How to travel hand baggage only – confessions of a serial overpacker

Great number of people getting luggage from conveyor belt at airport after flight. Line of passengers taking their suitcases at baggage claim area. Travelling by air and tourism.

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Hello, my name is Michele, and I have an overpacking problem. I’m ashamed to say I once took a 20kg large suitcase for three days in the Bahamas. However, even this suitcase stuffer has been to rehab and now travels hand baggage only when I can. Hopefully, things will continue to improve, and we can go back to our old habits soon. In the meantime, here are my tips:

Luggage

Firstly before deciding to go hand baggage only, check the airline’s website as what you can take on board varies even with legacy airlines. For example, when I flew Swiss, there is a strict weight limit on hand luggage, whereas on others you can take the full 23kg as hand luggage. Except on low cost airlines, you usually get a normal-size cabin wheelie bag and a “personal item”. On BA this item can weigh 23kg and be up to 40 x 30 x 15cm / 16 x 12 x 6in. 

So make sure you maximise this second piece of luggage with something like a backpack. If you want something simple and cheap for an occasional trip, a 10L rucksack is likely to do the job.

A large laptop case or large handbag could also work. 

It’s also worth considering your wheelie bag choice to maximise your available space to the maximum allowed dimensions. The Road Runner from Level 8 is one of the perfect choices for maximising the size, and I love that it has the front pocket for a lap top to allow easy access. This is one of the hand luggage cases I am currently using. You can read the full review here.

Level 8 Road Runner

Away and Samsonite also have some good choices which you can read about in this article. 

 

Organisation and compression

If you are trying to cram as much as much as possible into a carry-on, packing cubes or compression bags are essential. 

Personally, I much prefer packing cubes, but if you want to perform miracles, then a vacuum bag is probably better. I recommend the roll-up vacuum bags as although they are more hard work, you don’t have to then take a pump with you. You can also get some that are more like a packing cube but with higher compression by having an extra set of zips to help reduce the size of the bag. 

Packing cubes are also better for organisation and moving around as you can just unload the packing cubes straight into a draw or cupboard shelf. I tend to categorise things into different cubes, such as underwear, swimwear, tops, trousers/skirts etc or by occasion such as day or night wear. I also roll them which makes it easier to see at a glance what is there and creases less. I also have a bag for my electronics so I can find them easily,  although some airlines amenity kits can work well for this.

Despite owning enough packing cubes to start my own shop, I just invested in this comprehensive set by Amazon in the gorgeous Flamingo design, but they have lots of different colours and plain or designs (the candy stripe is also lovely). I chose these as they have a very see-through lid which is great for working out what’s inside without unzipping them. 

 

 

Toiletries

It is definitely worth buying a security approved bag for your liquids so that it is robust enough to be completely full and so that you can take your time to play tetris getting everything in! I have found it best to try different arrangements to maximise the space in the bag rather than just throwing things in.

 

Don’t put anything in there that is not a liquid, such as a toothbrush or hair brush as it wastes valuable space. 

It’s worth considering if there are any liquids you could use a solid alternative of or find a travel version. For example, you can get solid versions of cleanser, shampoo, toothpaste and conditioner now. Don’t forget a case or ziplock bag to keep them in when travelling back. Face wipes also don’t count and you could try some of the capsule versions of products such as Elemis bliss capsules for a moisturiser that take up no room at all or the Eve Lom cleansing capsules.

For other essentials, I decant most of my products into smaller containers as it’s more eco-friendly, cheaper, and you can use your normal products. Muji are fantastic for travel containers of all different shapes and sizes. I have also started using these flat pouches instead of bottles when space is at a premium as they pack much better into a zip bag. 

For things like sunscreen there is less room for substitution. I use a solid stick sunscreen such as this Neutrogena one for my face and then purchase the rest at the airport or destination. If I am flying to the US I always buy it there. They have some amazing continuous mist sprays of 360°, which means you can spray yourself including your back without needing help. They are also waterproof for 80 minutes, and I have virtually never been burnt using these. They cost around $10 from any drug store, and there is a big range of brands to choose from. You can get some here, but most aren’t as good, although this Hawaiin Tropic one is decent, and you can find a few on Amazon. 

Another alternative for essentials that are too big for hand luggage is to do click and collect from a Boots at the airport. If you are concerned about not getting something specific that you need, do a click-and-collect order a few days before and collect it airside from Boots.

You could also consider checking in luggage on the way home when it’s less of an issue if it gets loss. Then at the airport anything you are due to need more of soon you can just buy a new one at the airport and bring it home with you. 

 

If you have to check luggage

lugloc luggage tracker review

There are times when hand baggage only is not feasible. You could consider shipping your luggage ahead which can cost from around £100 for 30kg to the USA in 2-3 days. That means you can take hand baggage only on the day. 

If you are travelling with more than one piece of checked luggage or with other people try to mix up your possession amongst the cases so in each one you have some underwear, shoes, clothes, toiletries, swimwear etc for each person as the chances are they may not all get lost. This once saved my bacon on a 10-day trip to Spain when my luggage turned up on the day I was leaving!

Luggage trackers

I also highly recommend using a tracking device such as Apple Air Tags, Tile, or similar to locate your luggage if it goes missing. Air tags start at around £25 so they are very affordable. I also add one to my hand luggage in case I should leave it behind somewhere or someone takes it. You can read about how I used my Airtag when BA lost my bag here. Trackers are also great if someone takes your luggage by mistake. You can read a review of Tile here.

I would also advise adding something to your suitcase to make it distinctive such as a bright luggage strap or a ribbon on the handle. Make sure you add a label with your name and phone number (don’t put your address) on the outside and inside on top of the case add a piece of paper/card with your name and contact details also in case the label falls off. 

What are your best packing hacks for hand luggage only? Let us know in the comments below.

 

 

30 Comments on "How to travel hand baggage only – confessions of a serial overpacker"

  1. Hi Michele, thank you for the article. Can you please recommend my shipping company for luggages to USA? Many thanks.

    • Send my bag is one of the biggest companies who specialise in this and they get good reviews

  2. James Wyatt | 18 August 2022 at 6:58 am |

    Ha! Good article. We checked in (admittedly for a long holiday with our 3 kids) with 250kg of luggage one year…

    • Wow and I thought I was bad. I have managed 50kg for myself coming back from S Africa but that was mostly wine in my defence!

  3. Hi Michele. Great review and I, as a overpacker in an extreme level – I travel alone from LIS to LHR with a hand bag AND hold luggage for a 6 days trip! – really appreciated the tips. Specially the package cubs. But I would love to hear your opinion on the Samsung SmartTag. I thinking of buying one for my next trip in mid Sept. Thx.

  4. I remember when US airlines really started charging for checked bags in earnest. Hand luggage was almost impossible because people would refuse to check bags and sadly trying to bring everything and the kitchen sink into the cabin. The result was…chaos. Overhead bin space was a premium, and there were (still are, actually) heated discussions with staff when an aircraft type was changed and things that would have originally fit into the bins and meet airline regulations no longer would.

    I think if you are going hand-luggage only, packing cubes are essential. I’ve got a set from Rick Steves. You also need to be able to mix-and-match your outfits so that shirts, trousers, and shoes can be reused in multiple combinations.

    One question – do you use the clear liquids bags you link to? Read some of the reviews at Amazon that said Heathrow T5 were not allowing them.

    • I have another one that’s very similar to that. I’ve taken at least 6 different clear bags of differing types through security at Heathrow and I have never been stopped. However I have heard of the odd jobs worth being funny. As they have a lot of new staff it’s more likely to happen. It’s worth carrying a photo of the government rules on your phone just in case!

    • The IATA (if I remember correctly) standard for the clear security bags is that they must be 20 x 20 cm. If you have something bigger than that or one that has notable depth to it (as opposed to being two sheets of plastic glued together) then you have a greater risk of security not accepting it.

      • Yes that’s correct. Heathrow have been known to come up with their own ideas but the IATA one is what you’d expect.

  5. I am the opposite. I am a serial Hand Baggage Only guy. I’ll never forget the look on the ship stewards face on my seven night Caribbean cruise when he asked if I had received my checked luggage yet and I said I don’t have any lol

    The number one reason I hate checking luggage in is because of extra time hanging around the airport. To drop it off of course but mainly the collection of it from the carousel. It’s left a sour taste in my mouth too many times at the end of an otherwise enjoyable holiday.

    The number two reason is the ease of getting about – I love not having to drag around suitcases etc.

    And the obvious number three is it won’t get lost by the airline,

    The biggest factor for me in packing isn’t so much how much I pack but what I pack. Obviously if I am going to Chicago or Montreal in the depths of winter my suit case would look very different to a trip to Miami or Sydney.

  6. Olive these ideas. Known about some of them before but so good to see them listed. Still not sure I will manage it but… will give it a go – thank you

  7. Rob Chambers | 18 August 2022 at 9:06 am |

    I recently did a hand baggage only 6day trip to Denmark, it made the airport experience so much easier breezing through the airport. It does amaze me what some folks take on board though, my leather holdall was minute compared to some of the bags.

    Best trick I observed was one guy (on his was to the cheap seats) stopped in the business cabin and put his carry-on in the overhead bin before carrying on down the plane.

  8. Nick Bennett | 18 August 2022 at 9:27 am |

    Whilst I agree, hand luggage only is easier, do people not agree that, apart from a few modern exceptions, aircraft and airline passenger cabins just aren’t geared up to take that amount of luggage.
    If everybody on board packed as Michele suggests there wouldn’t be room for probably over a third of peoples bags – yet the hold would be empty!
    Michelle (note: different spelling 😉) flew to Gib in May, hand luggage only, on the return we didn’t rush to board as we were in row 2. By the time we got on the only remaining gaps were at row 8, which made for a fun disembarkation! Especially annoying as the “dufus” in row 6 had put his case above row 2.
    Similarly on a recent solo weekend the the US I had loads of space in club on the 78X but in row 1 First Class Delta domestic there was very little room again.
    Don’t even get me started on the budget airlines!!
    In general, I believe excess hand baggage has ruined the boarding process for everyone – was never like that in the 80s and 90s!!!

    • I agree Nick particularly if you are in row 1 or an exit row it can make boarding stressful. The sooner things return to normal and I can check in my bag without worrying I’ll never see it again the better!

  9. Per Andersson | 18 August 2022 at 9:57 am |

    Don’t pack shoes. Use a pair that’s ok for many things. If needing more shoes , pack socks in the shoes! Roll all the clothes tight. Select items you can mix n’match.

  10. Simon Bradbury | 18 August 2022 at 10:00 am |

    I typically don’t check bags even for a 2 week work trip unless taking technical or related equipment.
    I have an expandable Briggs and Riley cabin bag and my laptop Rucksack and can get an awful lot in without taking up much space.
    Hotels have laundry if running low on clean stuff.

    I’ve also been using a “clear” bag that came with a long since expired Samsonite roll on, never been questioned in 7 years and I go through T5 a lot !

  11. When they stopped allowing liquids in hand luggage I had to pack my whiskey (bought cheaply at the commisariat in my luggage). Usually came back with three litres of the stuff. Declared at customs because UK tax + commisariat prices was still cheap. 100% of the time customs thanked me for my honesty and let me go without charge.

  12. My top tips are:

    Choose a colour palette of one or two colours where you can mix and match. This, by default, reduces the number of accessories like shoes needed.

    No ‘just in case’ – they just take up valuable space.

    Wear the heaviest and bulkiest of shoes and jacket. (If you’ve followed the palette tip you’ll still be colour co-ordinated)

    Don’t waste space and weight with basics that can be picked up at the destination, or might be provided by the accommodation, like beach towels.

  13. Some of these comments miss the element of paying a lot for a holiday and then wanting to enjoy it in the style you’re accustomed to – by bringing cabin luggage with a nice variety of clothes, leaving space for a shopping spree at destination, having all my special suncreams to hand rather than cabin bag only and making do with whatever I can get at the airport (which inevitably would just mean buying the same suncreams I already had at home to use then on the holiday then chuck before heading home? No thanks!). This cabin bag only strategy also leaves little contingency for if there’s a downpour and that one set of footwear you brought with you gets soaked. If you’re on a connecting itinerary to the US, your onward domestic flight could be on a CRJ or Embraer with teeny overhead compartments meaning if you want to keep your cabin baggage with you it has to be at biggest an underseater type roller case. They’re about big enough for my in-flight essentials plus one change of clothes if I spill anything on myself in-flight but nothing much more. In such cases you end up getting your bag gate checked anyway thus meaning you’ve denied yourself bringing what you wanted with you in larger checked luggage for no reason at all. That’s just not the holiday spirit for me. I’ve paid my money and will bring the things with me that help me enjoy it and relax knowing my underseater roller and backpack will fit in any overheard compartment regardless of aircraft changes. I do admire in a weird fascination way the people who can get by out of a cabin case but my liquid toiletries needs mean HBO is just never an option.

    • Your comment about toiletries brings back fond memories of a friend who – prior to the liquid ban in hand luggage – was told his suitcase was overweight. Taking his toiletry items out of his suitcase and putting them in his hand baggage reduced the suitcase weight by a whopping 7kg!

      We’re both now in our 60’s and I still tease him that all the potions and lotions didn’t work, and that he should have just stuck with Nivea blue 🤣

    • That’s the usual reason I don’t travel HBO. I like to have all my own toiletries etc. clothes are not so much of an issue for me.

  14. I have always taken the view that whether to check or not depends on the length and type if the trip. With even bigger airports and long walks to distant gates, lugging all of your luggage is not without stress and effort. It is better to check and go through unencumbered. But I have also had business trips in the past where I was bouncing from place to place within 24 hours and a lost bag would never have caught me up.
    Ultimately, the best tip for packing is to choose what you will wear when before you travel. Something my ex wife never mastered.

  15. But… shopping. We’re 2 weeks into a month in Central America and want to come back just for the shopping. We would have taken an extra checked bag but they are not guaranteed to be carried by the local airlines.

  16. Alan Poskitt | 28 August 2022 at 8:20 pm |

    What a load of tosh, you haven’t said anything that any human with half a brain wouldn’t know.

    • Thank you Alan for your lovely positive and polite comment on the article you read free. Hopefully people give you similar feedback at your work!

  17. I take long haul flights frequently and travel like Duncan, who commented above. My best tip for people traveling hand luggage only, is to forget about these hard/semi hard wheelie bags and duffels and expensive bags that are too rigid, narrow AND cost a fortune (I die laughing when I see the price of the stuff). Go on the Olympia luggage website, look at all the patterns available in the “Olympia Fashionista rolling grocery bag” and buy one! $20-35 depending on the popularity of the pattern you choose. They are wonderful. Outside pocket, inside pocket, side pocket for your water bottle, sturdy zipper, excellent wheels. The main compartment is roomy, wide and will accommodate a huge amount of stuff. Waterproof ripstop fabric, long handles for when you want to carry it instead of wheel it. When you empty it at your destination, you can use it as a beach bag or a shopping bag. We’ve got about ten of them in this family. They have been overseas many, many times and they are lightweight, so more of your precious luggage allowance actually goes to the contents instead of the weight of the container.

  18. Mairi Wannop | 6 September 2022 at 7:01 pm |

    Off to Basel on Saturday with HBO for 7 nights with EasyJet. I’m packed to see it would fit and yes it does! One less bit of aggravation at the airport LGW. Small annoyances are things like nail scissors can’t travel but liquids have spilled over let’s say. LHR was too stressful on August with a suitcase! I’ll report back. Great post Michele

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