advice, bad advice, carry on, hand luggage, packing tips, travel
Look around and you’ll see many travel blogs offering tips for packing light with a carry on. Unfortunately, some of these tips are bad advice. Many of the tips have a grain of truth to them or are true under certain very specific conditions. The problem comes when someone applies the advice under all circumstances or takes it out of context. The traveler will end up packing heavier or going to extremes in trying to pack light. “Good enough” is usually good enough for most trips. I’ve listed some of the most common tips below, my observations on why the advice is “bad”, and what you really should do about it.
Bad Advice – An examination of common packing tips
Take 3.4 oz (100 ml) containers for liquids
Why it’s bad advice – The TSA imposed a maximum liquid allowance of 100 ml (3.4 oz) for carry on bags. The key word here is “maximum”. The maximum allowance isn’t the same as what you really need for your trip. If you use 3 oz containers in your liquids bag then it will quickly fill up. You’ll have room for 5-6 products at best, forcing you into making compromises on what you want to bring.
What you should do – Decant your liquids to the smallest size needed. For a two week vacation you’ll need around 1/2 – 1 oz of liquid foundation, 1 oz of moisturizer, 1/4 – 1/2 oz of face serum. You’ll probably need the full 3.4 oz of sun screen and bug juice. If you need any encouragement to decant your liquids then this post from Travelite should convince you. What a difference in space!
Use space bags
Why it’s bad advice – Compressing an item isn’t getting rid of the weight. Using space bags encourages you to pack more than you need because there is extra room in your bag. You’ll end up taking extra clothing and end up with an extremely heavy bag. Good luck lifting your bag into the overhead bin or taking it up the stairs! Many space bags weigh several ounces, adding to the weight of the luggage. The compression bags also crush your clothes.
What you should do – Compress light items that you are taking anyway. Squeeze down sleeping bags, puff jackets, and pillows to save space and to help organize your bag. Use ultra light stuff sacks instead of using heavy space bags. By the way, I rarely travel with a pillow unless I’m going to Africa. The drivers are great but taking a dirt road at 45 mph is literally a pain in the butt!
Use packing cubes
Why it’s bad advice – Packing cubes may organize your clothing, but they can’t possibly help you travel lighter. Cubes have weight so using them adds weight to your bag. Cubes compress clothing like space bags, encouraging you to bring more stuff just because it fits. More stuff means more weight. There’s only one way a packing cube helps you travel lighter – you leave the extra stuff home because it doesn’t fit in the cube.
What you should do – Consider bundle wrapping as it doesn’t need any packing cubes. This is the best choice if you are going ultra-light. If you do use cubes, then realize why your bringing them – for organization, not light travel. Cubes are also great if your bag doesn’t have tie down straps. Cubes will hold the clothing in place and keeps it from wrinkling. If you must use cubes then spend extra money for the Sil-Nylon version. They are significantly lighter than the regular version and just as strong.
Mail your cold-weather gear to/from your destination
Why it’s bad advice – This advice only applies under very specific and special conditions and should never apply for general travel. The first condition is when you are going to a place of extremes. By extreme I mean “I need this gear to stay alive”. Camping on the side of a mountain where you can’t evacuate for multiple days? Then sure, bring on the heavy-duty gear. Bring an extra checked bag because there is no guarantee that you’ll ever get your gear if you mail it to your destination. Ask me about the time my “8 days shipping” to Hawaii turned into a month! The second condition is when you are on a multi-month trip that spans several seasons. You may wish to mail your ultra-cold weather gear so you don’t pack it for months at a time. People don’t need special cold weather gear under most conditions. There is no need to mail it.
What you should do – If you are traveling during the winter you’ll be wearing your cold weather gear most of the time. There’s no need to pack it because it is already on your body. For variable conditions use high quality regular clothing and layer for warmth. A light weight rain jacket and rain pants give great protection from the elements. Add in long underwear, a down jacket, and layers as it gets colder. Make sure your dress boots are waterproof so that they work in bad weather.
Use special jackets that have lots of pockets
Why it’s bad advice – You usually hear this advice from the manufacturers of jackets with lots of pockets. They want you to buy their product so they can make money from you. One example is Rolf Potts “No Bag Challenge” that is now touted by many bloggers as the gold standard. This was a fun experiment to see if it was possible to travel with no bags. That’s all that it was – an experiment at the extreme end of the spectrum. It ignored the fact that Rolf had to make some tough compromises, such as wearing zip-off pants and hiking boots in Paris. It also ignored one common problem with these types of jackets – all that gear in your jacket puts weight on your neck and shoulders. Here’s a great post from The Professional Hobo on the challenges of going no-bag as a woman.
What you should do – Pockets are good and wonderful. Buy clothing that has pockets. Get a tailor to add pockets to your favorite jackets, skirt, dresses. Carry the necessary things in your pocket, such as wallets and phones. Don’t rely on special clothing to compensate for poor packing techniques. Use these jackets for extreme conditions, such as when you are traveling ultra-light or when you are trying to beat an airlines weight limit for carry on bags. Scuba divers, that’s you!
Bring a personal item in addition to your carry on bag
Why it’s bad advice – Many airlines, especially in Europe, don’t allow a personal item. You get one bag as your hand carry allowance. One. A personal item also encourages you to pack sloppily because you are using it for overflow. That isn’t traveling lightly at all.
What you should do – Bring a personal item but make sure it fits inside your carry on bag. Slip it out of your carry on bag when you take your seat on the plane. You’ll have your key items at your feet if needed, but are still traveling lightly with one bag.
Throw clothing out
Why it’s bad advice – Can you think of anything more disrespectful than wearing your rags to visit someone? David Sedaris said it well: “Comfort has its place, but it seems rude to visit another country dressed as if you’ve come to mow its lawns.” If you are willing to throw your clothing out then it is in pretty bad shape or it looks ugly on you. The other issue is that you still have to carry the clothing around for most of the trip. You’ve saved nothing while looking like a slob.
What you should do – Leave your expensive fashions at home but bring clothing that is clean, well-mended, nice looking, and culturally right for where you are visiting.
Pack two wardrobes if you are going to two different climates
Why it’s bad advice – You have a very limited amount of space in your carry on bag. Now you are going to use some of that space for clothing that you can’t wear the entire trip? This limits your outfits and is a very bad waste of space.
What you should do – Pack clothing that you can wear in both climates. Bring light weight items and layer them for warmth. Use small and compact extender pieces to add layers and waterproofing.
Use all available space in your carry on
Why it’s bad advice – This is actually a misquote of some good advice – “Use space efficiently”. Using all available space means packing the bag full and encourages you to over-pack. You will have no room for souvenirs! Using space efficiently means packing your bag so that there isn’t wasted space. This keeps the bag small without bulges or lumps. A bag that looks small is less likely to get targeted for gate check.
What you should do – Pack efficiently and try to make your bag as small as possible. This will make it easier to move around and reduces the chance of a gate check. So what does packing efficiently mean? Don’t waste space. Put smaller items such as eyeglasses, belts, and socks into your shoes. Avoid hard sided boxes that won’t squish down (the exception is for protecting fragile items). If you pack efficiently your carry on bag should be 1/2 to 2/3 full. That leaves room for souvenirs!
Use an expandable bag
Why it’s bad advice – An expandable bag suckers you in to packing more. You are always thinking “I can unzip the expander section if I don’t have enough room“. This mind set means you won’t try as hard to reduce excess clothing and gear. There’s another problem too – an expanded bag is never carry-on sized. Never. If you expand the bag you are cheating other users from carry on bin space. There’s also a good chance your bag is targeted for a forced gate check.
What you should do – Avoid bags with expansion zippers. The zipper adds weight to the bag. Bring a packable duffel bag or mail items home if you want room for larger souvenirs.
Get the best roller bag you can afford
Why it’s bad advice – You don’t always need a roller bag for your travels. In many cases a travel pack is a superior choice. Roller bags are heavy and can take up most, if not all of an airlines carry on weight limit. Roller bags work poorly in snow. Roller bags encourage you to pack heavy because you’re not wearing the weight on your back.
What you should do – Evaluate your trips and your physical condition to choose the best bag for your travel style. Go with a travel pack where possible. Use a roller bag if your business travel requires it or if your body can’t handle a pack.
Most advice is conditional
When examining advice, always consider the source. Ask yourself :
- Is it always true?
- Is this a special condition?
- What message is this advice conveying?
Readers, have you encountered misleading advice?
I love your blog. The advice is fantastic.
Cindy Heazlit said:
I’m happy it’s helping!
Jennifer Bradley said:
I found some of this blog depressing. To me, step 1 is deciding how little to take, including all the capsule wardrobe advice and minimising toiletries. But I love both packing cells and space bags – they allow me to organise all my stuff, which is particularly important when I’m spending several months packing and unpacking. Just dump in a drawer in the hotel, and it helps to ensure you don’t forget anything. And I love wheels – after spending several months in Europe and England last year, using trains and local transport and walking – for me they work, didn’t even have a problem in Bath with the cobblestones. And railway stations can be very long (and in London there’s an underground “station” which is in fact two, with about a kilometre between the platforms).
But I do agree – if you want to travel light, you have to discipline yourself, not only what you take but how you pack and transport it.
I also have a slight problem with carry on only – it’s all the things I have to leave behind (including my nailfile, which has a curved end and would crumple it pushed into someone’s neck/face), such as nail/sewing scissors (took four weeks to find a replacement last time). So I plan to be able to fit everything into my carryon, but split it, as book through luggage works very easily from Australia, and so far they haven’t thought of charging for it. But the flights are always very long so I have a fold up bag that fits under an airline seat with my essentials IF the luggage should go astray.
I do enjoy your blog.
Cindy Heazlit said:
I can see why you’d be depressed if you viewed carry on travel as “how little to take”. The focus is on what is lost Vs. the freedom and simplicity that is gained. It’s finding out what is needed Vs. what is wanted. I think many times our wants blind us to happiness because we fail to recognized that our needs are already being met.
None of the suggestions above are prohibitions. You can certainly travel with a wheeled bag or with cubes or with 3oz bottles. But you need to know why you are making those choices and the consequences of those choices. They key is on awareness, not blindly following someone’s suggestions. It sounds like you know why your choices work for you. I’d like to commend you on your awareness – so many people don’t know why they do things! Some people don’t like carry-on travel, and that’s fine. Me personally? I’ll never go back to check through unless I’m carrying special equipment.
On the nail file issue – may I suggest an emery board? They are inexpensive, light, and security friendly. Some blunt ended scissors are now allowed in security too. Nail clippers are variable, but I’ve never had a problem with them.
Jennifer Bradley said:
Thanks – I do use emery boards but my trusty sapphire round ended file is perfect for me (my nails fall to bits on a daily basis) and I hate being without it. I guess it’s purely how they interpret stuff here in Australia – ever since 9/11 carry on only (which I used to do all the time for work) has turned into a pain in the neck. My little home made sewing kit also comes under threat as it has a couple of needles and several pins! Thank goodness I don’t try to travel with knitting needles (although one of my sewing group came up with a new one – she’d broken her elbow in England and was wearing a large and rigid sling which caused apoplexy to various security people at the several airports she went through – and strip searching and … )
This is the best piece of travel writing I’ve ever seen. You certainly put the “paid by the column inch” travel writers where they need to be, in a zipper expansion wheelie bag.
Great thoughts anyone who travels should take to heart.
Cindy Heazlit said:
Thank you for making me laugh out loud!
Tickle, tickle. Seriosly, though.
I have to disagree about throwing your clothes out. I’ve been practicing this for years and have never looked like I’m about to mow anybody’s lawn. My travel clothes are neither torn nor stained. They are not rags. They don’t have to be rags to be considered at the end of their lifetime in my closet. Perhaps they are out of season, or they have slightly faded, but they are intact and have at least a half dozen good wears in them. I happily give them one last hurrah before I leave them behind to lessen the burden I carry home. I find this especially useful with running shoes. When they have 50 miles or more left in them, I put them aside for the next trip, and start using my new pair. That way I walk to my heart’s content and get them as dirty as I need to. Then they are tossed at the end of the trip, and my new shoes are waiting for me at home. It’s such a great feeling to leave them and all the yucky stuff they walked in behind!
Cindy Heazlit said:
We have very different philosophies. I consider end-of-life to be completely and totally used up. I’m driving an 18 year old truck with 253,000 miles on it. When it dies I’ll buy a “new” used vehicle with cash and in the mean time I’m saving money because I’m not making car payments. The same for clothes – I’ll buy high quality classics and wear them out.
It sounds like you are throwing out items with lots of life left in them. That would drive frugal me bananas.
I actually prefer using packing cubes. It allows me to pack more efficiently and use my bag space better. I have the Eagle Creek specter cubes,so they are super light, it like you said it works for me because of a specific situation. Specifically the bag I use. My pack has a lower sleeping bag access panel which makes putting everything in the bottom not my best option. Cubes help with that. All the rest of your things I’ve found to be very true. Especially needing a pillow in Africa. My pillow made my trip to Kenya much better as many hotels didn’t have them.
Re expandable bags:
Please don’t quote me but I am sure the expansion zip on luggage is for the purpose of compressing the contents of your bag to minimise movement not to carry more stuff…
1] unzip expander
2] pack bag
3] close bag
4] re-zip expander
5] travel ‘smaller’
I do wish they would have expandable cabin bags as I could pack ‘smaller’ even it is the right weight…sigh…those that abuse (myself included) have only themselves to blame. External limits are imposed because we refuse to be self-limiting…we are such children. So not looking forward to if/when they bring in combining my cabin bag to my weight and having to pay for that ‘excess’…
My bags are now compliant with the lowest weights for Australian (and overseas carriers) to avoid having to jettison belongings (been there) or pay excess (done that) and more importantly, since chivalry is slowly dying, I must be able to handle it myself.
For decades I have had a variety of (approximately) 68 litre/24 inch/60 cm (4kg when empty) ports that could weigh up to 20-23k Australia’s domestic checked baggage limit but I am getting older and when I found that can pick it up but not raise it to put in the back of the car I right-sized (for now) to a 50 litre/21 inch/53 cm (2.7kg when empty) port which I can handle with no worries…at the moment.
I would love to transition to ‘one bag’ travel however Jetstar has a 7kg/15lb/combined cabin bag and personal item limit while Virgin’s and Qantas’ combined limit is 10kg…what a difference 3kg makes…sigh. My current cabin bag is 0.7kg therefor it is 0.9kg and 1.6kg lighter than my older wheeled cabin bags…even though I do miss the wheels…I am lucky that I can use my host’s toiletries most of the time and that does lighten the load.
I chase Lagom…just the right amount and Kaizen…small incremental or large improvements…to create a nice life…at home or abroad.
All good experience.
Cindy Heazlit said:
I would argue that you are taking too much stuff if you have to compress anything. Using an expansion zipper to compress clothing is similar to using a space bag – you’re trying to jam way too many things into the carry-on bag. That means a heavy bag.
As far as the 7 kg weight limit – it is tough but achievable! A 0.7 kg bag is a very important first step. Don’t forget that you can put heavy items such as jewelry, books, liquids (toiletries) into your coat pocket. They aren’t weighing passengers….yet.
After discover your website years ago I find myself still come to re-read your articles. I’ve changed during these years and my philosophies are tend to be the same as yours. Buy high quality classic and wear them out, yup that’s me. I’m lucky my weight doesn’t change much over the years. Idem for my taste.
Thank you for sharing your experiences. Hope you are doing fine in these crazy times (Covid19). Travelling is less common nowaday. I wonder if you have new tips and tricks for the present? Kind regards, Crystal (the Netherlands, Europe)
I just stumbled onto your blog today, and it is far and away the most helpful and straightforward one I’ve read on this topic.
I’ve been traveling a long time and have done the one-bag thing for many years, but I’m always trying to find ways to reduce even further while being more comfortable, so I do sometimes google ultralight packing, but it’s full of the same non-experienced, Instagram-style blog posts written by people seemingly going on their first-ever trip. Absolutely none of it is useful. Full of “just common sense” stuff and way more things than I’d bring myself.
But each of the posts I’ve read of your blog so far has been such a wonderful read. Really refreshing to hear from someone experienced!