How to efficiently pack your hand luggage

How do you pack for a holiday with just hand luggage? It’s a challenge, but it can be done.

If want your luggage to be light and compact, follow our guide below – you’ll soon be packing like a pro.

How do you pack for a holiday with just hand luggage? It’s a challenge, but it can be done.

If want your luggage to be light and compact, follow our guide below – you’ll soon be packing like a pro.

Josh Daniels
From the Travel team
minute read
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Posted 12 JANUARY 2021

Benefits of carry-on only luggage

  • Quicker – no need to hang around the baggage hall waiting for the carousel, simply go straight through to customs
  • Safer – your luggage is with you all the time, so there’s no chance of it getting ‘lost’ or thrown about by baggage handlers
  • Easier – no airport trolley needed and you won’t need to drag a heavy suitcase around with you on your travels
  • Cheaper – most low-cost airlines charge you for hold baggage, so you’ll save money on your ticket. If you’re hiring a car, you can opt for a cheaper one with less boot space

Choose the right luggage

There’s no standard size or weight for cabin baggage; each airline has its own restrictions.

Most dimensions tend to be around the 55x45x23cm mark. The average maximum weight is between 7kg-10kg for most of the airlines, although some companies don’t have a weight restriction.

  • Check with the airline before you fly – if your hand luggage doesn’t meet their requirements it will be put in the hold, and you might be charged an excess fee.

Decide if you want a hard-shell or soft-sided case. Hard cases add extra protection, but using a soft variety means you can often squeeze in a little bit more. Even a small case can get heavy after a while, so maybe consider one with wheels.

How to pack your hand luggage like a pro

We could all do with help from an expert, so we’ve enlisted former Royal Marines commando James Johnson. During his service, James was trained to pack a small suitcase at a moment’s notice, so he’s the perfect person to help you pack a week’s worth of luggage into a carry-on bag. Here’s how he does it:

Prioritise packing your essentials

  • Separate everything into two piles: one for essentials and one for ‘nice-to-haves’. Now it’s time to be ruthless and cull the ‘nice-to-haves’.
  • Choose a capsule wardrobe with clothes that go together to create different outfits – consider items that can be worn as layers rather than packing bulky clothes.
  • Accessories take up less space and can easily change the look of an outfit. For example, a pashmina or sarong can be worn as a shawl or a scarf, while a fancy pair of flip flops and fashionable jewellery can transform a daytime outfit into eveningwear.
  • Limit the number of shoes you take – just choose a couple of pairs that go well with all your outfits.
  • Make sure anything large is collapsible.
  • Think about whether packing a towel is essential. Will there be one at the hotel or can you buy a cheap one when you arrive?
  • Leave any non-essential bulky cosmetics at home. Shampoo, conditioner and sunscreen can be bought when you’re there – the rest, as our video shows – can be de-boxed and decanted into small plastic containers and bottles. Most supermarkets sell mini versions of products specifically for travelling. Don’t forget the 100ml rule.

Bag everything up

  • Dispense any toiletries and other items that could leak into small, clear, resealable bags; it’ll make things easier when you go through customs, as you can place them into a larger plastic bag. Remember, you’re only allowed one plastic bag per person in your carry-on luggage.
  • Pack your flight essentials in a go-to bag or wallet at the top of your luggage. This can include your passport, travel insurance documents, a phone charger and a book or tablet for the flight.
  • Most airlines let you take one piece of hand luggage per person, plus a carry-on handbag. Choose a bag that’s comfortable to carry as well as spacious – something that can double up as a beach bag during your holiday, for example.

Top tip

Cut down on excess weight and bulk by downloading books, your boarding pass and even travel insurance details onto your smartphone. Just make sure it’s fully charged before you board the aircraft.

Roll your clothes up

  • Rolling your clothes not only saves space, it helps to prevent them getting creased.
  • Try to keep everything roughly the same size, as it’s easier to fit them next to each other in your bag.
  • If you can’t quite perfect the ‘Ranger Roll’ method shown in our video, just roll each item as tightly as possible.
  • You can also use rolled socks to secure items.

Make the most of the space

  • The best way to pack a hand luggage bag is in reverse.
  • Firstly, pack bulky items that you won’t use until you arrive.
  • Leave anything you might need, like baby wipes or snacks for the kids, on top.
  • Then, treat all your bulkier rolled items like the bricks of a wall and the smaller items as mortar, which fill the gaps in between. It’s all about making use of the unused spaces.
  • You can pack valuables in your shoes or in small zipped compartments. This will make the contents less prone to shifting around during the flight.
  • Wear what you can. If it’s a winter holiday, wear your ski jacket as a coat – the same goes for hiking boots.

And finally…

Remember, there are strict rules as to what you can and can’t take, so make sure you check before you leave for the airport to avoid a nasty fine, or confiscation.


A travel traffic light system has been introduced for international travel. From 19 July 2021, trips to green and amber listed countries are legally permitted if you live in England and Scotland. However, you’ll still need to fulfil any pre-departure requirements, such as testing. If you live in Wales and Northern Ireland, you still need to follow the rules for your relevant local authority.

If a country is on the green or amber list, you still need to check the latest travel advice and entry requirements for each country you visit or transit through. This is to ensure you’re aware of any specific requirements relating to entry and to check travellers from the UK are permitted. Countries can have their traffic light status changed at short notice and you should take this into consideration when looking to travel. Please check the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) advice for the latest information.

The FCDO currently advises against all but essential travel to red listed countries. Should you choose to travel against the FCDO rules, you will not be covered by any travel insurance policy you purchase. Some providers do offer cover for international travel if you’re travelling for essential purposes, however most do not. In all cases, should you have any queries please check the policy wording or contact your chosen provider before purchasing to ensure the cover meets your needs.

Travel within England, Scotland and Wales is permitted under the current guidelines. However, public health rules and lockdown restrictions continue to vary, including entry restrictions for Northern Ireland. Check the latest guidance from the official tourism boards for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Find out more here

Customers with more serious pre-existing medical conditions

Our panel includes insurance providers who quote cover for all medical conditions declared on our website, with no exclusions.

The Money and Pensions Service (MaPs) has launched a directory of insurance providers on its Money Advice Service website that may be able to provide quotes over the phone, if you have more serious medical conditions. Find more information at the Money Advice Service or by calling the British Insurance Brokers’ Association on 0370 950 1790.

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