Skip the Airport Lines: Here’s How I Packed for a Week in Hand Luggage Only

By now, we’ve all read countless horror stories about endless queues and lost luggage at airports this summer.

And, as a travel journalist, I’ve become an expert at packing light for a long weekend. This got me thinking: can I pack for my summer vacation using only hand luggage?

Travelers with only carry-on baggage can avoid queues to drop off their baggage by checking in online and going directly to security. Also, if your flight is cancelled, it’s much easier for the airline to transfer you directly to another one if they don’t need to find your bags somewhere in the airport system first.

I recently managed a four night stay at Belfast with everything I needed – including my laptop – packed into a small backpack. It left me quietly confident that I could handle the challenge for a full week.

However, to test the theory in a more scientific way, I collected all the items I took on my recent seven-day trip to Croatia to see what I could and couldn’t fit in a carry-on sized bag.

What kind of bag is best for my vacation carry-on?

There are two key factors to consider when deciding what type of bag to pack.

First of all, what company are you traveling with? Budget airlines like easyJet and Ryanair now only gives you the equivalent of a handbag or small backpack as standard. (40 x 20 x 25 cm for Ryanair and 45 x 36 x 20 cm for easyJet.)

If you want a larger backpack or a mini wheeled suitcase, you will have to pay extra. But if you’re going for a week or more, it’s probably worth shelling out a few extra bucks.

The second thing to consider is where are you going and what type of vacation is it?

Just back from a wonderful week in Croatia, exploring Dubrovnik and neighboring islands.

During my trip, I discovered that it was probably a bad idea to take a wheeled suitcase to Dubrovnik. There are so many stairs in the city and it’s really painful to carry a suitcase up them to get to your accommodation.

The same rule applies if your accommodation is located above the second floor of an old building. Do yourself a favor and choose backpack-style luggage instead.

A small suitcase

A rolling cart is a classic carry-on choice and something you probably already own. (You’ll see in the video above that mine looks a little less well-worn after a lot of adventures.)

A great way to keep your suitcase organized and prevent it from turning into chaos when looking for a particular item is to invest in packing cubes.

I opted for the Snugpak Pakbox which exists in 1, 2, 4 and 6 liters. For my case I only got the 1, 2 and 4L options as I think the 6L would take up most of the space and defeat the purpose.

The 4L Pakbox was the perfect size to store all my evening and city touring clothes. I’d usually go for a folded and side-stacked wrapping technique (a la Marie Kondo) but since the cubes aren’t particularly deep, I’d recommend rolling your clothes.

The 2L is convenient for underwear, pajamas and other delicate items. In hindsight, I would probably buy two if I wanted to avoid any random floating objects in my case, as I found there was no room for my beach blankets.

Snugpak Pak boxes cost between €8.50 and €12 depending on the size.

The ideal travel backpack

If you’ve decided that a backpack will be your go-to carry-on, look no further than the Tropicfeel Shell bag.

What I like about this bag is that it has a travel cabinet that folds up inside then can be hung up when you arrive. Just like packing cubes, it helps keep your things organized and makes packing up at the end of your trip a breeze.

It also has lots of thoughtful accessories and pockets and, as a bonus, it looks quite nice.

I chose to add the toiletry bag attachment which clips securely to the front of the backpack. It was quite small but I was surprised to find that I could fit everything in it except my full size hairbrush.

Another feature I love is a hidden pocket at the bottom of the bag to store shoes. If you’re out exploring and want to wear your flip flops and carry your bulkier boots, you can put them there. With that little stretch, it may make the bag too big for carry-on dimensions, though, so be careful.

The Tropicfeel Shell Bag starts at $215 and offers a variety of storage add-ons and extras.

What are the hand luggage essentials?

One of the big challenges when traveling with only hand luggage is liquids. We need all kinds of products to survive on vacation, but when you’re limited to a small, full plastic bag, it can be tricky.

Don’t forget your water bottle

Many people don’t realize you can take an empty water bottle through security. Some airports have water fountains but if not, bars and restaurants will usually fill it for free.

I recently got my hands on a 500ml Halo Prima bottle – one of the most compact and lightweight insulated water bottles available. Its size and weight make it perfect for traveling light.

I took my Halo bottle with me to Croatia where I spent many hot days in National parks or by the sea where there was not necessarily a place to fill it.

Every day I filled a large uninsulated bottle and my Halo bottle with ice and water. The first one kept me hydrated for the morning but whatever was left would be piping hot by lunchtime. The water in my Halo bottle, however, was still ice cold even after hours in the sun.

Halo bottles are from €27.

Don’t let insects sting

If you’re like me, depending on your destination, being eaten alive by gnats and mosquitoes is inevitable.

Although originally designed for children, Natural Patch mosquito repellent stickers can also be used by adults.

They are made from natural essential oils and work by masking the CO2 we release from our bodies when we breathe. That’s what the mosquitoes use to find us.

According to Natural Patch, adults need 2-4 patches: one patch on clothing next to each exposed limb to enjoy a bite-free vacation.

If you accidentally leave a patch on your clothes, it won’t break down in the wash and won’t make a mess. They are not yet recyclable, but the brand encourages users to reuse them in arts and crafts with your children. (I don’t have kids, so currently my kettle has a cool guy sticker on it.)

A pack of 60 Natural Patch stickers from €20.

You can’t go to the beach without a towel

A towel is always difficult to insert when trying to pack light. But unless you are staying in a seaside resortthere’s a good chance you’ll need it to get to the beach.

I’ve always been a little skeptical of travel towels. My mom had a weird one that looked like a foam flannel from the 90s that seemed totally useless.

25 years later, I thought I’d try them again and was pleasantly surprised by Decathlon’s Nabaiji microfiber pool towels. I used the large and extra large sizes.

The large is a great option if you have limited space and are just going for a little swim on your vacation. It’s not huge, but there’s plenty of fabric to fully wrap around. Frankly, it’s a lot bigger than some of the bath towels I had on my vacation. AirBnB.

If you plan on spending days sunbathing on the beach, you’ll want the extra large. Although it doesn’t fold up so small, when deployed it’s so huge that it’s perfect for lying on or using as a picnic blanket.

Both towels also have an elasticated loop which makes them easy to hang to dry but also wraps around them to keep them neatly folded in your bag.

Nabaiji microfiber pool towels from Decathlon are €6-10 depending on size.

protect your skin

For the summer and ski holidays, sunscreen is a must. If you have room in your bag, most stores now carry miniature purse-sized bottles or you can buy a larger one when you arrive at your destination. But make sure you don’t buy a bottle that’s too big because you won’t be able to take it home and it will get lost.

If you wear makeup, you can reduce your liquids by foregoing your foundation for the holidays. Your skin will love being able to breathe and when you’ve been in the sun all day, you’ll have a beautiful natural glow in the evening.

Plus, when you get back, any spots you would usually have have probably cleared up.

Top tips for traveling light

Once you’ve decided on the clothes you want to take with you, choose your bulkiest outfit to wear on the plane. Chances are this will involve wearing your sneakers as flip flops take up much less space. As a bonus, you will be much more comfortable.

One of my biggest tips for traveling light – and bear with me on this one – is: pack more underwear than you think you need.

I know it might seem counterproductive to overpack any item, but underwear doesn’t take up much space. If you’ve spent a day sightseeing in the heat and don’t have a lot of extra clothes to change into, putting on some clean pants will help you feel instantly cooler. You’ll thank me for this tip, I promise.

Watch the video above to learn more about how to plan your vacation with hand luggage only.

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