Our guide to the best hard-shell and hard-side suitcases has been updated with four additional picks for 2016.
In the good old days of train travel a gentleman would have a cavalcade of steamer trunks in tow, housing all manner of wardrobe, knick knacks, accoutrement and what-have-you. These days, a guy’s lucky if his rolling carry-on isn’t checked at the gate. It’s come to pass that the suitcase must be many things in one: space-efficient, sturdy, easy to manage and long-lasting. Thankfully, weary traveler, technology is on your side. We’re pleased to introduce to you the best hard shell suitcases we would find, each a convergence of all the necessary requirements, each unique in its own way.
There are some things to keep in mind about hard-shells (or hard-sides depending on your vernacular. First, and most obvious, they don’t collapse or mold to spaces like their soft-sided cousins, and on a related note, it’s tough to stuff them as full as a duffel or fabric roller — the hard-shell is designed to not budge a bit. Also, hard shells do tend to show wear and tear more easily than ballistic nylon — scratches and dents are more apparent on their smooth finishes. But there are many areas in which a hard shell excels over limp luggage. A hard shell protects your belongings better; it’s naturally more water resistant than a cloth bag; composite materials often make for a much lighter “dry” weight, so you’re more likely to avoid heavy baggage fees. Indeed, the size, weight and strength of these cases make them ideal for checked luggage — they provide inherent protection against the luggage handler’s careless throw.
Since these are all similarly lightweight, by dint of being (mostly) polycarbonate-constructed, their individual sizes set them apart most — if you’re simply looking for the smallest, Delsey’s carry-on wins the prize; Tumi’s largest takes the cake overall in the girth category. But whatever your criteria, there’s a lot of buying advice packed into this guide, so read on.
Delsey Helium Aero Hard-Shell / Hard-Side Suitcase Series
Best Hard-Shell For Bragging: The least expensive suitcase on this list is also an award-winner. The front of Delsey’s case sports an Easy-Access panel — a hard-sided front compartment for, well, easy access to the case’s innards — that won the brand a Product Innovation Award at the 2013 Travel Goods Show. And rightly so: a simple pass-through compartment is missing on most hard-shell cases, which is a shame; it’s a hassle to undo the whole shebang every time you need to retrieve or stow your eyemask. The 10-year limited warranty is enticing enough, but the svelte good looks, multiple glossy finishes and price point make this one quite hard to pass up.
Travelpro Luggage Crew-9 Expandable Hard-Shell / Hard-Side Spinner Series
Best Hard-Shell for Blending In: If you’ve ever watched a luggage carousel for more than two minutes, you likely know Travelpro. The popular brand is a favorite among the jet set, as their hallmark is reliable, functional travel equipment. To that end, there are no color options and the overall design aesthetic won’t find its way into the MoMA any time soon, but there’s far more than meets the eye here. The main compartment of this case can expand by two inches all around, adding copious valuable space for all your sweaters (seriously, just bring one). The split case construction with divider panel keeps everything inside organized, and a wet pocket keeps things dry (why isn’t it called a dry pocket?). Staggered-size wheels keep your travels sturdy, even if you’re rushing to the gate, and a lifetime limited warranty means you’ll travel with this guy the rest of your days.
Victorinox Spectra 2.0 Dual-Access Global Carry-On
Best Hard-Shell for Quick Strips: The inability to quickly access items is one of the biggest drawbacks of most hard-shell carry-ons, as grabbing anything packed inside entails unzipping the main compartment and cracking it open. As the name implies, the Spectra 2.0 Dual-Access solves this problem by way of a separate quick-access front panel, which features a series of organizational pockets on the inside. There’s also an electronics pouch on the other side that separates the bag’s main compartment from the outside world. If a buyer prefers, the electronics pouch can be removed, giving direct access to the bag’s interior without splitting open the bag. It earned a prestigious Red Dot for its smart design as well as a nod from Travel + Leisure as the best luggage of 2014. These features definitely come at a premium price, especially for the space, but the ability to leave a separate backpack or laptop case at home will be worth it to many.
Flight 001 F1 Dsh-1 Luggage
Best Hard-Shell for Standing Out: Flight 001 have made a name for themselves with their useful yet playfully designed line of travel accessories and the F1 Dsh-1 line of hard-sided luggage follows the same script. Its two external zipper pulls conveniently stick into the TSA combination lock while a series of internal pockets, including a detachable luggage hanger, keeps everything in its place. Both the carry-on and check-sized version are also light, weighing 6.4 and 8.8 pounds respectively.
Zero Halliburton Air II
Best Hard-Shell for Not Lifting a Finger: Air is in the name of this suitcase for a reason. The 20-inch carry-on version nearly floats in the hand at 4.8 pounds, while the biggest 28-inch version only creeps up to 8.3 pounds. The secret lies in a combination of polycarbonate materials and Zero Halliburton’s so-called geometric X-Rib pattern, which provides incredible durability with minimal bulk. Like the company’s iconic silver briefcase seen in countless mafia and military flicks, the Air II’s unique construction gives off a distinctly modern vibe that’s only enhanced with flashy blue and silver colorways. Like nearly every other bag on this list, a TSA-approved lock is integrated into the frame if you’d rather not handcuff it to your wrist.
Samsonite Black Label Firelite Hard-Shell / Hard-Side Series
Best Hard-Shell for Lightweights: Samsonite has been around for over a century, and they’ve still got it — that is, if “it” is innovative, lightweight and stylish luggage (it is). Made of “Curv” (a Samsonite-exclusive material consisting of woven polypropylene threads), this is one light case. When we say this is an elite purchase, we mean it: the design and construction process is patented. You’ll pay for that, of course. But, though it may be ironic to pay more for less, this case weighs in at an impressive 5 pounds (okay, 4.9), which is far lighter than any others on our list.
Briggs & Riley Torq Series Hard-Shell / Hard-Side Suitcases
Best Problem-Solving Hard-Shell: When a company takes three years to develop a suitcase, you know the end product is gonna be good — especially when there’s a lifetime guarantee included. Moreover, this suitcase — available in three sizes, starting at a mere 8.9 pounds — does a fantastic job addressing issues that often plague hard shells; namely, instead of the usual 50/50 split opening the Torq series has an 80/20 split opening (a clear top and bottom), making it easier to pack full and providing better access in cramped quarters. The front of the smallest model features a flip-out pocket for easy access to a slim padded compartment for tablets or laptops; a “control panel”, conveniently located on top of the case, puts the TSA-friendly combo locks in one place; there’s an integrated ID holder and a strap for carrying a second bag in tandem. The four wheel assemblies — each with two rubber-treaded, ball-bearing-mounted wheels — provide a low center of gravity and rotate 360 degrees for ease of transport.
Pelican Elite Luggage with Enhanced Travel System
Best Hard-Shell for Not Breaking Anything: Pelican’s reputation for durability is legendary. They’re trusted by the military, law enforcement agencies and Hollywood to store and transport all manner of precious cargo. Their new Elite luggage line marks a major push by the company to break into the consumer market. Equipped with double-wall polypropylene walls designed to withstand loads up to 1,500 pounds — there’s virtually no chance of anything breaking inside provided it’s packed properly. Its watertight O-ring seal can also keep contents dry in up to 1 meter of water. Custom ball bearing wheels, recessed carry handles on all sides and a TSA-approved combination lock top off this Fort Knox of the skies, making it the perfect solution for those who value security above all else.
Tumi Tegra-Lite Max Suitcase Series
Best Hard-Shell for Those Prone to Lose Luggage: For Tumi’s Tegra-Lite line, they gained exclusive access to a polypropylene thermoplastic composite material called Tegris (they’re the only travel company that has access). It’s the same stuff used in Nascar and the NFL, to help save athlete’s lives. Here, it saves your goods, and it does it well. The case is expandable for up to 2” extra capacity, it’s airline carry-on approved, and features enough interior pockets and brackets and dividers to keep all your luxury wares safely in place. It also comes with Tumi’s Tracer program, which helps recover stolen luggage. Simply register the unique code affixed permanently to your suitcase and Tumi will assist in tracking and identifying your stuff should it be found rolling behind someone who’s not you.
Bonus: Rimowa Topas Stealth Hard-Shell / Hard-Side
Best Hard-Shell to Carry All Your Cash In: The bachelor at the end of your street — yes, the handsome software developer — may have a brand new Jag, but, to be entirely truthful, your VW is perfectly fine. It does everything you need it to; hell, it does more than you need it to. But we all know that if you had the money you’d probably have a sleek, all-aluminum cruiser in your garage too. This Rimowa is a sleek, aluminum-magnesium alloy cruiser, constructed to withstand temperature and humidity fluctuations that are common to tropical climes. It’s been in constant development since the 1950s and boasts all the charm and sturdiness of yesteryear while integrating modern necessities: TSA-compliant locks, a multi-stage telescopic handle, an extra “Add-A-Bag” system for transporting a second piece of luggage, mesh packing dividers and a patented wheel system. It’s high class, it’s history, it’s excellence. And that’s why it’s a bonus.