"I only ever travel with carry-on luggage and a handbag. Here's how you can do it, too."

I was twelve years old and rushing through Heathrow Airport, clutching my younger brother’s hand. Bleary-eyed and dehydrated, we cleared customs, only to find that our checked baggage was lost somewhere between Sydney and Singapore.

The nice man at Lost Luggage told us our suitcases would arrive by the end of the week. Until then, we had only the clothes we’d travelled in and the contents of our backpacks: several copies of Goosebumps, a discman and a CD wallet with an overrepresentation of Limp Bizkit.

And that was the moment.

We’d done the trip from Sydney to London twelve times since our parents split up six years before.

First with Dad and then as Unaccompanied Minors, always with a 20kg suitcase each. It was set to continue throughout my teenage years. So I decided to dispense with checked luggage altogether. There had to be a better way.

We talk hacks to save time and be efficient via list making and a good attitude. (Post continues after audio.)

Since then, I’ve made more than four hundred international and domestic trips, all with cabin baggage only – sometimes with just my handbag. At my most extreme, I turned up in England for my father’s wedding with only the clothes on my back, a spare pair of underpants and an extra T-shirt. Now I have kids, I try to hit a happy medium between fleeing-zombies-for-your-life and miserable packhorse.

So here are my top tips for packing light – no matter your destination. Learn from my mistakes, so that you may never find yourself at the Lost Luggage counter.

Choose your bag.

You’re looking for two things in a bag: weight and portability. The less it weighs, the less you have to lug through the airport. Personally, I prefer backpacks to wheeled luggage because they’re lighter, easier to fit into a toilet cubicle (look, these things are important!) and aren’t going to see you helplessly blocking the aisle, waiting for a burly man to take pity and hoist it into an overhead compartment.


Pick your bag and stick with it. Image via Instagram.

Get started early.

A week before you’re set to travel, put your bag in the corner of a room. Over the course of a week, fill it with your planned luggage. As clothes are washed and ready, as you suddenly remember that it gets cold in New York in January, as you purchase a cute new passport holder – in it all goes. Getting hyped is part of the fun. Get ready in other ways too: check the weather in your destination for a week before you leave; find the best place for breakfast near your hotel (trust me, Future Jet-lagged Self will thank you); learn a few phrases in the native language; download books for your Kindle.

You are beautiful just as you are.

Limit your toiletries. Most airports won’t let you through with liquids of more than 100mL anyway, and as you’re travelling with hand luggage only, that pretty much limits you to deodorant, moisturiser, and toothpaste. Unless you’re visiting the North Pole, they’ll have shops at your destination and you can always stock up when you get there. Or you can try going make-up free for a few weeks, in a destination where you’re not going to run into anyone you know. Who knows, it could be liberating.

Seek inspo from others.

Pinterest is full of packing lists and a quick Google will give you lots of visual inspiration. And on the off chance that you’re interested in what I do, here it is: I’m going to England for Christmas this year and I’m planning on taking one pair of jeans and a pair of smart pants, a dress (my family are quite formal), a pair of boots, a pair of heels, three long-sleeved T-shirts, a silk shirt, a jumper, a scarf and a coat.



And now for the scary part. Take everything you’ve got in your bag. It will be bursting at this point: that’s OK. We’re going to halve it. Yep, I said halve. Put it all on the bed. First, count the days at your destination. That’s the absolute maximum outfits you’ll need. If there are laundry facilities there, you need even less. Get rid of anything which is a duplicate (you don’t need more than one white T-shirt.) Anything uncomfortable. Max out your shoes at three pairs – depending on your destination (for me, for a winter city escape it’s boots, sneakers and heels; for a beach holiday it’s sandals, flats and thongs).


You really don’t need all that stuff.

Pack for what will actually happen, not for what might happen. By which I mean: you won’t need shorts in winter in Warsaw. You won’t need heels for a walking tour of Cambodia. (You don’t actually need heels at all, but that’s another article.) You’ll need one jumper in September in Cairns, and that’s probably pushing it. I get it, man. I’m from Tassie, where it can be twelve degrees on Christmas day. You want to be prepared. But you also have to carry this stuff.

Keep on rollin’ baby.

Two Limp Bizkit references in one article? Could this get any better?? Seriously, though. This is my number one recommendation for packing. Once you’ve selected your stuff, roll it all up. Arrange on the bed by order of size: jeans and jumpers will probably be the biggest, then shirts and T-shirts, right down to underpants.


Plan for the plane.

Put aside your plane outfit. I tend to wear my heaviest items on the plane, such as boots and jeans, but I like to pack my coat so I’m not lugging it through the airport. For long trips, I take a big scarf which doubles as a blanket on the plane. Remember that most airlines allow you two pieces of cabin baggage, including a handbag: I usually keep the handbag with me in my seat and put the larger bag in the compartment for the duration of the flight.

Time to pack

Alright, finally time to pack this bad boy. Heavy items at the bottom: computer chargers, reading material. Stuff your shoes with small items such as underwear and pack soft T-shirts and socks around high heels to keep them protected. Next, put in the larger items – jeans, jumpers, and so on. Smaller items are for plugging gaps, then place delicate items such as silk blouses or dresses on top. Anything you’ll need on the actual plane – that copy of Lincoln in the Bardo you’ve been meaning to read, for example, as well as the toiletries you’ll need to pass through Security – can go on top so they’re nice and accessible. And if you can’t get it all in – go back to Step 5. It’s time to cull some more.

So there it is. Now you too can walk smugly past the baggage carousel at your destination, and keep your personal belongings with you at all times. Because trust me, Fred Durst might be good for letting out your teenage angst, but pyjamas are better for keeping you warm at night.

Frances Chapman is a writer and copywriter from Sydney. Her fiction and essays have been published online and in print, and she is writing a novel. You can follow her on Twitter @eveymercedes.