Updated on June 22nd, 2023
I am not a natural at travelling light. Particularly when going solo. Adding those extras “just in case” is too tempting. However, after a couple of recent short haul trips, I am a convert. With chaos at the airports, travelling with carry-on only is the most effective way to avoid starting your holiday wasting time waiting for your luggage…if it arrives at all! Here I give you my top 20 tips for flying with hand luggage only. Trust me, it could revolutionise your future travels too!”
Anywhere…just pack light!
I’ll be honest, packing light has never been a particular skill of mine. It’s not that I am ever anywhere near the baggage weight limit, even when I go away for months at a time. It’s more about the elusive “hand luggage only” travelling that I just can’t seem to pull off.
Recently I decided that now was the time to conquer this. I went on two trips back-to-back in Europe, Lisbon and Copenhagen.
And I am pleased to report that I nailed it and am so proud of myself that I decided to write a blog post to help you achieve the dream too!
Trust me, now is the time to perfect this art!
The queues to check in bags are longer than ever. The sheer volume of luggage not making it to the destination is eye watering. It’s enough to ruin that dream holiday that you have been waiting years for… literally!”
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What are the Benefits of travelling with carry-on only?
Saving time at the airport is the first thing. By not dropping a bag you save the time needed to queue to do it. With just hand luggage you can walk straight to Security as soon as you get to the airport.
Then there is the time when you arrive at your destination and forgo the tedious process of waiting for your bag. And you can also guarantee that it will join you! I have heard horror stories of a 5-hour wait on the phone just to find out where your lost luggage is and when it will reach you.
Time is precious when you get to your destination. Make the most of it and travel carry-on only.”
Travel is changing all the time and the costs seem to be ever-increasing. Many budget airlines have charged for putting a bag in the hold for a long time. It is a huge money-spinner for them so others may follow suit. If you pack carry-on only, you avoid all these charges.
If you arrive at the gate for an overbooked flight, it is much simpler to change if you are carrying everything with you. On most recent flights I have taken they have urged us to put any hand luggage in the hold to free up space in the cabin. If you opt to do this you forgo the charges, the queues and know that your bag will be on the plane when you land.
Every kilogram you add to your luggage, the greater the environmental impact. The more weight you add to an aeroplane, the more fuel it must burn to keep it in the air. So, the lighter we travel, the less is our carbon footprint. It really is as simple as that!
For more on what to pack, make sure you check out my post on Top 12 Essential Things to Pack for Travelling.
Which bag is best for travelling with carry-on only?
Of course, the bag you choose is all-important. For longer trips, I swear by my Osprey Farpoint backpack with wheels. However, there is no way it will fit the dimensions required to go in the cabin.
For carry-on-only bags, you need to make sure they comply with your airline’s specifications. These can be complicated so don’t assume one size fits all. For example, for the savings on offer, I am a member of the British Airways Executive Club. This means I fly with BA regularly and they have one of the most generous hand luggage allowances (one cabin bag (55cmx45cmx25cm) and one personal bag (40cmx30cmx15cm) with a combined weight of 23kg).
For more on loyalty schemes and other money-saving ideas, check out my blog post with Top 20 Tips for Making Travel Savings.
The budget airlines are a different story, however. Ryanair will allow only one small bag and although they have no weight restriction, the dimensions are considerably smaller (40cmx20cmx25cm).
Whoever you book with, check the specifications individually but you can also follow THIS LINK for a great summary. When I travel carry-on only I now swear by this bag from Aerolite which has served me well for longer trips.
To buy an appropriate bag, HERE is an excellent resource which allows you to view only those bags which fit the dimensions you require. Having walked many miles over the years through airports, I can only urge you to select one with wheels. Trust me, you will never regret the choice!
To make sure you’re not caught out when you get to the airport, then it may also be worth investing in a digital luggage scale too.
Remember that airlines make money out of putting baggage in the hold. Therefore, they are not generous at letting anything through that doesn’t fit their rules. Know the rules and stick to them.”
20 Simple Tips for Travelling with Carry-On Only
1. Liquid vs solid
The biggest challenge for me is limiting my liquids. So first, it’s important to be clear on what you can take in your carry-on. All liquids must be no greater than 100ml. This means the containers as well as the contents. If you try and carry a half-full shampoo bottle, it will be confiscated at security. They must also all be contained in a clear, sealable plastic bag no greater than 20cmx20cm. Only one such bag is allowed per person.
Liquids include all creams (unfortunately anti-ageing creams tend to take up a large volume for me!), lotions, oils, perfumes and even mascara and lip gloss. It also includes sprays such as hairspray and deodorant, pastes (toothpaste), gels and contact lens solutions. Using as many solid bars as you can, is a great way of saving space in your liquids bag. I recommend the products from Ethique.
Discovering the joys of solid bars for shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, toothpaste and body lotion is a game changer. Not only that, but they also last longer and are better for the environment.”
2. Travel-size products
For those products which I haven’t found in bar form yet, I take small travel sizes or decant into mini-sized containers. That way I only need to take what I will need. When choosing your containers, make sure they are ones which can be refilled, again for a lower environmental impact.
For make-up, I now also use Trinny London where all the products come in the same size small pots and click together in a stack. Tubes of the foundation also come with a free pot so you can decant what you need and click them onto your stack too!
Check out my list of 26 best gifts for travel lovers for more on this.
3. Buy when you get there
There are lots of items which if you forget that you can buy when you arrive, or even at the airport (after security). Toiletries are great examples which can be bought metres from security. Once at your destination, if it rains you can buy an umbrella or a poncho. You can also take them home for souvenirs afterwards and are helping support the local economy!
4. Only pack what you need
It sounds obvious but I am often guilty of adding things to my packing pile “just in case”. When travelling with a carry-on only, this urge needs to be resisted.
Not sure about the weather? Check a reliable weather app. If it’s not predicted to rain, leave your gear at home.
Look at social media. What are people in your destination wearing right now? Take only what looks appropriate.”
Pack wisely in terms of your clothing. Pack items that you can mix and match and that all go together. Take a jacket that goes with everything. Take jeans that you are comfortable wearing during the day and the evening. Pack smart as well as light. Include a few accessories like a thin scarf which you can add as an extra layer or just to change a look. Try and focus on multi-purpose clothing that is lightweight and dries quickly. There is some amazing engineering which goes into fashion nowadays, take advantage.
Plan to layer rather than bring thicker and bulkier items. If you need a thicker jacket take items that are light and can be compacted. I swear by my Uniqlo down jacket for all these reasons and it’s a warm extra layer, without adding any bulk. I also love their Heattech tops as thermals that I wear under everything once the weather gets cooler. And with a layer under your clothes, the garments can last longer between washes ;).
Travelling with a carry-on only has two mantras, is it light and is it bulky? Jeans, trainers, jackets and jumpers are all part of my travel outfit. Planes can be cold, so layering helps but wearing all your bulkier items, frees up space and weight in your case.
8. Wash when you’re there
If you are staying in a local apartment, they will often have washing facilities which you can take advantage of. One of my favourite things to do while travelling is to get my laundry done. Often services are good value and return everything within the day, clean and ironed. I now travel with a few laundry detergent sheets which take up no space or weight.
Alternatively, if you’re desperate, hand wash your items using shampoo, or as I have many times, take them in the shower with you for a freshen up.”
This is always a challenge as it will be one of the bulkiest items in your bag. For my European trips, I packed 3 pairs only. Trainers, which I wore to travel in, a smarter pair of sandals for the evening and my Birkenstocks which I can comfortably walk miles in.
10. What to leave behind?
Extra items such as hairdryers or other styling products risk taking up valuable space. All hotels and most apartments will have hairdryers you can borrow even if they are not provided. Prioritise which gadgets you really need. Or why not try a new hairstyle …you may even grow to like it!
11. Personal bag
Many airlines allow you to take a carry-on bag and one personal bag. Choose your personal item wisely! In some cases, this could be a handbag or laptop bag. The main prerequisite is that it will need to fit under the seat in front of you for the duration of the flight. Therefore, the size of your bag may impact your comfort. Select one that is big enough to fit your essentials for your flight, but small enough to not restrict your movement. And leave your big expensive handbag at home and opt for one which will fold up and fit in your carry-on if required. Just in case. I swear by a cross-body bag all the time for size and safety reasons.
12. Which camera?
You may love taking amazing photos with your DSLR but do you really need it? Nowadays I mainly use my phone instead (unless it’s a wildlife adventure and I need my strong zoom!). For videos, I also have my Go-pro, which is tiny.
While we’re on the subject, using digital products as much as possible can also be a huge space and weight saver. Check in ahead of time and download your boarding pass to your phone. The same goes for any extra documentation you require. Photograph it so you have everything you need available on your phone. Then make sure you have charged it fully before you leave!
In addition, consider an e-reader instead of carrying books. Or a tablet instead of your laptop. Make your cables more compact by keeping them together in small bags or tidy them up using your hair accessories!”
Don’t miss my summary of the Best 24 Trip Planning Websites and Apps.
14. Electronics in your personal bag
While we’re talking electronic items, make sure you pack all your valuables in your personal bag. The flexibility of packing hand luggage only is that they may change your flight or ask for you to check your luggage for free at the gate. This way you don’t have to worry about your expensive items being out of your sight.
Now onto how to pack and I am a huge advocate of rolling vs folding clothes. Clothing takes up less space if you roll it and it makes it easier to see everything you have in your case. In addition, somehow it also causes fewer creases.
16. Use packing cubes
And while you’re rolling, put all your clothes in packing cubes (I swear by these really basic ones from Amazon) which can help you save space and keep your clothes altogether. If you are particularly short of room, why not try compression bags which remove all the air? Nowadays you don’t even need a vacuum cleaner. Perfect for travelling carry-on only!
17. Make use of every nook and cranny
Smaller items like underwear, socks, adapter plugs, cables and all manner of things can take up those extra bits of space around the sides of your carry-on bag. These small pockets of space can house a lot of stuff if you pack well.
Also, with shoes, make the most of the space inside. Every ounce of space is precious and ultimately fillable!”
18. Bring an extra bag
In addition, add a tote bag which will roll or fold into your carry-on. This helps when you are exploring or need a bit of extra space. It will take up very little room but is easy to travel with and super useful. I also have a backpack which folds up into a compact zipped pouch.
19. Tie things to the outside
Think about what you may be able to attach to your bag or around your waist without being penalised. If you like to use a flight pillow, save space and attach it to the outside of your bag. Or your hat? Either wear it on your head or again, fix it to your bag. I have even tied my trainers to the outside of my bag and got away with it!
20. Make use of friends
I am a huge advocate for solo travel, but love to go with friends too. If you are travelling with others, then make sure you coordinate with them. Why do you both need to take everything? You will be surprised what kind of weight and bulk you can lose by simply doing a little extra planning beforehand.
So, there are lots of reasons why travelling with a carry-on only is an advantage, especially now. I am certainly a convert and feel it will revolutionise my travels in the future. I hope this also gives you a few more ideas or inspiration to try it on your next trip too.
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