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Updated June 2022
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BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and all opinions about the products are our own. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.Read more 
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Buying guide for Best hard-sided luggage

Whether you’re a frequent traveler or you save up for one big trip a year, luggage is an essential investment. Hard-sided luggage is durable, comes in stylish colors and patterns, and is great for transporting any fragile items you take with you or bring home.

But before you add a hard-sided suitcase to your shopping list, keep some key questions in mind. How often do you plan to travel with the luggage? Do you tend to pack light or struggle to keep your checked bags below the weight limit? What kinds of items will you pack? What’s your budget for luggage?

The answers to these questions will inform your purchase. A good shopping guide and some recommendations can point out the various sizes, materials, and features so that you can find the luggage that best suits your travel needs.

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The clamshell design is pretty standard in hard-sided luggage, but it’s possible to find bags that have a simple top opening. This saves space when the luggage is open.

How to buy the best hard-sided luggage

Hard-sided vs. soft-sided

When it comes to choosing between the two, most buyers lean toward soft-sided luggage. This luggage is more flexible when it comes to packing, cheaper, and more comfortable to have pressed against your body if the situation arises.

But hard-sided luggage has pros as well. It’s useful in rainy weather, more durable, and, thanks to modern materials, pretty lightweight. Gone are the days of cracked hard-sided suitcases. Today’s plastics are durable enough to withstand the abuse of travel.

Ultimately, you can find good-quality hard-sided and soft-sided bags. Your final choice will depend on a few other factors. Or if you’re in doubt, get both!

Material

The hard-sided suitcases manufactured today are made from two primary materials: polycarbonate and ABS.

Polycarbonate refers to a family of transparent, amorphous plastics. Due to its light weight and durability, it’s used in a number of common products, including glasses, CDs, and light fixtures. It’s durable, heat resistant, and can easily return to its original shape if dented. Polycarbonate is the premium choice in luggage.

ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) is a blend of the three materials in its name. The combination of these plastics makes ABS resistant to impact and heat, malleable, and light. It’s a cheaper plastic than polycarbonate, so it isn’t as durable. If you can’t buy polycarbonate, look for a suitcase made of ABS blended with a stronger plastic.

Size

Luggage typically comes in three sizes: large, medium, and cabin.

Large and medium luggage needs to be checked. For long or international trips or trips that require you to pack a lot of items, large or medium suitcases are the way to go.

Cabin luggage is another term for carry-on luggage. These bags are meant to be stowed in the overhead compartment. For a brief trip, you might only need one bag and a piece of cabin luggage.

Luckily, hard-sided luggage is available in all these sizes. If you prefer not to commit to buying a full set of luggage, be strategic about what you buy. If you take frequent short business trips, perhaps a piece of cabin luggage is all you need. If you tend to carry fragile, heavy items on trips (which isn’t recommended, but you may have your reasons), choose a bag that’s a size or two larger.

Protection

What’s inside your luggage will also dictate what type of luggage you buy. Generally, hard-sided luggage is a great choice if you pack a lot of breakable items. It’s also a good choice for electronics. If you plan to shop at your destination, you might prefer a bag that isn’t so rigid so you aren’t as limited in the amount you can carry home.

While hard-sided luggage protects items from outside elements, that doesn’t mean your things won’t get jostled inside the bag. Wrap breakable items in clothes or invest in protective travel covers.

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What features should I look for in hard-sided luggage?

Compartments

Hard-sided bags contain many of the same components as soft-sided bags. One difference to note is that hard-sided luggage doesn’t have any of the external pockets that are common on soft luggage. However, the interior has plenty of smaller pockets. You can also find a hard-sided suitcase with an extra zipper in the middle that unzips to expand it.

Commonly, hard-sided luggage has a clamshell design. This means the interior space is split 50/50. More often than not there’s a thin sheet of fabric separating the two compartments so the weight is evenly distributed. This design also means the luggage is less likely to tip over when upright.

Wheels

Two-wheel and four-wheel suitcases both have their benefits and downsides.

Two-wheel suitcases are designed with two wheels on one side of the bottom and two short posts on the other side. This luggage is meant to be rolled behind you. The posts stabilize the bag when it’s standing upright. Two-wheeled bags are more stable than four-wheeled bags on rough ground, but they’re more difficult to maneuver if you’re trying to roll more than one suitcase.

Four-wheeled luggage is designed to roll beside you. This hard-sided luggage is particularly useful if you need to wheel more than one suitcase. However, the wheels are more likely to pop off on rough, uneven ground.

Handle

Luggage handles are essential for easy carrying and maneuvering. Today, retractable handles are common. With this feature, the handle can extend or retract as needed, usually up to two different lengths. Retractable handles should feel secure and lock firmly in place.

Another handle feature to consider is ergonomics. There is plenty of hard-sided luggage with handles that have extra padding to minimize arm, wrist, and hand discomfort. Ergonomic handles are worth looking for, especially if you travel a lot.

Color

You can never go wrong with black hard-sided luggage. Other neutrals like gray, beige, and brown are versatile too. But that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck if you prefer bold colors. Brightly colored suitcases are easier to identify at baggage claim, so it isn’t a bad idea to opt for a red or orange bag. We don’t recommend white, however, because it’s likely to get scuffed and stained and require more frequent cleaning.

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DID YOU KNOW?
If you plan to lock your luggage, be sure to use TSA-approved locks. That means that a TSA agent can open the bag using a master key. Any other lock will be cut off.
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Accessories

Travel shoe bags: If you worry about packing shoes with delicate items or carrying dirt from shoes into your suitcase, shoe bags address those concerns.

Hidden Camera Finders: Make sure your private time is actually private when staying in hotels and vacation rentals.

How much does hard-sided luggage cost?

Inexpensive

Hard-sided luggage in the $30 to $75 range is typically smaller (think cabin size) and most likely made of ABS or a blend with other plastics. Clamshell designs are the most common in this range. If this is your budget, we recommend spending on the higher end. Cheap hard-sided luggage is more likely to crack or have low-quality hardware.

Mid-range

For $75 to $150, your options broaden considerably. Along with high-quality cabin suitcases, you can find plenty of medium and large sizes as well. There are some small bags made of polycarbonate in this range. And you’re more likely to find expandable luggage with an extra zipper. You may also come across small and medium suitcases with a lid rather than a clamshell design.

Expensive

If you have the means, consider spending $150 or more. Frequent travelers benefit from investing in durable hard-sided luggage. Most of the high-end pieces are made of polycarbonate. Furthermore, in this range you can also find two- or three-piece sets. Some of the luggage at this price is sold by designer brands.

If you opt for a neutral-colored suitcase, make sure to add a label with your name so you can find it easily at baggage claim.

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Tips

  • Keep your luggage clean. Hard-sided luggage is even easier to clean than soft-sided. Simply wipe down the shell, wheels, and handle with a rag dampened with warm water and mild dish soap.
  • Use an eraser sponge to remove scuffs. Avoid using any substances that contain bleach or ammonia on your luggage. They can cause permanent stains.
  • Confirm the airline’s baggage fees. Before traveling, check your airline’s website to make sure you won’t have to pay extra when you check in.
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While hard-sided luggage includes interior compartments, storage cubes or even large resealable plastic bags can help you keep clothes more organized.

FAQ

Q. Is hard-sided luggage heavier than soft-sided luggage?

A. Even though hard-sided luggage technology has come a long way, these suitcases are still heavier than soft-sided bags. That might be something to consider if you’re worried about weight limits for checked baggage.

Q. Will hard-sided luggage dent?

A. Dents are pretty hard to make in good-quality hard-sided luggage. If they do happen, they can be easily fixed by pressing on the dent from the inside of the bag.

Q. Does hard-sided luggage scratch easily?

A. This varies from one product to the next. As a general rule, hard-sided luggage made of plastic or aluminum is more likely to scratch than luggage made of polycarbonate.

 

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