how to travel with hand luggage only

Top Tips for travelling with Hand-Luggage Only

July 15, 2019 27 Comments

Travelling with just hand luggage is a skill and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. If I’m honest, it’s a skill I never thought I’d need (or want) to master but over the past couple of years I’ve noticed that airlines are finding more and more ways of charging a few extra quid from customers and a lot of it is to do with baggage. So for people like you and me who love to explore and travel, it’s a fee we could do without, right?!

Firstly, I hold my hands up – I have always been an over-packer. Always. I dread to think of the money wasted on extra charges plus clothes I never wore. BUT – I have managed to (somewhat) successfully achieve travelling with only hand luggage for a couple of years now. So if I can do it, then anyone can.

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Why Travel with hand luggage only

Well, before I share my top tips for travelling with hand luggage only, it’s important to look at why anyone would do it.

There are so many benefits to travelling with just hand luggage:

  • Airport check-in is quicker or possibly even non-existent.
  • You can skip through baggage claim and head straight to your destination.
  • There’s no need to worry about your luggage being lost, damaged or stolen.
  • It really makes you think about what you need versus what you think you need.
  • You won’t buy things/souvenirs that you really don’t need (you can’t fit them in!).

My biggest test to date was a recent trip which included a 10-day Iceland and New York trip. Read on to find out my top tips for travelling with hand luggage only.

The Perfect bag

This is my number one tip for travelling with hand luggage only. The perfect bag can literally make or break a trip. Well, maybe not that extreme but have you ever had to walk around with a bag that fell apart? I have (twice!), and it was not fun. I am all about trying to find the best deals and travelling on a budget but this is one area where I was willing to splurge.

This is the bag I chose after a lot of research and I absolutely adore it. It’s pricy (around €100) but it is so worth it. The reasons that I chose this one are; it’s anti-theft which also includes an RFID pocket to prevent credit card theft, it’s incredibly roomy, there are padded area’s for electronics, neat organisation areas for easy access and it is also super comfortable!

When travelling with hand luggage only, the ideas above are definitely the minimum requirements you need to think about when choosing your bag. They will ensure that your belongings are safe and that you have room for everything you need.

I don’t often travel with a wheelie case anymore as most of my travels are with budget airlines who are constantly changing their hand luggage requirements. Yes, I’m looking at you Ryanair! You can no longer bring a small case with Ryanair (without paying ) so make sure to check out your airline’s website on their rules and regulations before you fly. You can also easily do this through SeatGuru, an incredible free resource which has information about all airlines.

packing cubes for the win

Packing cubes have been a complete game-changer for me when it comes to travelling with hand luggage only. I’ve been using cubes for about 5 years now and I honestly could not travel without them. I no longer have to root around trying to find a phone charger or a cardigan – they’re all labelled and organised in my beloved packing cubes.

You can organise your belongings whatever way you want but I’ve found it best to separate them into sections such as underwear/swimwear, tops and dresses, shorts and leggings and then other bits ‘n’ bobs into the smaller cubes.

I also highly advise rolling your clothes tightly and stacking them which will keep them compressed inside the cubes giving you lots of extra space in your hand luggage.

travelling with hand luggage only

Related Post: My Favourite Travel Essentials

What to do with liquids

To speed up things at the airport (nobody wants to be the person holding up the security line) always prepare your liquids in advance. We all know that 100ml is the limit and even if your regular sized bottle has less than 100ml in it, those security guys are not going to let it through. It sucks I know!

So what should you do? Transfer your liquids in advance into TSA approved containers like these. I love that there are a variety of sizes too. I label mine (I’m a teacher, I can’t help it!) and refill them with my favourite beauty products. These come with me on every trip.

The mini travel bottles that I use are leak-proof but in case of any spillages, keep them away from any electronics. I find that the front section of my travel bag is the handiest as it is easily accessible. I also pack mine in a zip-lock bag at home and I’ve only been asked to change into airport bags once. I’m still not sure why and I wasn’t going to argue!

Another great space-saving technique when travelling with hand luggage only is solid beauty products. I’ve been loving using them lately especially as they are environmentally friendly too. However, always do your research and ask others who have tried and tested different brands as some are not as eco-friendly as they would like you to think.

Right now I am using solid shampoo and conditioner by a company called Ethique, next on my list is their Lime and Ginger body wash and Lavender and Vanilla deodorant.

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How to pack light for a trip

capsule wardrobe

I’m not even going to try to pretend to be some sort of a fashionista by advising on what clothes to bring when travelling. However, as a recovering over-packer, I have picked up some tips on how to pack clothes when travelling only with hand luggage.

  • The Rule of Three: Pack three outfits that can be mixed and matched depending on the occasion – this works a dream! Stick with a couple of neutral staples such as a top that can be dressed with jeans for nighttime or with shorts for during the day. And remember, you can wash clothes when you travel!
  • Be ruthless: Do you really need 10 tops and 15 bikinis? No, you absolutely don’t. Back when I was an over-packer, I never wore all the clothes I had packed. In fact, I would say more than 50% of it was never worn. I remind myself of that every time I’m packing now. This tip reminds me of Marie Kondo’s catchphrase “does it spark joy?” – if not, don’t pack it!
  • Wear your bulkiest items: This one can be tough but it is doable. Travelling can be a very sweat-inducing event so wearing a thick winter coat is not my idea of heaven. But if it has to come with me, I just tie the jacket around my waist. Also, you only need 2/3 pairs of footwear so put on the heaviest and take them off on the plane.

Related: How to Survive and Enjoy a Long Haul Flight

Bring a Tote Bag for Your Washing

Let’s be honest, travelling is dirty whether you’re off on a city break or to a far-flung destination. There’s sweat, there’s grime and who knows what else embedded into your clothes so the last thing you should do is throw those clothes in with the rest of your stuff.

This is where a tote comes in handy – or even a spare packing cube – throw the dirties in there. An extra tip is to pop a few nice smelling dryer sheets into the bag before you leave to prevent the rest of your clothes smelling like damp dog too.

travelling with hand luggage only

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How to travel with Hand Luggage Only

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  • Kat July 15, 2019 at 9:38 pm

    I always like to only take hand luggage on holiday with me unless I am heading away for 2 weeks or going on a more luxury holiday. I always use a rucksack so that I can keep it with me on the flight rather than putting it in the hold. I still haven’t tried packing cubes but with all the extra charges airlines keep putting on I might have to try being extra savvy. Thanks for the tips

    • Ciara July 17, 2019 at 12:55 am

      Thanks for the comment Kat – Yeah having your things closeby is so handy isn’t it! Packing cubes are the best, you can pick them up anywhere nowadays and they help with packing and keeping organised. Wine win! Ciara

  • John Quinn July 16, 2019 at 5:08 pm

    A recovering over packer. I like that. I’m much the same as you, I often over pack, but have learned to use carry on only. I use a €15 bag which has wheels and back straps. It’s great for different situations. But I have to pay Ryanair’s fees. C’ est la vie.

    • Ciara July 17, 2019 at 12:54 am

      Thank’s John for the comment. Sounds like you’ve found the perfect bag too! Yeah Ryanair are very crafty at getting more money out of us somehow!

  • Alicia July 18, 2019 at 5:27 am

    Great guide! I must admit I have never been a hand luggage traveller I’ve no idea how people do it! That said I think it’s definitely something to consider when looking to save some £££. I do use packing cubes in my check in bag so I guess I get a point for that!

    • Ciara July 21, 2019 at 10:00 pm

      Thanks Alicia, I never thought I could be a hand luggage only person either but honestly after you do it a couple of times, you won’t pack any other way (I promise ha!). Packing cubes for life! Thanks for the comment x

  • Brianna July 18, 2019 at 6:19 pm

    Great tips on traveling with hand luggage! I too am a recovering over-packer but I love traveling with just carry on now. I still end up packing clothing I don’t wear even with just one bag! Packing cubes really are a life changer though.

    • Ciara July 21, 2019 at 9:59 pm

      Yeah packing cubes are amazing aren’t they, I couldn’t travel anywhere without them. I’ve converted lots of family and friends now too ha! Thanks for the comment!

  • Lauren Monitz July 19, 2019 at 12:56 am

    After losing my luggage completely twice I never travel with more than a carryon. Great tips!

    • Ciara July 21, 2019 at 9:58 pm

      Oh no – it’s awful when that happens! Thanks for the comment!

  • Millette July 19, 2019 at 7:57 am

    Couldn’t agree with you more on all these tips! I am joining you on the tote bag rule and packing cubes bandwagon and will be repeating “be ruthless” as a mantra during my next vacation! Thank you so much for being team carry on!

    • Ciara July 21, 2019 at 9:57 pm

      Thanks for the comment! Yeahhh team carry on all the way!!

  • Jan July 25, 2019 at 1:06 pm

    I love packing cubes! I hate overpacking and searching for things and these are a lifesaver. It just makes me feel that I am”home away from home”, when I can easily find my things while traveling.

    Thank you for a well thought out and written post. I need to double check my travel bottles now!

    • Ciara July 30, 2019 at 2:31 pm

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment! Yes! I totally agree with you, it can definitely make life a whole lot easier when you grab what you need when travelling.

  • Nyxie July 25, 2019 at 1:37 pm

    I always travel with hand luggage only because it’s just far quicker. These are some excellent tips 😀 Thank you for sharing.

    • Ciara July 30, 2019 at 2:30 pm

      Thanks so much for your comment! I’m so glad you found it helpful! Yeah I much prefer travelling with hand luggage only now too – it took a while to master though haha!

  • Jessie Bang August 7, 2019 at 2:50 pm

    I love this!! I always travel with the biggest suitcase I have, then never wear even half of what I pack!! I need help haha

    • Ciara August 7, 2019 at 8:57 pm

      Haha, I used to be the exact same – it is so tough. I like to pack for every eventuality but once you start travelling with hand luggage only you’ll see what a huge difference it makes. Thanks so much for your comment!

  • Britt August 7, 2019 at 4:14 pm

    Travelling with only hand luggage is one of my favourite ways to travel – There is something about the freedom of not carrying additional gear with you everywhere you go! Also, many budget flights have strict rules about baggage and charge for anything more than a single ‘personal item’, which means that you can cut back on your travel costs by travelling this way.

    • Ciara August 7, 2019 at 8:58 pm

      Yeah there is definitely something freeing about not having additional luggage! I 100% agree, it makes a huge difference to your travel costs especially if flying with a budget airline. Thanks so much for your comment!

  • Maya August 7, 2019 at 5:27 pm

    Honestly I never thought traveling with only hand luggage was a realistic thing. Obviously after reading this post I see I am totally wrong !
    Even besides the fact it makes the whole airport process quicker, it’s a great way to save money and fly low cost 😉

  • Bernie and Jess Watt October 5, 2019 at 2:29 pm

    Great article. If it’s for less than three days, Hand luggage is perfect & beyond that a little creativity may come into the picture. It’s definitely nice to hit the ground running straight off a flight. The worst challenge is balancing camera gear with close.

  • World of Lina February 19, 2020 at 4:58 pm

    These tips are really great and helpful Ciara! I always try to travel with hand luggage only but sometimes I struggle with it, especially if I travel for a long time!

  • Erin February 19, 2020 at 6:12 pm

    Great tips! I’ve never traveled with more than just hand luggage and I love it – I’ve done trips up to 9 months long with just a carry on backpack. I truly believe it makes travel easier.

  • Melissa February 19, 2020 at 8:09 pm

    Very helpful! I am a fan of packing cubes! My days of checking luggage are over!

  • timpani February 20, 2020 at 2:28 am

    I like the ease of hitting the ground running when only packing a carry on, but I hate trying to cram everything I need in one bag. Packing a carry on only has bit me in the butt a couple of times haha, I way under packed and then had nothing to wear. I’ll have to try out the rule of three thing though, maybe that’ll help!

  • Josy A February 21, 2020 at 6:22 pm

    Fab post! I love doing this for mini holidays. Nothing is better than arriving at a new destination and being able to waltz straight out of the airport!

    My main problem is when we go on hiking holidays. I can’t fit my walking poles or some of the 10 essentials (like a camping knife) in a carry on. So on epic holidays, we are forced to check in bags. 🙁

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    Welcome to my blog! I'm Ciara, a native of Dublin Ireland. I'm an introverted wanderer who loves to explore this gorgeous planet of ours. I try to live by the motto 'Feel the fear and do it anyway' which has led to some ridiculous mishaps along the way. Join me as I try to complete my never-ending bucket list. Read More






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