Hand Luggage Only: One Bag, One Month, One Continent

Hand Luggage Only: One Bag, One Month, One Continent
Your Road Worrier columnist has always fancied himself as a pretty compact packer, but in the month of May I’ll put that to a pretty severe test with the Lifehacker Hand Luggage Only challenge: doing my normal work, visiting every state and territory in Australia, and living completely out of a single standard-sized airline carry-on bag.

Every time we run a story about what you should pack when travelling, there’s inevitably a comment about how the most effective way to travel is not to check your baggage at all, thereby saving time at the airport and not having to worry about lost luggage. That means you have to keep within standard hand luggage dimensions, as well as carrying all the stuff you can’t risk putting in the hold at any time along with your clothes and other personal requirements.

In practice, that’s pretty feasible if you’re only staying away for two or three days, and as such it’s a tactic I regularly adopt when going on brief work trips. But it gets harder if you’re going to be away for a longer period of time. Judging by the dozens of people I see wielding two carry-on cases on domestic flights, lots of people like this idea but can’t quite manage to get everything into just one bag. (How successfully you can get away with that depends on your airline: Qantas allows two carry-on bags on non-regional flights, but Virgin Blue and Jetstar, both of which have separate baggage charges, are pickier.)

It’s always seemed to me that getting everything into one carry-on sized bag shouldn’t be that hard: with a compact notebook PCs and a decent smart phone, a large percentage of white collar workers should be able to get the job done. Add some clothes and toiletries and you’re essentially done. But it’s one thing to hypothesise about it, and another thing to actually test it over an extended period of time.

Hence Hand Luggage Only. For the whole of May, I’m going to be travelling with just one suitcase, which meets the standard dimensions for a carry-on bag. Everything I need to work, play and get around has to fit in that bag. To ensure that it remains a proper challenge, I’m going to travel around the country, visiting every state for various conferences and meetings and using as many modes of transport as are feasible. When I need to be based in Sydney (my home town) for work events, I’ll stay in a motel rather than at home (otherwise, frankly, it’d be too easy to cheat). It’s a work-based project, so I’m not going to be staying in backpacker venues, but in these tight times, I will also be looking for as many tactics as possible to keep the bills down.

I have some advantages going into the project. My career as a freelance technology writer means that I can get most tasks done armed with a PC and an Internet connection, and already requires me to travel a lot. Luckily, I’m monumentally unfussy about my appearance, so the thought of wearing the same three outfits (and the same single pair of jeans and shoes) for a whole month doesn’t faze me in the slightest.

There are some immediate challenges though. Several of the titles I write for demand high-resolution photography, so I’ve got to make room for my trusty Canon EOS 400D camera, even though that takes up a fair chunk of space. I’m a minor gadget freak, so I have to work out how many iPods, spare mobiles and USB drives I can afford to cram in. Roaming around the country means I’ll be facing variable weather, but I can’t afford to carry clothes for every occasion. And I’m reasonably tall, which means my clothes take up more room than would be the case for someone more compact.

I’m going to detail exactly what made up my basic starting packing list, and how I organised the trip on as lean a budget as possible, in subsequent posts this week. But these are the basic rules I set for myself:

  • Everything has to fit in one standard bag. Most of the travel involved is by plane, and the airline I’ll mostly be using (Qantas) is, as I’ve noted, not generally too picky about people taking on an extra bag. But that would make the experience unrepresentative, and less challenging.
  • Utilise as many modes of transport as possible. While I’ll largely be relying on planes, several train trips, the odd bus ride and even a boat trip are also on the agenda.
  • Visit every state and territory in Australia. Local business travel might be dominated by Sydney-Melbourne hops, but if I’m going to be on the move, I figure I should cover the whole country.
  • Save money wherever possible. I’ve booked hotels that are affordable (but still central — at no stage will I be renting a car), and it’s all been done in advance for maximum savings. Whenever I can, I’ll use public transport or a shuttle service to get to and from airports or other transport facilities. And I won’t be paying for any hotel dry-cleaning services.

I set off this Friday May 1 (first stop: Adelaide), and I’ll be posting regularly on Lifehacker about what works, what doesn’t and whether all the planning has paid off (look for the ‘hand luggage only’ tag or get an easy fix from www.handluggageonly.net. There’ll also be some blow-by-blow commentary on my personal Twitter account (@gusworldau) Got any initial advice or suggestions? Share them in the comments.

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman suspects that the laundry is where it will all go wrong. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.


  • I was recently pinged in Darwin by Qantas for having a single carry on bag (included laptop and two days worth of clothing) that weighed over 7kgs. I was requested to remove items from it and check it in as hold luggage. I suspect that it was more to do with the late hour out than anything else as I saw numerous people with hand luggage that was either large and or looked like it probably had more than 7kg in it.

  • Since the outlawing of smoking in venues, I wash my jeans about 10-12 times per year. Your comfort with a short-rotation of clothes helps your challenge incredibly.

    I don’t think many female readers will find this of much use, but I’m looking forward to the updates.

    I’d probably be craving a new t-shirt after a month of the same two, but like you Angus, I think I could survive. Good luck!

  • Sounds interesting, I will be following it.

    I have lived in Sydney for a month with just my hand luggage and a laptop bag. Jeans were my best friend, they can get dirty and no-one really notices lol

    • I am a woman who only ever uses a carry-on bag (except that I can’t carry it on, because I like to knit and knitting needles are apparently weapons). The only time I have a problem keeping the size down to one carry-on bag is when I’m travelling to two different temperature zones (a trip to Winter in New Zealand and Hawaii being a notable example!). Astrid, just like many men wouldn’t want to wear only one pair of jeans for a month, many women would rather travel light than wear makeup.

  • If you haven’t got packing cubes, a lightweight wind/rainproof jacket, versatile shoes, small versions of toiletries, travel pants and travel shirts you will do it tough!

    Would be happy to help you get you kitted out in some ideal gear if you like, we have a travel / adventure store in Sydney CBD and help customers do this everyday. Don’t want to mention the name here, happy to contact if you are interested.

    Good luck – will be following the test!

    p.s avid reader of the site…

  • I used to commute Perth / Palermo / Tunis doing this every 6 weeks for a year. A super lightweight day backpack – you can usually get away with it as well as one carry bag or can scrunch (depending on zealotry of airline staff) up is crucial for throwing in a few valuable things and once you drop your bag at the destination hotel. In Europe a lightweight sports jacket lets you not look over/under dressed. Toiletries – toothpaste, deodorant and headache pills in ziplock only. Versatile shoes and Volleys for exercise. Light and layered clothes. My trusty but now replaced Sharp MV10 and rock of Gibraltar and great battery life Nokia 1100 with USB charger. There are lighter bags than the one you show – you can get them down to < 2 kg. Put valuable carry on stuff in your plastic bag that is full of newspapers for the flight and then transfer to backpack.

    • Life would be a lot easier if I allowed myself to take more than a bag’s worth of stuff on board — but while I’d probably get away with it on a lot of flights, it’d be a lot less of a challenge.

  • Great challenge Angus!

    When you mentioned the variable transport modes it reminded me of a recent TV series which aimed to travel by as many types of vehicles as possible. I never quite saw if they really did get it down to one bag though.

    Sounds like we’ll all be delighted to see how you get on with the challenge.

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