How to pack for a 2 week holiday with hand luggage only

I’m not known for being able to travel light. Yet equally, I hate handing over cash to companies unnecessarily and love avoiding tedious queues to collect bags.

Here are my tips to squidge a week or two’s worth of holiday luggage into a teeny carry-on bag. This works best for beach holidays – any trip requiring a suit or posh dress needs more creative packing to prevent creases.

Step 1: Take the right bag.

Getting the right bag is half the battle. Get it wrong and it could cost you a small fortune at the check-in desk. A quick tip for when airline staff are militantly checking sizes at check-in – put your bag upside down into the cage. You should be able to get it in and out much more smoothly. When choosing a bag to take, make sure it is:

  • The right size and weight. Baggage limits vary per airline, so it’s important to check with the airline you’re flying with. It can vary depending on the route too. Be extra vigilant if you have connecting flights, or are travelling there and back with different airlines.

    Some high street shops, including House of Fraser, have luggage checkers which will tell you if your suitcase fits width allowances. Of course this is meant for luggage you’re buying, but if you’re feeling brazen (and organised), take your packed suitcase for an outing to check it fits.

    Do remember to check the weight, too. Efficient packing means a denser, heavier case.

    Airline On-board baggage size? Weight allowance? Extra small handbag/laptop bag allowed? Extra duty-free bag allowed?
    Ryanair 55x40x20cm 10kg Either a small bag, or duty free carrier from 1 Dec 2013
    Easyjet 50x40x20cm By volume No Yes
    Flybe 55x40x23cm 10kg No Yes
    Jet2 56x45x25cm 10kg No tbc
    Thomson Airways 55x40x20cm 5kg No No

  • Soft bags are roomier

    Soft bags are roomier

    Material, rather than a hard case. This means you should be able to stuff more into it as it has a little more give.

  • Has pockets on the front. This ensures travel docs and liquids are easily accessible. You’re not usually allowed an extra handbag, so this means you don’t have to scrabble around while hordes of people tut behind you.

    Most airlines allow you to take a duty-free bag on board too. So you can factor that in and carry water, books and toiletries in it.

Step 2: Plan your wardrobe, day by day.

Preparation is key. I like to collect everything I think I want to take on holiday in the week leading up. I then do a massive, ruthless cull to get rid of excess stuff. I find it really helps to plan day by day what you’re going to wear, otherwise you almost always take more than you need. And of course, make sure you check the weather forecast to help plan.

Create a capsule wardrobe that you can easily mix and match from. And try to take items made from synthetic fibres – they pack more easily, are light, and will dry far quicker than cottons if you need to wash them while away.

If going to a hot country, I always take a little bit of soap or these laundry papers so I can wash and rewear items. Do this along with the capsule wardrobe, and seven outfits can last two weeks.

Step 3: Plan a bulky on-board outfit.

For your on-board outfit, make sure it comprises your bulkiest, heaviest items. Yes, you might bake. But you can peel it off as soon as you get through the gate and onto the plane.

Use pockets to carry heavier items such as cameras, chargers, books and toiletries.

Step 4: Sort your liquids.

I decant my shampoos and other liquids into empty plastic containers holding up to 100ml. You can pick these up from Boots, or I’ve saved a few from travel-sized freebies over the year.

Any time there’s a deal on, I grab these Boots mini sun creams that are the perfect size for on board luggage. I managed to grab six of these for £5.49 – any deals are in the free, weekly email. And I always nab a couple of free travel-sized toothpastes from my dentist, or look out for freebies in MSE’s weekly email.

There are also lots of non-liquid alternatives you can try out. Swap cleanser for face wipes, shampoo for a bar of shampoo, perfume for solid perfume, body wash for soap and deodorant for body wipes. Personally I like to take small versions of what I already have as buying alternatives can work out expensive!

Do check the liquid limits allowed for your particular route. Some destinations consider contact lens solution, for example, a medical necessity and therefore allow you to take a full bottle. Ask with your airline if you’re not sure.

Above all, pack your liquids at the top so you can take them out easily for security.

Step 5: Minimise air, maximise space.

Fill your boots!

Fill your boots!

On some trips I’ve also used roll pack bags. Stick your stuff in and roll them to remove the air – they take up far less room but be careful as they can quickly add weight to your bag.

And make sure you don’t get the ones that require a vacuum, otherwise you may become unstuck at the other end.

Step 6: Pack your heaviest items at the bottom.

Pack heaviest items at the bottom, nearest the wheels. Fill shoes or any gaps with small items like scarves, chargers and underwear.

Step 7: Roll, DON’T fold.

This is the killer technique when it comes to compact travelling and has revolutionised my packing! There are other techniques travellers champion but this my preferred method for cramming as much in as possible.

Roll, don't fold

Roll, don't fold

Take each item of clothing, fold any sleeves in then roll as tightly as you can. With sheer, thin tops, I’ll bundle them together and then roll. Sounds easy, and it is, but you’ll be amazed at how much more you can fit in.
Any items that are slightly creased I hang in a steamy bathroom when I arrive.

Step 8: All else fails? Ask to put your baggage in the hold for free.

If you think you’re going to get caught out because your bag’s too big, ask staff if you can check it into the hold for free. Often when there’s a very busy flight, they’ll do it for nowt, but don’t rely on this.

Success stories from forumites

If you’re still not convinced you can do it, here’s some inspiration from forumites who have travelled with only on-board baggage!

We travelled for 4 weeks within America with just hand luggage each (a family of four).

American airline companies charge a lot for hold luggage! We might not have looked as glam, but we saved a fortune on fees.

Hotels out there are better set up with laundry facilities than over here.

“I manage 14-16 days every summer with Ryanair using just hand luggage, and that includes bits and pieces for self-catering, ie, cereal for first morning, tea, coffee, sugar, washing powder, tablets, dishwasher tablets, beach towel, etc.”

“I’ve flown a good few times with Ryanair on their cheapy cheapy flights and never paid for hold luggage. I have an expanding case that goes a fair bit bigger than cabin baggage, so for the 10 minutes I’m boarding I just wear as much as possible. I then stop the other side of the gate and take off my cardigan, 2 hoodies and coat (all with pockets stuffed full of underwear and socks) and repack.

“I did, however, make the schoolboy error if buying my case in florescent pink rather than black, which means I stick out like a sore thumb and get stopped every single time when boarding. Never a problem and my case WILL fit in their cage, but I’ve always noticed people with HUGE black cases wheeling past me smugly while a poor flight attendant is sweating, trying to shove my case into the checker cage while saying ‘I’m sure it’ll go in’. I’ve never had hand luggage weighed though – that IS when I’d come a cropper!

“So my tips are: take a black case to blend in, wear as much as possible, fill your pockets, and last but not least – if they do stop you and make you use the cage to check the size of your carry-on case, then put it in UPSIDE DOWN. The bottom of your bag or the wheels is usually widest, so upside down will ‘funnel’ it into the cage. It’s hard work getting it out again but at least you’re in! “

“We always wear light jackets with as many pockets as possible. Put sandwiches, water, etc, for the flight in pockets, along with paperbacks, rolled-up socks and undies, and any food items that will fit in them.

“Never needed towels as they’re provided just about everywhere. We can easily pack enough to last a week in the hand luggage this way.”

“Last year we went to Spain for a week and had three lots of hand luggage for the four of us as we had an 18-month-old. We managed it by only taking what we really needed – my other half could only take two pairs of shoes!”

“We use compression sacks. They help keep the weekend bags from bulging. Stick to a lightweight capsule wardrobe – my short-haul kit is all colour coordinated.

“I have trousers that can be zipped off into shorts in no time, I also leave the denim at home and stick with linen and lighter cottons (roll them up and they stay pretty crease-free). We often leave things like shampoo and shower gel at home and just pick some up at our destination.

“But I do always take a tube of travel wash. A lot of hotels charge for beach towels (a bugbear of mine), we have some microfibre ones from a camping shop – a fab investment.”

Please share your thoughts below, in the forum discussion or tweet me your tips & successes @archieluthra.