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    Best Hard-Shell Carry-On Luggage From Consumer Reports' Tests

    We pulled, dragged, dropped, stretched, stabbed, soaked, and otherwise put a bunch of spinner bags through their paces. The result? Two suitcases that cost $90 bested bags priced at over $500.

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    piece of hard sided luggage being tested for pressure resistance
    CR's testing included simulated showers to see which carry-on bags would keep packed items dry.
    Photo: Consumer Reports

    In Consumer Reports’ recent tests of hard-shell carry-on luggage, two inexpensive bags beat out suitcases costing hundreds more, including one at six times the price.

    The bargain winners are hard-shell carry-on spinner bags branded by popular retailers. They’re both priced at $90 and are among four carry-ons that Consumer Reports recommends. The highest-rated bag in CR’s ratings, by a longstanding luggage brand, is priced at $170.

    In contrast, two hard-shell luggage models costing $500 or more ranked in the middle of the pack or below.

    Hard Shell, Hard Knocks

    The popularity of hard-shell luggage has grown in recent years, thanks in part to marketing by premium brands such as Away and Rimowa. Typically made of high-tech plastic, hard-shell bags are a good option for protecting your valuables. Some models expand in the middle like soft-sided luggage, offering added flexibility when you need more space. (We’ve also evaluated soft-sided weekender bags and travel backpacks in our Outside the Labs reviews program.)

    More on Luggage

    And as a group, the carry-on bags performed capably in our tests. Every bag gets a very good Overall Score. But they differed in ease of use and in how well they withstood our rigorous simulations of the wear and abuse that make up a travel bag’s job. And those differences can be meaningful when you’re on the road.

    “You’re going to be pulling the luggage, picking it up, going up and down curbs,” says Chris Regan, the engineer who leads CR’s luggage tests. “You want it to not only serve in its intended use but also survive if it has to be checked—or you have to sit on it during a long layover.”

    Tests of Travelworthiness

    In Consumer Reports’ tests, we put small, hard-shell carry-on bags—basic models—from numerous brands through 31 different evaluations of use, durability, ergonomics, safety, and other aspects of ownership.

    To gauge durability, for instance, we filled each bag with fabric until its total weight was almost 18 pounds, and then wheeled it along an obstacle-studded conveyor belt for the equivalent of 30-plus miles. We had a machine lift those loaded bags by their handles 5,000 times. We dropped them more than 3 feet onto hard flooring after storing them at summer and winter temperatures—potentially tough on hard plastic. We left the bags, zipped, in a sprinkler-induced downpour to see what would seep through their zipper fabric. We inflated a large air bladder inside to check how the seams held up. We loaded almost 225 pounds on top and to the side to gauge each bag’s resilience at the bottom of a cargo pile. And we swung a nasty-looking, 17-pound pointed metal hammer twice at each carry-on to see what would happen if, say, the bag accidentally fell from a plane’s overhead compartment onto an armrest. 

    We weren’t fixated only on the bags’ strength. We also considered ergonomics: how convenient each hard-shell carry-on was to open, pack, and close, and how well various pockets, flaps, closures, and locks worked. We examined how easy it was for men and women of different sizes to grab handles and straps, and to carry and pull. We checked how stable each bag was when rolled or pulled up steps and over sidewalks, curbs, cobblestones, and dirt roads. Some of the hard-shell carry-on luggage models in our tests have the ability to expand in the middle using designs involving zippers and rip-stop fabric; we checked how much roomier those bags became when expanded. 

    And we evaluated manufacturing quality, volume claims, and safety.

    piece of hard sided luggage being tested for pressure resistance
    To test the strength of each bag's seams, we inflated a plastic air bladder inside.

    Photo: Consumer Reports Photo: Consumer Reports

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