How to master the art of travelling with hand luggage only

Fitting all of your travel possessions into one piece of luggage saves time waiting at airports and reduces the chance of losing your belongings. Here’s how to do it the easy way…

Team Wanderlust
04 October 2017

Why do it?

“Freedom,” says Wanderlust’s editor-in-chief Lyn Hughes, who co-founded this magazine after returning from a trip around South America with just hand luggage. “You are more mobile with one piece of luggage,” she advises, “and it allows you to focus more on the reason you’re travelling: the experience.”

It also ensures there’s no need to hang around the baggage carousel when you arrive, meaning you can start your trip faster. It’s safer, too, allowing you to keep your bags close when travelling on public transport, like buses, while others have to stow their’s underneath or at the front.

“Carrying just hand luggage makes it simpler to travel from place to place,” adds Susan Walsh, author of Pack Light! Start You Solo Adventure Right. “Heavy hold luggage weighs you down. Managing just one bag saves your body a lot of strain.”

How many clothes do you really need?

Packing hand luggage (Dreamstime)

While you can never be completely sure of the weather or the situations you might find yourself in, many people overcompensate to avoid being left short. But you don’t have to. “You only really need one change of clothing,” says Lyn. “Throw in a warm and squashable top, such as a hoody, and a spare pair of underwear and socks, so, if some become wet, you have a dry pair waiting.”

You can also likely source a launderette in most places you go, but whenever that isn’t possible, either pack or buy laundry soap, so you can take advantage of your hotel room’s sink when necessary. But it’s not all about limiting how much clothing you bring.

“Versatility is key,” explains Hitha Palepu, author of How To Pack. “Pack clothes you can wear in multiple situations, whether for day-to-day travel or going out for an evening.”

Footwear is also key. You only really need two pairs of shoes: walking shoes and sandals/flip flops (three if you have smarter evening activities). To save valuable room in your bag, wear the chunkiest shoes on the flight and ensure your remaining footwear takes up minimal space.

What items should I ditch?

Bulky accessories that aren’t necessary, such as hair dryers, should be left at home. “Clever travel accessories, like inflatable pillows, aren’t worth the space, as they can be easily substituted, such as rolling up an insulated jacket,” adds Susan. Don’t forget that you can also buy things on arrival, so you have more wiggle-room in your luggage. “Consider buying a scarf or sarong,” explains Anne McAlpin, author of Pack It Up: Travel Smart, Pack Light. “It’s multi-use (emergency towel/blanket) and you’ll blend in with the locals, too.”

With liquids in hand luggage restricted to 100ml, it’s often better to wait and either buy them at your destination or pick up the complimentary little toiletries at your first hotel. Also, with the ban on taking electronic devices in hand luggage on some airlines and/or between countries, ask yourself if you really need them. Leaving them behind might mean you’ll pay more attention to the scenery, and there are always Internet cafés…

Maximise your space

Miniature toiletries (Dreamstime)

Being brutal can help free up room, but packing multi-purpose items can also help you make full use of your luggage space. “A multiwash that can wash you, your hair and your clothes is invaluable,” suggests Lyn. “The travel sizes you can now widely buy have been a game-changer.”

Taking several chargers or plugs is also unnecessary. A universal adapter, especially one with multiple built-in USB ports, can save on both weight and hassle.

Make sure it all fits

Now you’ve got all your items assembled, squeezing it all in can be somewhat tricky. “Practise packing your things into an even smaller bag to the one you’re taking,” advises Lyn. Rolling your clothes together instead of folding is a common tip for compressing otherwise bulky items.

Stuff your shoes with socks and toiletries, if you can, and look to wear your thickest clothing on the flight. Hitha and Susan swear by packing cubes (fabric bags for organising your belongings) and Anne recommends compression bags (air-tight nylon bags where you suck out the oxygen and shrink the contents to their smallest size).

But in truth, by simply treating your packing like a game of Tetris, you should be able to squeeze everything in easily. Once you’re packed, try and lift the bag over your head, as if you were slotting it into a plane’s overhead locker. If it’s too heavy, you’ve packed too much, so start again.

Once it feels comfortable to hold or wear on your back (depending on choice of luggage), then you’re ready, minus the meaty suitcase. As Anne simply puts it: “Less stuff means less stress.”Wwith fewer belongings to look after, you should be more mobile on your travels and better able to soak up your surroundings and the experiences that come with them. That sounds pretty good to us.

Top tip

Get your footwear right. Multi-activity shoes are both comfortable and durable, and a neutral colour means they can be smart enough for evening wear, too.

Case Study: Julianna Barnaby

Julianna shares her experience in waving goodbye to the baggage carousel…

Why did you decide to go hand luggage only?

It’s because my check-in baggage got lost on a few trips. I normally pack pretty light, using bags that could fit into the hand-luggage storage space, so I thought that it would be a good idea. Plus, it saves time at both ends of the journey.

How easy is it?

Travelling with hand luggage is really easy. It just takes a bit of thought. The biggest thing is making sure that you don’t have any liquids over 100ml. I either buy travel-size products or decant larger ones into containers of the appropriate size. For longer trips, where I’ll need more than 100ml, I’ll just buy it when I arrive.

The other difficulty is space: put together a pile of what you’d ideally bring, then if it doesn’t fit, be really strict about prioritising what needs to come or be left behind. You then realise how much ‘just in case’ stuff you pack.

How do you maximise space?

I’ve always rolled my clothes. It was a packing tip that my aunt taught me when I was 13 and I’ve sworn by it ever since. It saves space and means things don’t tend to get as creased or as crumpled. I also think about what I’ll be doing on the trip and what shoes I’ll need, then wear the biggest ones on the flight to save room.

How do you be brutal?

I think about the last trip I went on that was similar and what I actually ended up wearing. It’s amazing how many things you pack ‘just in case’ and end up never using or wearing.

Will you continue to travel with just your hand luggage?

Yes, definitely. It saves time and hassle for very little sacrifice. There’s nothing like breezing past baggage collection, ready to start your adventure that bit sooner than if you had to wait for your suitcase to (hopefully) turn up.

Cabin crew member loading hand luggage (Dreamstime)

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