best in class

The 9 Very Best Hard-Side Suitcases

Not all hard-shells are created equal.

Photo: Marcus McDonald
Photo: Marcus McDonald

In this article

As a travel writer (and frequent flier), I much prefer hard-shell suitcases over soft-sided options. A hard-side suitcase will shield your essentials from sudden drops or bangs, where a soft-side offers far less protection. Most of the experts I’ve spoken to agree: They say that as well as being more durable, hard-side suitcases are easier to wipe clean, slide from luggage racks, and rely on. They’re far less easier to repair than soft-side suitcases; a crack will be fatal — but that’s what warranties are for (and in all of my years traveling, it’s never happened to me, but it is of course a possibility).

As well as being reliable and not too bulky, the features that make a great hard-side suitcase include sturdy wheels (I like four wheels, so there are no two-wheeled options here), a lock to keep my items secure, and sturdy handles that can withstand being hoisted from train to plane to baggage claim. When it comes to material, I’m not too fussy. Suitcases are mainly made from either polycarbonate plastic or a plastic called ABS (but there are also some made from old-fashioned aluminum). Polycarbonate plastic is more durable than ABS, so it tends to cost a little more, but I’ve tracked down and tested cases made from both types of plastic that are affordable and reliable.

I’m constantly testing out new cases, but as I only have so many opportunities to travel, I also asked over 20 professionals — including cabin crew and those who fly weekly for work — for their expertise. I’ve also thoroughly vetted the reviews of each case, with a particular focus on warranty, longevity, and value, and picked plenty of options that look just as good as they work.

If you’re avoiding checked-bag added costs, these cases are all available in carry-on size — but if you’re trying to avoid the carry-on fees of budget airlines like Frontier and JetBlue, you can also browse our roundup of personal items (which are fee-free on all airlines).

What we’re looking for

Material

The material best for you will largely depend on the kind of trips you plan on taking. If your vacation involves long weekends at a friend’s beach house, you can get away with a lighter case made of less durable ABS. But if you’re plane- and train-hopping through Europe for the summer or spending several weeks trekking across Southeast Asia, you might want to invest in a sturdier case (like one made of polycarbonate) that can take a knock or two.

Capacity

Longer trips need bigger suitcases. For ease of comparison, I’ve focused on carry-on options here, but most companies make these suitcases in larger sizes too. Size and weight allowances for carry-on cases will vary by airline, and most companies I looked into (including Alaska and Delta) measure the dimensions or weight of cases. You can read here to learn more about carry-on regulations.

Wheels

Four spinner wheels glide in all directions and are my favorite. You can also buy suitcases with two wheels, but I find that the four spinner wheels glide so much easier — which is valuable when trying to reach an Airbnb on a cobbled street. So all the picks here have four wheels.

Warranty

Pecorella says it’s important to do your homework when it comes to warranty because, once a hard-side case cracks, it’s pretty tough to repair. “This is what we tell our customers all the time: If you are a regular traveler, really look into the luggage brand’s warranty and see what they are covering and what they are not covering,” he says. All of the cases on this list have a lifetime warranty, which covers your case for life, or a limited lifetime warranty, which means your case is covered for a certain number of years.

Best hard-side suitcase overall

Material: Polycarbonate hard-shell | Capacity: 47.9 L | Wheels: 360-degree spinner wheels | Warranty: Limited lifetime warranty

To me, the Away suitcase is unmatched: I’ve previously named it our best carry-on, and our best piece of rolling luggage overall. This style of Away suitcase is available in a few sizes, but the Bigger Carry-On is the most popular. That’s because it has a huge 50-liter capacity, but it still fits inside most overhead bins. (Though on some budget and most European airlines, it’s too big to class as a carry-on — you’d have to opt for the smaller size.) The Away is so great because it’s not trying to reinvent the wheel: It has all the features that you’d expect from a good quality suitcase, but each feature has been executed perfectly. The 360-degree spinner wheels, for example, make light work of the cobbly London street I regularly drag it along, and the telescopic handle is so sturdy I don’t have to worry it may snap as I use it to hoist my suitcase up and down the stairs. It also has a TSA-approved lock, so I can do away with an added padlock, and a built-in portable charger, which comes in handy on long layovers between flights. It’s also such a smart, handsome-looking case, too. And it’s easy to keep it that way: If it ever gets a scuff or scratch, I just use the Away magic eraser to buff it out. I’ve taken it on countless trips just this year alone, and it still looks brand-new.

Stephanie Be from TravelBreak praises the suitcase for all the same reasons that I do. When I spoke to her, she called out the case’s “TSA-approved lock, 360-degree wheels, tough hardware, and sleek design.” Summer Hull, director of travel content at the Points Guy, added how useful she finds the interior compression divider, which “let us stuff all the things and zip it shut.” Photographer Nicholas Gill echoed this, and added that the nylon bag attached to the compression divider was a great place to “toss my clothes after getting caught in a sudden jungle downpour, which always seems to happen.”

Another perk is the limited lifetime warranty, which doesn’t expire, though there is a (fairly long) list on what it covers. Away will fix or replace any functional damage to the shell, wheels, handles, zippers, or “anything else that impairs your use of the luggage,” according to the website. The battery pack, however, is limited to a two-year warranty. As I’ve mentioned in our other Away coverage, Strategist editor Maxine Builder has firsthand experience claiming a new bag under warranty with Away, after an internal zipper on her carry-on broke. “There was a fair bit of back-and-forth over the next four months, but I ended up with a replacement suitcase in exactly the same limited-edition colorway with the same hand-painted monogram, all for free,” she says.

Best (less expensive) ABS hard-side suitcase

Material: ABS hard-shell | Wheels: 360-degree spinner wheels | Capacity: 34 liters | Warranty: Limited warranty

When writer Robin Reetz told me about a hard-side case that cost less than $100, I had to try it. The case is so affordable because it’s made from ABS, which isn’t as durable as polycarbonate. But as I unpacked it, I was immediately surprised by just how thick and sturdy the case’s shell felt (I even gave it a rather satisfying thump with my fist to measure the quality). At 20 inches, the case is perfect for a four- to five-day trip, and I’ve tested this on a few long weekends visiting my parents back home. It’s not as roomy as my Away case, but I can easily pack a few outfits and a spare pair of shoes inside the case at its normal size. An expandable zipper makes it feel even roomier, giving you about 15 percent more packing space (but if you do expand the bag, you’ll need to check it into the hold rather than toss it into the overhead bin). Even with a limited shade range and a shorter warranty than other cases on this list, I’m still endorsing it as one of my favorite cases on this list, as it’s able to hold its own against cases five times more expensive.

Best (less-expensive) polycarbonate hard-side suitcase

Material: Polycarbonate | Capacity: 43 L | Wheels: 360-degree spinner wheels | Warranty: Limited ten-year warranty

Polycarbonate cases can cost upwards of $500, which is why this case from Open Story is such a rarity. It’s $170 and regularly on sale. Even at this cheaper price, you’re not sacrificing any of the features I look for in a case — the wheels are sturdy spinners, and there are plenty of well-placed, solid handles, a zipper lock, and a built-in USB port. I also know from chatting to travel blogger Courtney Vondran that it can handle many terrains — she’s taken it on “road trips throughout the Midwest, a work trip to Egypt, vacation to L.A., travel conference in Memphis, romantic getaway to Maine, and more.” You can pick it up easily (it’s on sale at Target, for example) in a small but tasteful range of colors (like a pretty Champagne). It doesn’t come with a power pack, though, and the warranty only covers ten years of limited damage and can be tricky to claim, according to some reviewers. But all in all, considering the price point, this is a solid option.

Best lightweight hard-side suitcase

Material: Polycarbonate hard-shell | Capacity: 36 L | Wheels: 360-degree spinner wheels | Warranty: Five-year manufacturer’s guarantee

The Rimowa Essential line of suitcases was a very close second to Away — more than ten people mentioned the brand in our survey of the best rolling luggage — but it lost out on the top spot due to its price. This suitcase is less durable than the classic aluminum version, but it shares a long history: Rimowa was the first brand to release a polycarbonate suitcase in 2000, so it has had more than 20 years to perfect its design. And it’s a great mix of durability and weight: This carry-on is more than a pound lighter than Away’s Bigger Carry-On.

The owners I spoke to say the wheels glide through the airport like a dream. There’s a manufacturer’s guarantee of five years if you remember to register your product when purchasing it (otherwise, it only lasts for two). Even in those five years, the warranty only applies “if the usability of the product is considerably adversely affected by a material or manufacturing fault already present at the time of hand-over (defect),” the brand says. Breaks caused by “abrasion, improper use, faulty operation, or externally occurring forces” like cracks, breaks, and scratches caused in flight are not covered. There’s a lot of fine print with Rimowa, so I suggest looking into it before you purchase.

Best aluminium hard-side suitcase

Material: Aluminum hard-shell | Wheels: 360-degree spinner wheels | Capacity: 35 liters | Warranty: Limited lifetime warranty

Aluminum cases are as durable as a hard-side case gets — they’re less likely to crack and usually use clamps instead of a zip (which can fall apart at the seams, burst, or even be slashed open). Several travelers I chatted with recommended the Rimowa case in aluminum for this reason. However, it costs well over $1,000 and doesn’t really do much beyond what this Away — which is half the price — does. The aluminum Away carry-on is similar to the polycarbonate one in many respects, from its great-quality handles and wheels to its ample storage space. One major difference is the lock, though: It’s still TSA-approved, but has the lock code on more secure clamps rather than a zipper. Travel writer Sarah Greaves-Gabbadon, who travels every single week for work, calls it her “work horse.”

Best hard-side suitcase for overpackers

Material: Polycarbonate hard-shell | Capacity: 49 - 61 L | Wheels: 360-degree spinner wheels | Warranty: Limited lifetime warranty

I’ve included this case for its simply ingenious weight indicator. If you’re an overpacker like me, it takes a lot of the stress out of checking a bag. The indicator is activated when you lift the case, and a red mark will appear if the luggage weighs over 50 pounds — saving you from an unexpected fee at the airport. (This is especially important as the bag has an additional zipper that allows it to expand a couple of inches for squeezing an extra potentially heavy few bits inside.) Other great features include a built-in laundry and shoe bag, as well as several other pockets that help keep things organized and a TSA-approved lock. “They’ve really thought of everything,” says travel blogger Ciara Johnson.

Best hard-side suitcase set for families

Material: Polycarbonate hard-shell | Capacity: Three sizes | Wheels: 360-degree spinner wheels | Warranty: Lifetime

For families, a suitcase set is the most economical way to go. Antler makes one of my and Strategist senior editor Ailbhe Malone’s favorites: She’s been traveling with them for two years. “The wheels are so smooth that I can pull the suitcase with just a finger if I need to (helpful when trying to carry a folded-up stroller and a baby in a sling through an airport),” says Malone. “The grip on the handle is extremely comfortable, and it pops up easily.” As for storage, the Clifton set is designed to slot inside each other (Russian doll style), meaning “it’s easy to store three suitcases in a small house.” Malone also appreciates the various interior pockets, and mesh compartment for dirty laundry. “I recently took the medium suitcase and the cabin suitcase on a trip from London to Hungary to Romania,” says Malone. “There was enough space for everything my family needed for a week (including the baby bed linens that our Airbnb didn’t provide).”

Other hard-side suitcases we’ve written about

Our Experts

• Stephanie Be, founder of Buena and TravelBreak
Kiana Brooks, associate merchandising manager at Dior
Hillary Eaton, food and travel writer
• Kelly Farber, founder of KF Literary Scouting
Nicholas Gill, writer and photographer
Sarah Greaves-Gabbadon, travel writer
• Summer Hull, director of travel content at The Points Guy
• Ciara Johnson, travel blogger at HeyCiara
• Brian Kelly, founder of The Points Guy
Isabelle Lieblein, travel writer
• Ailbhe Malone, Strategist senior editor
• Tom Marchant, co-founder of Black Tomato
• Tony Pecorella, president and CEO of Modern Leather Goods
• Laura Ratliff, senior editorial director at TripSavvy
Robin Reetz, writer
Lauren Ro, Strategist writer
Ellie Robinson, digital creator
• Chris Schalkx, co-founder of Rice/Potato
Courtney Vondran, travel blogger
Oscar yi Hou, visual artist

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The 9 Very Best Hard-Side Suitcases