10 Tips To Never Struggle With Only Hand Luggage Again

Published on 3/20/2023

I started working in the travel industry in 2018, but even before that I was snared by the travel bug. I went on my first trip alone at eighteen to Nepal for a month, and until 2020 I was always hunting for travel deals. I’m fortunate to have friends who live in many different places, so there is always a couch for me to crash on.

I take most of my trips by train, as in Europe you’re fortunate to have that option if you don’t mind spending a few extra hours. I’m actually writing this article on a 6.5-hour train ride from Amsterdam to Berlin - I couldn’t have planned that any better!

But in recent years, I’ve seen a lot of changes to my familiar travel industry. One of those is the restrictions placed on hand luggage. When choosing budget airlines, you now have to pay for a classic wheelie bag, leaving you with only a backpack.

So I’ve had to adapt my tactics to pack more in less space.

And let me make one thing very clear: I am not a minimalist.

I am not some free-spirited traveller who brings one t-shirt for a week and feels totally at peace. Nope. I like bringing many outfits and enough toiletries to open my own store in each destination.

So this is a realistic guide to packing more with only hand luggage.

1. Plan your outfits

I used to pack whatever items I liked. A cute top, a comfortable pair of pants, my favourite pair of shoes, I’d throw it all in and hope for the best. Then on holiday, I’d feel like I had nothing to wear. I’d want to wear that cute top but realise it didn’t suit the comfortable pants. Or what was the point of bringing those shoes when they look strange with the style of trousers I brought?

I wasn’t planning ahead, and so I ended up with random items that didn’t work together.

Now I take a moment and plan my outfits for a trip. You don’t have to be strict and say what you’ll wear each day, but just bring outfits rather than items.

I lay a pair of trousers on my bed and then find two different tops that suit it. I pull out a sweater or two that suits those outfits. I think as a whole rather than separate parts.

This ensures everything fits easily in my suitcase and that I’m packing things I’ll actually wear. I consider it a failure if something goes straight from my suitcase back home.

2. Bring a bum bag

Bum bag, fanny pack, waist pack - whatever you call them, they are a lifesaver when it comes to travelling.

I never travel without a bum bag. I don’t think I could ever go back now.

I always have a bumbag tied around one shoulder, containing my phone, passport and air pods. I recently got a new one that is spacious enough to hold my e-reader as well. I’ll stock hand sanitiser, tissues, or anything else I might need in there.

This allows you to have everything you need right there, so you don’t need to rifle around or panic the moment you can’t find your passport. I’m an anxious person, so I end up convinced I’ve lost my passport or phone about a dozen times before I reach my gate.

But how does a bum bag help you to travel with only hand luggage?

Because a bum bag is so small that they don’t consider it as an extra bag. I always waltz past with my bum bag proudly on display and they’ve never said a word. They even watch me fish my boarding pass out of it. But if you’re worried, you can easily slip a bum bag under your jacket or sweater.

Taking a bum bag allows you to pack your hand luggage to the brim, as you won’t need to rifle through it for things later. You have everything you need right there. So fill every tiny pocket on your rucksack or little suitcase, and know that you won’t have to open it again until you reach your destination. This allows you to do every packing tip in the comfort of your home.

3. Roll it up!

This is an old-school tip, but one that many are neglecting to do.

While folding your clothes at home ensures nice, organised cupboards, it’s actually wasting a lot of space in your suitcase. So instead, neatly roll up your clothing so you can fit more in that space. Whether you’re travelling with a little suitcase or backpack, it’ll be easy to pack those rolls tightly together.

4. Packing cubes

You’ve rolled up your clothes, now what? This is when packing cubes comes in handy. They allow you to pack things far more tightly and maximise your space.

You can place all of the rolled items in, and then stuff all the corners with additional small items.

Additionally, packing cubes make it much easier to unpack and repack your suitcase - perfect for a road trip! It’ll keep things far neater and ensure you always know where to find stuff. And during your trip, you could always transform one cube into your ‘laundry basket’ to separate dirty clothes from clean ones.

5. How to wear your luggage

Okay, this tip is for those of us that simply can’t bear to pack less on a trip. We need those multiple cute tops, or another sweater if we’re cold or….

We just want to bring a lot of things, and no amount of rolling items or using packing cubes is going to be enough. So now we’re going to get cheeky. But I will urge you that I can’t be held responsible if these methods don’t work! These come with a note of caution.

If you have items that simply won’t fit in your suitcase, sometimes the only solution is to wear them. If possible, layer up as much of possible. And it goes without saying that you should wear your bulkiest items, including shoes! If it’s far too warm for a sweater but you need one, tie it around your waist.

But wearing your luggage can also be achieved in two different ways:

1. The jacket trick: Wear an oversized jacket and stuff the pockets with extra items. For example, roll up your t-shirts and slip them all into the pockets. You’re allowed a jacket on board, and they can’t exactly ask you to empty your pockets…

I recently shared this trick with a friend who was struggling to pack for a hand luggage-only trip, and she managed to bring two days' worth of clothes just through her jacket pockets!

2. The pillow trick: I first saw this on Tiktok and it got me curious. We’ve all seen people travelling with small pillows for on the flight. So what if those pillowcases weren’t filled with a cushion, but rather… clothes? It would be soft enough to pass for a pillow, and no one would need to know.

I don’t mean an actual bed-sized pillow, but rather those little square ones you find on a couch, or those neck pillows. Someone pointed out that security would see it through the scanner, but why would they care? It’s only at the gate that someone checks you, and they don’t scan your items.

I’ve found that as long as you look like you’re following the rules, they don’t really care to question it further.

6. Fill those little nooks

You would be surprised how many little nooks remain when you’re packing. So leave your underwear, socks and any other flexible little items until last, and then use them to fill those gaps. Examples include your shoes (they perfectly fit a pair of socks or two!), besides your packing cubes or inside handbags.

Additionally, if you’re packing bras, pile them all on top of each other and then put something in the remaining cup. This also helps them to keep their shape in your suitcase.

7. Get reusable bottles for your toiletries

This advice is two-fold. Firstly, it ensures you never get into trouble with your liquids. I have had to helplessly watch perfectly good bottles of moisturiser or perfume be tossed in the trash like… garbage.

So when it comes to larger toiletries, take however much you need for your trip and put it in reusable bottles. You can easily purchase a set of reusable bottles and just clean them between trips. Some are even dishwasher-safe! But be sure to check the product instructions beforehand.

But I even do this when I’m travelling by train or car, as it’s such a great way to save space in my suitcase. I don’t need a 150ml bottle of face wash for a 4-night trip - not even close! So instead I squirt some out into a little bottle and bring that. If you’re like me and have a half dozen bottles of The Ordinary products, this will be a lifesaver in packing smart.

8. Get a travel jewellery case

So if you usually don’t bring jewellery or wear it all, then skip ahead to the next tip! But if you like to bring some rings, necklaces or earrings, then consider purchasing a travel jewellery case. I bought one last year and I am obsessed with it.

While it takes a little bit of space, its square shape is compact and easy to layer in my bag. It takes less space than other bags might, and ensures my jewellery is safe. Nothing irks me more than having to untangle a dozen necklaces, and I’m so thankful to be free of that hellish torture.

Plus, you can use the space to the max by adding your hair ties and clips to the little sections!

9. Invest in a rucksack or bag

The whole point of travelling with only hand luggage is saving money… or proving what a great minimalist you are. So why am I telling you to spend money?!

This tip isn’t for everyone. But as mentioned previously, I travel a lot for my work and other things. So it made sense for me to buy a really good rucksack that fits a lot. So when I can only bring a rucksack, and not even a wheely case, I know I can fit 4 days worth of clothing into it as well as my laptop.

This was one slightly pricey purchase that has paid off, as it allows me to always go for the cheapest ticket. Choosing to only take a carry-on bag can easily save you €20 each flight, so you’ve paid it off within a few trips.

If you plan to travel frequently, consider investing in a travel bag for those trips that allows you to maximise your packing space.

10. Consider an e-reader

I’m telling you to buy more things? What?

This is for the readers out there. I know that the reading community feels very divided on the subject of e-readers, and I’m not going to discuss the benefits of them here. I’m a big reader, I read 55 books last year, and I love my Kindle. I still buy regular books once in a while, but I always use my e-reader when travelling.

An e-reader is smaller than one book. Like I said, I fit it in my bum bag when travelling. So already if you would only bring one book on vacation, you’re saving space with your e-reader. But if you usually bring two or more books, or finish your books and then feel sad that you have nothing to read, an e-reader will be your best friend on holiday.

But here’s another little trick! Don’t want to buy an e-reader? That’s fine, just get the Kindle app on your phone. Then you can read books on your phone throughout your trip and not have to pack books. Yeah, it’s a small screen, but you adjust quickly and desperate times call for desperate measures.

As promised, I never told you to pack less. I told you to pack smarter, get the right equipment and fit more on your body when travelling.

You can bring everything you want on a trip as long as you take some time and care when packing. I’m a minimalist’s worst nightmare, and I manage to squeeze it all in there. With each trip, I learn what I actually need and don’t, how to fit more, and how much I can get away with in my pockets!

Good luck and safe travels!

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