Picture it. No anxious waiting at the luggage carousel; no lost or delayed baggage; no hauling heavy suitcases up steep stairs.
There’s a lot to be said for having control over your luggage at all times.
But whilst it’s easy to travel with hand luggage only for a short break, this can be more challenging for longer holidays.
This is where I can help you. In this article, I will show you how to travel like a ninja by sharing my tried and tested tips for how to pack light for 2 weeks (or longer!).
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Why You Should Travel with Carry-On Luggage Only
Let me first make the case for travelling light.
No lost baggage
Trust me. Realising that your suitcase is not a member of that last group of bags loaded onto the baggage carousel is not a joy.
It’s happened to me a few times and it is not an experience that I wish to repeat.
Do yourself and favour and stick close to your luggage for the entire journey.
Speed through the airport like a ninja
In the worst-case scenario, waiting for your luggage can add up to an hour to your transit time through the airport. Not so when you travel with carry-on only.
You’ll be sailing past your fellow passengers standing nervously at the carousel, out of the door and to your accommodation in no time at all
Travelling lighter is nimbler
Have you ever tried to haul a heavy suitcase up eight flights of stairs or onto a moving boat? Or how about manoeuvring baggage along Europe’s cobbled streets?
You get what I am saying. With a lighter load, it’s easier to run for that train that’s about to pull out of the station or jump on that small boat to an exotic island.
But it’s more than manoeuvrability. When you are unburdened by large luggage, you can be more flexible with your travel plans and alternative forms of transport open up.
If you’ve ever tried to squeeze onto a tuk-tuk or a minibus with a large backpack you will know what I mean.
Less stuff also means that you can pack faster and there is less risk of leaving something behind, useful if you have a multi-stop itinerary.
Travelling with carry-on only can be cheaper
The travel industry is doing its best to make light packers of us all. Once you factor in additional charges for checked luggage, that bargain flight doesn’t look like such a steal after all.
How to Pack Light: 13 Essential Tips
All that said, there are a few negatives to travelling with just a carry-on.
It goes without saying that you will have to take a lot less stuff away with you. There will be tough decisions about what is included, and what is excluded, from your travel packing list.
Airline cabin baggage restrictions also come into play as do those at airport security.
But these disadvantages can be overcome, and they are outweighed by the advantages of travelling with hand luggage only.
Many of these hand luggage packing hacks are obvious; others are less so. But collectively they will help you travel light with ease
1. Establish the cabin baggage rules for the airline
First and foremost, you need to check what your airline allows as carry-on luggage.
You can quickly look at the requirements for cabin baggage here. However, always check with your airline before you fly, for domestic as well as international flights.
Two factors come into play here: hand luggage size and weight. Some airlines are more generous than others so it pays to do your homework even before booking your flight.
For instance, as of October 2022, Ryanair’s free hand luggage allowance is one personal bag no larger than 40x20x25cm that must fit under the seat in front of you. By contrast, British Airways allows you to bring a cabin bag that weighs a maximum of 23kg and that measures up to a generous 56x45x25cm.
To maximise your valuable cabin luggage allowance, also check if an additional bag is allowed, a laptop bag or handbag for example.
2. Invest in the best carry-on luggage that you can afford
Of course, you should buy a carry-on that conforms to the cabin baggage requirements of most international airlines. But I would go further to say that you should invest in the best piece of luggage that you can afford at the time.
I’ve learnt the hard way. In more than three decades of travelling, I’ve made some poor choices of backpacks and suitcases, sacrificing quality in favour of economy.
A decent piece of luggage that is durable, comfortable and keeps your stuff dry and safe is one of the best investments that you can make.
I travel with one of two excellent pieces of hand luggage.
Backpacks on wheels offer the best of both worlds. Whilst they keep many of the features of a traditional backpack, transporting your gear is a breeze.
Osprey has a stellar reputation for making comfortable, well-designed backpacks and the Osprey Fairview Wheels 36 is my go-to luggage for 75% of my trips.
It is well-constructed, packed with excellent features, and is super-lightweight yet rugged. Furthermore, using cleverly concealed straps, it converts into a traditional backpack.
For city-based trips, I tend to favour my LEVEL8 Pro Carry-On suitcase. This super stylish wheeled hard-shell suitcase also complies with the size requirements for cabin baggage for most major airlines and has a generous capacity.
If you order your LEVEL8 luggage here and use the exclusive discount code theflashpacker10, you’ll get 10% off any purchase.
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3. Prune your packing list
This may seem blindingly obvious but this has been a game-changer for me.
The adage of making a list of everything that you would like to pack and then halving it may be old advice but that doesn’t make it less true.
About a week before my departure, I lay out everything that I think I will need on the bed in my spare room. Over the next seven days, I whittle this collection by 50%.
It works every time.
In recent years, when my inventory has worked well, I make a note of the items I included to form a packing list for future travels.
Practice makes packing light (almost) perfect.
4. Work out your wardrobe
After multiple mishaps, I have finally found the Holy Grail of how to pack light: a capsule wardrobe.
Coordination is the key; all of your tops should go with all of your bottoms. Neutral items are the ones that work best but I usually throw in one colourful, fun top, just to liven things up.
For women, scarves and jewellery are a godsend as they can lift an outfit.
No one will care, or even notice, if you wear the same outfit three or four times.
5. Check out laundry facilities before you go
Learn to love the laundry machine.
If I am travelling for one week or longer, I always check the laundry facilities at my destination.
Wherever possible, when choosing my accommodation, I will book an apartment or hotel that has a washing machine that guests can use. This is easy to do on Booking.com; simply tick “Washing Machine” under the Room Facilities options.
Fun fact. I once stayed in a hotel in Himeji, Japan where you could check the status of your load of washing on the screen of your room TV.
Failing that, I will use Google Maps to identify launderettes in the vicinity.
6. Embrace the power of packing cubes
Packing cubes are a ubiquitous hand luggage hack. This packing tip is always there because it works.
Not only do they save you precious space, but they also keep your stuff organised. This makes it so much easier when you are packing and unpacking. You can simply lift them out of your luggage.
Although some people swear by vacuum compression packing bags, I have yet to try them.
7. Solve the shoe dilemma
Footwear is of my biggest packing headaches but one of the most important things to get right when you travel with only carry-on.
As they take up a sizeable chunk of luggage real estate, you will need to make some tough choices.
When I am travelling to warm climates, I take two, or a maximum of three, pieces of footwear: a pair of trainers (sneakers) that will match all outfits, lightweight sandals +/- a pair of flip-flops. For colder climates, it’s just a pair of trainers +/- boots or comfortable shoes.
Skechers trainers are lightweight, comfortable from the first time you slip them on and look stylish.
My sandal brand of choice is Teva. These light-as-air sandals have contoured footbeds and durable soles, and come in a range of styles and colours.
8. Rationalise your toiletries and medicines
This is not the time to carry the entire contents of your bathroom cabinet with you. Potions and lotions can take up a lot of luggage space and there are restrictions on what you can take through airport security.
Buy travel-sized products or, better still, decant your toiletries into smaller containers. Rationalise what you pack; do you really need three shades of lippy?
Quart-sized reusable pouches are the best way to go, and I have successfully used a Ziploc bag from Muji for my carry-on toiletries for many years.
As a pharmacist, I have honed my travel medicine kit into a small sturdy pouch.
9. Buy non-travel-sized toiletries at Duty-Free
Teeny weeny travel-sized products are sometimes not the entire solution.
The item that often catches me out is sunscreen. Although mini-sizes are available, this isn’t going to be enough if you are travelling for two weeks.
One solution is to pick up a bottle of Ambre Solaire – other brands are available – at Duty-Free. Alternatively, buy a bottle at a local supermarket when you arrive.
10. Remember that you can buy almost anything at your destination
Let’s eliminate one of the main anxieties of travelling light. What if I don’t pack something which I wind up needing?
In our globalised society, it’s rare that you will not be able to find what you need at your destination.
And I love visiting a supermarket when I am travelling. It can often give you a good feel for your destination and forces you to mix with locals.
11. Be prepared at airport security
Be an airport security staff’s dream passenger.
Before you get in line, make sure that your electronic equipment and toiletry bag are easily accessible. Get ready to remove your jacket, belt, watch and shoes if necessary.
Although there are commonalities, security requirements can vary between counties. Do your research or just ask the staff.
Don’t be that person who faffs around and holds up other travellers.
12. Take the train
Take airport security out of the equation by travelling by train.
Not only is rail travel usually more comfortable – and sometimes quicker point-to-point – there are also few luggage restrictions.
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13. Learn to love a Kindle
Like many people, I love the feeling of turning over pages in a book. Nonetheless, I became a Kindle convert some years ago.
My Kindle Paperwhite – also a fabulous present for the frequent flier in your life – weighs in at around 200g and takes up minimal space in my luggage. You don’t need me to tell you that it can hold your entire holiday reading library, including guidebooks.
As a more mature traveller, the ability to adjust the font size and the screen’s backlight is a Godsend.
Final Thoughts on Travelling Light
Travelling with carry-on luggage only is a no-brainer.
Wave goodbye to anxiety about your luggage not being there to greet you on the other side, or being pummelled by baggage handlers. Say hello to speeding through the airport like a travel ninja.
But this is travelling light in another sense of the phrase.
Packing light makes the trip less about the stuff around you and more about the experiences that you will have. A decluttered suitcase is a decluttered and open mind.
And surely that is what matters?
Bridget Coleman has been a passionate traveller for more than 30 years. She has visited 70+ countries, most as a solo traveller.
Articles on this site reflect her first-hand experiences.
To get in touch, email her at email@example.com or follow her on social media.