By now, we’ve all read countless horror stories of endless lines and lost luggage at airports this summer.
And as a travel journalist, I’ve become an expert at packing for a long weekend. This got me thinking: can I pack for my summer vacation using only carry-on luggage?
Travelers with only carry-on bags can avoid checked baggage lines by checking in online and heading straight to security. Also, if your flight is cancelled, it’s much easier for the airline to transfer you directly to another if they don’t need to find your luggage somewhere in the airport system first.
I recently got a four night stay in Belfast with everything I needed – including my laptop – packed in a small backpack. This left me quietly confident that I could take on the challenge a whole week away.
However, to test the theory in a more scientific way, I gathered all the items I took with me on my recent seven-day trip to Croatia to see what I could and couldn’t fit into a suitcase the size of a carry-on.
What type of suitcase is best for my holiday carry-on?
There are two main factors to consider when it comes to deciding what type of bag to pack.
First, which airline are you traveling with? Low cost airlines such as easyJet and Ryanair now they only give you the equivalent of a small bag or 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 mini case with wheels, you will have to pay more. But if you go for a week or more, it’s probably worth shelling out a few euros more.
The second thing to consider is where are you going and what kind of vacation is it?
I just got back from a wonderful week in Croatia, exploring Dubrovnik and nearby islands.
During my trip, I discovered that it was probably a bad idea to take a wheeled suitcase to Dubrovnik. There are so many stairs in the city and it’s a real pain to carry a suitcase down them to get to your accommodation.
The same rule applies if your accommodation is above the second floor of an old building. Do yourself a favor and choose backpack style bags.
a small suitcase
A wheeled cart is a classic carry-on choice and something you probably already own. (You’ll see in the video above that mine is a little worse after a lot of adventures.)
A great way to keep your case organized and keep it from turning into chaos when you’re digging through a specific item is to invest in some packing cubes.
I opted for the Snugpak Pakbox which comes in 1, 2, 4 and 6 liter sizes. For my case I only have the 1, 2 and 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 night and city touring outfits. I would normally opt for a folding and stacking packaging technique (à la Marie Kondo), but as the cubes aren’t particularly deep, I’d advise you to roll your clothes.
2L is useful for underwear, pajamas and other delicates. In hindsight I would probably buy two of these if I wanted to avoid any random floating items in my case as I found there was no room for my beach covers.
Snugpak Pakboxes cost €8.50 – €12 depending on size.
The ideal travel backpack
If you’ve decided that a backpack will be your carry-on bag of choice, then look no further than the Tropicfeel Shell Bag.
What I love about this bag is that it has a travel wardrobe unit that folds up inside and can be hung up when you arrive. Just like packing cubes, it helps keep your things organized and makes it much easier to repack at the end of your trip.
It also has lots of extra attachments and pockets, and as a bonus, it looks pretty good.
I chose to add the toiletry bag accessory that attaches securely to the front of the backpack. It was quite small, but I was surprised to find that it could fit everything except my full-sized hairbrush.
Another feature I love is a hidden pocket at the bottom of the bag to keep shoes. If you are exploring and want to wear your flip flops and carry your bulkier boots, you can put them there. With this extended bit, it can make the suitcase too big for the carry-on dimensions, so be careful.
The Tropicfeel Shell bag starts at €215 and offers a range of add-ons and storage extras.
What are the essential items in hand luggage?
One of the biggest difficulties when traveling with just hand luggage is liquids. We need all sorts of goods to survive the holidays, 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 realize that you can carry an empty water bottle through security. Some airports have water sources but if not, bars and restaurants usually fill it for free.
I recently got my hands on a 500ml Halo Prima bottle – one of the most compact and lightweight insulated water bottles available. The size and weight make it perfect for light travel.
I took my bottle of Halo with me to Croatia where I spent many hot days in national parks or by the sea where there wasn’t necessarily a place to restock it.
Every day I filled a large uninsulated bottle and my Halo bottle with ice and water. The former kept me hydrated in the morning, but anything left over would be too hot 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 insect bites
If you’re like me, depending on your fate, being eaten alive by mosquitoes and mosquitoes it’s inevitable.
Although originally designed for children, Natural Patch’s mosquito repellent patches can also be used by adults.
They are made from natural essential oils and work by masking the CO2 we release from our bodies when we breathe. this is what mosquitoes use to find us.
According to Natural Patch, adults need 2-4 patches: one patch on clothing next to each exposed limb to enjoy a bite-free vacation.
If you accidentally leave a patch on your clothes, it won’t break in the wash and make a mess. They are not yet recyclable, but the brand encourages users to reuse them in arts and crafts with their children. (I don’t have kids, so currently my kettle is sporting a nice guy sticker.)
A pack of 60 Natural Patch stickers from €20.
You can’t go to the beach without a towel.
A towel is always difficult to fit when trying to pack light. But unless you’re staying at a to resortchances are you’ll need one to take to the Beach.
I’ve always been a bit skeptical of travel towels. My mom had a stranger who was like a foam flannel in the 90s that looked totally useless.
25 years later I thought I’d give them another chance and was pleasantly surprised by Decathlon’s Nabaiji Microfiber Pool Towels. I used the large and extra large sizes.
The big one is a great option if you have limited space and are only going to swim a bit on your vacation. It’s not huge, but there’s a lot of fabric to wrap completely. Frankly, it’s a lot bigger than some of the bath towels I had on my vacation. AirBnBs.
If you plan on spending days sunbathing on the beach, you’ll want the extra large. While it doesn’t fold up that small, once unfolded it’s so big that it’s perfect for laying on or using as a picnic blanket.
Both towels also have an elastic loop that makes them easy to hang to dry, but also wraps around them to keep them neatly tucked in your bag.
Decathlon’s Nabaiji microfiber pool towels cost €6-10 depending on size.
protect your skin
for the summer and skiing holidays, sunscreen is absolutely essential. If you have room in your bag, most stores now offer bottles the size of a miniature bag, or you can buy a larger one upon arrival at your destination. goes to the trash.
If you’re someone who wears makeup, you can cut down on your liquids by giving up your foundation for the holiday. Your skin will love being able to breathe and when you’re in the sun all day, it’ll have a lovely natural glow at night.
Also, when you come back, it’s likely that any blemishes you normally had will have cleared up.
Tips for packing light
Once you’ve decided which clothes you want to bring, choose your bulkiest outfit to wear on the plane. This will likely involve wearing your sneakers as flip flops take up much less space. As an added bonus, you will be much more comfortable.
One of my biggest tips for packing light clothing—and bear with me—is: pack more underwear than you think you need.
I know it might seem counterproductive to pack any item, but underwear doesn’t take up much space. If you’ve spent a day out in the heat and don’t have a lot of extra clothes to change, putting on some clean pants will help you feel instantly cooler. You’ll thank me for this tip, I promise.
Watch the video above to learn more about packing for your carry-on only vacation.