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 only pack hand luggage for my summer vacation?
Travelers traveling with hand luggage only can skip the baggage drop queues by checking in online and going straight to security. Also, if your flight is cancelled, it’s much easier for the airline to transfer you straight onto another if they don’t have to first find your luggage somewhere in the airport system.
I recently managed a four night stay Belfast with everything I needed – including a laptop – packed into a small backpack. It gave me quiet confidence that I would feel up to the challenge of a full week.
However, to test the theory in a more scientific way, I collected all the items I took with me on my last seven-day trip Croatia to see what I could and couldn’t fit in a carry-on sized bag.
What type of bag is best for my holiday hand luggage?
There are two key factors to consider when deciding what type of bag to take with you.
First, which airline do you fly with? Budget airlines such as easyJet and Ryanair Now you only get the equivalent of a handbag or small backpack by default. (40 x 20 x 25 cm for Ryanair and 45 x 36 x 20 cm for easyJet.)
If you want bigger backpack or wheelie mini suitcase, you have to pay extra. But if you’re going for a week or more, it’s probably worth spending a few extra bucks.
The second thing to consider is where are you going and what kind of vacation is it?
Just got back from a wonderful week in Croatia exploring Dubrovnik and the surrounding islands.
During my trip I realized that taking a trolley case to Dubrovnik was probably not a good idea. There are so many stairs in the city and it’s really a hassle to lug a suitcase up to get to your accommodation.
The same rule applies if your accommodation is in a period building above the second floor. Do yourself a favor and choose backpack-style luggage instead.
A small suitcase
A wheeled trolley is a classic piece of carry-on luggage and something you probably already own. (You’ll see in the video above that mine is looking a bit battered after many adventures.)
A great way to keep your suitcase organized and prevent it from turning into a mess when you’re browsing for a specific item is to invest in some packing cubes.
I chose the Snugpak Pakbox, which comes in 1, 2, 4 and 6 liter sizes. For my case I only got the 1, 2 and 4 liter options as I think the 6 liter version would take up the most space and basically defeat the purpose.
The 4 liter Pakbox was the perfect size to fit all my evening wear and sightseeing attire. I’d normally opt for a side fold and stack technique (à la Marie Kondo), but since the cubes aren’t particularly deep, I’d advise rolling up your clothes.
The 2L is useful for underwear, pajamas and other delicates. In hindsight, I’d probably buy two of these if I wanted to avoid having items accidentally floating around in my suitcase, as I realized there wasn’t room for my beach covers there.
Snugpak Pakboxes cost €8.50 – €12 depending on size.
The ideal travel backpack
If you’ve decided that a backpack should be your carry-on of choice, look no further than the Tropicfeel Shell bag.
What I love about this bag is that it has a travel wardrobe that can be folded inside and hung up upon arrival. Just like the packing cubes, it helps keep your stuff organized and makes repacking so much easier at the end of your trip.
It also has lots of extra thoughtful attachments and pockets and looks pretty good as a bonus.
I opted for the toiletry bag attachment that attaches securely to the front of the backpack. It was quite small but I was surprised to discover that everything fit in it except for 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 and about wearing your flip flops and want to wear your thicker boots, you can put them in there. However, if this bit is extended, the bag may become too large for carry-on dimensions, so use caution.
The Tropicfeel Shell bag starts at €215 and offers a variety of add-ons and storage options.
What are carry-on essentials?
One of the big difficulties when traveling with only carry-on luggage is liquids. We need all sorts of products to survive on vacation, but when you only have a small plastic bag full, it can be difficult.
Don’t forget your water bottle
Many people don’t know that you can take an empty water bottle through security. Some airports have water fountains once you are in the departure lounge, but if not one of the bars will usually fill them up for you free of charge.
I recently got my hands on a Halo Prima 500ml bottle – one of the most compact and lightweight insulated water bottles on the market. The size and weight make it perfect if you travel light.
I took my Halo bottle to Croatia where I spent many hot days in national parks or by the sea where there wasn’t necessarily a place to fill up.
Each day I filled a large non-insulated bottle and my halo bottle with ice and water. The former kept me hydrated for the morning, but whatever was left would be very warm by lunchtime. However, the water in my Halo bottle was still ice cold even after hours in the hot sun.
Halo bottles start at €27.
Don’t let the bugs bite you
If you’re like me, depending on your travel destination, you’ll get eaten alive by mosquitoes and mosquitoes is unavoidable.
Although originally designed for children, Natural Patch mosquito repellent stickers can also be used by adults.
Made from natural essential oils, they mask the CO2 we release from our bodies when we breathe. This is 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 stain on your clothes, it will not disintegrate when washed and will not cause pollution. They’re not recyclable yet, but the brand encourages users to reuse them when crafting with your kids. (I don’t have any kids, so my kettle currently has a cool guy sticker on it.)
A pack of 60 stickers is available from €20.
You don’t go to the beach without a towel
A towel is always difficult to store when trying to pack light. But unless you’re staying at a resort, you probably need one to take with you Beach.
I’ve always been a little skeptical about travel towels if I’m being completely honest. My mom had a weird one in the 90’s that looked like a foam flannel that seemed completely useless.
25 years later I thought I’d give them another try and was pleasantly surprised by Decathlon’s Nabaiji microfiber pool towels. I have used both a large and an extra large of these towels.
The large is a great option if you’re short on space and just going for a little swim on your vacation. It’s not huge, but there’s plenty of fabric to wrap yourself completely. Honestly, it’s a lot bigger than some of the bathroom towels I’ve had in my vacation AirBnBs.
If you’re planning on sunbathing on the beach for days, you’ll go for the extra large. Although it doesn’t fold up quite so small, once it’s rolled up it’s so huge that it’s perfect for lying on or as a picnic blanket.
Both towels also have an elastic loop that makes it easy to hang to dry, but also wraps around them to keep them neatly folded in your bag.
Decathlon Nabaiji microfiber bath towels cost between €6 and €10 depending on the size.
protect your skin
For most summer holidays Sunscreen is an absolute must. If you have room in your bag, most stores now offer miniature, handbag-sized bottles, or you can purchase a larger bottle upon arrival at your destination. Be careful not to buy a bottle that’s too big though, as you won’t be able to take it home as it will go to waste.
If you wear makeup, you can cut down on your fluids by skipping your foundation for the holidays. Your skin will love being able to breathe and if you’ve been out in the sun all day you’ll have a beautiful natural glow by the evening.
And when you come back, any stains you would normally have are probably cleaned up.
Top tips for packing light
Once you have decided what clothes to take with you, choose your bulkiest outfit to wear on the plane. Chances are you’ll need to wear your sneakers as flip flops take up much less space. As an added bonus, you will feel much more comfortable.
One of my top tips for packing light—and sticking with this point—is: pack more underwear than you need.
I know it might sound counterproductive to pack one item too many, but knickers and panties don’t take up much space. If you’ve spent a day sightseeing in a hot and sweaty climate and don’t have plenty of spare clothes to change into, putting on a clean pair of pants will help you feel instantly fresher too.
You’ll thank me for that, I promise.
Watch the video above to learn more about packing for your vacation with only carry-on luggage.