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Travel Light: how to pack with hand luggage (carry-on) only

Why travel light? The pros of taking hand luggage only.

As airlines squeeze us for every last penny with many now charging for checking-in bags – it’s never been more important to pack light. But boarding with hand luggage only isn’t just the territory of businessmen or day trippers; it’s quite possible to pack for a week or more with nothing more than one carry-on-sized bag. Sam from Skyscanner shows you how.


A beach-bum friend of mine used to head off on his travels with nothing more than three pairs of boxers, a toothbrush and his passport stuffed into a Tesco carrier bag; whilst this is probably taking the ‘travel light’ philosophy a little too far, for many of us, the hand-luggage-only way of travel is perfectly possible and has several advantages.

Why travel light? The pros of taking hand luggage only

Travel Cheaper – at the moment, airlines don’t charge for hand luggage (though who knows what the future may bring!), but with the cost of checking in baggage as much £40 per return flight, careful packing can save you a packet.

Travel Faster – if you check-in online, there’s no need to stand in lengthy check-in queues – just head straight through to security. Plus, there’s no need to wait for your bags to be spat out on the carousel at the other end, just get off the plane and walk straight out of the airport.

Travel Easier – one bag means less luggage to lug around and less chance of your luggage getting lost, damaged or stolen in transit.

Choosing the right hand luggage bag

Many travellers now favour hard-sided, wheeled cases, but Doug Dyment, godfather of travelling with hand luggage only and creator of, recommends you leave the armoured wheelie-trailer behind and instead opt for a square cornered, soft-sided bag, that is obviously within the carry-on bag size limits.

This is because a soft case is more forgiving when it comes to stuffing it into an overhead locker or under the seat, and is also lighter.

Hand luggage regulations vary from airline to airline – for example BA’s are: “one bag no bigger than 56cm x 45cm x 25cm (22ins x 18ins x 10ins), including the handle, pockets and wheels” whereas Ryanair states that: “it should weigh no more than 10kg and not exceed the maximum dimensions of 55cm x 40cm x 20cm (21ins x 16ins x 8ins).

Some airlines are stricter than others; Ryanair are far more likely to scrutinise your hand luggage than BA, so don’t get caught out with a bag that is too big, which you’ll then have to pay to check-in. Appearance is also important; if you struggle up to check-in with a bag that is dislocating your shoulder, you’re far more likely to have your hand-luggage given the once over, than if you stroll up with nothing but your Tesco carrier bag.

The Personal Packing list: if it’s not on, it’s not in

Most travellers pack far more items than they actually need. The extra pair of shoes, the hairdryer and the surplus jacket are all things that bulk up your bag and could probably be left at home. Just think back to your last trip; did you honestly use every single item you packed? I know I didn’t.

Enter the personal packing list. This is a list of essential items, the sum total of which will all fit into one carry-on bag. The goal here is to create a single packing list that will cover you for a standard trip.

What’s in Sam’s Bag?

If I am going to travel with hand luggage only – here is a list of essential items that I can fit into my carry-on bag. I normally use my Da Kine backpack, which has lots of useful pockets as well as side and top entry, or for shorter trips, my super-slim Drop backpack is ideal.

Absolute Essentials
• Passport
• Driver’s license
• Health insurance information (important phone numbers to call)
• Plane tickets or print outs of boarding cards
• Bank cards (debit and credit) + some cash
• Details of accommodation, car hire, onward travel etc

• Hooded top – hood can be used to block out light and aid sleep
• Dressy jacket – normally worn on plane
• 2-4+ t-shirts
• 2-4 jumpers/long sleeve t-shirts
• 1 pair jeans
• 1 pair lightweight trousers with removable legs – double as shorts
• Swim shorts/swimsuit – for beach or hot tub
• Light-weight Kag-in-a-bag – for when the weather turns nasty
• 3+ pairs socks
• 3+ pairs undergarments
• Sun hat – if visiting sunny climate
• 1 pair walking shoes/boots – normally worn on plane
• Flip-flops or sandals – if visiting hot climate
• 1 pair dressy shoes – if night out on town is likely
• Belt – worn on plane

• Water bottle
• Digital camera + charger
• Mobile phone + charger + headphones – (doubles as alarm clock, personal MP3 player and radio)
• Mini Maglite torch
• Nail clippers
• Sunglasses and case
• Earplugs
• Small first aid kit – normally only taken on activity trips
• Pen and small notepad – details of flights and other vital information is recorded here
• Maps, guidebooks, phrase books
• Reading material – normally at least one paperback book
• Universal travel adaptor – if travelling abroad


Toiletries and Medication
• Toothbrush, toothpaste, floss
• One razor + small bottle of shaving oil/cream
• Small bottle of shampoo, bar of soap and hair wax
• Moisturizer
• Factor 25 Sunscreen
• Lip balm
• Deodorant
• Diarrhea treatment (e.g. Diaoralyte + Imodium)
• Contraceptive and/or prophylactic supplies
• Vitamin C tablets + necessary medication (small bottle of echinacea tincture – medicine of the Gods! Helps prevent colds and flu)

Note: current airport regulations state that any liquids or gels (perfume, shampoo, drinking water etc) must be no more than 100ml per bottle and must be packed in a clear, resealable bag. Be aware that these restrictions are subject to change, so always check the Department for Transport Airport Security page for the latest updates.

A more comprehensive packing list can be seen here – although a few of the items listed cannot be included in hand luggage (for example: scissors) and I think I would struggle to fit everything listed into my bag.

The Art of Packing: Folding, Rolling and Bundle Wrapping

Backpackers swear by rolling, business travellers tend to fold, and some people even go as far as inserting tissue paper in between layers, but Doug Dyment of says that bundle wrapping is the most compact method of packing and also the method which most reduces the problems of wrinkling.

The bundle method uses a ‘core object’, such as a folder or organiser, around which other items are wrapped (see diagram of bundle wrapping).

The downsides to this method are that it takes a little longer and that it’s harder to delve into your bag a grab a single item without unpacking the entire bundle, but it does allow you to maximise your bag space and minimise creases.

Finally, try to wear your bulkier items of clothing on the plane, and use your pockets as additional storage space.

Pack Light for Happier Travels!

So, why not take the one bag challenge for your next trip? Remember that most things can be bought at your destination if forgotten, so as long as you have your passport, wallet and the clothes on your back, the chances are, everything will be ok.

Information correct as of 24th March 2009, obtained from, and Please always check the latest guidance at before booking a trip