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Hand luggage only: tips for easy travel

Traveling only with hand luggage sounds like a restriction, but it can “make things easier”. With these tips from 5 years of long-term travel with hand luggage only, your trip will be easier.

[contains Zalando advertising] I checked in luggage for the last time in September 2012. Since then, I've only been traveling with hand luggage.

I am on a long-term trip. Everything I've used in the last 5 years weighs about 10 kilos.

You don't think you can? You can very well. Easy Travel isn't as difficult as you might think and you don't have to become an ultra-minimalist.

It doesn't matter how long you travel. You don't need more things for a year round the world than for a two-week trip.

It doesn't matter where you travel to. Do you like sun, summer and warmth? Traveling to warm countries with hand luggage is very easy.

Skiing, diving or surfing holidays with your own equipment are of course not possible. This is also not possible with normal checked baggage. Compare if it is worth borrowing.

Seeing the Northern Lights in Scandinavia only with hand luggage is a challenge. This is also possible if you want, see packing tips in the article.

Advantages when traveling with hand luggage only

Travel only with Hand luggage is faster:

  • You can do an online check-in for domestic flights instead of queuing at the counter.
  • At the destination airport, you don't have to wait for baggage claim, but go straight to the exit.

You only save when you travel Hand luggage is cheaper:

  • Low-cost airlines usually charge extra fees for checked baggage, depending on the length of the flight, up to 60 euros one way.
  • Even classic airlines are increasingly having a cheaper basic rate without checked baggage.
  • Without checked baggage, you can use flight search tricks like Hidden City or 3X and save a lot of money.

Travel only with Hand luggage is safe:

  • Your hand luggage is guaranteed not to get lost and the risk of theft is much lower.
  • Fragile items won't break in hand luggage. The checked baggage must withstand high loads during loading.

Of course, you don't have to lug around as much when traveling with hand luggage only. With connections, you always have all your luggage to hand.

Disadvantages of traveling with hand luggage only

Where there are advantages, there are disadvantages. I don't want to keep them from you:

  • There are certain things you cannot take with you, such as a camera tripod, a multitool, or a large tube of shampoo.
  • The security check at the airport takes longer and is more annoying, especially in an airport like Kathmandu with a total of 3 security checks ...
  • At the airport, you always have to have all your luggage with you instead of just checking it in.
  • You can't just buy souvenirs as you like. Sending internationally is, however, quite cheap.
  • You have to worry more about packing. If you want to go on a backpacking trip anyway, this compulsion helps to limit yourself.
  • Few airlines allow only 5 kilos of hand luggage, e.g. Wow Air. If you are not an absolute minimalist, you have to avoid these airlines or book luggage.

As a hand luggage traveler, you can also not prepare for every conceivable situation. To be honest, no traveler with so much luggage can do that. That's perfectly fine too.

It's best to say goodbye to this idea right away. You don't travel to the desert or the moon. Elsewhere, too, people need everyday things and clothing.

Are you ready to become a hand luggage traveler?

The trick with the personal item

Many airlines only allow 7 to 8 kilos of hand luggage. Limiting yourself to 7 kilos is already very minimalistic and desirable for very few travelers.

There is a simple trick how you can increase the 7 kilos to about 10 kilos for free. Most airlines allow one in addition to hand luggage personal item, or small hand luggage.

A personal item can be e.g. the following, but only one of them:

  • Laptop bag
  • purse
  • Shoulder bag
  • Briefcase
  • Daypack
  • Camera bag

A suitable personal item are, for example, the weekender bags from Zalando.

It is only important that the personal item is on the plane under the seat in front of you fits. In general, it should not be larger than approx. 40cm x 30cm x 15cm. That's not a lot of space. Use the personal item for heavy, small items. The weight is usually not limited.

I put mine in a small daypack electronic devices, ie laptop, laptop stand, mouse, second camera, chargers, cables, adapters, triple sockets, etc. I prefer to have my precious electronics with me anyway. This adds up to a good 3 kilos.

So you can take a total of 10 kilos with you and stick to the rules of the airlines. Please read the respective rules before a flight. Most airlines allow a personal item, but not all.

The trick with the clothes

10 kilos of luggage are still not enough for you? How about up to 12 kilos of luggage at no extra charge? In addition to hand luggage and personal items, you can bring the following with you for free:

  • umbrella
  • Jacket or coat
  • Book, magazine or newspaper
  • slung small camera
  • Blankets and pillows - for many, but not all, airlines
  • Food and drinks - with many, but not all, airlines

Items of clothing are also not included in hand luggage. So wear your heaviest clothes at the airport. You have to know for yourself whether you are ready to wear 3 T-shirts, 2 pants, sweater, jacket, hat and scarf. The air-conditioned airport quickly becomes a sauna.

You can also fill your jacket and trouser pockets, preferably with heavy objects. Please do not overdo it, otherwise it will be very annoying at the security check. The fun is repeated on every connecting flight.

So you can take 2 kilos more with you, if you are serious even 3 or 4 kilos. The more you want to save like this, the more stressful it becomes. It is better to take less with you than to optimize.

My long-term experience with hand luggage only

When I went backpacking for the first time 9 years ago, I had a 75 liter backpack with me that weighed 18 kilos. On the second backpacking trip it was much less. It wasn't until the third attempt that I tried hand luggage. I don't think you have to grow into it first. I just didn't know any better.

I haven't had a single negative airline experience in 5 years of long-term travel. I've only been with them since 2012 Hand luggage flown with around 30 airlines, how Air Asia, Ryanair, Jetblue, Spirit, Southwest, Eurowings, Norwegian, Jetstar, Pegasus, Thai Lion Air, Nok Air, Malindo Air, Golden Myanmar, Hongkong Express, Cebu Pacific, Viva Aerobus, Spicejet, Indigo, Wow Air, Transaero, Qatar, Etihad, Sri Lankan, Malaysian, Silk, Air Berlin and Ethiopian - with many airlines several times and there are still some missing ...

My hand luggage was weighed first at check-in, at Wow Air. To be honest, I wouldn't fly Wow Air anymore without booking extra hand baggage. The restriction to one personal item weighing 5 kilos is hardcore. I had all sorts of things in my jacket pockets, even the laptop battery, to make up 5.4 kilos of hand luggage. That was super stressful and I can only advise against it.

My hand luggage has never been weighed or even looked at at the gate. But my experiences are not representative. Regulations are getting tougher and controls more stringent. If, in the worst case, you have to check in hand luggage that is too heavy at the gate, 50-60 euros are gone straight away, and a three-digit amount for long-haul flights.

I can only recommend traveling with hand luggage if you can stick to the rules. If you don't feel like limiting your weight, don't do it. That is just stressful and can be expensive. Last but not least, hand luggage that is too large is also at the expense of your fellow travelers on the plane.

Prohibited items in hand luggage

Several items were gradually confiscated from me at the airport security check, including:

  • almost empty toothpaste tube
  • Monopod tripod
  • Nail scissors
  • Multitool
  • Corkscrew without a blade

Accept that the controls are arbitrary. Corkscrews and nail scissors were in my hand luggage for years and during countless checks. One day they were sorted out during a particularly strict security check. An airport with very strict controls is e.g. KLIA-1 in Kuala Lumpur. I leave something there almost every time;)

You are not allowed to take items from these 5 categories with you:

  • Vessels with liquids and pastes with more than 100 ml or more than 1 liter of liquid in total, including sunscreen, toothpaste and even Nutella
  • weapons and everything that looks like a weapon, including useless plastic imitations
  • Everything used as a weapon such as walking sticks, tripods, tennis rackets, pepper spray or tools
  • Sharp and pointed objects such as scissors, razor blades, knives, pocket knives, knitting needles or sharp nail files
  • Explosive and flammable substancessuch as lighter, gas cartridge or spray cans

Batteries and power banks that are too large are also not allowed. From 20,000 mAh it becomes critical. You could just build an explosive device out of it ...

For prescription drugs, you theoretically need a prescription in some countries. In practice, this is mainly checked for syringes.

Superfluous things to unpack

It is not forbidden to take the following items with you in hand luggage. But they are superfluous for almost all travelers:

  • A large backpack - better: a backpack with a maximum of 50 liters
  • A DSLR camera - better: lightweight travel camera
  • printed books - better: eBooks or audiobooks
  • First aid kit - better: emergency medication and clinical thermometer
  • Hiking boots - better: light sports shoes
  • Hut sleeping bag - better: hammock or nothing at all

What you don't need at home, you don't need when you travel.

Check out my full unpacking list.

Tips for the hand luggage packing list

Save weight with these tips:

  • Dress according to the onion skin principle, which means several light sweaters and jackets instead of a winter coat.
  • You don't need clothes for more than 10 days. There are cheap laundries everywhere. Washing once a week is not stressful.
  • Use a small and lightweight travel camera, e.g. a professional compact camera or system camera.
  • Take sample packs for shower gel, toothpaste and the like with you. They are available in drugstores for little money.
  • Take a clear Ziploc with you as a toiletry bag. At the security check, you have to show liquids in it.
  • Plain plastic bags are better than vacuum bags and packing cubes. Too much weight is the problem, not space.
  • Put the fragile in a spare pair of shoes for cushioning and better use of space.

You can buy almost anything locally, so don't go crazy with the packing list. Packing lists themselves tempt you to take too much stuff with you.

It doesn't matter whether you roll, fold or lay your clothes while packing. You have enough space, the weight is crucial.

More equipment tips in my packing list for hand luggage travelers.

Tips for the hand luggage rucksack

As a hand luggage traveler, I would definitely advise against a trolley or suitcase. The backpack and bag are lighter and offer more space. A backpack is the most practical and also has style;)

The backpack size does not really matter for use as hand luggage. You can also adjust a 75 liter backpack for hand luggage size. But it weighs more than a 50 liter backpack.

The average hand luggage dimensions of 55cm x 40cm x 20cm correspond to a 40-45 liter backpack. It is good to have some reserves after the flight, e.g. for provisions, souvenirs or couch surfing gifts. I would rather use a 50 liter backpack.

Please pay attention to the weight of the backpack. It shouldn't weigh more than a kilo. Our 50 liter backpacks only weigh around 700 grams.

As an exception, buying a backpack is no reason to save money. It is better to buy a high-quality branded backpack made of good material and with good zippers. Otherwise you buy twice.

A sophisticated carrying system is useful on long hikes and with heavy weights. With less than 10 kilos and short wearing times, this is not necessary and only increases the weight. Avoid trekking backpacks and look for so-called lightweight backpacks.

Many pockets and thick padding also have an impact on the weight of the backpack. It is better to pack your rucksack cleverly in order to avoid excessive pockets and padding.

Tips for traveling with hand luggage

Are you traveling as a couple and need to check in luggage? Share one piece of luggage, check in luggage for only one person and only pay half the fee.

At large airports there are mail acceptance points in front of the security check. Sending excess baggage home takes weeks, but costs much less than checked baggage. Whether your airport has a post office and much more can be found in the Airport Guide from Sleeping in Airports.

Checking in luggage online is around half as expensive as checking in. The price roughly doubles again at the gate. Avoid checking in luggage at the gate. Put on more clothes if necessary. Or go to the nearest duty free shop to buy something there. A few heavy items still fit in the duty-free bag.

Security check tips

Finally, a few hand luggage tips at the security check:

  • Keep your laptop, tablet and liquids close at hand during the security check. You have to show them separately.
  • Your laptop battery must not be completely empty. You may need to power up your laptop, especially in the US.
  • Put extra clothes and bag contents in your backpack before the security check. It's easier than hastily taking everything off and on again.
  • Take an empty water bottle with you and fill it with drinking water after the security check.
  • Duty-free items from the airport do not count as hand baggage and have no weight limit.

You can find more hand luggage tips in the Zalando luggage guide. There you will find weights and dimensions for hand luggage, packing tips and suitable hand luggage.

Are you still hauling or are you already traveling with hand luggage?

This article was created in collaboration with Zalando

The travel camera for my photos is a Canon professional compact *

* Affiliate advertising link: If my information helps you, please use it to buy - nothing extra!