By now we’ve all read countless horror stories of endless queues and lost baggage at airports this summer.
And, as a travel journalist, I’ve become an expert at packing lightly for a long weekend away. It got me thinking: can I pack for my summer holiday using just hand luggage?
Travellers with just hand luggage can avoid the baggage drop queues by checking in online and proceeding straight to security. Plus if your flight is cancelled, it’s much easier for the airline to transfer you straight onto another if they don’t need to find your luggage somewhere in the airport system first.
I recently managed a four night stay in Belfast with everything I needed - including my laptop - packed into a small rucksack. It left me quietly confident that I could rise to the challenge of a full week away.
However, to test the theory in a more scientific way, I gathered every item I took on my recent seven day trip to Croatia to see what I could and couldn’t fit in a hand luggage sized bag.
What type of bag is best for my holiday hand luggage?
There are two key factors to consider when it comes to deciding what type of bag to take.
Firstly, what airline are you travelling with? Budget airlines like easyJet and Ryanair now only give 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 bigger backpack or a wheelie mini case, you’ll have to pay extra. But if you’re going for a week or more it’s probably worth forking out a few euros more.
The second thing to consider is where are you going and what type of holiday is it?
I’ve just come back from a wonderful week in Croatia, exploring Dubrovnik and the nearby islands.
During my trip, I discovered it was probably a bad idea to take a wheelie suitcase to Dubrovnik. There are so many stairs in the city and it’s a real pain to lug a suitcase up them to get to your accommodation.
The same rule applies if your accommodation is anything above the second floor in an old building. Do yourself a favour and choose backpack style luggage instead.
A small suitcase
A wheelie trolley is a classic hand luggage choice and something you’ll probably already own. (You’ll see from the video above that mine is looking a little worse for wear after many adventures.)
A great way to keep your case organised and stop it turning to chaos when you’re rummaging for one particular item is to invest in some packing cubes.
I opted for the Snugpak Pakbox which come in 1, 2, 4 & 6 litres sizes. For my case I got just the 1, 2 & 4L options as I think the 6L would take up most of the space and basically defeat the purpose.
The 4L Pakbox was the perfect size to fit all my evening and city sightseeing clothes in. I’d usually opt for a fold and stack sideways packing technique (à la Marie Kondo) but as the cubes aren’t particularly deep, I’d advise you roll your clothes.
The 2L is handy for underwear, pyjamas and other delicates. In hindsight, I’d probably buy two of these if I wanted to avoid any random floating items in my case as I found there was no space for my beach cover-ups.
Snugpak Pakboxes are €8.50 - €12 depending on size.
The ideal traveller backpack
If you’ve decided a backpack is going to be hand luggage of choice then look no further than the Tropicfeel Shell bag.
What I love about this bag is that it’s got a travel wardrobe unit that folds up inside then it can be hung up when you arrive. Just like the packing cubes it helps to keep your stuff organised and makes repacking at the end of your trip so much easier.
It’s also got lots of extra thoughtful attachments and pockets, and, as a bonus, it looks pretty nice.
I chose to add the toiletry bag attachment which securely clips to the front of the backpack. It was quite small but I was surprised to discover I could fit everything except my full size hairbrush into it.
Another feature I love is a hidden pouch at the bottom of the bag to store shoes. If you’re off exploring and want to wear your flip flops and carry your bulkier boots you can pop them in there. With this bit extended, it may make the bag too large for hand luggage dimensions, however, so watch out.
The Tropicfeel Shell bag starts at €215 and offers a variety of add ons and storage extras.
What are hand luggage essentials?
One of the big difficulties when travelling with only hand luggage is liquids. We need all sorts of products to survive on holiday but when you’re limited to just a small plastic bag full it can be tricky.
Don’t forget your water bottle
Many people don’t realise that you can take an empty water bottle through security. Some airports have water fountains but if not, bars and restaurants will usually fill it up for you free of charge.
I recently got my hands on a Halo Bottle Prima 500ml bottle - one of the most compact and lightweight insulated water bottles available. The size and weight make it perfect for travelling light.
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 anything remaining would be very warm by lunchtime. The water in my Halo Bottle, however, was still ice cold even after hours in the sun.
Halo Bottles start from €27.
Don’t let the bugs bites
If you’re anything like me, depending on your destination, being eaten alive by midges and mosquitoes is inevitable.
Though originally designed for children, Natural Patch’s mosquito repellent stickers can be used by adults too.
They’re made from natural essential oils and work by masking 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 the clothing next to each exposed limb to enjoy a bite-free holiday.
If you accidentally leave a patch on your clothes it won’t break down in the wash and make any mess. They aren’t recyclable just yet, but the brand encourages users to reuse them in arts and crafts with your kids. (I haven’t got any kids, so currently my kettle is sporting a cool dude sticker.)
A pack of 60 Natural Patch stickers starts from €20.
You can’t go to the beach without a towel
I’ve always been a bit skeptical about travel towels. My mum had a strange one that was like a foam flannel in the 90s which seemed entirely useless.
25 years on, I thought I’d give them another try and was pleasantly surprised by Decathlon’s Nabaiji microfibre pool towels. I used both the large and extra large sizes.
The large is a great option if you’ve got limited space and will just be doing a bit of swimming on your holiday. It’s not enormous, but there’s plenty of fabric to fully wrap yourself up. Frankly, it’s much bigger than some of the bathroom towels I had in my holiday AirBnBs.
If you plan on spending days sunbathing on the beach, you’ll want the extra large. Though it doesn’t fold quite so small, once unfurled it’s so enormous it’s perfect to lie on or use as a picnic blanket.
Both towels also have an elasticated loop which makes them easy to hang up to dry but also wraps around them to keep them folded neatly in your bag.
Decathlon’s Nabaiji microfibre pool towels are €6-10 depending on size.
Protect your skin
For summer and skiing holidays, suncream is an absolute essential. If you have space in your bag, most shops now offer miniature handbag sized bottles or you can buy a bigger one upon arrival at your destination But make sure not to buy too big a bottle as you won’t be able to take it home and it’ll go to waste.
If you’re someone that wears makeup, you can reduce your liquids by giving up your foundation for the holiday. Your skin will love being able to breathe and when you’ve been out in the sun all day, you’ll have a lovely natural glow in the evening.
Plus when you get back, any spots you’d usually have are likely to have cleared up.
Top tips for packing light
Once you’ve decided what clothes you want to take with you, choose your bulkiest outfit to wear on the plane. Chances are this will involve wearing your trainers as flip flops take up much less space. As an added bonus, you’ll be a lot more comfortable.
One of my biggest tips for packing light - and bear with me on this one - is: pack more underwear than you think you need.
I know it might sound counterproductive to overpack any item but underwear doesn't take up much room. If you’ve spent a day sightseeing in the heat and haven’t got loads of spare clothes to change into, putting on some clean pants will help you feel instantly fresher. You’ll thank me for that tip, I promise.
Watch the video above to learn more about how to pack for your holiday with hand luggage only.