I just returned from a five-day trip to Paris, on a budget airline that charges a fee to bring a carry-on. I’m cheap, so that means everything had to fit in a small bag under the seat in front of me. Friends, I did it. You can, too.
We’ll get to the specifics of what I packed and how, but this is a feat that’s more about the planning than the execution. Here’s what I mean.
Measure Your Bag
The space under the seat in front of you is pretty roomy: it’s big enough for an average-sized backpack, or an overstuffed messenger bag. But don’t eyeball it: if you misjudge and you can’t quite wedge your bag into that space, the crew will ask you to put it somewhere else. That could mean another fee, or depending on how crowded the plane is, you might even need to hand it over to be gate-checked.
Avoid this minor nightmare by actually checking the airline’s bag measurements. For instance on Jetstar, a personal item may be 56 by 36 by 25cm (HWD), including handles and wheels and can’t weigh more than 7kg. Check the airline’s website and then whip out a tape measure and verify. (If your bag is soft-sided, make sure to measure it when it’s fully packed.)
If you're anything like me, you spend a lot of time packing for a trip. You painstakingly plan out everything to bring, make a full list, then Tetris everything into your luggage. A better solution? Keep a permanent travel drawer.
To really be prepared, though, you also need a Plan B. Maybe you’ll buy a few too many souvenirs and need to check your bag. Or sometimes on domestic flights, you’ll end up in a tiny aeroplane that doesn’t have any space under the seat and you’ll have to gate-check your stuff. Here’s your insurance policy: pack your in-flight essentials in a small purse or packing cube that you can tuck in the seat back pocket.
This way, if you have to give up your bag, you’ll have the important things with you.
Prune Your Packing List Ruthlessly
I don’t have a magical spell to fit a suit or a formal dress or a sleeping bag into a carry-on. The one-bag approach only really works for people with simple needs who are going on simple trips. I didn’t bring a laptop or any workout gear. I did bring a few changes of clothes, essential toiletries, a sketchbook and a phone charger.
I didn’t bother with soap or shampoo, since I knew I could buy those at my destination. (Showering with French soap made my stay in France feel just a little more authentic.) My husband bought a six-pack of electrical outlet adaptors and I caught him shoving the whole thing in his bag. “Wait, how many plug-in things are we bringing?” I asked. Just two: his phone charger and mine. So we left four of the adaptors at home.
I packed fresh socks, shirts and underwear for each day, and planned to wear a dress once and my shorts and pants twice each. (If I were more hardcore, I would have packed just two outfits and washed one in the hotel sink each night.) I resisted the urge to pack a skirt “just in case”.
To winnow the “just in case” pile, ask yourself, what would I do if I needed this but didn’t have it? Without the skirt, I would just wear my dress or shorts instead. That’s fine; the skirt stays home. But if I got sore feet and didn’t have my packet of blister bandages, I’d have to walk the streets of Paris looking for a place to buy some. The bandages came with me.
Think Big, Pack Small
Dump out your bag, so you’re not bringing any detritus from a previous trip, and then begin to pack it wisely. A few tips:
Choose the smallest item that will do the job. Bring the travel-size toothpaste, even if the full-size is technically small enough to get through security. Compare your jackets and sweaters and bring the thinnest one that’s still warm enough—or perhaps you’d prefer a lightweight scarf that you can wear as a shawl?
Roll your clothes. Rolling is the most compact way to pack. Put socks and T-shirts on the inside of the roll and carefully smooth your wrinkleable items on the outside. Know how you will remove any surprise wrinkles: does your room come with an iron? Will you steam the clothes while you’re in the shower?
Wrinkled clothes can be a problem when you're trying to dress to impress, especially if you're travelling and you don't have much time to fix it. Adding a small spray bottle to your travel kit can save the day.
Wear the biggest items. You’ll have more room in your bag if you wear your jeans and pack your shorts than vice-versa. You can also wear your travel pillow on the flight and strap it to your bag while you’re trekking through the airport.
Make sure everything is accessible, too. You’ll be miserable if the interior of your bag is a random jumble. Use packing cubes, or arrange your rolls of clothes to divide up the space as needed. Make good use of pockets, too: flat things in the laptop compartment, for example, and your passport and phone charger in whatever pocket is easiest to reach.
Keep Souvenirs Small or Intangible
You do, eventually, have to bring everything back. If you brought travel size toiletries, maybe you can finish them off and throw them out before you come home. You also don’t have to worry as much about keeping your clothes unwrinkled. These tweaks can gain you a few cubic centimetres.
If you’re serious about bringing home souvenirs, consider bringing a collapsible duffel from home, or buying a cheap bag on the road. Then you’re only paying the bag check fee in one direction, not both. Also compare the bag check fee with the cost (and time delay) of mailing things home.
A budget is the last thing you want to think about while you're on holiday, which is why it's so easy to blow it. To avoid an overspending hangover when you return, make a list of stuff you want to buy before you go.
But if you won’t have much room for souvenirs, keep an eye out during your trip for things that pack light. I picked up a French-language cooking magazine for my mum, and translated the tastiest recipes on the flight home. Foreign snacks also make great gifts and are easy enough to tuck into small spaces.
Photos, videos and good old fashioned memories make great souvenirs too, and they don’t take up any physical space at all. (You could even get a photo book printed when you return, or write down your thoughts in a journal, to make them more tangible without encroaching on your underwear.)
What I Actually Packed
OK, time to prove that this is for real. Here’s what I did.
The bag: I used an Eddie Bauer messenger bag that I bought many years ago; it’s now discontinued. We have gone on many one-bag trips, this bag and I. My husband, who packed equally light, used a Swiss Gear backpack.
Large and unwieldy Items: My one extravagance was a pair of heeled T-strap leather shoes. I stuffed my socks and underwear inside of them, so they held their shape and then wrapped them loosely in a plastic bag so they wouldn’t get the rest of my items dirty. I also had a travel pillow, strapped to the handle of my bag.
Clothes: For a four-night trip, I brought four shirts, one dress, one pair of shorts and five sets of socks and underwear. I wore sneakers, a jacket and a shirt-and-pants outfit.
Toiletries: I had a small zippered pouch with the likes of lipstick and deodorant and a ziploc with just a few liquid-phase personal items like moisturiser and toothpaste.
Electronics: All I need for a non-work trip is my phone, a charging cable, and a battery pack. (My husband prefers an electric toothbrush and razor at home, but made do with analogue versions for this trip.) We also brought a headphone splitter and a pair of earbuds for each of us.
Fun stuff: A book for the plane; a sketchbook and a small pack of art supplies; energy bars; wallet, passport, etc.
With hindsight, I only made a few mistakes. I should have left the fancy shoes behind and either gone without or brought a pair of plain flats instead. I didn’t need the jacket that I wore in the airport, although I’m glad I brought it. And that’s about it; this is one of the most perfectly calibrated trips I’ve taken.
I’ve had a rough time in the past, though. I can think of two trips where I ended up freezing because I didn’t want the bulk of packing warm clothes. In one of those cases, I only had skirts to wear; a pair of tights or leggings would have only taken up a tiny amount of space and would have been a lifesaver.
On a few trips, I forgot to pack a purse, because somehow in my mind the messenger bag was my purse. It is much better to have a real purse (or tote bag, or laptop bag) for your daily excursions instead of having to dump out all your clothes on the hotel bed to make do with your carry-on.
Now, I visualise each day’s activities when I write my packing list and this helps me remember things like purses. And I apply the “just in case” test to all of those “just in case” items. And now I’m the person who hops off a plane with just a small backpack, breezes past the baggage claim and takes the Métro to her Airbnb. It’s a great way to holiday.