As you can probably tell, I love to travel, which means that my luggage is essential to me. However, when I began searching for an affordable carry-on, I couldn’t find any good information on what to look for in a good suitcase. It was just blog posts filled with affiliate links written by someone who most likely never even touched the bags that they were recommending.
That’s why I decided I write this article (also containing affiliate links since I gotta pay the bills). I actually bought these bags with my own money (hence the affiliate links) to give you the best possible review.
Here’s What to Look for When Searching for Luggage
The most crucial part of any piece of luggage is the material that it’s made out of. Most modern luggage is made from the following:
Aluminum-this is the gold standard for suitcases. It’s lightweight and durable. It’s fallen out of fashion because it is costly but you can still find it in high-end brands like Tumi and Rimowa. You won’t find an aluminum suitcase for under $100, though.
Polycarbonate-Nowadays higher-end bags are using polycarbonate. This is a molded thermoplastic polymer and is a trendy material for hard luggage. It is lighter than aluminum but still very durable and offers more style choices, e.g., in colors and patterns.
Another vital benefit of polycarbonate as a luggage material is how impact-resistant it is. Upon impact, the material flexes to absorb the impact and then bends back to its original shape, making polycarbonate luggage extremely resilient to rough handling.
Polypropylene is not as durable as polycarbonate, but it’s incredibly light, making it an ideal choice for someone whose primary concern is their suitcase being as lightweight as possible.
Finally, we have Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS plastic). This is the cheapest plastic used in hardshell cases. This is the same stuff that legos are made out of. It’s lighter than polycarbonate, but it’s also the most brittle.
What if we combine ABS with another plastic? Could we then get a ‘goldie locks’ material that’s both lightweight and durable? Yes! That’s why many mid-range cases will use an ABS Polycarbonate blend (keep this in mind later).
An excellent way to tell the quality of the material is how hard it feels. ABS plastic feels thin and brittle (because it is) and makes a higher-pitched sound when you hit it. Polycarbonate feels more flexible (because it is) and makes more of a low-pitched thud like a bass drum when you hit it.
A Handle That Doesn’t Wobble
After you’ve assessed the material, you need to look for a telescopic handle (the one that goes up and down) that doesn’t wobble a lot. The more wobbly it is, the cheaper material and construction quality it is. Almost all luggage under $100 will have really flimsy telescopic handles except for this one.
One of the reasons I don’t recommend the Amazon Basic 21″ case is that the handle was so wobbly that I felt like it would break off in my hand. The reviews confirmed my suspicion.
The casters (a fancy way of saying wheels) should feel firmly attached to the case and should be rubberized. The most durable casters are the line skate two-wheel system. They can stand up to rough ground more, and since they don’t spin around nor stick out of the side of the bag, they’re less likely to fail.
There’s a reason you see most flight crew with inline skate suitcases. That being said, spinners are more and more popular with most travelers because they give you a wider range of motion and are more stable; that is, the bag is less likely to tip over than two-wheeled models.
A Good Zipper
Most luggage nowadays uses zipper fasteners, but more and more are going back to more old-school style locks. Since most luggage use zippers, we’ll focus on that for this article.
The pulls are the best way to tell if the zipper is of high quality. That’s these things here. A suitcase zipper needs to withstand a lot of punishment, and thin metal or, even worse, plastic pulls (like on this $40 case) signify a low-quality zipper system.
A good zipper should zip and unzip easily without the head getting caught with all the teeth in perfect alignment. Next, you want to check the tape (the material that connects the zipper to the case itself). There shouldn’t be any fraying, loose strings, or, God forbid, holes in the tape.
What Size Should a Carry On Be?
At the moment, there is no standard size for what is a carry-on for US air carriers. Delta and Spirit say a suitcase must not exceed 22 inches in length (including handles and wheels) to be a carry-on.
Which Suitcases I Tested:
The Kenneth Cole Reaction Series 20″
Amazon Basics 26″ Hardside Spinner
Calpak Carry On 20″
Cool Life Carry On 20″
What I Tested For
The way I determined if a case was good or not was by looking at:
- Quality of the material
- Handle wobble
- Zipper Quality
- Read reviews online
The most crucial thing in a suitcase is the quality of the material it’s made from. Cheap low quality plastic is brittle and more likely to suffer attachment failures (wheels falling off and handles breaking off). For more information on materials for most modern suitcases, read my full article on how to tell if a suitcase is of good quality or not.
Good materials should make a low pitch thud like a bass drum when you hit them, while cheap plastic will have a higher, more brittle sound.
The Telescopic Handle:
One of the best ways to tell if a suitcase is well made is whether or not the telescopic handle (the one you lift up) wobbles a lot when you wiggle it. Cheap cases will have handles that rattle and wobble a lot when you wiggle them, indicating poor construction and low-quality materials.
The Zipper System
A good zipper shouldn’t have any loose strings or fraying. All the teeth should fit together perfectly, and it should zip and unzip easily without little effort. The zippers seemed good on all the suitcases that I tested.
I also read the reviews online, mainly from Amazon.com. I would like to point out that the Amazon Basics bag had a rating of 4.5 stars, even though I found it to be the worst case that I tested.
Amazon Basics 21″
Despite its general positive rating, I found this to be the worst bag I tested. The handle felt very thin and poorly constructed, and attached to the bag. Indeed, a few of the reviews did mention how the handle broke and the wheels fell off.
The material itself is made of the lowest quality ABS plastic. Even for the price, I cannot in good conscience recommend this suitcase as there are other similar or even cheaper cases that are of better quality.
Kenneth Cole Reaction Series 20″
The Kenneth Cole Reaction Series 20″ is the second case I tested. At first, it seemed of decent quality. The telescopic handle didn’t have as much wobble as the Amazon Basics case. It had some corner padding, and the casters appeared to be attached well.
…then I hit it…
It had that tale-tell high-pitched brittle sound of cheap ABS plastic. Sure enough, upon checking their website, the material was made of ABS. For that reason alone, this bag is a pass. The reviews also mentioned attachment failure, specifically the wheels falling off.
CalPak Carry-On 20″
I got this suitcase from Marshells. Calpak is a smaller company out of Southern California. According to their website, they make quality suitcases that are affordable. On the surface, the case looks promising. The color and style look like the more expensive Away luggage. It even has a TSA-style lock reminiscent of more expensive suitcases.
However, testing showed otherwise. The telescopic handle was wobbly (although notably less than the Amazon Basics), and the material was made of cheap ABS plastic.
Cool Life 20″ Expandable Carry On
The Best Hardshell Carry On for Under $100
I decided on the Cool Life 20″ expandable suitcase. It has more than anyone could ask for, for under 100 bucks.
- It’s made out of an ABS+ Polycarbonate blend, so you won’t have to worry about the wheels or handle falling off with normal use.
- The wheels are on a suspension system, so you don’t get a lot of rattling when moving over rough surfaces.
- The zipper felt solid when I used it
- The handle didn’t have a lot of wobble either
As of this writing, I couldn’t find a single review on Amazon that mentioned wheel or handle failure. That being said I encourage you to read the reviews yourself.