.patagonia.com/product/black-hole-wheeled-duffel-bag-40-liters/49378.html?utm_source=youtube&utm_medium=seo&utm_campaign=yt_F19_49378, or North Face Rolling Thunder Duffel: https://www.thenorthface.com/shop/equipment-luggage-duffels-wheeled/rolling-thunder-22in-nf0a3c94?variationId=JK3.

For the clamshell style, I’m thinking something along the lines of the Timbuk2 Copilot: https://www.timbuk2.com/products/544-copilot-luggage-roller.

I’m trying to decide about the type first then I’ll look for a good deal on one that meets those needs (checking TJ Maxx, sales, and similar as suggested).

Often we do have to do multiple one night stops when traveling (in hotel, sleep, pack up next AM, leave- rinse, repeat). Can be kinda miserable but it is what it is. We try to minimize what we need to bring in on those nights to make everything less work.

For parking cubes, I’ve been using the Sea to Summit ultralight and I love their size, weight, durability, and slight structure. I fold my clothes to fit in my drawers vertically which I love and I can grab items directly from my drawers and put them vertically in my packing cubes just like they were mini drawers at home. I can see everything at a glance and can easily remove pens without disturbing other things in the cubes. My favorite size is small and most of my clothes will fit in two small packing cubes for a month of travel. A third small one for underwear, swimsuit, socks, and accessories is everything I take as far as clothing. Of course that doesn’t include tech, charging cables and chargers, and all that stuff.

I don’t know if that info helps at all but I just wanted to clarify more about the rolling duffel style I was meaning. Some also call it open bucket style luggage.

I’m so grateful for all of you sharing your experiences. It’s exactly what I was how to hear and learn from. Thanks again!

Posted by
3 posts

@Frank and @Jean, I had taken a look briefly at that Eddie Bauer Expedition Rolling Duffel but after hearing your good experiences, I checked it out again. It looks pretty great! I do have one question for you both because the photos aren’t great for details. It looks like one could choose to pack everything from the top if they wanted and access it that way or one could also pack some by using the zipper underneath (especially shoes, dirty clothes etc). Meaning the design seems to have a flexible divider that allows one to choose where/which way to pack and access their items so that you could fully pack the bag from the top or pack up to the zipper in the drop bottom. Does that make sense and is it correct? It’s hard to tell from the photos but it looks like it’s hope I described. That would be amazing because it sort of shows one to choose if they use it as a open bucket/duffel or as a sort of clamshell. I also like the new 2.0 design which looks very similar but with a few slight differences including an extra pocket for quick stash, dirty items, or whatever one chooses.

If you have the time to share any more about the design and confirm our correct my understanding of how it can be packed- that would be amazing. I can’t find more photos, videos, or reviews to try to learn more myself and our local EB store closed last year. :( Thanks so much!!