Tips for packing only hand luggage

I can’t remember the last time I flew with a big suitcase. Not even for a 2 week summer holiday in Ibiza. Ok yes, I’m a frugal traveller (aka cheapskate), I usually fly with a low-cost airline and I am NOT paying to check-in a bag.

But I honestly do prefer not having a big, heavy, annoying suitcase. I can nip around the airport with my small case or holdall and its much more convenient. There is a bit of an art to packing a small carry-on suitcase with everything you need so, it does require some planning. You can’t just chuck it all in at the last minute and away you go. 

It will take a little bit of time and organisation to fit everything in. I know that some people find the idea of organised packing just another hassle that they would rather do without in the lead up to going on holiday. I will share with you my top 10 tips for packing only hand luggage, this is what I do, every time. 

If you follow these simple steps, I promise you will be a hand luggage packing pro.

Packing only hand luggage

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How to travel with only hand luggage

The first thing is to invest in a good quality, reliable hand luggage bag. When I say hand luggage I mean a small, wheelie, carry-on case. It needs to fit into the plane’s overhead cabin storage and is about 55 x 40 x 20 cm in size like this American Tourister suitcase Four wheels are better than two for easy manoeuvrability, a lightweight material is easier to lift and a hard case helps to keep everything inside protected.

However, always check the dimensions with your airline to see what size cabin bag they allow and make sure you stick to the rules to avoid any problems at the airport.

UPDATE Sept 2018: Ryan Air have announced that from 1st Nov 2018 ALL small wheelie bags (max 10kg) will need to be left at bag drop and a charge of £8-£25 applies depending on whether you book in advance or not. They will only allow a small carry on bag on board for free. For more info click here.

Due to this new rule I have started using a soft holdall bag for short 2-4 day trips. A bag that holds a lot of clothes and fits under the seat in front like this canvas tote bag

Why take only hand luggage on holiday

  • You will not have to pay extra money to the low cost airlines for checked baggage
  • You don’t have to queue at the airport desk to check your bags in
  • You don’t have to worry about your bag being lost by the airline
  • You won’t sit on a flight and realise that you packed something you now need into the big suitcase, which is in the aircraft luggage hold
  • You won’t have to wait for your bags at the airport baggage carousel
  • You can easily fit 4 x small cases all into the boot of a car
  • Traveling from airport to your hotel by public transport is much easier with a small bag
  • You don’t have to lug your big heavy case up to your hotel room

*RELATED post you may enjoy reading – How to survive a low cost airline flight

** Get our FREE printable Spain holiday packing list – It’s the perfect checklist for spending 7 days in Spain, it all fits into a carry on bag and includes an outfit planner!**


My 10 tips for successfully packing only hand luggage

1. Make sure your toiletries are 100ml

Or less and you have them packed into the little airport issued plastic bag. I usually grab a handful of these each time I fly so that I have some at home ready to go. This rule includes all liquids and gels. If you are traveling with a partner, friend or as a family don’t forget to spread your toiletries out so that you carry one bag each though airport scanning. Note you cannot use a little see-through vanity case, or that giant zip-lock bag from the kitchen drawer.

2. Think about what toiletries you really need

Plan in advance and only take the essentials. Invest in some small plastic travel bottles Then you can dispense your favourite shower gel into or buy the little carry-on friendly mini items. Ladies, try not to take all your make-up. Avoid powder-based make-up like blusher and eye shadow as they tend to get broken and go for cream blush and sticks that are versatile and tough. Don’t forget that lipstick, eye pencils etc don’t need to be in the toiletry bag but toothpaste, lip gloss and mascara do.

3. Have an outfit plan

So that you are not trying to pack half of your wardrobe. I’m not trying to take the fun out of selecting your holiday outfits but why not chose what outfits you like best before you go on holiday. Quickly Google to see what the weather is going to be like and lay out all the possible outfit options on your bed. Choose just your favourites and you will find that you don’t pack as many clothes as normal.

4. Mix and match outfits

And this tip applies to guys as well. You really don’t need a different pair of shorts to go with every shirt. And ladies, you certainly don’t need a different pair of shoes to go with every dress. I’m not suggesting that you wear the same outfit every day, just pick out a few key pieces that can be paired with other outfits.

5. Roll all your clothes

Not only does it stop them from getting super creased it really helps to fit more into the bag. Fold each item of clothing in half,  length ways then roll it really tight from one end. You will have lots of little neat, rolls of clothes that then need to be tightly packed together in the suitcase. It might be a little Tetris like as you work out which clothes fit next to each other, as jeans will be longer then vest tops but stick with it and make sure there are no gaps.


6. Use up all the space in the suitcase

By cramming socks and underwear into the corners. Stuff them inside your shoes and around bulkier items. If you have compartments inside your case, use them. Don’t fight the internal set-up of your bag or worry if there are lots of little pockets inside. Just take a moment to think about what item will fit where and pack everything in as tightly as you can. If you can, use this type of packing cubes They are really handy for keeping things separate in your case. They also make it easy to just grab one pack and find want you need instead of rummaging around looking for something.

7. Wear your heaviest clothes to the airport

You will want to be comfortable on the flight so don’t turn up like the Michelin Man but try to wear your heaviest shoes, jumpers, jeans and any jackets. It will make a big difference not having to pack those items in your suitcase.

8. Don’t take unnecessary items

Like a hair dryer, if your hotel bathroom has one. Your hair straighteners, if it’s going to be so humid it’s a waste of time. Your running trainers, if let’s be honest you’re going to spend all week drinking cocktails. It only takes 10 minutes to think about what activities you are likely to be doing on holiday to see if you really need this stuff.

9. Carry 1 hand luggage bag only

Do not even try to test that tired, over-worked poor girl at the boarding gate. You have opted to take your small suitcase on as your carry-on, so you cannot take a handbag, backpack or laptop case. What I do to get around this restriction is buy something at the airport so I get a duty-free plastic carrier bag. This plastic bag is allowed as well as your little suitcase, so put in there your paper, water bottle, book, whatever items you might need on the flight.

10. Keep your valuables safe and handy

By popping them into a smaller bag, like a clutch purse or this travel wallet . As you queue at the boarding gate staff will check that you only have one bag (plus duty free). So, I usually put a wallet like this inside the top of my carry on and before I take my seat I get it out and put it on my lap. Now I have my phone, passport, money, keys all with me. So, I’m not panicking that my valuables are far away if my luggage goes in an overhead locker down the other end of the plane.

*RELATED article – check out this article for more advice on How to keep your valuables safe when traveling

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I hope these tips help you next time you are packing for a holiday 🙂

Do you have any interesting or inventive ways you pack your luggage? If you do, let me know in the comments box below.

Other Seeking the Spanish Sun thoughts and travel advice posts you might like…

Why I think everyone should travel 

How to be a good tourist

Tips for first time travel to Spain

How to avoid feeling homesick

We also have a handy printable that is FREE when you sign up to our mailing list and will help you get organised and pack effortlessly for your Spain holiday…

Printable Spain holiday packing list

Plus check out our really helpful Spain travel guides and info…

The 5 warmest winter sun destinations in Spain

A weekend in Malaga

The 10 most beautiful beaches in Spain

What you need to know before visiting Barcelona

Exploring the city of Salamanca

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  1. 12th December 2017 / 10:30 pm

    Wow! Thanks to your post, I can now pack like a pro! Excellent and very practical tips which I will definitely need. 😉

  2. 7th December 2017 / 4:38 pm

    we travelled hand luggage only earlier this year and the tips you have here are great, rolling clothes is especially good for space saving! Hand luggage only is definitely the way forward for easy travelling!
    We wrote a blog post on hand luggage only as well and have many similar tips 🙂

    • 8th December 2017 / 11:14 am

      Hand luggage only is definitely the way forward! Thanks, I will take a look at your post.

  3. 7th December 2017 / 1:42 pm

    These are great tips!! I am traveling with my husband for our 1 year anniversary and I hate paying for 2 large suitcases at the airport. I’ve always wondered how he fits his entire life in 1 carry on duffel bag, lol. But these are really good tips, I’ll do my best to remember them come April, lol

    • 7th December 2017 / 2:20 pm

      Have a lovely time on your anniversary holiday!!… save these tips and hopefully they will help you to pack light 🙂

  4. 7th December 2017 / 12:48 pm

    I definitely love traveling with a hand luggage only and can second all of your tips! It’s actually so easy. I’d also add 20-20 rule. If you’re not sure about the thing you’re putting in the suitcase, leave it out if it might be a matter of 20 minutes & $20 to get it on the spot!

    Great job on the article 🙂

    • 7th December 2017 / 1:12 pm

      Thanks Ieva! god yeah, trying to rearrange your luggage at the airport is a nightmare and there’s nothing worse then them hitting you with extra baggage charges!

  5. 7th December 2017 / 11:35 am

    Love this list! I just started rolling my clothes too (kinda Marie Kondo style), and it has worked wonders for my suitcase organization. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    • 7th December 2017 / 2:17 pm

      I swear by rolling my clothes for packing, it really does work wonders!

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