We tested 9 top-rated checked suitcases: These 2 won us over

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Facing rising fees and busy airports, many air travelers depend on carry-on luggage to get them through every trip. But if you’re going on a long journey or traveling with family, a bigger checked bag is a must. To help you wade through the options, we tested nine of the most popular checked suitcases for weeks, examining durability, capacity, maneuverability and more, to see which one is truly the best.

We packed and unpacked each suitcase with a typical load, wheeled them around New York City streets and even dropped them down a flight of stairs to simulate the treatment they might get from baggage handlers, all to find the bags that are really worth taking along on your next long trip.

Best overall checked suitcase

With fantastic internal organization and compression, a durable exterior and comfortable handles, the Away Medium suitcase was the most well-rounded bag we tested, with a great combination of maneuverability, capacity, durability and style.

Best budget checked suitcase

At about half the price of our top pick, the Samsonite Freeform Medium Spinner rolls super smooth, fits more thanks to its expandable zippers and is one of the lightest bags we tested; you’ll sacrifice some style and it has less comfortable handles.

Best overall checked luggage: Away Medium ($295; away.com)

Away Medium
Kai Burkhardt/CNN
Away Medium

The Away Medium suitcase was undoubtedly the most well-rounded piece of luggage we got our hands on, outdoing the other bags in many of our most important tests. It’s solidly durable, with only a few scuffs from its trip down the stairs, has an incredible interior compression system, is easily maneuverable and is even comfortable to carry for those times you need to lift it in and out of the car.

One of the biggest reasons the Away suitcase claimed our top spot was its fantastic interior organization and compression system. While most of the bags we tested utilize the classic X-shaped straps to keep your clothes in place, one side of the Away has a panel that you can cinch down to flatten out its contents. This panel compresses your items more evenly than straps, which makes closing the two halves and zipping a much easier process. Another bonus of this panel: If you unzip your suitcase and accidentally open it with this side on top, your things won’t come tumbling out onto the floor the way they can with traditional straps.

The suitcase’s other half has a simple zippered mesh netting, and between the two we were able to fit a surprisingly large amount of clothes into the Away Medium. We packed eight button-up shirts (including a few bulky flannels), six hoodies and sweaters, two bathing suits, one towel, a puffy winter coat, five pairs of jeans, a toiletry bag and three pairs of sneakers. We stuffed our sneakers into what was probably our favorite feature of the suitcase — an included zippered bag that you can use to stash your shoes or dirty clothes while traveling, but can pack into itself when not in use.

Away Medium
Kai Burkhardt/CNN
Away Medium

While a few other suitcases had more capacity than the Away, thanks to expandable zippers or a larger interior, the Away’s better organization made it by far our favorite to pack. And if you do want more room, you can opt for Away’s Large suitcase, which is 29 inches tall to the Medium’s 25 inches. Just be careful to stay under the 50-pound airline limit when packing, as suitcases that big are easy to overstuff.

Aside from its internal features, the Away also did great in our other tests. It got scuffed up after we dropped it down some stairs, but it comes with a scuff eraser, which worked surprisingly well. It came out of the drop with only a couple of lasting scratches, which is better than many of the other bags we tested.

In terms of maneuverability, it wasn’t the absolute best we tested, but it was definitely better than most. The Away Medium is well balanced, has smooth wheels and rarely tipped over, even when we rolled it over deep cracks in the sidewalk and street outside our Brooklyn apartment. The Rimowa Essential Check-In M and the Paravel Aviator Grand had a better overall performance when we wheeled them around, but the Away handled well enough. However, we did have one wheel that rattled around once or twice during testing, and when the bag was fully packed, the handle was a little sticky coming up.

On top of all its technical attributes, the Away suitcase is undoubtedly gorgeous. We ranked it second in terms of looks (again behind the Paravel), and its sleek, minimalist design is available in six different colors.

So whenever your next trip might be, if you need a reliable checked bag that’s comfortable to wheel around, easy to pack and can endure through the abuse of any airline, the Away Medium suitcase is the best out there.

Best budget checked suitcase: Samsonite Freeform Medium Spinner ($159.99; samsonite.com)

Samsonite Freeform Medium Spinner
Kai Burkhardt/CNN
Samsonite Freeform Medium Spinner

The Samsonite Freeform Medium Spinner performed quite well in our tests, especially when taking into account that the other bags that performed as well cost closer to $300. The Freeform’s wheels are smoother than the ones on the Away suitcase, and with an expandable zipper on the outside, it can fit more than our overall winner, while weighing nearly a pound less.

The Freeform doesn’t have a compression panel like the Away, but you will find the traditional X-shaped straps that do the job on one side, while a zippered compartment on the other side features an additional thin pocket to stash any odds and ends. While the organization and compression isn’t as good as the Away suitcase, this Samsonite roller makes up for it in size. The internal space feels a touch bigger than the Away, and when you expand the bag by unzipping the outer zippers you can definitely fit more than our overall pick.

Samsonite Freeform Medium Spinner
Kai Burkhardt/CNN
Samsonite Freeform Medium Spinner

But even though it fits more, the Freeform weighs less than the Away, coming in at exactly 9 pounds on our scale (the company’s site lists it at 8.48 pounds). That’s 0.8 pounds lighter than the Away at 9.8 pounds, which means carrying the same load up and down flights of stairs felt a bit better with the Freeform. However, its handles aren’t as comfortable as the Away’s, since they’re thin and not super cushioned.

While the Freeform was one of the better bags to maneuver around both in our apartment building and outside of it, one downside was its telescopic handle. It’s flimsier than a lot of the others we tested, which means there’s a lot of give when you’re trying to change directions, especially when the bag is packed full. It also didn’t come out of the drop test the cleanest, with a solid amount of scuffs and scratches; however, there was no real structural damage like dents or cracks.

The Samsonite Freeform Medium Spinner is a lot cheaper than the Away Medium, and it has more internal capacity without sacrificing on weight. So If you’re looking for a suitcase that’s light and easy to roll around, but you don’t need it to be the sturdiest, the Samsonite Freeform is definitely the bag we’d recommend.

How we tested

We got our hands on nine check-in sized suitcases and tested them for weeks, taking note of their packing capabilities, durability, maneuverability and more. Like the best carry-on luggage, checked bags these days are meant to be wheeled around easily, so all the suitcases we tested have four 360-degree wheels and a hardshell exterior. We tested medium-sized bags whenever possible, which are typically about 25 inches tall. This is because while you can fit much more in the larger sizes — which are normally around 29 inches tall — it’s easy to overpack and exceed an airline’s weight limit.

The Paravel Aviator Grand and the Samsonite Maxsum Eco are the only bags we tested that are larger than 25 inches, coming in at 28 inches and 29 inches respectively. Many of the other suitcases we tested do have larger sizes, so if you want the extra room you can opt for those.

Here’s a breakdown of all the tests we ran:

Durability

  • Impact: After fully packing each suitcase, we pushed it down a large flight of stairs. We then took note of how scuffed and scratched it was, and looked for any dents.

Usability

  • Capacity test: We packed the Away Medium suitcase to the brim, and set the contents as our standard amount. We then packed each suitcase to see how well it fit that standard amount, taking note if everything fit, if it was harder to zip up the suitcase or if there was extra room.
  • General maneuverability: We wheeled each packed suitcase around our apartment building and on the sidewalk and streets. We purposely went over cracks and rough terrain to see how easily each suitcase would tilt and tip. We also weaved the suitcase around to see how hard it was to change directions.
  • Wheel maneuverability: We paid attention to any rattling or stiffness we felt in the wheels while rolling each suitcase around, and while outside made sure to notice if the wheels got stuck on cracks.
  • Carrying experience: We carried each packed suitcase up and down several flights of stairs to see how comfortable the handles were and how comfortable each was to carry.
  • Handle: We took note of how sturdy the handle was, how comfortable it was to hold and pull, how many height settings it had and if it was easy to pull in and out, especially when the bag was fully packed.
  • Zippers: We zipped and unzipped each packed bag several times to see if the zippers would snag. We also took note of how smooth each zipper felt.
  • Interior features: We noted each suitcase’s interior organization system.
  • Exterior features: We looked for any exterior features on each suitcase. The only extra features on the outside were expandable zippers to help you pack more.
  • Locking capability: We looked to see if each suitcase has a lock, and if it’s a TSA-approved lock.

Design and build quality

  • Unpacked weight: We weighed each suitcase on a scale.
  • Color and design options: We counted the color and design options on each brand’s website and noted if the suitcase had a larger size.
  • Warranty: We took note of how long each suitcase’s warranty lasts and what it covers.
  • Design: We examined each suitcase and ranked them in order of which ones we thought looked the best.

Everything else we tested

Paravel Aviator Grand ($315; tourparavel.com)

The Paravel Aviator Grand is a fantastic suitcase, almost grabbing a top spot in our testing. It holds a ton, has a super smooth roll, is the most sustainable bag we tested and, in our opinion, looks the best. However, it was the second biggest bag we tested and weighed the most. At 12 pounds (the company’s site lists it at 11.8 pounds), it was more than 2 pounds heavier than the Away and 3 pounds heavier than the Freeform. When you’re trying to stay under the dreaded 50-pound limit at the airport, those extra ounces really count. If you don’t mind packing strategically and want a stylish suitcase that’s surprisingly maneuverable and durable, the Paravel Aviator Grand is still a great pick.

Rimowa Essential Check-In M ($850; rimowa.com)

The Rimowa was one of our favorites to roll around, with the smoothest wheels, sturdiest handle and best overall maneuverability of any suitcase we tested. However, the handle got extremely hard to pull in and out when it was packed full, and it didn’t excel in our drop tests either. While it is an incredibly nice piece of luggage, we just don’t think it’s worth the high price tag.

Delsey Paris Helium Aero 25-Inch (starting at $114.99, originally $231.84; amazon.com or $149.99, originally $300; delsey.com)

The Delsey was another solid contender, with decently smooth wheels and some of the most comfortable handles we tested, making it easy to carry up and down stairs. It performed very similarly to the Samsonite Freeform, so if you’re interested in that bag but don’t like the look or want a different color, the Delsey (when it’s on sale) is a great pick.

Samsonite Maxsum Eco ($250; samsonite.com)

This Samsonite bag was another solid suitcase, and it performed pretty well in many of our tests. In fact, it came out of the drop tests with the least damage of all the suitcases we tested. It’s also very light for its size, coming in at 29 inches tall but only 9.4 pounds. However, the suitcase has a latching system instead of a zipper, which we found harder to open and close.

Calpak Ambeur Medium ($195; calpak.com)

This suitcase looks great and has very comfortable handles and a decently smooth roll, making it a serious contender for our budget pick spot. However, it’s a bit pricier than the Samsonite Freeform, and since our testing process has sold out on the Calpak site. When it’s back in stock, it’s another solid option along with the Freeform and the Delsey Paris Helium Aero, if you’re looking for a cheaper suitcase but still want top-notch performance.

Calpak Hue Medium ($245; calpak.com)

The Hue has a nice minimalist design, similar to the Away, and features an expandable zipper, comfortable handles and wheels that are smooth enough for most. However, during its trip down the stairs, it did get a big dent in one of its corners, the worst damage out of all the suitcases we tested.

American Tourister Upland Spinner ($89.99; shop.americantourister.com)

This suitcase did well in our drop tests, picking up only a couple of scuffs and a small number of scratches. Where it fell short, however, was with its wheels. They were the smallest wheels we tested and got stuck on cracks much more easily than nearly all the other suitcases. And with its middling performance in our other tests, we don’t think this suitcase is worth it.

Read more from CNN Underscored’s hands-on testing: