Packing for a trip can be daunting at the best of times, especially if you aren’t a fan of packing. Add in the restrictions that come with hand luggage travel and it might seem like an impossible task. However, there are plenty of tricks that we have tried and tested that we can’t wait to share with you. But first, why do we travel carry-on only?
Why Do we Travel Carry On Only?
Our obsession with hand luggage travel started with the rise of low-cost carriers and their charges for check-in bags. Suddenly, we were faced with the challenge of how to pack for that city break without tripling the costs of the bargain ticket. We managed ten days of travel with just one Ryanair bag. After that, we never took a large suitcase away again! We love travelling light because:
- It saves time – We don’t have to wait in line to check our bags in at our departure airport or ensure the stressful wait by the luggage belt at our destination.
- It saves money – These days, it’s not just low-cost carriers that charge extra for luggage. Plenty of full-service carriers offer cheaper hand luggage only options which means we get to fly on a nicer airline that provides food and drink, a pillow, a decent seat etc Plus, being first to the taxi queue at your destination not only saves you time but money if you are in a country where negotiations are normal. It can also avoid luggage fees in transfers/taxis
- It is manageable – We know we can carry our luggage so if we arrive at our destination and discover lots of stairs, no pavements or similar, we aren’t dragging a heavy bag around.
- It is more secure – Our luggage is with us on the plane and so we know exactly where it is at all times. If we have any valuables, we can keep an eye on them. Oh, and the airline will never lose my bag if it is with me!
20 Tips for Hand Luggage Travel
- 1 Make a List, Then Halve It
- 2 Check Your Allowance
- 3 Pick Your Bag Well
- 4 Social Media Hacks
- 5 Master the Great Liquid Dilemma
- 6 Know Your Illegal Items
- 7 Roll Up, Roll Up
- 8 Packing Cubes
- 9 Easy Squeezy Packing
- 10 Dress Awkwardly
- 11 Look for Laundrettes
- 12 Accessories with Care
- 13 Be Brutal With Your Bathroom Bits
- 14 Look For the Mini Things
- 15 Duly Digitise
- 16 Co-ordinate Your Group Travel
- 17 Remove the Just-In-Case Items
- 18 What Can You Purchase There?
- 19 Va-Va-Vacuum Pack
- 20 Plan to Ditch Things
- 21 Final Thoughts
Make a List, Then Halve It
A quick way to run into problems is to start packing willy-nilly. Start by counting the days you will be away and plan an outfit for each day. Then think of any special activities you will be doing (hiking/swimming/running/a black tie event). Look down the list and see which items you can reuse. Do you really need four pairs of shorts or five days or would that denim pair cover three of those? Could you use a slightly sparkly midi skirt for day and night time? Do you have any leggings that would work for hiking and city sightseeing?
Developing the skills to create a capsule wardrobe is something I am still working on. The theory is to pick a few colours that work together and then take several pieces that fall within this. You can then mix and match them to construct plenty of outfits. If you can master this, you will surpass me!
Check Your Allowance
First things first, you need to find out what your airline allows. This can vary widely between carriers from the thoroughly stingy Ryanair (40x20x25cm) to the incredibly generous British Airways with their large 23kg bags (56x45x25cm)!
Some things to note:
- Can you take a free personal item in addition to your hand luggage? Most airlines will allow both a hand luggage piece and a personal item. This can give you around 23 additional litres to pack into.
- What dimensions are allowed? You may be asked to put your hand luggage into a sizing cage to prove it fits. Some airlines have strange dimensions (Ryanair especially) so although you think your bag fits in most sizers, it is worth measuring them just check. Don’t forget about the wheels and handles when you measure. If these stop the bag from slipping into the cage, you will be charged!
- Weigh it, don’t pay it! There may also be a weight allowance. For example, Virgin Atlantic has a limit of 10kgs for your main hand luggage and 6kg for your personal item.
Pick Your Bag Well
If you can pack light, choose a soft-sided bag like a backpack or duffle. Avoiding those handles and wheels gives you more packing space, allows you to squish it into a sizer cage and from experience, airline staff seem to pay less attention to them. If you are opting for a backpack, look for one with a hip belt. 10kg+ can begin to feel pretty heavy when you are carrying through an entire airport.
If you are worried about over-packing, stick to a hard case that won’t allow you to extend beyond the allowed dimensions. You can probably squiash more in by sitting on it in a way that a soft bag wont allow.
Social Media Hacks
Have you been watching Instagram Reels or TikTok recently? Well, then I am sure you will have seen some of these packing hacks.
Disclaimer: I have never tried any of these personally.
- The Neck Pillow – Buy a neck pillow with a removable cover. Removed the pillow and stuff it with pants, socks and other squishy clothing items. Voila! A comfy flight AND additional litre-age.
- Use Duty-Free Bags – Many airlines will allow you to take on things you have brought in duty-free in addition to your allowance. Bring a bag with some bits in and ask for a duty-free carrier bag (or buy something small) and then you can fill that bag with the additional items. Mot airports in the Uk have the same bags so you can reuse this trick every time you fly out. You will have to use another hack for your return journey though!
- Krispy Kreme Box Hack – I have only seen this one once and it was mildly bonkers but it seemed to work. Pack some extra bits in a Krispy Kreme box if you are travelling in the USA and you can take them on in addition to your allowance. This might fall apart when you realise you airport doesn’t have a Krispy Kreme or when they see your pants rather than the original glazed that should be on display.
Master the Great Liquid Dilemma
This is everyone’s biggest bugbear when they are travelling carry on only. It is such a complicated problem that we have written a whole blog post to help you out!
Check out our post about packing your liquids bag like a pro HERE or tap on the tip titles below.
If you don’t fancy reading a whole post on the subject, here are the main bullet points:
- Learn The Rules About Packing Your Liquids Bag – One plastic bag 20cm x 20cm with nothing over 100ml in. The bag must be able to seal.
- Know What Counts As a Liquid at the Airport – Anything that is a liquid, paste or gel. If you can smear it on a wall, it is a liquid.
- Pack Your Liquids Bag BEFORE you Leave the House – Don’t get to security and then start trying to find the lip balm at the bottom of your wash bag or hand sanitiser attached to one of the zips on your bag.
- Decant, Decant, Decant – You don’t need a huge bottle of shampoo for a week away so get a small bottle and put just enough in. You can do it with hand cream, perfume (those mini atomisers are so sweet) and even foundation.
- How to Pack Toiletries on a Plane – Try shampoo bars, conditioner bars or deodorant bars, they don’t count as a liquid. Choose face wipes over a liquid cleanser. Grab all the sachets and samples you’ve been given over the years instead of bulky bottles.
- How to Pack Sun Care on a Plane – Buy your sun cream through security or at your destination. It may cost a little more but it is important to have enough for the time you are away so 100ml might not cut it.
Know Your Illegal Items
To save time at security, and avoid getting into trouble, it is important to know what you cannot take through.
- Scissors – Technically you can take scissors through as long as the blades are less than 6cm long. However, most security staff will fight this and attempt to take away even tiny nail or sewing scissors. To save the drama, just leave them at home. You can take nail clippers and with those, you can cut thread, thin zip ties and of course, your nails with them.
- Knives – Again, it just isn’t worth trying to argue through a small knife. If you have any multi-tools with blades on, ditch them at home.
- Corkscrews – These curly metal stabby implements are perfect for getting corks out of wine bottles but when you travel hand luggage only, you will have to stick to screw cap vino!
- Some Umbrellas – Poison-tipped brollies aside, you might be surprised to learn that some umbrellas are not security friendly. Umbrellas with metal spikes on the top will be refused.
- Oh, and one that confused me for a while…you CAN take a standard shaving razor. Cutthroat barber tools are not permitted but your average Gillette is just fine.
Roll Up, Roll Up
Rolling your clothes is a tried and tested method that will help reduce wrinkles and save space. Some people like to do the ranger roll. This involves laying all your clothes out on top of each other and rolling the lot up in one big hotdog. I tried this once and wasn’t a huge fan, it meant undoing the whole lot every morning.
Personally, I favour rolling each individual piece of clothing After they are all as tight as possible, they all go into my….
I am obsessed with Packing Cubes.
Separating clothes, electricals, and toiletries into different cubes makes finding things so easy. This is especially important when using a backpack. You won’t lose clothes at the bottom but have them all easily accessible. It also helps to condense your clothes, allowing you to cram more in. I love the small cubes from Muji for my big clothes but also have a set of Packing Cubes from Amazon that I use for other bits.
Easy Squeezy Packing
Who is the crazy lady going around shops squeezing clothes? That’s me! I do this for two reasons:
- To see if they wrinkle easily. If they do, they aren’t great for travel.
- To see how much the fabric condenses. If it squishes down well, it is coming home with me!
Sports materials pack down to nearly nothing so search out cute clothes in technical fabrics. Nylon and Polyester are your friends for sure. You can also find some lovely, slidey mesh dresses that you can scrunch without fear. I also own some rather pricy silk gowns by Perrin and Co that look like they would never fit in hand luggage. This is not the time for layered tulle or a chunky knit.
If you have clothes that you really want/need to take with you, wear them! Going somewhere warm? Put on your big layers and boots for the flight. It is uncomfortable *take from a person that had to run through Gatwick in wellies…in June) but these big pieces would take up SO much room in your case that it is totally worth it. You can cram it under the seat in front of you…or sit on your coat on the plane. I tend to wear my heels to the airport as they are very awkward to pack. I also wear sunglasses on my head.
Look for Laundrettes
If you are away for more than a week or two, do some research before you leave for laundry. Hotels charge a small fortune (I mean one outfit could cost £30) but laundrettes and hostels are much cheaper. We had 2 kilos of laundry done in Russia for just £10, allowing us to do hand luggage travel for three weeks. In Belgrade we stayed in a hostel which allowed guests to use a washing machine and clothes line for free. It really helps, meaning you can wear nice dresses twice and not have to pack some much in the way of socks, undies and tops.
Accessories with Care
It is fun to accessorize but when you are travelling with just hand luggage you need to be smart about what you pick.
- For bags and shoes, choose colours that go with everything. Black, white or nude bags and shoes are always an easy choice.
- However, to make a statement, metallics are a total winner. Gold sandals go from day to night with ease and look fab with a tan.
- Forget the chunky bracelets and pick cute material ones instead.
- Pack a selection of light and colourful earrings. They are an easy pop of colour and some dainty sparkles will really class up an outfit for the evening.
- A scarf can be used for so much! A thick one will be a scarf outside and a blanket on buses/planes/trains. A thin one can also be a little blanket but also a beach towel or cover for visiting temples/churches.
Be Brutal With Your Bathroom Bits
To avoid a bulky washbag, consider making a few of these changes:
- Do you really need a big blow dry brush? Take a small hairbrush with you and if you are really wrapped for space, consider a wide tooth comb instead.
- A pack of face wipes has some serious bulk. If you decide to take them instead of a liquid then decant the number you need (plus two) into a small ziplock bag. This keeps them moist and reduces the space they take up.
- Pack a pallette. You can pack blush, contour and other colourful things all in one thin little packet.
- Decant your foundation into a teeny tiny bottle like this one from Muji or a little pot. The bottles can be so big and heavy!
- Forget the tools. Brushes, sponges and eyelash curlers are all bulky and do you really need them or can you go old school for a week?
- Get a soft-sided or rolling washbag The stiff ones won’t squash down that well.
Look For the Mini Things
There are certain things that you can’t travel without. I get it. I cannot travel without hair electricals BUT taking the time to find a small version of these things is worth the effort. for example:
- Phone chargers can be pretty bulky. I use the Mu folding plug which is totally flat. It has UK, US and European plug fittings so it covers most of the world. Looking, it seems like the company is no longer in operation but this multi USb Travel Plug looks like a pretty good alternative.
- When you are picking underwear or swimwear, avoid heavy padding and big flounces. Little bikinis or plain swimming costumes will fit much more easily. Bralettes and unpadded bars flatten or roll.
- If you don’t have a personal item as part of your allowance, consider a handbag that packs flat or a folding backpack that you can easily stash.
- Pack a couple of cable ties instead of a bulky lock. You can snip them with nail clippers.
- Don’t bring a bulky beach towel. A microfibre towel is an excellent alternative. If your hotel provides a towel, just bring a thin sarong that will pack down to nothing to lie on at the beach.
- My straighteners are half the size of real ones but the plates are full size. I love them so much I have bought a second pair for when these give up. They straighten and curl so there is no need to carry a curling tong/wand.
- My hair dryer is a real travel luxury that I can’t leave at home. Its tiny but powerful. I am aware I could use ones provided at hostels/hostels but they are often pretty poor and the Babyliss Nano is so small and so good that I just can’t leave it at home.
To save some serious space and weight, consider putting everything on your devices.
- Books can be put on a kindle or tablet. Kindles have a battery life that last forever.Alteratively, you could bring audiobooks on your phone which takes up even less room.
- If you hate digital books, bring a paperback and make sure your accommodation has a take one, leave one or lending library.
- Guidebooks can be purchased in digital form and are actually cheaper when bought that way. lonely Planet even lets you buys most of their books chapter by chapter. which perfect for city breaks. Who needs the whole of Lithuania if you are only visiting Vilnius.
- Phones/tablets have thousands and thousands of games, including family favourites like Uno. A pack of regular cards can be a good icebreaker but trust me when I say you will make just as many friends with a round of Heads Up! Plus, you can play things in awful airport/theme park queues.
Co-ordinate Your Group Travel
Don’t double up on things with those you are travelling with. How many pairs of straightners do you need between four of you? Just take turns with them. One friend can bring their straighteners, you can tackle the hairdryer firned three can sort the mini hairspray and number four is tasked with a mutiplug for everyone’s electricals. You can share shoes (if you are the same size), accessories (bags and jewellery) and entertainment (as above).
Remove the Just-In-Case Items
Pack the things you need, not the things you MIGHT need. If you are going to a city, it is more than likely that you will be able to get some version of the thing you need. Emergency top? There are H&Ms all over the globe. Need plasters? There is always a pharmacy you can reach.
What Can You Purchase There?
Following on from the point above, if you are doing really tiny hand luggage travel, consider what you can get hold of when you reach your destination. Does your hotel provide beach towels…or towels in general? If not, it might be be worth buying a cheap one when you get there.
If you are doing an activity that requires a specific item, the area around it might sell or rent it cheaply. In El Nido (in the Philippines) boat trips are very popular so dry bags are very cheap and EVERYWHERE. In Belize, watershoes are required for a common rivertubing activity. Punters can rent the shoes for just $3 meaning you don’t have to pack them or deal with them when they are wet.
If you have a small bag but no weight limit, you could try vacuum packing your clothes. This is a great idea if you know you can do the same on the way back. I did it once when I was taking huge dresses in hand luggage. I had to beg housekeeping to use their vacuum cleaner to get home again. Alternatively, you could…
Plan to Ditch Things
If you are planning to get rid of those trainers that are almost dead, then take them away with you. You already know they are comfy (new shoes on holiday is always a bad idea). Then you can throw them away before you come home and give yourself some space for souvenirs. I know people that buy a full Primark wardrobe for their trip so they can ditch it along the way but that’s not great for the environment, I definitely prefer the dying clothes method. Altertively, there are places in the world which have donation or recycling places where you can leave your clothes.
Packing carry on only take practise and we learn a new little lesson every time we do it. It is now about 15 years that we have been improving our techniques and we hope we haven’t missed anything. If you have any other tips or tricks for hand luggage travel that we have missed, let us know!