The Best Hard Shell Carry On Luggage

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6 Hard Sided Bags To Protect Your Stuff

In Summary: I experimented with 4 hard shell carry on bags to see if my reservations and prejudices were justified. 

I wasn’t convinced about hard-shell luggage but picked out the Kenneth Cole Reaction spinner as the one I would buy if someone put a gun to my head.

It Won Because:

  • They took the wheels into account when they were designing the size of the bag.
  • It’s reasonably light (for a hard-shell).
  • It unzips fully for easy packing.

At A Glance: Our Picks For The Best Hard Shell Carry On Bags

The Problem With Hard-Sided Carry On Luggage

Okay… first things first… I kinda hate hard-shell carry on luggage.

There I said it. I hate hard-shell carry on’s. You can’t squeeze them. They’re too heavy. They’re ugly. And did I say they’re too freakin’ heavy?

I totally understand hard shells if you are checking your bag. We ALL know baggage handlers are twisted psychopaths that love nothing more than to smash up suitcases. That’s a given.

But I always thought hard-sided CARRY ON luggage was overkill. I mean… can’t you be trusted with your own bag???

I am however, willing to investigate to see if things have changed since I last I looked…

Has anyone figured out yet how to make a decent outside pocket on a hard shell???

Maybe if I looked again at hard-sided carry on luggage it wouldn’t be as bad as I remembered.

Out Of The Loop

And yeah I know… I’m out of the loop….

The recent trend in the carry on world is for poly-carbonate shell luggage and if you’ve been in an airport in the last 5 years you’ll no doubt have seen people using 4 wheeled hard shell suitcases.

The top selling carry on bags are still polyester soft-cases such as the Travelpro Maxlite but hard case luggage is catching up fast.

The reason for this is that the best hard shell luggage offers better protection from both impact damage and the weather than soft-cases. Poly-carbonate is very study yet lightweight and modern hard shell luggage is only a couple of pounds heavier than soft cases.

On the other hand… I do have a theory about hard shells.

Baggage handlers love hard shell luggage because of the noise they make when they crack!

The down side is that it’s harder to stuff extra things into a hard shell case. The limit is the limit and you won’t be able to squeeze any more things in at the last minute.

Hard sided luggage really needs to be light if it’s going to compete and at only 6.4 pounds the 737 is one of the lightest available. The one thing that I really miss though are exterior zipped pockets. It might seem silly but in a stressful airport these little things can make all the difference.

Pretty much all hard case carry on luggage is of the spinner variety, that means that they come with 4 wheels instead of 2 and can spin 360 degrees. It also means that you can walk with them upright by your side without tilting the case on smooth airport floors and that you can steer them sideways up narrow passage ways.

Maybe hard sided luggage is the way of the future. The technology is getting better all the time and they are more durable so really should last for years.

That is until the next luggage trend comes along and surpasses them. Levitating luggage anyone? I’m in!

How Did We Choose?

Each bag was examined for durability and fitness for purpose.

We consulted various professional travelers as well as trawled the net looking for any reported problems with the products.

We read all the 1000’s upon 1000’s of reviews hunting down any valuable comments real customers had.

We paid special attention to getting you the real size of the bags, since manufacturers usually don’t accurately list the size. They conveniently  forget to include things like protruding wheels and handles. Airlines do care about protruding wheels and handles so we always report the real size.

Rockland Melbourne 20-Inch Expandable Abs Carry On Luggage

The Rockland Melbourne is a very popular polycarbonate hard sided carry on.

It’s got spinner wheels, telescopic handle and weighs in at 7.3 lbs.

It comes in a wide range of colors and sells faster than hot donuts!

But a word of warning…

Lots of people ask online… is this carry on size? And some well-meaning individual will answer assert that… Yes! They used it on such and such a flight without problem so it must be carry-on size…

But here’s the truth…

There appears to be several different versions of this suitcase kicking around…

And they are not all the same size and none of them are the advertised 20 x 13 x 9 inches when measured.

Also, different airline have different limits.

And the size you’d get away with depends on the mood of the airline staff at the moment you pass the gate…

I can’t with any certainty tell you the size of the Rockland Melboure.

The one I looked at was closer to 20.5 x 14.5 x 9.5 inches which would make it too large to pass as a legal carry on.

If you buy this, buy it plenty of days before your flight, check your airlines regulations, dig out your measuring tape, and be ready to return it if need be.

Also if you are thinking of checking this bag be aware that some people have reported that the plastic can crack.Be especially wary if you are flying with Delta since they have refused this bag in the past.On the plus side this bag has many fans. Most people think it’s great value for money. It has many colors to choose from and the compartments are very helpful.If you intend to travel in asia be aware than many airlines only permit 15 lbs in the cabin and this bag is 7.3 lbs when empty.

  • Size: 20.5 x 14.5 x 9.5 inch
  • Not the size it claims to be

AmazonBasics Hardside Spinner Cabin Size Review

The AmazonBasics Hardside Spinner is a 20 inch acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) suitcase. It’s designed to be an entry level carry on suitcase and they’ve priced it to reflect that.

The Rockland and the AmazonBasics cases are very similar designs.

The ABS hard shell is very solid and it should protect your stuff.

If you are thinking that you might sometimes check this bag then you should be aware that there is no lock. If you wanted I’m sure you could put a padlock on the zippers.

Make sure you check the stock for different colors as delivery times may vary. Not all the colors are always in stock.The bright colors will be easy to identify on a luggage carousel if you do decide to check it.This bag is a real smooth roller. Everying that tried it out loved how it glided with very little effort.And as a 4 wheeled spinner you should be able to roll it sideways down the aisle no problem.The case opens into two halves in a clamshell design. It’s great how you can zipper off one half so you can store dirty laundry in a separate area.On the minus side, there are no external pockets for passports or your boarding pass. Also things are less than ideal if you are carrying electronics like a laptop or tablet. You will need to fully open the case to remove these for the security check.

Weight — It weighs 7.3 lbs when it’s empty. That’s not bad for a hard case but you will of course find lighter soft cases.For a Taxi Tourist in the US weight will probably not be an issue. US airlines don’t tent to have weight limits or if they do they are not very restrictive. If you intend to travel internationally some airlines have weight limits as low as 10 or 15 lbs. In these scenarios a 7.3 lb case wouldn’t make much sense.Also for the elderly or infirm a heavy case can be difficult to lift into the overhead compartment.

Height — The height of 20 inches is shorter than the common maximum height of 22 inches.Also the wheels are included in that 20 inch description. That’s good because the wheels do count. But it means that height of the case minus the wheels is only 18 inches. Internally you are getting about 17 inches of usable storage height.

Width — The AmazonBasics is 15 inch wide. That’s 1 inch more than the most common US carry on size limit. But the 15 inches comes from the 4 protruding feet one 1 side and the protruding carry handle on the other.The means that it doesn’t look like it’s 15 inch wide and you will most likely get away with it.

Depth — The case is expandable but if you use the feature it will no longer qualify as carry on luggage. You can add 15% capacity but you’re going to need to check it and that might cost you.

Wheels — The wheels work well when it’s new and are ideal for smooth surfaces like the airport lobby. But if you were to take the out onto the street I’d be careful and lift it over the curb. There is no scuff guard so if you slam it off the curb or stairs it might get damaged.With a case like this I’d be wary about wheel damage over the long term. It’s not really something I’d recommend for road warriors or frequent travelers.

  • Divisible interior
  • Strong zippers
  • Wheels could break over time
  • No external pockets

Delsey Luggage Helium Aero Carry-On Spinner Trolley

The Delsey Helium holds a lot for a carry on and there is a reason for that.

It’s larger than the common US permitted carry on size of 22 x 14 x 9 inches.When you include the wheels this big baby is 23.5 x 15 x 10 inches and that’s before you even expand it!So technically don’t believe what you might read.

It’s not really carry on size. However… there is the law then there is real life.

Plenty of people are using this size of carry on and getting away with it. And the sizing device of your airline might actually be larger than the advertised limit anyway.

It really just depends if you are a crazy carry on rebel or a straight shooter that always plays by the rules.

This suitcase is borderline illegal most of the time. But But if you do decide to pack this chunky beast then don’t come crying to me if the carry on police get you. Right?

For those of you needing to improve your upper arm muscle strength then Helium is going to give you a good work out. It comes in at 8.2 lbs when it’s empty.

I suggest tying about 50 Helium balloons to your Delsey Helium to reduce the weight of the thing.

Thank god it’s got a handle on the side to help when lifting it into the overhead.

Also, baggage handlers love a side handle because it helps them aim more accurately when they throw the bags.

The hard polycarbonate outer shell may protect your valuable belongings… but it doesn’t have an outer or inner compartment for your laptop.

Which is probably the most valuable thing in your case, but it will be okay rattling around in there right? I don’t know about you but I never needed to protect my sweaters so much and I don’t often fly with crockery.

Maybe I’m not being fair and you might buy more fragile souvenirs than I do.

It’s a nice solid roller and the on smooth surfaces the wheels will be great. When you are rolling the weight of the thing won’t be a problem. It’s easy to control and make it go where you want it to go. If you are looking for a hard shell that takes it to the limit then the Delsey might be for you.

  • Lockable
  • Waterproof
  • No outside pockets
  • Waterproof

Nautica Carry On Hardside Spinner Review

The Nautica is another one of these cases that advertise as 22 x 14 x 9 inches.

But they conveniently forget to measure the wheels when they have their measuring tape out!

The wheels stick out another inch meaning that is bag will be slight oversized for most airlines.

  • Divisible interior
  • Strong zippers
  • Wheels could break over time
  • No external pockets​

Are You Sure You Want Hard Sided Luggage?

As you might have guessed I’m still not totally sold on hard-sided carry on luggage but they are lighter than they used to be. If you are an occasional checker or a taxi tourist then a hard sided bag might suit you.

But why not check out my full guide to carry on luggage here if you might be persuaded.