15 Handy Tips on How to Travel with Hand Luggage Only

The thrill of adventure, the excitement of exploring new destinations – they all come to life when you’re jetting off on a travel adventure.

However, the process leading up to that moment, especially dealing with luggage, can be a bit overwhelming. If you’re looking to streamline your travel experience and not check in any bags, there’s a solution that many savvy travellers swear by – the art of travelling with hand luggage only.

In this guide, we’ll reveal the best tricks and tips to help you navigate the world of carry-on travel seamlessly.

Looking along the wing of an Easyjet plane midflight
Jetting off on holiday

Step One: Choosing the right bag

The most important part of travelling with hand luggage only, and arguably one of the most difficult aspects of it, is picking the right bag.

First of all, you’ll typically be able to bring two pieces of hand luggage onboard – one small bag that can fit under the seat and one larger bag (e.g. a small suitcase) that should be put in the overhead storage.

For those travelling on a budget with the cheapest tickets, you may be restricted to only the smallest carry on bag, such as a rucksack.

If you’re happy with your bag, then you’re well set-up for an enjoyable time during your travels.

A grey Patagonia Arbor rucksack that's empty
My Patagonia Arbor is always reliable for short getaways

Hand luggage size restrictions

The most important factor to consider is, of course, that your bag meets the size and weight restrictions of any airline that you’re planning on flying with. 

The last thing you want is to receive a nasty fine or have to check in your only bag, so make sure to research ahead of time to guarantee that you’re within the limits. 

These are the restrictions for a number of airlines:

AirlineSmall carry-on size limit (cm)Small carry-on weight limit (kg)Large carry-on size limit (cm)Large carry-on weight limit (kg)
Easyjet45 x 36 x 201556 x 45 x 2515
Ryanair40 x 25 x 20n/a55 x 40 x 2010
Wizz40 x 30 x 201055 x 40 x 2310
British Airways40 x 30 x 152356 x 45 x 2523
Turkish Airlines55 x 40 x 23855 x 40 x 238
Lufthansa55 x 40 x 23855 x 40 x 238
Malaysia Airlines56 x 36 x 23756 x 36 x 237

Note that some airlines have different requirements for the two pieces of carry-on luggage, such as Easyjet. Others, like Turkish Airlines and Lufthansa, allow two bags both of the same size (if you have the relevant ticket, otherwise you may be restricted to one).

How to choose the right hand luggage

These are the main things to consider when you’re choosing what hand luggage to take with you:

  • Size. First of all, check the size of your bag. As mentioned above, it needs to be within the airline’s restrictions. On the flip side, don’t choose something too small, otherwise it’ll be a real struggle to fit everything in!
  • Durability. Hand luggage tends to get tossed around and beaten up quite a bit, no matter how careful you are with it, and the last thing you want is for it to split. A broken strap, wonky wheel, or tear in the fabric can ruin your journey as you’re constantly fighting with the bag. So, don’t cheap out. Pick something that’ll last and it can become a constant companion for your many adventures.
  • Comfort. Hand luggage is going to be with you for most if not all of your journey, so it had better be comfortable. Backpacks should have padded straps that don’t dig into your shoulders and wheeled suitcases should roll smoothly so you’re not having to exert yourself from airport to hotel.
  • Ease of access. An underrated factor to take into account is just how easy it is to get in and out of your bag. While sometimes unavoidable, it’s a real pain to have to completely unpack everything, just to find that one item you left right at the bottom. So, consider bags with nice compartments, otherwise you can get some packing cubes to help organise everything.
  • Style. Last but not least, you don’t want to feel embarrassed by the hand luggage you choose. Pick bags that suit you, that match your style, and you can enjoy your time globetrotting even more.

Tips for packing with only hand luggage

If you’ve got a bag that’s within the size and weight restrictions of your airline, and that you’re happy to rely on for your travels, then you’re well on your way to successfully travelling with hand luggage only.

To help even more with the process, here are some helpful tips and tricks for packing light and travelling with only hand luggage.

1. Keep your liquids handy

The first top tip of hand luggage travel is to keep your liquids in an easily accessible place.

When you’re passing through airport security, it’s crucial to have your toiletries and any other liquids in a transparent, resealable bag. 

Try to keep these at the top of your bag so they’re easily accessible and you can quickly get them out without much faff while queuing for security.

This not only speeds up the security process but also prevents any accidental spills that could ruin your clothes or electronics.

2. Bring a light bag for your laundry

For trips of any length of time, you’ll accumulate some dirty laundry along the way. 

While you can just keep any used clothes in your accommodation, having a separate bag is important for when you travel home or to your next destination.

To keep your clean and soiled clothes separate, consider a canvas tote bag that can pack down small. Or, a simple plastic carrier bag can work as well, and hardly takes up any space in your luggage at all..

3. Layer up for the journey

Whatever the season, flying with only hand luggage is easier if you wear your heaviest clothes while travelling.

Wear your biggest sweater and bulkiest coat and pack any lighter alternatives.

This frees up space in your hand luggage and keeps you warm and cosy during your journey.

4. Pick your shoes carefully

Shoes can be one of the heaviest and most space-consuming items in your luggage. Minimise your footwear options to a few versatile pairs that can suit various occasions. Your feet and your luggage will thank you.

In an ideal situation, you should only need one pair of shoes, especially for a short getaway, and these can be worn on your feet anyway!

If you’re travelling somewhere hot, consider wearing trainers and only taking flipflops or light sandals as these don’t take too much space.

Either way, always wear your largest and heaviest pair of shoes, just like you would with clothes.

5. Embrace versatile wardrobe pieces

Packing smart is all about versatility. Choose clothing items that can be mixed and matched easily. 

Neutral colours and clothing that can transition from day to night are the way to go, or choosing a colour palette that’s straightforward to work with using any item that you pack.

Despite this, don’t be hold back on bringing a statement piece or two if you want to show some flare!

Prague's Old Town Square seen from the top of the Old Town Hall Tower
Prague – one of our favourite destinations for a short city break

6. Less is more

Sometimes, there’s nothing you can do to cheat the system and the only way to pack light enough to travel with hand luggage only is by taking less with you.

Fortunately, you always need less than you think. Many novice travellers tend to overpack, but experienced jet-setters know that packing light is the key to enjoyable travel. Stick to the essentials and avoid those “just in case” items.

Plus, the more you travel, the more you’ll realise just how little you actually need.

7. Declutter your wardrobe

Before packing, take a close look at your clothing. If you haven’t worn something in the last six months, chances are you won’t need it on your trip.

Leave it behind and free up precious luggage space in favour of your favourites or more versatile pieces.

While you’re thinking about what to pack, you can also take the opportunity to sort through your wardrobe and clear out anything you’ve not worn for a while.

8. To fold or to roll?

The eternal debate in the world of packing – to fold or to roll your clothes? While rolling can save space and reduce wrinkles, folding may work better for structured items. 

Take some time to experiment and find the method that suits your needs (and your bags).

Generally, folded clothes can fit best in suitcases whereas you might need to try rolling if you’re only relying on a backpack.

9. Consider packing cubes

Packing cubes are a game-changer when it comes to organising your hand luggage. They keep your clothes compact and make it easier to locate specific items in your bag.

In some cases, however, packing cubes may take up more space in your bag compared to if you went without.

Ideally, you should research the best packing cubes for your own bag, so that their dimensions exactly line up with the inside of your bag. Otherwise, you may end up with wasted space.

If you’re having to cram a lot into your bag, you may even find it easier to roll clothes up tightly and stuff them into every possible gap, rather than use a packing cube.

10. Charge up before you set off

Make sure all your electronic devices are fully charged before your trip. This ensures you’re ready for hours of entertainment and can navigate with ease when you reach your destination.

Here’s a quick checklist of what you might need to charge before you pack:

  • Phone
  • Charging pack
  • Camera
  • Electric toothbrush
  • Tablet/laptop
  • E-Reader

11. Bring an E-Reader

Investing in an e-reader, such as a Kindle, can lighten your load considerably.

With a single device, you can carry a library’s worth of books, making those long layovers or quiet evenings in your hotel room much more enjoyable.

They’re even smaller than tablets too and have fantastic battery life, so with countless hours of entertainment they’re always a great way to optimise space.

A view over the Roman Forum in Rome from Capitoline Hill
Rome – it’s easily possible to travel here with only hand luggage

12. Cut down on luxury items

While it can be a hard decision to make, sometimes you might have to sacrifice a luxury or two in order to efficiently travel with hand luggage only.

There may not be space for bulky laptops, tablets, and gaming devices, so focus on the essentials first before checking if there’s room for them.

Either way, travelling is a time to see and experience new sights and cultures, so you shouldn’t need to rely on electronics to keep you entertained.

13. Don’t pack to the brim

It may be tempting to pack as much in as possible to completely fill your hand luggage, but this is a rookie error.

It’s very likely you might want to pick yourself something up during your travels, such as a souvenir, and it’s a horrible experience when you realise that it won’t fit in your bag.

So, keep some extra space available and this shouldn’t be a concern.

14. Practice packing

While it may not be something you want to spend time doing, it can be super useful to do a practice go at packing everything into your hand luggage.

We’d highly recommend this as you’ll avoid any nasty surprises if you can’t fit everything.

It’s especially useful if you’ve just got a new bag. Plus, you’ll know if there’s anything you need to sacrifice or buy a lighter-weight version of.

15. Research your destination

One of the most useful things to do to help narrow down your packing list is to spend a moment researching where you’re heading off to.

The weather will dictate what you’ll need to bring with you. While it can feel important to be prepared for all circumstances, there’s no need to overpack when space is really tight.

Keep checking the weather before travelling. You don’t want to be using precious space on a rain coat when it’s looking particularly dry.

Likewise, look at your itinerary and decide what’s necessary to take and what’s not. Comfortable trainers would be needed if you’re planning on spending lots of time walking around a city, but maybe you don’t need footwear that’s more formal unless you’ve got a reservation at a fancy restaurant.

Packing list for travelling with only hand luggage

Even if you’re only relying on hand luggage to get you through your travels, it’s still possible to be away for over a week and not underpack.

That said, short breaks will be easiest to pack for, and you can consult our weekend away packing list for the essentials. Here’s a summary of what you shouldn’t forget:

  • 1 comfortable pair of shoes
  • Underwear and socks for each day
  • 2 other items to layer with, e.g. shirt or jumper if the climate is cold
  • 1 casual jacket for everyday use
  • 1 raincoat or umbrella, depending on how wet it’s expected to be
  • Portable charger
  • Plug adaptors if needed
  • Passport if needed

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