best in class

The Very Best Hard-Shell Suitcases

Photo-Illustration: Retailer

A version of this story originally appeared on the Strategist U.S.

Suitcases are classified as having either hard- or soft-shell cases. When we recently looked into the best suitcases, hard-shell cases were far more popular among our experts. While they can’t be repaired — a crack is pretty fatal, according to Tony Pecorella, president and CEO of Modern Leather Goods, a repair shop in Manhattan — hard shells are more durable and protect your belongings far more effectively. We polled 12 frequent travellers (including photographers, travel writers, and former cabin-crew members) on their go-to hard-shell suitcases and sifted through hundreds of reviews on Amazon to find the best hard-side suitcase for every type of traveler.

Best overall | Best less expensive | Best lightweight | Best durable | Best for kids

What we’re looking for

Material: Most hard-side luggage is made from plastic composites; polycarbonate is the most durable and flexible, but some use the cheaper (and slightly heavier) ABS or polypropylene. More expensive models are made from aluminium — such as the easily recognizable Rimowa case that’s a favorite of Martha Stewart’s. The best material for you will largely depend on the kind of trips you plan on taking. If your holiday 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 may want to invest in a sturdier case that can take a knock or two.

Dimensions: If you’re away for a short break, you’ll likely want a smaller case you can take on the plane as hand luggage. If you’re taking longer trips, consider a bigger case you can store in the hold. Size and weight allowances for cases will vary by airline, and most companies we looked into (including Jet2 and Lufthansa) measure the dimensions or weight of cases. For ease of comparison, we’ve focused on carry-on options here, but most companies make these suitcases in larger sizes, too.

Wheels: Four spinner wheels are now pretty standard and make maneuvering your case through packed airport terminals much easier, as it can glide in all directions. While four wheels are definitely the way to go and our recommendation, Pecorella says they’re not the best choice from a repair standpoint: “It is always stronger to have the case that has two wheels on it. Those wheels are encased, so the only thing that can really happen on those wheels is that they wear out eventually, like tires on your car.” With the four spinners — which Pecorella fully admits to using — because they aren’t encased and are instead attached to the bottom of the suitcase, they run the risk of being banged off. “If you’re rolling off a curb or you hit the escalator too hard, it’ll just snap the wheel right off,” he says. “That’s one of the biggest repairs we do here all day.”

Best overall hard-side suitcase

£276

Available in five sizes | Hard shell | Ten-year warranty

We chose Samsonite’s hard case as our best overall suitcase, so it stands to reason it’s our best-in-class hard-shell case, too. It has many of the features we’re looking for in a good suitcase but, crucially, doesn’t cost as much as other brands. It comes recommended by blogger and underwater photographer Michelle Attard, who bought the Cosmolite Spinner to match her hold luggage. “It’s superlight,” she notes, adding that it’s durable enough to protect her camera gear. She says the four wheels mean she doesn’t “have to drag it behind me, hurting my back,” and notes that it’s “extremely sturdy.” She also told us it has been easy to take on connecting flights, even those on smaller planes, and has met all the strict weight restrictions she has encountered during her numerous trips — something we thought was an incredibly appealing quality. The Cosmolite comes in five sizes: The smallest is listed as 55 centimetres (Samsonite measures only in height, not width or depth), and the largest goes up to 86 centimetres. Samsonite also offers an impressive ten-year warranty. If you’re looking for a slightly less expensive option from the brand, its Magnum range, made from recycled yoghurt pots, costs around half as much, comes in four sizes, and has a five-year warranty.

Best less expensive hard-side suitcase

Available in three sizes | Hard shell | Compatible on ten-plus airlines

When we asked frequent travellers to tell us about the best suitcases, Tripp, a U.K.-based company, was the most frequently mentioned. Niamh O’Brien, a digital editor at Lonely Planet, called it a “sturdy little number” and said the case “tolerates being dragged downstairs and across fields and can be chucked in the tightest of luggage situations.” The wheels and handle “can really take a punishing,” she adds, easily taking on cobbled, sandy, muddy, or hilly terrain. “Extremely good value for money. This might not be the fanciest carry-on on the market, but its durability and practicality are the best.” Victoria Beardwood, the in-flight-magazine editor at Ink, also rated Tripp highly. “It’s not flashy, it’s not expensive, but it does the job brilliantly.”

Tripp’s suitcase comes in three sizes. The small measures 55 by 39 by 20 centimetres and has a capacity of 37 litres, the medium measures 66 by 39 by 26 centimetres and has a capacity of 66 litres, and the large measures 76 by 50 by 32 centimetres and has a capacity of 102 litres. According to Tripp, the cabin case fits in the cabins of ten airlines, including Aer Lingus, British Airways, Jet2, and Lufthansa. All cases come with a five-year warranty.

Best lightweight hard-side suitcase

Polycarbonate shell | 360-degree spinner wheels | Five-year manufacturer’s guarantee

The Rimowa Essential line of suitcases was a very close second to Away in our survey of the best rolling luggage — more than ten people mentioned the brand — but it lost out on the top spot because of its price. This suitcase is less durable than the classic aluminium 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.

It comes in 11 colors and two finishes and works like a dream, according to owners, almost all of whom praise the wheels. “I won’t pretend to understand all the physics behind the bearings and axles on Rimowa’s bags, but I do know they spin amazingly well through the airport,” Hull says. Chris Schalkx of travel website Rice/Potato says, “This has been one of our best travel investments we’ve made. The wheels roll as smooth as a knife through butter no matter the terrain they’re on.”

There’s a manufacturer’s guarantee of five years if you remember to register your product when purchasing it (otherwise, it lasts for only two). Even in those five years, the warranty applies only “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,” such as cracks, breaks, and scratches caused in flight, are not covered. There’s a lot of fine print with Rimowa, so we suggest looking into it before you purchase.

Best durable hard-side suitcase

Aluminium shell | 360-degree spinner wheels | five-year manufacturer’s guarantee

Another popular offering from Rimowa is the Original line, which comprises the aluminium suitcases that put the brand on the map. They’re not cheap, and the aluminium is heavier than the polycarbonate version by about two and a half pounds, but aluminium is the most durable material for hard-shell suitcases. This case ensures that your belongings inside stay safe, which is key for Tom Marchant, co-founder of luxury-travel and lifestyle brand Black Tomato: “My Rimowa has seen quite a few things around the world — including a tumble off the roof rack of a tiny car while winding down roads in Greece — miraculously intact.” While the other hard-shells on this list will mostly protect your stuff from the rain, they still have water-permeable fabric zippers. These suitcases close more like trunks with two built-in TSA locks and a completely sealed opening.

The case’s other features — dividers, wheels, and warranty — are pretty much the same as on the Essential line, but The Points Guy founder Brian Kelly says Rimowa’s handles stand out; he describes them as “especially awesome for tall people, since the handle extends extra-tall.”

Best hard-side suitcase for kids

Photo: Argos

Polypropylene shell | four inset wheels | five-year manufacturer’s guarantee

Trunki’s ride-along suitcase for children came highly recommended by five parents, who mentioned its hard case, extendable handle, and wheel design that lets kids ages 7 and younger sit on it and be pulled through the airport. Vaida Drungilaite, a mother of two who owns a cleaning company, recently used the “super-practical” Trunki case for her toddler on a monthlong trip through Brazil. She says, “We let her pack it herself (she filled it with toys, of course), and it’s such great fun for her to ride on — especially as we’re not taking a buggy for her anymore.”

“There are so many different cute designs outside of the classic blue,” says Pamela Majekodunmi of Latte and Lullabies. Shanti Rico, editor of The Kensington Diary, has a spaceship Trunki for her son. Laura O’Neill, who runs a parenting Instagram channel, has a pink Moshi Monster Trunki for her daughter and a Gruffalo Trunki for her son. “They’re airline-approved for bringing onboard and going in an overhead locker,” says O’Neill, “and they fit loads of kids’ stuff inside — from snacks to colouring books and toys.” The case is made of the less expensive polypropylene, which explains the affordable price, but it comes with an impressive five-year warranty.

Other hard-side suitcases we’ve written about

Our experts

Michelle Attard, blogger and photographer
Kiana Brooks, associate merchandising manager at Dior
Vaida Drungilaite, content creator and cleaning-company founder
Hillary Eaton, food and travel writer
• Pamela Majekodunmi of Latte and Lullabies
• Tom Marchant, co-founder of Black Tomato
• Laura O’Neill, content creator
• Tony Pecorella, president and CEO of Modern Leather Goods
• Laura Ratliff, senior editorial director at TripSavvy
Shanti Rico, editor of The Kensington Diary
• Lauren Ro, Strategist writer
• Chris Schalkx, co-founder of Rice/Potato

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The Very Best Hard-Side Suitcases