Hand Luggage Only: The Big Lessons Learned

Hand Luggage Only: The Big Lessons Learned

A little over a month ago, I announced my plans to roam Australia on the ultimate business travel trek, visiting every state and territory for work while using just a single carry-on bag. Now the journey is over, what key lessons have I learned?

If there was a single aim to Hand Luggage Only, it was to see just how sustainable the “living from one bag” approach was in the medium term. Almost anyone who travels for work has done an overnighter with just one bag (or perhaps more realistically, one bag and a laptop case), but sustaining that approach over a longer period requires a more focused approach. While it’s unlikely anyone would directly replicate this particular challenge, these are all issues you should think about if you’re packing light for any kind of trip.

Laundry remains the biggest barrier

If you look at the contents of my bag, clothes don’t take up a lot of room — and they didn’t. But the price of that compact approach was that I essentially had to hand wash whatever I was wearing every single day. That worked OK when I was in a warmer location for a few days, but in the final week, when I’d wake every morning and have to pack semi-damp clothes in a plastic bag before moving on, it seemed less appealing.

The alternative is to utilise the laundry in your hotel. That presumes that there is one, and that you’re willing to spend quite a lot ($3 a load for washing, the same for drying and $2 for detergent were the prices most everywhere I went). You also have to hope that there aren’t lots of other travellers queuing up to use the same facilities, which happened to me in Cairns. If you do want to rely on hand washing, pack your own sink plug — far too many hotels don’t have them or offer options that don’t work effectively.

Wireless broadband is great, but could be greater

In the course of the trip, I got the chance to test out all four of Australia’s 3G broadband networks in a wide variety of locations. (I didn’t carry a NextG device, but roamed onto that network via 3 when the need arose.) On the whole, I was impressed with how broad the coverage was across all the carriers. There were relatively few places I visited where there was only a single carrier to choose from — indeed, it was more common to find black spots where absolutely nothing whatsoever worked.

That doesn’t mean all of the services couldn’t bear improvement, particularly on the software front. To broadly sum up their flaws: NextG is still massively expensive, Optus has the flakiest network, 3 would be lost without a roaming partner and Vodafone has shockingly kludgy software. But even the most expensive deal is cheaper than paying for hotel broadband, and saves time on hunting down that elusive free Wi-Fi signal.

A small notebook makes a world of difference

In my working life during the trip, my PC would be the last item to go into my bag and the first to come out. From that perspective, having a sub-13-inch machine (in my case, the Portégé R600) made an enormous difference — I didn’t need to reserve a whole layer of space at the top of the bag to pop it in.

If you were less PC-reliant in your day-to-day work, there are plenty of netbooks that would fit that requirement as well . However, having spent the preceding few months working with a netbook, I quickly came to appreciate the difference that having some decent processor grunt (and an on-board optical drive) made for a full-time work machine, as opposed to an occasional device.

For financial or other reasons, that’s probably not an option for everybody. Mac enthusisasts, for instance, have no choice but to put up with a bigger model (and most seem more than happy with that compromise), and you’ll undoubtedly pay more for compact notebook models in the Windows world, but it definitely made the daily repack much simpler.

Flights are reliable, but still get there early

I might have had a bit of a whinge about the delayed flight from Perth, but in a month of travelling (and flying solely with Qantas), that was the only substantive delay I had to suffer through. Unfortunately, I’m the kind of person who has to get to the airport two hours early anyway, so I couldn’t really take advantage of this punctuality (and my lack of checked baggage) by swanning up at the last minute.

But there’s a good reason not to do that anyway — at least if you have long legs and hence want to put your case in the overhead locker. The earlier you board, the better your odds of getting some space to stow your bag. (And before someone cries out “selfish!”, on most flights I’d see dozens of people with two bags who put them both overhead, which to my mind is much ruder behaviour, especially if the flight is full.)

The powerboard is critical

I’ve rung out the praises of travelling with your own powerboard before, but it’s worth emphasising how useful this is, despite its relative bulk. Even if I was to charge everything else via the PC, there were locations where the powerboard’s role as an extension cord was vital. (In practice, too, phones recharge much quicker when plugged in than via the laptop.)


So the big question is: could I imagine doing it again? Probably — but I think I’d work harder on picking hotels with laundry rooms and building that into the schedule, and I’d get more organised on the phone front to cut down on the number of chargers and devices. I’d also probably try and avoid travelling on smaller aircraft.

The next level of challenge is arguably to try the same trick overseas, which adds new challenges in the form of roaming and power outlets, not to mention on-board liquid rules. Really, you’d have to be mad to attempt it. I’ll start working on those plans now . . .

Throughout May 2009, Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman travelled throughout Australia with just one carry-on bag for the Hand Luggage Only project.


  • _The next level of challenge is arguably to try the same trick overseas, which adds new challenges in the form of roaming and power outlets_

    I spent over two years roaming around Europe. Power outlets are easily handled by taking a power board and one adaptor.

    WiFi options are very diverse, but free WiFi in hotels is much more common than in Oz, I imagine partly because unlimited plans are the norm.

    Clothes washing can be a bigger hurdle because more people smoke and if you can’t avoid them, then washing the stench out is a big overhead.

    Data/phone roaming packs for Europe are also a good idea. I’ve stood in the middle of a barren landscape in Finnmark and had better data connectivity than I’ve had in half of Sydney. On the other hand, Scotland has very poor coverage even in cities.

  • Regarding overhead luggage stowage. I recently returned from North America where I was stymied by the board by numbers policy UA have (1= 1st and business, 2=back of the plane, 3=front of the plane, 4=aisle seats). I routinely only ever book aisle seats – a must for flying long haul economy. Whilst the board by numbers system works well to eliminate congestion in the aisles in the plane whilst boarding. It does mean that I am last to board, which means there is often no room for my carry on. Sigh, this traveling this gets more and more complex.

  • Our family of five (which at that time included two little ones in nappies) left for 2 weeks in Canada (in summer) with only one carry-on bag each. The only hiccup was a child’s drink-bottle which was found to contain more than 100ml of water. I chucked it out rather than line up again on the flight change at LAX.

    We just bought two outfits each on arrival, and posted them home before departure – saved so much time and hassle I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

  • I think one problem you had was your luggage choice. There are other one bag options that can get you much more space than what you used (all of them are non-wheeled luggage). But if you require wheels for personal reasons then it doesn’t matter much. Just search a bit on one bag travel to find some sites that discuss the topic.

    It’s not clear what your clothing choices were from the picture but one key is to take clothes that dry quickly. When you do that, the wet clothes in the morning problem goes mostly away.

    • The wheels didn’t actually make a major difference to available space — the big is still pretty much at the official size limits for an airline. It’s clear that many people just ignore those requirements when they board plans, but that wasn’t part of my plan.

  • I traveled around the world for 1 year with a 32L backpack, from snow to beaches, and Muslim countries to European destinations. I had enough clothes to usually last me about a week and a half. I did laundry in machines at hostels, sinks and in cheaper countries (Cambodia) at a laundry service. Here’s my How to Pack for a 1 Year, Round the World Trip list: http://www.poweredbytofu.com/2009/05/05/how-to-pack-for-a-1-year-round-the-world-trip/

    If you pack right, you don’t need to do laundry as often!

  • I’ve been following your challenge and I think its interesting the differences compared to my experience. Each year I travel a few months overseas using just hand luggage, and these are some of my tips:

    – Learn to throw stuff out. Sometimes its better just to throw stuff out and replace it later than to carry it around. Especially books and maps.

    – Don’t pack jeans – they weigh a ton when wet, take ages to dry and aren’t particularly warm in cold climates. same goes for any clothes that take a long time to dry.

    – Layering and quality thermals are a much better idea than packing heavy winter gear.

    – Use a smaller carry-on bag. Just because its allowed onboard doesn’t mean its a good idea. You’ll find your collection of gear will grow to fit however big your bag is, especially if your collecting souvenirs/etc.

    Last time i departed with 4.5kg of stuff and three months later i arrived back with 7.5kg somehow even though i only collected keyrings.

    • I agree with you 100%! My girlfriend and I spent 9 weeks travelling around Europe with only carry on bags and we never regretted it. We used bags from Rick Steves that can expand/contract to reduce the size.

      Further to your points, I would add that you can always mail stuff home if you are going to be changing climates mid journey.

      We limited ourselves to 5 shirts, 2 pairs of paints, 5 pairs of underwear and 1 pair of shoes. We would go to the laundromat maybe once a week or wash at the hotel. We are converts and it is the only way we travel now.

  • If you have multi-country guide-books, rip out the sections you don’t need before the trip, and rip out the places you visited during the trip.

    Take old underwear and socks with you and throw them out before you return.

    • Or even better, take electronic versions of the guidebooks. Lonely Planet at least (haven’t yet checked the others) now sells their guides as plain PDFs and you can even pick and choose which chapters you want to buy. Still not quite as convenient to use as paper copies, but a lot easier to carry.

  • A good article Angus. I appreciate the effort. Last year our group of 8 (6 kids) went to Africa, Europe & Asia for 7 weeks. We had 22 flights and never had to wait for more than a couple of minutes (truly) for our bags… which was just enough time to go to the bathroom. I really don’t get this obsession with “carry-on only”. Perhaps my life’s time schedule isn’t as gruelling as others’ (though I doubt it)? I enjoy the time to breathe. Keep the stories coming though…

  • And as for the overseas power requirements, the power board becomes even more critical. A single international adaptor to connect the Aussie power board to the power supply means you don’t have to stuff around with any other adaptors than the ones you take from home.

  • Great article Angus. I just discovered this site have learned a lot from your articles.

    There are two web sites that are full of information and tips about traveling with 1 bag: http://www.onebag.com/ which is run by a gentlemen named Doug Dyment who is the guru of one bag travel. The second is a site at: http://www.1bag1world.com/ which as a lot of good ideas also. I have used what I learned on these sites to take multi-week, multi-country trips with 1 carry-on bag. The main thing is pretty much everything carried must have special characteristics that make it workable, for example dress shirts all must be wrinkle resistant and fast drying.

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