If you're between a soft and a hard case...
Shell Out: The Best Hard-Shell & Hard-Side Suitcases
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-yous. 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.
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.
Tumi T-Tech Cargo Hard-Shell / Hard Side Suitcase Series
Best Hard-Shell for Those Prone To Lose Luggage: Though their modern, attractive Vapor suitcases are top of the line, Tumi’s T-Tech luggage packs desirable features into a more affordable package (and includes a five-year warranty). TSA-friendly locks, four-wheel design and integrated bumpers mean easy navigation through security and/or safe storage in an overhead bin or in the belly of your aircraft. Tumi also offers their Tracer program for easier recovery of stolen luggage: 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. And, most importantly, T-Tech cases come in a variety of nifty colors — including a red camo option, should you feel like matching your suitcase to your Call of Duty avatar.
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.
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.
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.
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.