Travelling Light: 10 Essentials for Hand Luggage Only

I met Annie at the lovely Joe Allen last night – our usual haunt and one of my favourites – and we discussed what we wanted to do in Venice next week and what we should take with us. With the weather in a highly changeable state – I went out in sun and warmth yesterday, into a shop for five minutes and back out into hailstones! – I think we need to pack for all eventualities. It makes the whole ‘taking hand luggage only’ preference even more challenging, but I’m determined to do it.

Most of my holidays are short breaks – rarely more than five days – so it makes sense to take just a bag that can be carried on to the plane and allows one to walk past those stress-inducing luggage carousels in airport reclaim areas. I say ‘stress-inducing’ because having had my luggage go astray a few times (fortunately on return trips), I don’t like the prospect of being somewhere for just a weekend without any of my things. It also saves time when time is of the essence.

I first bought a special hand luggage bag a few years ago when I was about to fly easyJet to Montpellier for a weekend and decided I was unlikely to get my slightly too big suitcase past easyJet’s check-in as hand luggage. Since then, it’s become a much travelled bag; it even went as far as Australia recently with my daughter … no she didn’t manage six weeks with just that bag but it allowed her to always have essentials to hand.

I’m a girl who always packs too much. I take too many clothes; I take too many books (no I don’t have a Kindle; I’ve put a few freebie books on my new iPad, but I’m still a paper ‘real books’ lover); and as for shoes … shoes comfortable to do lots of walking, shoes to go with my nice summer dress, shoes if it rains, shoes in fact for most outfits! I always know it’s not sensible: they are both heavy and take up lots of room. But how’s a girl to choose!  So really, limiting myself to one small bag has a lot going for it (you should see how much I take when I’m travelling in a car!).

One of the problems with focusing on taking as little as possible is that it’s all too easy to forget essentials. And my experience is, the more often you travel, the more likely you are to forget things and you start to make assumptions about what you have to hand. Just as it’s easy to forget those pair of scissors you always keep in your handbag … until you’re going through security and they make a fuss and confiscate them.

My essentials are inevitably going to be different to yours, but I do try to think them through well before I travel. I’m not a person who starts packing weeks or even days in advance. I like to pack the night before I go away, but I do start gathering these essentials that I really wouldn’t want to be without ahead of time. So, as I start to prepare for my trip to Venice next week, here are some ideas of things I find I can’t holiday without.

1. The bag!! Well, yes, the right bag is a good place to start.

Mine’s a lightweight Eastpak bag that looks a cross between a rucksack and a small suitcase on wheels. It can expand quite far (sometimes not to be tested in some of those metal ‘Does Your Bag Fit In This’ boxes at airports), and opens into two zipped compartments with an outside zipped pocket where I put my liquids bag for easy access. If you are buying a hand luggage only bag then do check the size carefully. I bought mine in Bentalls in Kingston and a very helpful sales assistant told me that the airlines all have different rules about maximum size for hand luggage – not surprisingly, the cheaper airlines allowing only smaller bags.

2. The liquids bag – buy the real thing!

I had an annoying experience at Gatwick once: I used to use freezer bags for my liquids but then got caught out when I was told it was too big and I had to throw a couple of things away. Now given I considered everything in the bag essential, throwing two or three things away was both irritating and challenging. Not only was cost a consideration, but how easily I could replace the items. So now, I always use a special bag (as shown) that can easily be bought in stationers. And remember, you need to be able to zip it closed – they won’t let you through with things spilling out of the top.

3. Small size liquids – never throw samples away!

Unless you’re staying in a posh hotel, the chances are you may not want to use the freebie shampoos and shower gels on offer – if there are any! It’s quite easy to buy small sizes now in places like Superdrug and Boots that have helpful shelves full of toiletries of 100ml or less size. But these aren’t always what you want to use. I like Aveda products and fortunately they do quite a few items in travel sizes. Although it’s an expensive way to buy things, the containers are strong so I fill mine up from my large bottle that I use at home. Make-up counters are always handing out freebies, either for you to try but most usually when you’ve bought something or as part of an offer – buy two things and get a bag full of small items. If I ever buy anything in my local Molton Brown they always give me a little 30ml bottle of shower gel to try. I keep all these things for travelling and will often refill pots with, maybe, moisturizer from a large pot. Remember that most airports allow only up to a maximum of 1 litre of liquids, i.e. up to 10 of your 100ml containers.

4. Phone chargers etc.

OK, so tell me you’ve never forgotten your phone charger or your camera charger. These are things you really don’t want to forget as replacing them abroad can be – if not difficult – then sometimes very expensive.

4. Plug adaptors

Yes, you can always buy them at the airport … but if you don’t realise you’ve forgotten them until you are in your hotel room and your phone is dead … then you may have a problem. Another problem is taking the wrong ones. A few months ago I packed some USA adaptors rather than European. It would have been more irritating but fortunately I was staying with my friends Linda and George in Spain and they always have plenty of adaptors in their spare room, so I was OK. But, if I’d been in, say, Havana or Marrakesh – both places I’ve been to and love – then finding some suitable adaptors could have been difficult.

5. Sunglasses

And also tell me that you’ve never forgotten your sunglasses! When it’s wet and cold here as it is now; when it’s been some time since you needed your sunglasses each time you go out of the front door, it’s all too easy to forget they are necessary items if flying off to a sunny place. Good sunglasses are expensive and having to buy an extra pair in the airport or at your destination, is a pain.

7. Holiday purse

I always like a separate purse for my euros – or whatever currency is used at my holiday destination. I really can’t be bothered to faff around with two lots of coins and bank notes in the same purse. It also means that once I’ve arrived at my hotel, or wherever I’m staying, I can leave my ‘home’ purse in a locked suitcase or safe with most of my spare credit and debit cards and UK money behind and only take some of my holiday money and one lot of cards out with me.

8. Travel hairdryer

One for the girls! If you’ve ever tried to dry your hair with one of the horrid tube things some hotels call hairdryers, you’ll know that taking your own nice travel hairdryer is absolutely essential. And even though it takes up the room of almost another pair of shoes – see above! – I still reckon I can’t holiday without one.

9. Mini speaker

A new toy – especially good if on your own and, like me, you don’t much like using earphones all the time to listen to some music on your iPod or phone. This neat little X-mini speaker is barely larger than a golf ball before it’s opened up and provides a reasonable sound system while you’re away if you fancy a bit of music while having an afternoon siesta or getting ready to go out for the evening.

10. Teabags

I know – very English of me. But there’s sometimes nothing like your very favourite tea first thing in the morning or last thing at night. And even if there’s not a kettle in your hotel room, you can always ask for hot water.

So … there are my travel essentials … and I guess some more will pop into my mind immediately I’ve published this post! But do let me know yours. What can’t you travel without? Do you have any great suggestions for things that make travel easier or even more pleasurable? Please comment here and share!

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A lifelong lover of good food and travel; writer and book editor

13 thoughts on “Travelling Light: 10 Essentials for Hand Luggage Only

  1. Great tips here, I always take tea bags with me when I go away, my husband thinks I am mad! I have things in there like my camera also so I know it is safe. I always put these things in my hand luggage so it frees up more room in my suitcase our clothes and room for souvenirs!

  2. Hi My friend and I are going on holiday soon, the hotel does not have a kettle in the rooms. As were traveling very light are you allowed to put a small travel kettle in your hand luggage. thanks

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