I like to think of myself as a bit of a pro for travelling with hand luggage only. I moved to Australia, backpacking through 7 countries for a month on the way, all with just hand luggage and I didn’t ship anything extra over to Australia either! I’ve been to at least 20 countries in Europe with hand luggage only and have travelled from the UK to the USA and Cuba with just hand luggage. So these are my 15 carry on luggage packing tips for how to pack hand luggage and how to pack a suitcase for airline travel to any destination.
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My 15 top carry-on packing tips
1. use a rucksack, not a wheelie case
This is my number one carry on luggage packing tip for everyone, for several reasons. Rucksacks and backpacks don’t have framing like wheelie suitcases do, so you can squash them down, they’re more flexible and you can fit more in thanks to the material having more give.
Rucksacks are also far less conspicuous if you are cutting it a bit close to the size and weight dimensions for your airline. I’ve never been asked to check my rucksack and they’ve never checked the weight and a rucksack will never be asked by the budget airlines to put in the hold when the overhead bins are full. Rucksacks are also less flashy and don't draw attention to thieves. They’re usually more lightweight than a suitcase too so you can use more of the weight for your own items. A rucksack also allows you to keep both your hands free.
I use the Osprey Farpoint hand luggage rucksack which is specifically designed to fit in most airlines size restrictions. Of course please check your individual airline before you fly.
2. wear your biggest items
This includes shoes and clothes. If you’re doing some hiking at your destination, wear your hiking boots on the plane with your thickest bulky socks. I usually find planes to be chilly so always wear your coat or jacket on the plane or the thickest hoodie or jumper you’ve packed.
3. Wear a jacket with big pockets for extra personal items
Wearing your bulky jacket or coat on the plane also works well to give you extra storage for your personal items. I often wear a hoodie and a denim jacket when I fly, for two extra layers. This gives me two more pockets in the hoodie and 4 more pockets in the jacket.
I fill the pockets with my phone, portable charge, passport and boarding pass, earphones, snacks and medication I need.
4. roll all your clothes
Rolling is great for a few reasons. It’s a huge space saver, I guarantee you’ll fit more in than just folding. It also stops your clothes from creasing as much as folding does and it also allows you to see the contents of your case more easily rather than stacks of folded clothes so you end up forgetting what you packed!
5. Plan your outfits and pack items which can be mixed and matched
The key to packing light is packing items of clothing that can be used with multiple different outfits on different days. For example, for a long weekend city break in the cooler months I will pack black jeans and wear them most days I’m there, just changing my shirt. If I’m going to a warm destination, I’ll back a skirt that can be worn with multiple shirts or a maxi dress that I could wear on its own one day or with a t-shirt over the top of it another day.
It really helps to plan your outfits in advance of your trip. So you can not only plan out these mix and match outfits, but it also saves time on the morning indecision each day when you already know what outfits you’re going to wear. Planning your outfits helps you pack more concisely and is one of my best carry on luggage packing tips.
6. pack around your biggest non-negotiable item
Perhaps you’re going to be doing some sport and you need to take some bulky gear, or maybe you’re like me and have bulky camera gear to consider. If you have a non-negotiable item you need to bring, put this in your bag first and work around it.
I keep my camera gear as compact as possible by using a top loader camera bag and just taking the minimal spare essentials like an extra battery, charge and SD card.Then I start backing my next biggest items, like trousers or shirts around this, moulding them to the shape of my camera case.
If you’re travelling with an airline, such as those in the US, that allow a personal item as well as hand luggage then you’ll have much more flexibility. But if you’re travelling with budget European airlines, this is vital to help you cull your unnecessary items and help you pack around your non-negotiable ones.
7. check if they allow hand luggage and a personal item
Following on from the last point, check with your airline if they do allow a personal item as well as a carry-on because this could give you an entire bag worth of space!
I use a Kanken backpack as my personal item so I get two backpacks full of space when I travel. Make sure to utilise all those front pockets and side pockets too and still pack around your biggest items. Your personal item is also the best place to put things you might need on the flight for ease of access, such as chargers, toothbrush or snacks.
8. cut down on toiletries
This is my biggest must-do of all my carry-on packing tips! If you’re going to spend time hiking or in the sea or pool a lot, do you need your whole make up bag? If you’re going for a week or less, do you really need the tweezers and nail scissors? Do you need 3 different moisturisers and 3 different hair products or will you survive without them for a weekend trip?
If you’re staying somewhere that supplies complimentary toiletries, that means you don’t take soap/shampoo/conditioner. A lot of hotels will also supply face wash, body moisturisers, hair dryers and towels, so you really don’t need to pack any of these things.
If you do need to take liquids, you’ll need to decant them into smaller bottles, not only to save space but also to abide by airline liquid restrictions. Use flexible silicon bottles like these ones rather than rigid plastic bottles as they take up more room.
9. cut out the ‘just in case’ items
Have you ever packed an umbrella or an extra 5 pairs of underwear “just in case”? Don’t worry, we all have, but that kind of packing just isn’t practical for carry-on only trips. So take out the umbrella and extra pairs of shoes. If you’re going somewhere warm you probably don’t need that big chunky knit, just pack a thin sweater or cardigan instead.
Similarly with pyjamas, do you need pyjamas? Or can you just take a big t-shirt and sleep in that and underwear or shorts that could also be used as a cover up by the pool after you’ve slept in them? Having more than one use for an item is key.
10. attach things to the outside of your bag
This is another great thing about rucksacks and backpacks and why I recommend that everyone use one as they often have multiple external straps and hooks or fastenings to attach things to.
I will always put my flip flops or sandals in the front mesh pockets of my bag. My reusable water bottle is always attached to the outside with a carabiner on one of the straps.
Rucksacks are great for attaching bulky items like sleeping bags, roll mats or tent parts too if you’re going on an adventure trip, just be wary as these items are more likely to draw attention to airline staff to check the size dimensions on your bag.
11. fill dead space with underwear
This is why underwear should be packed last. Your small items like underwear and socks can be used to fill the dead spaces between items or baggy corners of you bag that haven’t quite been packed out with other items.
If you have closed toe shoes in your bag like trainers or boots, you should also put underwear in them to fill the dead space and help them hold their shape.
12. don’t pack books
I am a huge bookworm, I will get through a couple of books a week when I’m on holiday. But packing books when you’re travelling with just carry-on isn’t a wise use of space. Instead, consider downloading your books onto your phone, tablet or other device for your holiday.
I prefer reading physical books, but sometimes it just isn’t practical. And the phone screen being too small isn’t an excuse, you spend all day on your phone reading things on the internet, Facebook, Instagram etc, you can definitely read a book on it for the duration of your trip!
13. Cut down on shoes
Shoes seem to be the hardest thing to let go of for some people when they go on a trip. If I’m going somewhere for a weekend, I will only bring one pair of shoes and they’re the ones on my feet as I get on the plane.
Obviously that isn’t always possible, so I suggest sticking to the rule of only bringing two pairs of shoes: one practical and one pretty. The bulkiest one should be worn on the plane. For me, this would be a pair of trainers or hiking shoes for walking around in or doing activities, then a pair of sandals that I can dress up in evenings or slip on to go to the pool or the beach.
If you limit the amount of shoes you bring, you won’t miss what you don’t have, I promise!
14. don’t ever pack for more than 7 days
If you’re going for a weekend, only pack for 2 days. If you’re going for a week, pack for a week. If you’re going for a month, still pack for a week. All your items should mix and match to different outfits and for underwear, t-shirts and other commonly used basics, you can wash in the bathroom and hang to dry while you wear something else.
Packing heavily will be more of a burden in the longer term, I can guarantee it. And who has been guilty of going on a vacation and only wearing half the stuff they bring anyway? I know I’ve done that in the past. This goes back to point 5 - plan your outfits. So this way you know you’ll use everything and avoid packing unnecessary items. If you find yourself packing something “just in case” then you should take it out.
15. if you’re really stuck, buy something small at duty free
This is a last resort for carry on luggage packing tips, but if you find yourself with too much in your carry-on either on the way or on the way back (thanks souvenirs), then get through security and go to one of the duty free stores. Buy something small and ask for their biggest bag. Then use this bag to put your over-packed items in so your carry-on isn’t over the size or weight limit. Duty free shopping bags are allowed on planes as an additional personal item, so you won’t be penalised for carrying that on with you, as well as your carry-on luggage.
I hope these carry on luggage packing tips help you with your hand luggage packing in the future. Travelling lighter really is less stressful and cheaper.
Flights: I use Expedia to find great flights and the best deals all over the world, they have regular sales and offers so I always check their website. I also check CheapOair to find cheap deals on round trip flights.
Car Rental: I love the customer service I've always gotten and the variety of options with Rental Cars. But for short notice rentals, I've been using Expedia for the last year, they always seem to have great one-day rates or last-minute rates from the main rental companies.
Accommodation: I prefer the flexibility of booking accommodation with Booking.com so I can cancel or change my reservation without a fee or only pay on arrival for most properties. For longer or more unique stays I prefer AirBnB because you can get the long stay discount, you can also find more unique properties and book experiences with talented locals and businesses. For my budget trips, I always stay in hostels and book through Hostelworld because they have great guarantees if anything does go wrong. If you arrive and your booking is not at the property, they refund the full deposit AND give you $50 extra credit.
Tours and organised trips Although I don’t use tours that often, I do like to book local experiences or day trips once I reach my destination. For that I use GetYourGuide because it has the biggest selection and variety of tour and experience options.
Travel Insurance: I currently use SafetyWing Nomad Insurance. Which allows me to pay a rolling monthly fee to cover my long term travels.
My camera gear and equipment: I use a Canon 77D with an 18-135mm lens or a 50mm lens. And a DJI Mavic Mini Drone. For all my gear including laptops, tripods and more camera accessories read my travel photography gear guide.