A few years ago, just before setting off on a six-week holiday to New Zealand, a friend of mine suggested travelling with just hand luggage. “It’s so liberating,” he said, “not having to waste time waiting for your baggage to arrive.” I laughed. How could I possibly carry everything I needed for my ultra-long trip into something that would fit in the overhead locker on the plane? It was madness! But my friend persisted and challenged me to give it a try. So reluctantly, more out of a determination to prove him wrong, I did it. And I haven’t looked back.
European airlines lost, damaged or pilfered about nine bags for every 1,000 passengers in 2014, according to aviation specialists SITA. That’s at least one bag per plane on average! So it’s great being able to breeze through the airport without having to worry about whether your luggage is actually going to arrive at the same time as you.
And checking-in bags has become a significant additional expense on the ticket price of many low cost airlines. For example, Easyjet charges up to £24 for a 20kg bag prebooked online while on Ryanair, that 20kg case will cost up £50.*
I’ve saved a heap of money travelling on low cost airlines using hand luggage only and avoiding these checked-in baggage fees. But it does take a bit of planning and ruthless organisation to make it work. Here are a few tips to get you started:
Buy A Good Bag
This is one of the most important factors for successful travel with hand-luggage only. Most airlines limit the size and, importantly, the weight of bags you can bring on board so you need to start by getting a case that gives you the most space with the least weight.
There’s a vast array of luggage to choose from, but be aware that anything with a hard shell, with wheels or pull out handles will add weight and limit how much actual clothing and other items you can bring with you. That means those expensive ‘roller case’ type bags that you see executives wheeling through airports won’t be good for anything longer than a couple of nights away.
If you’re just starting out on a hand-luggage only experience, I’d recommend an inexpensive bag like the Cabin Max backpack, which comes in at under £25.* They’re made of lightweight nylon, are designed to fit in those bag sizing guides that airlines like Ryanair and Easyjet use, and are fairly well made so should last you a few trips.
Once you’re happy with packing for maximum portability and don’t want to go back to suitcases, you might want to move up to something that’s a bit more robust and will last you for years. I personally use a Red Oxx Air Boss. They’re made from military parachute-grade nylon by a US company that was founded by an ex-Army captain. And they’re virtually bullet proof. Mine has been round the globe a couple of times, getting some fairly hard treatment and there still isn’t a thread loose on it. The company even promises to fix their bags free of charge if they get damaged (for whatever reason, no questions asked) and will give you a new one if they can’t! They’re not cheap, and in Europe, you’ll need to get one imported from the States, but I’ve never regretted the purchase.
Focus On What You Really Need
We’ve all had that experience – a big empty suitcase on the bed just waiting to be filled. In go the three pairs of jeans, two pairs of chinos, the shorts, the swimming trunks, ten T-shirts, five polo shirts, the big jacket if it’s cold, the smaller one for the evening, the flip flops, shoes…and sorry ladies, I know I’m packing from a man’s point of view here. You drag what seems like your entire wardrobe to the airport, check it in, manhandle it into a taxi at the other end. But when you arrive at your destination, you actually only wear half the things you’ve packed.
We tend to think that for a two-week holiday, we have to take 14 days worth of clothes. But that just isn’t the case. We can easily wash underwear and T-shirts and most hotels will have a laundry where you can get the odd shirt laundered and pressed. Once you strip back (no pun intended) what you take, it can be very liberating. I now normally pack for just a week at the most – that’s seven sets of underpants and socks, a pair of jeans, a pair of chinos for smarter occasions, a pair of shorts, a pair of swimming shorts, four T-shirts, two polo shirts and a smarter shirt. Sometimes I squeeze in an extra pair of canvas shoes or trainers. I’ll probably wear a sweater and a light jacket to the airport, so no need to pack those. And all that, with some careful packing, will easily fit in the bags I suggested above, with space for toiletries and electronics.
Lose The Weight – Carry Washing Powder
It seems strange to crave a washing machine on holiday, but it can be your best friend on a longer trip. Laundry services in European hotels can be a bit pricey, but many hotels and motels in the US, New Zealand and Australia have cheap laundry rooms where you can wash and dry your clothes for a few dollars. When booking rooms, the descriptions will normally tell you if machines are available, so just schedule some of these into your holiday if you’re touring, so you can bring fewer items along. Another tip is to buy a cheap rubber washing line with suction cups at the end. This can easily be set up in most hotel bathrooms to allow small items to be dried. You can get a high-speed spin effect by rolling wet clothes up in a towel very tightly – that squeezes the water out and helps them to dry more quickly, especially if you only have an overnight stop.
Enter The ‘Light’
Once you start travelling light, it can become an obsession. For example, I’d never looked at the weight of a computer or phone before. Now I know how heavy every item in my luggage is. I’ve always been a user of Apple computers, so it was inevitable I’d end up buying a featherlight Macbook Air when they were launched (which I love by the way). I also carry an iPad Mini, mainly for reading ebooks and magazines or for easily accessing travel tickets and booking details. I’ve exchanged my heavy SLR camera and lenses for a smaller ‘four thirds’ system camera, which has the same professional image quality and interchangeable lenses but half the weight.
Even my underwear has been slimmed down. I buy lightweight, quick drying briefs (that’s for easy washing I hasten to add!) and socks from the Japanese clothing chain Uniqlo, which has a few branches in the UK and are also online. And I have trousers that can be zipped off at the knees to form shorts. Another Japanese company, Muji, is great for buying small plastic bottles, pots and sprays that can be filled with toiletries, to keep you under the 100ml liquid limits in your hand luggage and save you having to buy the expensive ‘travel’ sizes of your favourite creams, fragrances and potions. There are some really clever travel-related products out there and I’m discovering new ones all the time.
Not All Airlines Are Equal
Hand luggage policies vary with different airlines so it’s worth doing your research when buying a ticket. For example, British Airways lets you take a generous 23kg on board, while with Thomas Cook it’s a measly 6kg.* The majority of airlines average around 10 to 12kg, although Easyjet has an interesting policy – it puts a restriction on the dimensions of the bag but no weight limit. Remember most airlines will also allow you to take a second small bag, like a laptop case, small backpack or handbag, as long as it can fit under the seat in front of you.
Another tip – if you get to check in, and they say your bag is too heavy, try taking some items like your camera and laptop charger out and putting them in your pockets. The staff only weigh your bags – not you!
Beat The Crowds
Charging for checked-in luggage has encouraged more people to take bags into the cabin. That means the overhead lockers can fill up quickly on a busy flight. The way to avoid this is to get onboard before the crowds. I’m not advocating a rugby scrum at boarding – there are ways you can do this in a more relaxing way.
Look for ‘Priority Boarding’ when you book. This means you can be amongst the first on the plane and bag the space in the storage bins. For example, you can get priority on Ryanair from just £3.*
On some airlines, you get priority by reserving certain seats on the flight. This is usually more expensive but you can often get other perks, such as more legroom or a guaranteed window seat for a relatively small fee. With Easyjet, reserving a seat with priority boarding can cost from £7.*
In the US, where smaller commuter planes are often used and onboard space is limited, most airlines will offer a free ‘Valet Service.’ Many Europeans don’t know what this is – it just means you leave your bag on a trolley by the steps as you board the aircraft and pick it up as you get off, avoiding having to stop at the baggage carousel. Ask at check in if this is offered on your flight. Your bag has to go in the hold, so avoid putting any electronics or fragile items in, but it can be very convenient.
* Correct in April 2016