How do you travel? Are you a fill-your-luggage-to-the-max and take everything you may conceivably need with you or do you manage to pack a carry-on only? Our queen of packing guides us through Hacking the Packing with advice, tips and gear on hand luggage only on any trip.
The great hand luggage debate is on between Carry-on Queen and Max-it-out Man. They both share some insights into their packing – carry on only versus using your full luggage allowance. We also review 3 types of hand luggage options that will make queues at baggage reclaim a thing of the past.
It is absolutely possible to travel hand luggage only, with the general carry-on size of 56 cm (22 inches) tall, 45 cm (18 inches) wide and 25 cm (10 inches) deep packed to about 8- 10kg for anywhere between a couple of days to an extended trip with kids. Especially, as most premium airlines will allow for an additional small bag that fits under the seat in front of you. It all comes down to selective and clever packing.
Packing cabin baggage only for a family trip
Why travel hand luggage only with a family?
Imagine going on a 3 week holiday with 3 children and only taking hand luggage! Is it even possible?
Of course, it is!
Travelling light, with cabin bags only, can often make travel cheaper, faster and easier.
It’s great to walk off the plane and walk straight out to your onwards transport. There is no waiting around at the luggage belt and no need to worry whether your bags arrive intact.
Though you will have to master the art of packing:
How to pack carry-on only with kids?
1. Lay out all you think you need
First, lay out all that you think you need onto a bed or the floor. And now take away half of it…at least!
To pack light, you will need to take only the essentials and be ruthless about this.
Most places have hair dryers, most places have washing facilities and if you absolutely need something then you can probably buy it locally and then donate it.
2. Rules of threes
My packing mantra goes by the rules of threes-
- an item to wear,
- a back up and
- one that is washed and drying.
I always take something dressy and a couple of accessories, like a scarf or shawl, a few items of jewellery.
The same applies for kids. For babies and toddlers account for spills and leaks. I adopted a rule of 2 x threes, with some of the back up clothes packed I have tried to go with items that more than one child could wear. e.g. a loose pair of trousers that would belong trousers for the baby and capri pants for my toddler, but also fit my oldest, out of nappies, as 3/4 lengths.
3. Choosing what to pack
The criteria for the clothes chosen for me or the kids is that they are:
• quick-drying (i.e. very little cotton. Opt for microfleece rompers for babies when possible)
• mostly wrinkle-free and
• can be mix and matched into different outfits.
4. What shoes to pack and how many?
Shoes are perhaps the most difficult to decide on, especially if you have tricky feet.
Our choice of shoes is governed by the type of trip and the destination we are going to. I will always have a comfortable, slip-on, closed-toed type shoe that is good for walking around, for the plane and may double up as my “dressy shoe”. The kids all have similar, often laced or velcro closed, but not obvious trainers.
For a long weekend, I will wear a pair and pack one extra pair of shoes.
For a longer holiday, I will take 1-2 additional pairs of shoes (often adding an additional pair of really light flip flops) per person. For our family of 5 this quickly adds up to 15-20 pairs.
If we have some hiking planned, then depending on the terrain, we’ll take hiking sandals or hiking boots. Hiking sandals (with closed toes) for better-defined trails if it’s going to be 20C plus, boots for rough terrain, whatever the temperatures forecast.
In the winter, a pair of decent boots (hiking or snow boots) that cope with wet, cold and have a good grip.
TIP: wear the bulkiest shoe for travel, but have your comfy pair handy to slip them on for the flight itself.
4. Liquids and sharps
Travelling hand-luggage only, it’s important to keep in mind the ‘maximum 100ml liquid and gel limits’ and ‘no sharp items in the bags’ rules.
We decant lotions and potions into smaller travel containers instead of shelling out premium prices for travel-sized packs. We have also started using soap and shampoo bars to save on size and plastic.
We tend to carry water bottles that we empty before security and then fill up from a suitable source in the lounge-either the tap or a large bottle of water. I have now added a Lifestraw to our kit, as it makes drinking water out of any water coming from a tap (and actually from sources you wouldn’t think were suitable for drinking too.)
I tend to have a pair of nail clippers and a small children’s pair of blunt scissors with me in my cosmetics bag.
5. Toys, games and in-flight entertainment
Ah, I hear you cry out: what about all the toys the kids need to keep them occupied?
Here are some principles around choosing toys:
Firstly, let’s look at it this way, the more you take, the more you have to look after and the more that has a chance to get lost.
Only ever take one precious toy per child. All other toys should not bring your child’s world down if get lost.
Similarly, don’t take anything which has lots of small parts to it, like LEGO or Playmobile. Travel games are ok, because they usually come in a well-contained box.
Things like pencils can be shared.
A notebook each is a good idea for kids 2 years old an over. Stickers to go with these are good for younger kids.
The main principle is to keep it to as few items as possible, as light as possible and as versatile as possible.
For example, can the favourite teddy double up as a pillow and if it’s that big, make sure you have away to carry it, when you also have a sleepy child to carry. (Like straps to hook it onto your child’s backpack, etc.)
Choosing the Right Bag for Carry-on
There are, generally, 3 styles of carry-on bags: the pull-along suitcase, the rucksack and the hybrid, the pull-along rucksack. Choosing the right bag for the right trip is important. Our favourites have one key factor in common: taking as little as possible of airline weight allocation.
The suitcase cabin bag
Our choice of pull-along suitcase is super lightweight and space-efficient.
If I know we are staying in one location and I don’t have to carry the bag a lot I will choose our IT luggage – a simple wheelie suitcase, the lightest with the most capacity, that has stood up to battering extremely well in the past 4 years.
This suitcase has a wide handle, giving it a fantastic internal packing space. For around £30 at George or Matalan, you really can’t go wrong.
It comes in a variety of colours and designs. We have one with a pug on the front and have been asked a couple of times now, whether that is our dog on the suitcase. (No, it isn’t.) This is the one that travelled to Aruba for a week.
The Rucksack Hand Luggage
The backpack is a lightweight option, ergonomic for carrying around and keeping your hands free to hold the kids’ hands.
On a trip that involves lots of walking, hopping on and off public transport, uneven streets, we reach for our rucksacks.
I love my Osprey rucksack for comfort and fit. The Osprey Farpoint 40, Osprey’s flagship carry-on travel backpack, packs like a duffel bag, with a large opening zip, but has a ventilated back panel and hip belt for better weight distribution. It comes in two sizes for different torso sizes and contoured shoulder straps add to the comfort. The internal and external compression straps help hold the contents in place and adjust the bag in case you manage not to fill it.
The most expensive of our choice at £100.
The Hybrid Carry-on
The hybrid is a wheelie bag that can convert to a backpack, with comfortable backpack straps. It’s not the lightest, but great value for the versatility offered.
For trips that involve more public transport, uneven surfaces, but where we can pull the bag along most of the time, I opt for the IKEA Upptäcka pull-along rucksack.
This bag is the heaviest of our carry-on options – weighing 3.14kg-, and for the very picky airlines may be considered over the dimensions at 58 cm high. However, the Upptäcka makes up for these shortfalls with it’s versatility: zip-away straps, zip-off daysack (perfect for laptop, gadgets and small bit and pieces) and the price-of £45 for IKEA family members.
Another feature I, and our neighbours, appreciate, especially leaving very early or arriving late at night- the wheels are rubbery and a lot quieter than most. Our companion on our Sri Lankan trip.
Top tip: keep the contents of your carry-on organised with stuff sacks & pack cubes. Nothing fancy or expensive, just as light as possible. You can use some drawstring bags or even IKEA pack cubes.
An Interview with the “Max-it-out Man”
We all know someone like this, right? Someone who wants to take everything! Well, he lets us in on a little secret today. (Thanks Travelled So Far Mum for sharing this story!)
The first holiday I went on with my girlfriend, now wife, we were off on our long weekend to Paris. She arrived at my house with a small roll-on suitcase. I had my normal suitcase full of everything that I could possibly need. She looked at me like I was crazy.
“Why the huge suitcase? Do you not have anything smaller?” she asked.
“No!”, I replied, “it’s full of everything I need!”
I don’t think she closed her mouth for a couple of minutes in dismay.
“We’re only going for 3 nights, I think I took less stuff than that when I went to live in Costa Rica for 3 years!”, she eventually said.
Let me explain my packing logic: I like to be prepared for all occasions and follow my parents’ example, who’ve taught me well. I take a set of day-time clothes and then a set of clothes to change into for the evening… for each and every day and some spare.
On that first trip, I really wanted to impress my girlfriend so I planned to take her to nice restaurants and bars. I needed to look smart! Of course, I took a shirt, tie, dress trousers and extra smart shoes!
Our next trip, sailing in the Caribbean, I was told no hard suitcases and to try and take as little as possible – we would be sailing.
My fiancé, by then, arrived with this tiny backpack that she claimed had everything she could need in it for 2 weeks on board the boat and I lugged my old dive bag full of my everything I could conceivably need.
We arrived on the boat and I started to unpack. My swim clothes: 3 sets in case they didn’t dry in time, 14 pairs of underwear, 14 t-shirts, 5 pairs of shorts, a pair of jeans, trainers, sweater- in case I got cold-, waterproofs- in case of a storm. Hats to go with my different outfits. A pair of trousers and a couple of smart shirts. Then all of my essential wash bag stuff and razors, sun cream, some books, music, magazines. Ohhh and a pair of sailing gloves which I almost forgot while putting everything else in!
My fiancé unpacked in 2 minutes: a couple of swim suits, pair of shorts, some t-shirts, 2 summer dresses, sarong and flip flops. And that was about it!
I was perplexed: Why did she had so little stuff compared to me?
It took me 15 minutes to unpack and more to keep it tidy daily.
Truth be told, I didn’t need half of the stuff and when my fiancé started to quickly handwash clothes on an evening, peg them out to dry, putting them back on the next morning I saw some logic.
We’ve been on many holidays since then: Our honeymoon, the first trip as a family with baby and bump and many more as a family of 4.
I still max-out my luggage, she still doesn’t I take many extras.
I like my way; having everything just in case. Even, if I’m honest, 9 times of out 10, I won’t use most of it at all. But shhhhh….. don’t tell her! I might just carry on as it drives her crazy!
And maybe I will need the shirt and tie in Orlando!