Travelling Light: How to Pack Hand Luggage Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Travelling Light: How to Pack Hand Luggage

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An overfilled suitcase.

In these days of enhanced security and budget airlines, travelling light has become an art form.

Are you one of those holidaymakers who, arriving at the airport check-in desk, has bulging suitcases and over-stuffed hand-luggage? Or are you a sophisticated traveller with one smart cabin bag? Have you ever found yourself in a state of nervous anticipation before your bags are weighed? Do you know the cost of excess baggage1? Never fear, h2g2, being the froody place it is, can offer you many hints and tips to alleviate this travelling tension.

Start with the Case Itself

It's obvious really, when you think about it: bags weigh something, even when empty. If your allowance is 20kg and your suitcase weighs 5kg, then you are going to be limited to 15kg of actual contents. The same arithmetic applies to your cabin bag. Therefore, shop around. And don't rely on your guestimated feel of whether one case is lighter than another - take some scales. You can buy these in the high street; look for a little spring-loaded scale with a hook underneath to hang your case by its handle. This scale will be worth its purchase cost, as it saves you from penury in the check-in queue. You may also find that the more reputable and forward-thinking bag manufacturers have labels which state the weight of their cases.

If you are desperate, there is no need to have cabin luggage that is actually 'luggage'. Use a cloth bag that weighs virtually nothing. As long as the dimensions of the bag, when full, do not exceed those stated in the terms and conditions of the airline in question, you can take any sort of bag with you. Choose a sturdy one with sufficiently strong handles as you are going to pack it with all your important valuables.

Likewise, you do not have to take a suitcase in order for your belongings to be placed in the hold. You may find that a sturdy and well-sealed cardboard box is more useful, especially if you are travelling on a one-way ticket.

What to Take and What to Leave Behind

Seriously, buy that extra paperback or tub of hair gel once you reach your destination, it will cost you far less than the price of excess baggage. Unless you're visiting the outer fringes of society, hair products, toothpaste and so on are on sale in most destinations. Or, think about how much shampoo you actually use during a normal week - double it2 and then decant some of your personal brand of choice into the little travel bottles now obtainable in most pharmacies.

Shoes are another heavy item that are worth considering carefully. Can you find shoes or sandals that will team up with more than one outfit? Unless you are invited to a particular formal occasion when away from home, such as a wedding, shoes that are intended to be worn just the one time should not find their way into your case. If you are desperate to take heavy shoes with you, then wear them, don't pack them.

To sum up, ensure that every item is considered. Is it essential? Can you buy the item cheaply when you arrive at your destination?

How to Pack

Just a reminder that if you are taking a check-in bag - ie a suitcase that goes into the aircraft's hold - as well as your hand-luggage, then plan to fill the suitcase firstly with the sorts of items that are not allowed inside the cabin. Then use the scales to adjust accordingly. It is ever so embarrassing to have to unpack your hold bags in front of tutting strangers in the check-in queue, whilst you root about for something heavy to put into your underweight hand luggage.

Travelling with Hand-luggage Only

You are either a jet-setter with homes in two continents, and not much time to spend in the queues at the luggage carousel, or you are travelling with one of the budget airlines that encourage you to take the minimum amount of luggage, thereby reducing their overheads with less costs for baggage-handlers. Either way, understanding what you are allowed to take, and how best to make the most of your minimal weight allowance, is important to making your journey hassle-free. You will be content in the knowledge that you will arrive at your destination with just enough belongings to enjoy your stay.

So - you need to write a checklist, and start assembling the contents of your bag. Note that this is bag singular; handbags are not an additional option.

The Handbag

It's no good thinking that you can take that large overstuffed capacity container that you haul everywhere3. If you use one of these, now is the time to empty it onto your bed and pile up all the essentials into one heap - then go through this again until you are clear in your mind that everything in this ultimate collection is absolutely necessary for your holiday.

Do you really need:

  • Heavy bunches of keys - just take your house key, remove the set of keys to the dungeons, the garage and the outhouses.

  • All your loose change from your purse4 (indeed buy a smaller purse if yours is one of the wallet types. Retain just enough to use for vending machines and parking meters that you expect to encounter.

  • Any gels, liquids or sharp items that you won't be allowed to take through the security checks.

  • Your make-up bag will also need to be heavily edited, and this is where you need to be ruthless - just how much eyeliner/mascara/foundation/moisturiser are the absolute essentials? A tip here, for foundation and moisturiser, is to use those teeny samples that your friendly salesgirl pressed into your hand the last time you spent a fortune at her counter.

Things to remember

  • You will need a handbag of some sort whilst you are away, so you should look for the smallest, lightest one you can find. Make sure that it will fit inside the cabin bag.

  • Your mobile phone and charger.

  • Passport, tickets and other travel documents.

  • Your medication, and any prescription drugs.

  • Full driving licence if you are going to be hiring a car.

  • If you need to take a coat, you should plan to wear it while going through the check-in desk, not pack it into your capsule bag.

  • Wear your heaviest pair of shoes on the journey, as previously mentioned.

  • A few first aid items in case of emergency on your first night of arrival, before you find the local pharmacy.

  • Your essential bathroom products, ensuring that they are within the limits of the security regulations that are currently in place.

  • A selection of clothes for all eventualities - choose the ones that can double up with different outfits. If in doubt when choosing between two similar pieces of clothing, choose the least heavy one, and also the sort that will unpack without too many creases. Rolling T-shirts and other soft garments makes them easier to cram into corners and pad between breakable or awkward shaped items. Discard any jumpers that are only going to work with one set of clothes.

  • Don't forget to take something to sleep in, if you're staying overnight in a hotel, before you reach your final destination.


Okay, you will want to clean your teeth on the first night of arrival, and nipping out to the local supermarket is not an option before your head hits the pillow - so squeeze some toothpaste into the corner of a plastic bag, cut it down to size, fasten securely and add it to that plastic bag that will be X-rayed and sniffed5 by the Security staff.

Alternatively, you are an Ironman6 returning home, and your bicycle helmet is taking too much space in your hand luggage. So wear it. There is no rule against this. Just because it's not usual to see anyone with cycle headgear boarding a plane, doesn't mean that you pay excess baggage in order not to be stared at.

Before and After the Check-in Desk

Now you have a little puzzle. Your baggage allowance is 5kgs and you've still got a few more things to cram in. Here's a solution as recommended by a budget airline frequent flyer.

Wear your coat, and make sure all the pockets are stuffed with as many small, heavy items as possible, that otherwise would make your hand luggage overweight. Things such as your camera, phone charger etc. If it is small and heavy7, your coat pockets are ideal.

Once your bag has been weighed, you still need to go through security, where they will ask you to remove your coat so that it can be X-rayed, along with your pocket contents. So, if you're carrying a kilo of chocolate bars in your coat pockets don't be surprised by the look of studied boredom on the Security guys' faces. They've seen it all before.

Depending on your airline's terms and conditions, you will have to remember not to overfill your cabin bag by buying duty-free spirits, clothes and the many other temptations on offer in the departure lounge shopping mall. If your airline has indicated that only one bag will be allowed on board, do not chance your fortune by buying anything that will not fit within your limits.

One unfortunate couple found to their chagrin that their slightly larger cabin bags on the way home were refused at the aircraft doors, sent back to check-in and the couple then had to pay the inflated baggage hold price, which put a dampener on the end of an otherwise wonderful holiday. Otherwise, most airlines are relaxed about what airport purchases you can carry onto the plane, so now is your chance to buy additional supplies from that well-known High Street Chemist, once you have been through the weight and the security checks. Ensure that you leave enough time to find these essentials - as it is better to board your plane in plenty of time than to hunt down that last packet of antihistamine tablets.

You may want to save paying a huge sum of money for a simple bottle of water, so you may decide to take an empty container with you through the check-in, and then fill it with tap water before boarding the plane. Do make sure that the water you use is actually drinking water though, as not all hand basins provide potable water.

What to Leave Behind When your Holiday is Over

Your holiday or overseas trip has ended, and you have your eye on some wonderful local souvenirs. Do bear in mind that if your bag was packed to the gunnels on the way out, then you will have to decide whether you can sacrifice some of the contents on your return journey, to allow you space and weight allowance for that sentimental souvenir.

When I returned to Japan after a year's stay in England I used the postal service rather than pay the costs of excess baggage for all the things I couldn't bear to leave behind.

If sending things home through the post is not a viable option, then you will have to root out the things you'd not miss once you get home again. So, all the half-used toiletries, the paperbacks that you will never read again, and how about those old beach towels, that T-shirt that you're bored with, that pair of sandals that gave you a blister? Leave any books or clothing in a designated recycling container (ask at the hotel reception), not thrown in the refuse.


If all this weighing and deciding is just too stressful, then you could always consider a cruise or a coach tour for your next holiday where weight and size are of no concern whatsoever.

1The word 'excess' gives a clue here.2Everyone needs to wash their hair more often if they visit a beach and then intend to dance the night away. Shampoo can also double up as shower gel and be used to wash your clothes in an emergency.3This advice is mainly aimed at women. Manbags are also available.4This is a change purse in the USA.5The sniffing is done by a gadget inserted into the bag - not by the staff themselves.6A gruelling form of triathlon.7And allowed inside an aircraft, naturally.

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