How to pack light for hand luggage only flights

Packing a suitcase

Packing should never be seen as just an incidental part of travel. In fact, it’s often the key to having a successful holiday, and some people would even argue that packing a suitcase well is a bit of an artform.

Deciding what to take and what to leave can make or break your trip, and certainly it still takes us a good few hours to pack before an adventure, even though we’ve been doing it for decades.

Some holidays involve internal flights on light aircraft, which means only one piece of hand luggage per person is allowed on the plane. We’ve had to whittle down our wardrobes whilst on safari in Kenya and South Africa, and on a recent trip to Sao Tome and Principe we each had just 15kg to play with.

Air Kenya flight to Masai Mara
There isn’t much room on light aircraft

If you’ve got a flight coming up with baggage restrictions, or just want to travel light, here are a few handy hints to help you get your minimal packing nailed. You’ll be surprised at just how much you can fit in one small carry on, and yes, it even works for month-long trips!

Use a light bag

Something a lot of people forget to take into consideration when packing for a hand luggage only flight is the weight of the bag itself. Forget about hard cases or chunky wheeled luggage. You need a light bag with minimal bells and whistles so that the bulk of your weight allowance can go on clothes and other essentials.

So, pick a soft material bag, and consider taking a backpack as these are easier to carry than suitcases. A flexible carry on is great for stuffing into overhead lockers or under your seat, as the fabric is more pliable than with a case.

Air Kenya domestic flight review
Take a holdall rather than a suitcase

Ditch the packing cubes

Normally, we’re huge fans of the packing cube, keeping our clothing together in separate compartments so its easily accessible when we arrive at the hotel. Yet when you only have a small piece of hand luggage to contend with, the cubes actually take up more room, and weight, than necessary.

Just pack your clothes directly into the holdall, using every inch of space available. I recommend taking a light laundry bag so you can keep your dirty garments separate from the clean stuff. Just because you’re going minimal doesn’t mean hygiene has to be compromised.

World map gifts - Kikkerland world map travel bag (laundry bag)
Pack a laundry bag to separate your dirty clothes

Pack floaty clothing

It will often be the case that your destination is going to be hot, maybe a tropical island or at least somewhere with sunny beaches. This is a blessing when you’re deciding what to pack as it means you can leave the heavy woolly jumpers and jackets at home. When it comes to lightweight yet fashionable women’s clothing, there’s a lot of choice out there. I’m a fan of floaty kaftans, sarongs, and leggings, none of which weigh very much. They can also be dressed up or down, so can be worn during the day as well as at night when you go out for dinner. I usually pack a scarf or pashmina too, which is a really versatile bit of clothing as well as a cover up for the sun.

View from our balcony at Hemingways Nairobi
Kaftans can be dressed up or down

Always wear your heaviest pair of shoes on the flight, as this won’t be counted in the weigh in. We tend to travel in our hiking boots for this reason, even though they don’t always look the part! Otherwise, it’s flipflops all the way. Take a lightweight showerproof jacket just in case the weather turns – one of those ones that packs away into a tiny pouch and can be stuffed in a handbag if necessary. That will also help when you arrive back home and discover it’s raining, or even snowing if you’ve travelled in winter!

Take some clothes-wash liquid

Rather than packing enough pairs of pants and socks to last your entire holiday, consider taking a small bottle of clothes washing liquid so you can do a bit of laundry now and then. Of course, many hotels offer this service, but often it’s very expensive or takes a couple of days to process, which isn’t always ideal if you’re on a tight schedule.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that in some countries, particularly in Africa, staff are unable to launder women’s underwear for cultural reasons. So you’ll have to wash these yourself anyway! Just remember to get your timings right – doing your laundry on the day you’re about to leave the place where you’ve been staying will mean you’ll probably have to carry wet clothes onto your next location. We always take a dry bag for these eventualities (which is also useful for transporting wet swimming gear).

Take laundry liquid to do some washing

Check what amenities are provided by your hotel

Most of the time, your accommodation will provide bathroom essentials like shampoo, shower gel, and sometimes even washing powder in the more upmarket establishments. The trick is to ask beforehand so you know what you can ditch. Even saving a few grams by leaving your soap at home will help.

Of course, you might not want to trust the fate of your hair to unknown hotel brands, so if you’re dead set on taking your own products, think about packing solid shampoo and conditioner. They take up far less space and you can take just what you need for your holiday. I’m a huge fan of solid shampoo and even use it at home on a daily basis. The bars last much longer than your average bottle, so even after a month I’m still using the same one. Try them out for a few weeks at home before you fly, just to let your hair get used to the new product, which is usually organic and totally chemical free.

Take some solid shampoo

Store your liquids together

You know that you’ll have to declare your liquids when passing through the airport scanners, so make your life easier by keeping them all together. You’ll need a clear plastic bag – I have a dedicated see-through wash bag that does the job admirably – and it doubles as a cosmetics case too. Having your bag of liquids will save you time at the airport and get you to the departure gate that bit sooner.

Just remember to keep everything under 100ml otherwise your containers will be confiscated. I like to decant my products into smaller travel-sized bottles, taking just enough to last me the trip. Every drop of weight saved counts, right!

Have you ever travelled on a hand luggage only flight? Share your tips for packing light in the comments. 

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