Avoiding queues at check in and arrivals, extra fees and lost bags are just the beginning of why it’s always better to travel light. Here’s how to do it well.

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Hand luggage Photo © Pakkawit Anantaya/EyeEm/Getty Images

Traveling light is becoming more important than ever. Environmentally, a lighter aircraft means lower carbon emissions. You can get around more easily with just one bag, avoid fees for extra luggage and you don’t have to wait in queues to check in or at baggage carousels at your destination. Plus, you have everything you need with you in case flights are cancelled or delayed.

The latter became important in Europe in the summer of 2022 and when hundreds of flights were cancelled daily due to Brexit and covid cases as airports struggled to find staff for everything from cabin crew, to ground staff and baggage handlers. With the latter in short supply, so was the patience of many customers waiting for bags retrieved from cancelled flights.

I’ve been traveling with just hand luggage for years and I love it. I once cycled around Spain for two weeks with only the vest and bike shorts I wore in the day, and a sarong I wore with the washed and dried vest in the evenings. It can be done. Here’s how to only travel with carry-on.

Choose the right carry-on bag

A soft-sided bag or backpack will fit better under the seat in front or in the overhead locker than a hard-sided one. Also, the size of the bag matters. Most airlines prescribe a carry-on bag should be no bigger than 55cm (22in) by 35cm (14 in) by 20 cm (9 in). Weight is usually restricted to around 7kg. Choose a bag with plenty of pockets and zips so you can organize your clothes and toiletries.

Be liquid-smart

With carry-on, there is a limit to the amount of liquids you can carry – anything over 100ml will be discarded by security. Make sure you keep liquids to less than 100ml and have all your liquids ready in a clear plastic bag to show at security.

What to wear and what to pack

Wear the heaviest bulkiest clothes you’re traveling with on the flight – a heavy jacket or winter boots will take up all the room in your luggage. A jacket can also double as a pillow or blanket on a long flight. Pack everything else by rolling it.

Pack wisely

Choose neutral clothes that can be worn in diverse ways with other items to create multiple outfits with minimal items. Trousers that zip off to shorts, a sarong that can double as a wrap or skirt etc. Choose fabrics that don’t crease and that can be rolled up small. As a rule of thumb, I pack one smart /casual outfit, one evening outfit and plenty of clothes for the day – two pairs of shorts, two tees, one pair of long pants, one dress, plus a warm wrap, a buff (that can be worn in multiple ways) and a light scarf, and one pair of sandals or flip flops. I also wear walking shoes or trainers and a jacket on the plane. Carry a kindle instead of books, lightweight headphones, an ipad instead of a laptop, a phone instead of a camera.

Where are you going?

Be mindful of the climate you are traveling to. It’s easier to pack light for warmer weather than cold. Are there some items – such as skiwear – you could borrow, rent or buy second-hand once you arrive? Think about the activities you’ll be doing and what clothes you’ll need. Will you need an outfit for hiking, visiting a museum, time at the beach and a fancy night out? Think about what could be worn to one activity and dressed up or down to go to the next. Be sparing – don’t pack things you haven’t worn recently at home and think about how many of each item you really need.

Toiletries and laundry

You don’t need to transfer the contents of your bathroom cabinet to your luggage. Take only what you need, and anything else you can buy when you reach your destination. Shampoo bars are better for the planet and take up less space than plastic bottles. Traveling with a bamboo toothbrush, plastic-free razors and reef-safe sunscreen are all ways to travel light as well as responsibly. Instead of carrying multiple items, travel with or buy a small amount of laundry detergent and wash some essential items every day to be worn again the next day.

The benefits

Aside from the benefits to the planet, traveling light affects you’re state of mind – you’re more likely to walk or use public transport if you feel lighter. This will inevitably lead to you interacting with local people and finding out more about your destination. You can’t underestimate the sense of freedom when you can be flexible with your plans, make a last-minute connection or get from A to B in a hurry when you don’t have to factor in extra luggage. You’re also less likely to be a victim of crime when you know exactly where your luggage is, and you are traveling with a confidence that makes you look less vulnerable. Travel isn’t about what you travel with, but the memories you bring home.

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4 Comments

  • sally duffy said

    SOOOOOO disappointed you do not insure those age 70+
    I used your company in 2018 and when I tried to use again after I had turned 70....well you know.
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  • Clark Johnson said

    Traveling light is especially challenging for photographers who have extra equipment to bring along. The camera and lens(es) always come on the plane, usually in the carryon, leaving less space for everything else. If you think choosing clothes that can serve multiple purposes is hard, try choosing lenses for a trip!

  • Betsy Black said

    Any suggestions or thoughts regarding hiking poles in carryon language?

  • Erin C said

    Sally Duffy try Global Rescue ;-) and I am only a consumer with no financial ties to them

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