hand luggage only

Anyone who has ever travelled with me knows that I always travel light, in most cases, with only a carry-on bag. If I can swing it, I’ll travel with hand luggage only for a faster, stress-free experience. Checking in a bag means you can carry more with you and you don’t have to lug your bag around increasingly bigger airports. However, my past experiences with lost and/or damaged bags outweigh these benefits. Furthermore, I prefer having my bag with me especially when connecting flights are involved – tight or missed connections may lead your bag to go astray. This particular experience prompted me to travel with hand luggage only:

Lost & damaged

“Ladies and gentlemen, we will soon begin our descent and expect to land in twenty minutes”, announced the Captain. “I’m afraid I have some good news and some not-so-good news. The good news is: as you may have noticed, we’re more than an hour ahead of schedule. This is due to favourable winds and a lighter-than-expected aircraft. The not-so-good news is: due to a systems malfunction at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, most bags could not be loaded onto the aircraft. We made the decision to depart as it was clear that the malfunction would not be solved quickly and we didn’t want to risk a lengthy delay.” I sighed and looked around. There were, unsurprisingly, many annoyed faces.

Upon arrival in Cape Town, I went straight to the customer service desk and filled in some forms. I suspected that it was going to be a cumbersome process to get my bag back as I would be travelling around South Africa for nine days, not staying in one place for more than two days. Over the next few days, I made do with toiletry kits provided by the hotels and a few clothes I bought during a quick dash to a Woolworths store and a jumper I purchased at the Apartheid Museum shop.

Cape Town

True enough, I finally received my bag six days later. When I found it in my hotel room, I was surprised to find it tightly-wrapped in plastic. I tore through the plastic and discovered the reason: the zippers and padlock were missing so the bag could not be closed. Thank goodness I’d only packed clothes, an extra pair of shoes and my toiletry bag. It was clear that the clothes had been hurriedly thrown into the bag. A few pieces of clothing were missing. I kicked myself (for the umpteenth time) for not travelling with hand-luggage only.

A selfie from that South Africa trip. I’m wearing a t-shirt from Woolworths and a jumper from the Apartheid Museum.

That experience in South Africa made me decide not to travel with checked luggage whenever possible. Not only did my bag arrive six days late, it was damaged beyond repair and personal items were missing. The airline I travelled with (KLM) kindly compensated me for all clothing and other items I purchased in South Africa, as well as for the missing clothing AND a brand new bag.

How to travel with hand luggage only

Nowadays, I travel with a carry-on bag only on all trips shorter than a week. If I’m going to a warm place, I would even try to stretch it to two weeks as I wouldn’t need thick jackets or sweaters (which are heavier and take up more space). Here are a few tips for how to travel with only a carry-on bag:

  • Ensure you have a bag that fits airlines’ cabin bag size restrictions. In most cases, this is 55cm x 20cm. I prefer soft-shell (nylon) trolleys (link to Amazon.com) as they tend to be lighter. I avoid the spinner bags (with four wheels) as they never stay still on a sloping surface. Furthermore, the protruding wheels make them more susceptible to damage.
  • Make sure you have a carry-on bag that can be locked (either a combination lock or a padlock). This ensures that you can easily check your bag if you have to (for example, if you’re bringing a bottle of wine, olive oil or any other liquid souvenir home with you). In addition, considering the rise of in-flight theft, I recommend locking your bag, especially if your have a laptop or other electronic equipment packed in it. If you store your laptop in an outer compartment, make sure that compartment can be locked too.
  • Weigh your bag before you leave – ensure it’s not more than 8kgs (most airlines’ weight limit). Having a lighter bag (mine is 2kgs) means you can carry more items. If you need to carry an extra pair of shoes or jacket, wear the heavier one and pack the lighter one. If you’re travelling with a laptop (which adds weight), carry it separately if possible (most airlines accept laptop cases/bags as a separate item in addition to your carry-on bag).
  • Ensure you stay within liquids restriction limits. The toiletry or plastic bag should be transparent, not more than 1 liter in size and all liquids, pastes and gels should be in packaging no bigger than 100ml. I always have four standard items in my toiletry bag: toothpaste, face wash, moisturiser and deodorant. If you have more items that you can’t do without, consider leaving out items which can be purchased at your destination, such as sunscreen, shampoo or toothpaste, to create extra room.
  • Maximise the space in your bag. Wear your bulkiest clothing, roll your clothes and pack them tightly (the expert packers would argue that bundling clothes saves even more space), wrap your belt(s) around your rolled-up clothes, pack your shoes in a ’69’ position (gosh, that sounds hmm… you know! Haha!), use a spectacles case to store small items and insert the case into a shoe, and keep your toiletry bag as flat as possible (and preferably stored in an outer compartment of the bag).
  • Make the airport security process as easy as possible by packing your laptop and toiletry case in outer compartments of your bag. These have to be removed from the bag and placed in trays at the scanning machine.

Are you a hand luggage or checked luggage traveller, and why? Feel free to share your packing tips in the comments section below.

Check out my Travel Resources page for more travel tips and advice.


14 Responses

  • Thats’s Awsome! It’s really very difficult to travel with hand-luggage. But these ideas are actually very informative. Thanks for this post.

  • I prefer travelling with hand luggage. You have more control and you can make your getaway from the airport so much faster and begin exploring. That sounds like a nightmare about your suitcase, I would be very angry if that happened to me

  • I have had too many times where they have “misplaced” my luggage. My wife is very new to traveling abroad and I would like for her to understand the pains without having them herself.

    I am totally sharing this with her so that we can both be hand luggage only travelers like yourself.

    Thank you!

  • I travelled with hand luggage only last week for the first time – what a revelation! So much simpler and I will be doing it again!

  • I lost my baggage thrice in my last 10 travels and hence i decided to travel only with my hand luggage which is very easy. I would recommend this for all the solo travelers.

  • Hi Dorota,
    Thanks for your comment. Your experience sounds very familiar – and I learned that lesson too! One time, I went for a wedding and my bag didn’t arrive with me. I had to quickly buy some proper clothing for the wedding and some extra clothing; good thing I did that because my bag only arrived after the wedding. Since then, if I’m checking a bag in, I always carry an extra set of clothing in my carry-on.


  • I travel with hand luggage whenever I can too! Once I went on a business trip, all fancy clothes in my checked luggage. My flight was delayed so I only had 15 minutes to catch the next one. I managed but my bag – obviously, didn’t so I arrived to my destination with almost nothing! I already had visions of going to my business meeting in my comfy sport leggins I traveled in… luckily my bag arrived in the evening on the same day. But since then I always keep a change of clothing for the next day and some essentials in my carry-on and try to avoid checked luggage whenever possible.

  • Hi Natalia,
    Thanks for your comment. I really admire how you manage to travel with hand luggage only with a child! Amazing!


  • It’s been 6 years since we decided to travel with hand-luggage. Fortunately we haven’t experienced loss of our belongings, but some friends have, it was enough for me to decide to change my packing style. Not even having a child made us change the way we travel with exclusively with cabin luggage. We had one exception recently, coming back from Japan. Since I bought a knife, it couldn’t be hand luggage. I was happy to find my bag upon arrival, with my knife inside.

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