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Do you want to learn some secrets to travelling light? I’ve been travelling internationally for over 40 years and, whenever I can, I travel with hand luggage only. And yes, that included short breaks, week-long business trips, and extended trips, including months of backpacking around Egypt.
I choose to travel carry-on only to speed through departures and arrivals and avoid hefty hold baggage fees. Over the years, I’ve picked up a few carry-on-only travel hacks and tricks that make travelling with a single bag easy. Here are my very best tips for how to pack hand luggage like a pro:
Top tips for how to pack hand luggage
Have you ever unpacked after a trip and wondered why the heck you’ve taken something with you or found things in your bag that you never wore? Me too!
Packing for every possible situation feels like a good idea. It’s also the quickest way to overfill your bag, lug stuff around that you don’t need and pay a small fortune in checked baggage fees. Packing hand luggage only is the trick!
It all starts with choosing the best hand luggage. You need a carry-on bag that works on the way to the airport, on the flight, and at your destination.
Before you buy a cabin bag, check your airline’s specifications about hand luggage.
If you’re taking more than one flight or flying with more than one carrier, don’t forget to check the cabin baggage allowance for each flight!
There is no industry standard hand luggage size, and airlines often update their rules. As a very general rule of thumb, international and national airlines tend to have a size restriction of 55 x 35 x 20 cm or 22 x 14 x 9 inches, and you can stow your bag in the overhead locker.
Others, typically budget airlines, have much smaller baggage size (and weight) allowances, especially on their “no-frills” fares, and you may have to fit your back under the seat in front of you. It pays to check, as paying hold luggage charges at the check-in desk is very expensive!
What’s the best hand luggage to buy?
Wheeled bags can be a great option, but if you are hopping on and off of trains and buses, navigating uneven terrain, or walking a long way, you might be more comfortable with a backpack.
I personally use this case for city breaks, as it’s one of the lightest rolling cases you can buy at just 1.5kg. For short breaks with Ryanair, I take this 40x25x20 under seat backpack, which fits a surprising amount in.
For longer trips where I want to travel with hand luggage only but don’t want a wheeled cabin bag, this backpack is my old favourite!!
- 20-26 litre bags are a good size for a long weekend
- 30-45 litre luggage is perfect for longer trips
This backpackers checklist is helpful if you need to take a larger bag.
Get your tape measure out to check the dimensions, and use a digital luggage scale to check (and double-check) the weight of your bag after you’ve packed it.
Top Tip: Bags with plenty of pockets and soft sides are handy, as they help keep your stuff well organised. It’s also easier to pack and access your belongings with a front-loading (suitcase style) bag.
Now you have your bag sorted – here are the best tips for how to pack hand luggage
#1 Pick clothes that work together
With three coordinating tops, three pairs of trousers, shorts or skirts, and three layering pieces (jumpers or cardigans), you’ll have 18 possible outfit combinations to wear. Throw in a couple of pretty scarves, as they take up next to no room and can really “lift” an outfit.
The best way to avoid running out of outfits when you’re travelling with just a carry-on bag is to mix and match, picking neutral colours and styles that work together.
Top tip: Check if there’s a launderette near to your accommodation. Alternatively, use the hotel laundry service or plan to wash a few items by hand while you’re away so that you can recycle your outfits.
#2 Buy stuff when you get there
There may be things that you can buy once you’ve arrived, such as sunglasses, sunhats, sandals, and toiletries. It’s also a sustainable way to travel and to support local businesses. Just remember that your baggage limit will be the same for your trip home too!
#3 Pack a laundry sack
As you might not be able to freshen up your worn things before re-packing your bag, pop a laundry bag into your bag, to keep clean and used items separate.
Top tip: Use the plastic hotel laundry bag, then store it in your bag to use over and over again! I have one that’s at least five years old!
#4 Buy clothing that takes up little space
Lightweight, multipurpose clothes are your best option when you want to travel carry on only, as they usually pack away into a tiny space.
Pick cleverly engineered technical fabrics that look smart enough for a city break, work well for more rural or off-the-beaten-track locations, and dry in a snap after hand-washing. Remember to pack layers rather than bulk if you’re going somewhere cold.
#5 Fold and roll
Now you know what to pack; it’s time to make it fit. Here are a few tips which are always helpful when trying to pack hand luggage efficiently:
- Most hard-shell cases have ridges on one side behind the handle. Before you pack anything else, fill up those spaces with small items, like your undies, swimwear and lightweight clothes.
- Roll your clothes to save space in your bag and to minimise creasing. Stack your rolled items next to each other.
- Stuff your shoes with small items like socks – it will help your shoes hold their shape, and it makes the most of the space in your bag.
#6 Fill every nook and cranny
Try putting fragile items like sunglasses or camera lenses inside a sock, and stow them inside your shoes. You’ll get rid of dead space and protect your precious items at the same time.
#7 Use compression packing cubes
Packing cubes are the ultimate minimalist packing tool! Once you’ve folded and rolled your clothes, pack them into a compression packing cube (or two), then see how much space you save when you do up the compression zip.
If you need to open your cabin bag at airport security, your clothes won’t all tumble out and ruin your careful packing! I personally use these compression packing cubes, which are made from recycled plastic bottles!
#8 Maximise your second bag
Check whether your airline and your ticket type permit you to take a personal item (such as a handbag, laptop bag or camera bag) as well as your primary carry on bag.
If you can, you’ll have to stow this in the footwell, beneath the seat in front of you. That means your bag needs to be flexible and sturdy.
#9 Wear your bulkiest clothes
Wearing your coat and bulkiest shoes to travel is the best way to save precious packing space – you can shed layers once you’re onboard the aircraft.
Use your pockets for items like your reusable water bottle, brolly or gloves. It’s a great way to bring a few extra things, but don’t go crazy!
Top Tip: Investing in a stuffable down jacket that packs down tiny into a small stuff sack is one of the easiest hacks for how to pack hold baggage.
#10 Minimise your liquids and switch to solids
Current restrictions on hand luggage liquids can be a significant hassle. You are limited to taking one small, clear bag with up to a litre of fluids, in containers no bigger than 100ml each. Here are some things you can do to cope:
- Decant essential toiletries into 100ml bottles. Remember to wash these out and reuse them for your next trip.
- Switch to solids wherever possible. For example, switch your spray or roll-on deodorant for a stick deodorant. Or, try solid shampoo and conditioner instead of liquids. Consider taking a soap bar instead of shower gel and buying toothpaste tablets rather than toothpaste. Solid products won’t count as liquids; plus, they last well and are better for the environment.
- Pack toiletries you can use for more than one purpose. For example, a cream blusher can double up as a lip colour and eye cream, and you can use a dash of shampoo to handwash a few clothes.
The TSA classifies solid deodorant, lipstick and bars of soap as solids. They don’t need to go in your hand luggage liquids bag. Still, any final decision will always rest with the local security officer on whether an item is allowed.
I’ve been challenged at several UK airports by security agents who insist that these items fit into the hand luggage liquids bag. Be warned if you’re flying into or within the UK!
#11 Keep your essentials to hand
- Keep your passport, phone, money, and boarding pass in a bum bag (fanny pack), neck pouch or secure zipped pocket. You’ll need easy access to them as you pass through the airport.
- Organise your liquids bag BEFORE you leave for the airport, and stow it somewhere that’s easily accessible. You don’t want to be the disorganised passenger who holds up the whole security queue or to have your posh new lipgloss confiscated because you forgot to put it in your liquids bag.
#12 Go digital
Wherever possible, switch to digital devices to save space in your cabin bag, but don’t forget to pack your charger and power bank. Here are a few ways to make the most of digital devices:
- Download boarding passes onto your phone to avoid the need to print and stow your travel documents
- Load your favourite books onto an eReader
- Tidy up the cables for your devices with inexpensive hair bands, and tuck them all into one bag so that you can locate them quickly
#13 Charge your devices
Make sure to charge your electronic devices fully before you travel. If any of the devices in your hand luggage won’t power up when a security agent asks, you won’t be allowed to take them on the plane with you. A multi-port charger is a great way to charge up more than one device and free up a little more space in your bag.
Here’s the multi-port charger that I use – it’s lightning-fast with a heap of security features to protect your devices, plus, it’s compact and lightweight.
#14 Pick your camera carefully
Consider leaving your big DSLR camera at home and travelling with a lightweight mirrorless camera or taking all of your photos on your smartphone.
#15 Ditch the chunky jewellery
Jewellery can be a magnet for the wrong kind of attention when travelling, especially if you’re a solo female traveller. Consider taking only the bare minimum of jewellery with you, and keep it subtle, not only to save on packing space but also to look after your security.
Top tip: If you’re a solo female traveller, a fake wedding ring can help you to avoid unwanted attention.
Now you know how to pack hand luggage like a pro; you can travel for weeks on end with everything you need and without lugging a massive suitcase around with you. Adios, baggage claim!
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Before You Go
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Until next time!
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