Leader of the (carry-on) pack: top tips for travelling light

Travel light and reduce the risk of your checked luggage being lost or delayed.

By David Flynn, August 16 2022
Leader of the (carry-on) pack: top tips for travelling light

There’s nothing like the freedom of flying with only one or two carry-on bags as your travel companion.

No checked luggage to slow you down. No standing around waiting at baggage carousels or, worse, having your bags go missing in action – or somehow end up on the other side of the world (a scenario where Apple AirTags prove very handy!)

You can walk straight off the plane, out of the airport and be on your way to your hotel, a meeting or pre-dinner drink.

Here are some smart yet simple ways to leave your cumbersome checked luggage behind and pack like a travel pro.

There's nothing like the freedom of becoming a 'carry-on' only flyer.
There's nothing like the freedom of becoming a 'carry-on' only flyer.

Write a packing list

It sounds basic, but putting down on paper everything you need is the first step to more efficient packing.

That’s to avoid packing everything you think you need – especially when it comes to your clothes – and keeping a laser focus on what you actually need.

Paring back your wardrobe, ideally to the point of a ‘capsule wardrobe’ of versatile mix-and-match pieces, helps keep the bulk out of your bag.

Shirts, tops and jackets

Invest in non-iron or crease-resistant cotton business shirts and tops from quality brands and retailers.

Avoiding cheap wrinkle-free material where artificial fibres can prevent the clothes from breathing, leaving you uncomfortable and sweaty before the day is done.

And while the space-saving technique of rolling shirts remains incredibly efficient, it’s better to fold them the same way as seen in department stores.

If possible, don’t put your suit jacket in your bag: wear it onto the flight, then have it hung in the wardrobe or gently folded and stowed in an overhead locker.

In economy, place it on top of your carry-on luggage instead of beside it, to avoid other passengers shoving their bag in and scrunching up your jacket.

Two steps in the smart way to fold your jacket.
Two steps in the smart way to fold your jacket.

If packing your jacket, there’s a clever trick of folding one of the shoulders of your suit jacket inside the other to avoid wrinkles: check out the step-by-step guide at Black Lapel.

(Adding a rolled-up T-shirt in the final half-fold will also prevent a crease from developing down the middle of the jacket.)

Shoes

Shoes take up a lot of room in your cabin bag, so keep them to a minimum on short trips.

Choose one pair of shoes to wear on the plane as well as to meetings and dinners – yes, that’s a tough call, especially for women! It requires shoes which look sharp yet are exceptionally comfortable (I find Ecco is a brand that deftly merges comfort and style).

If you need two pairs, wear one on the flight and pack the other in your bag: and then make use of the space inside those packed shoes for your rolled-up socks, a small bag with your cufflinks or jewellery or other loose items.

Use packing cubes and garment folders

Lightweight packing cubes won’t necessarily save a lot of space in your cabin bags, but they don’t take up any more space – and they’ll certainly make it easier to keep everything together when it comes to packing, unpacking and repacking.

Garment folders add the benefit of keeping your carefully-folded tops and pants from getting crumpled in transit.

Garment folders and packing cubes help keep your clothes organised and uncrumpled.
Garment folders and packing cubes help keep your clothes organised and uncrumpled.

Toiletries

Keeping liquids, aerosols and gels to under 100ml is a given for overseas trips but also a good guideline for flights within Australia.

Next time you buy a fragrance or skin-care lotion, ask if they can throw in some free samples – those smaller tubes or sachets can be ideal for quick trips.

Conventional wisdom is to never pack a toiletry bag with items that the hotel can supply, but there are many sensible exceptions to that rule.

Many women prefer to bring a small bottle of their own shampoo or conditioner, lest the hotel’s product give their hair that crazed crack-addict look.

I always bring my own razor, having learnt from nicked, rashed and bloodied experience not to trust a hotel’s largely price-driven choice.

Tame your travel tech

Over the years, I seem to be carrying a lot more tech than before – and every item adds bulk.

One way I trimmed that back was to invest in a gallium nitride (GaN) charger that’s significantly smaller than the AC adaptor which came with my laptop, as well as sporting USB-A and USB-C sockets for my phone, tablet and headphones, so this one charger replaces several.

Compact GaN chargers are a game-changer for the tech-toting traveller.
Compact GaN chargers are a game-changer for the tech-toting traveller.

If you’re still carrying around a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, it’s probably time to swap them for smaller noise-cancelling earbuds – either super-compact wireless ones, or wired in-ear models.

Don’t pack it, send it

Burdened by a bag-full of brochures or samples to hand out to clients you'll meet on your trip?

Instead of carting those "leave behind” materials with you as Evil Checked Luggage, have them sent directly from your office to the hotel via courier or parcel post. 

What are your top tips for travelling light and making the most of your carry-on luggage?

29 Nov 2021

Total posts 2

I do wonder about packing cubes.  I have tried using them for about 5 years (not for a few recent years).  They are way more organised, but I do think they clearly use a dash more space and require you to have a load of rectangular things to fit in your bag, rather than a random space to fill the case.
My mother - no tetris player - will fit in her xmas parcel packing style a tardis-load of items that fit perfectly.  She is leagues ahead of me. 

I was initially very skeptical of packing cubes, but I picked some up from Amazon, good value and figured if I didn't like them I wasn't losing much. But I find they're fantastic for the reasons cited in the article. Sure, I can survive without them, but they do keep everything organised and for shirts and trousers they definitely keep them tidy.

05 Mar 2015

Total posts 388

+1 for those GaN chargers. Mine is smaller than the one that came with my MacBook Air but it's rated for full power plus it has USB ports for charging other devices. Also I bought a 'multi-plug USB cable' which has three leads for outputting to Lightning, USB-C and micro USB, so there's less cable clutter too.

Any recommendations on brands?

03 Jun 2019

Total posts 19

Anker and Sharge are pretty decent. I like Anker for the compact size and Sharge for the global adapter kit. Two USB-C ports, that's all I need for charging my laptop, phone and power banks.

QF

11 Jul 2014

Total posts 834

Interesting article, people I speak with say they can do 4 weeks away with carry on the problem is when there/your partner packs every possible option just in case ….

20 Oct 2015

Total posts 235

Four weeks with carry on only? The most I could ever manage would be a few days, of course it depends on the climate and also if it's a business trip or a holiday, but on my average business trip with a day off, anything more than four days would be pushing it!

QF

11 Jul 2014

Total posts 834

4 weeks of beach / pool holiday, 1 week of work, 2 weeks of cold weather. Even in the Swiss Alps (Just Done) at the moment you don’t need to layer up.

I’ve done five weeks with hand luggage only - it’s possible!

27 Aug 2021

Total posts 2

1/Buy the lightest carry on bag you can afford .

2/ Wrinkle free synthetic polos from Uni Clo, and also their Puffer Jackets with come with their own pouch . ( straps on your belt)

3/ Wear any heavy clothing onto the plane and get them to hang them up.

4/ Halve what you think you need. Most people will only see you once , so wearing the same shirt 3 times in a week isn't a problem. 

06 Feb 2021

Total posts 53

About to head off next Wed for six weeks in Switzerland, much of it walking in the mountains.  Will only be taking a cabin luggage sized wheely bag, plus a day pack, each. Total weight, including the bags, will be around 12kg for each of us. Unfortunately, one bag will have to be checked in as the aluminium walking poles (collapsible,) probably wouldn't get through security as hand luggage.  We've done six weeks in Europe during November and December, travelling to lots of Christmas market, just with  carry on sized bags, it's easier then than in Spring or Autumn, as you only need clothes for one season.  Just what you need, not what you think you might need, and wash any clothes that need it in the evening before going to bed. With the hydronic heating most places have in Europe, they'll be dry in the morning. I take two pair of moleskin style trousers, one's packed, the other I am wearing, ditto two jumpers, etc. The first time we did that trip, the expression on the face of the person checking us in was priceless, looked at the tickets for destination, length of trip, then back at the two cases on the scales, combined weight, 14kg...... 

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

12 Dec 2013

Total posts 14

It seems a lot of hassle just to avoid having to stand for a few minutes to collect a case at the other end?  I do believe the priority tags work to some degree(QFF Plat) and only twice in 25 odd years did my bags not get on the plane.  Given flights can be delayed for many reasons its not like I cant wait 20 min for a bag.  

Everyones priorities(and past experiences) are different but for me the benefits of not wearing clothes multiple times, not washing clothes in a sink and drying them plus having options for all occasions far outweights a short delay collecting a bag.

09 Aug 2015

Total posts 91

Like you I've only had a bag go missing twice, all the same I do like to not have to stand around waiting and waiting and then get caught in the same crush of passengers with their bags, plus other flights that might arrive in those 10-30 minutes. It all adds up.  But yes, "options for all occasions" are nice to have!

My thoughts on carry on luggage:

1. Black covers a multitude of sins — dark grey even more. Dark neutrals are your friend when you pack light. 

2. Packing cubes: YES! Point to note: never ever black (you won’t see them in a dark suitcase). I got some from July Luggage in a light rusty colour, bright enough to find easily. 

3. If you’re going somewhere cold and you need a coat, the coat doubles as a blanket (why are planes so damn cold?), so don’t pack it, wear or carry it.

4. As the old saying goes, there are two kinds of luggage: carry on, and lost. That’s been reaffirmed in the last few weeks (I’m looking at you, Heathrow).

09 Aug 2015

Total posts 91

One thing I pack in my hand luggage is a collapsible soft fabric bag, because if I go shopping at my destination I can easily put those goodies into the extra bag, and sometimes check that for the return flight or sometimes just carry it on board, at least in business class many airlines don't mind if you have a laptop bag and cabin bag and something else.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

09 Jun 2017

Total posts 21

I really don't get the carry-on obsession. Yes having luggage delayed is a hassle but my experience in 30+ years of travel, much of it being international, is that I have had just 4 such events and 2 of those were arriving back home. The other 2 were with very short transits that I was aware could be a problem ahead of the trip so planned for worse case and packed my next day of clothes in my carry-on. My suitcase always has everything I need and will be under 20kg. No need to re-wear shirts (wearing a business shirt for more than 1 day should be a criminal offence) or wash and iron them. I would much rather be out on my morning run than frantically drying and ironing clothes for the day for the sake of 15 or 20 minutes after my flight arrival waiting at the luggage carousel. Also in regard to the carry-on obsession, I do get very frustrated with my fellow travelers when they appear to pack their worldly possessions into their rollaboards. If its too big to go under the seat in front, you are not tall enough to reach the overhead lockers or strong enough to lift your case above your head please don't expect someone else to lift it for you. It's an OH&S nightmare that I see every time I travel. Gate checking should be enforced for these bozos and then they can wait at the luggage carousel with the rest of us. 


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