When you travel with just carry-on luggage you avoid airline luggage fees, the risk of having your bags lost, and long waits at the baggage carousel on arrival. To make sure you can take your bag on the plane you need to be familiar with airline restrictions as only bags of a certain size and weight are allowed.
There’s been some concern lately about the IATA Cabin OK proposal that recommends a smaller hand luggage size than most airlines currently allow. This was only a recommendation not a mandate and they have now paused the initiative, so we shouldn’t see any major changes to current carry-on policies.
The most commonly allowed size of carry-on luggage is 56 x 36 x 23 cm (22 x 14 x 9 inches) including all handles, side pockets, and wheels. This varies by airline with some allowing slightly larger or smaller bags, so check with the airline you plan to travel with.
Airlines have luggage sizers at the gate and while boarding the plane they could ask you to place your bag inside. If it doesn’t fit you could be forced to check the bag in the luggage hold (and some airlines charge fees for this). In practice, we’ve found that most airlines aren’t too strict about the exact size of your carry-on. In over five years we’ve never had our bags measured, although Simon’s Tortuga backpack is a few centimetres over the size restrictions of some airlines like Ryanair.
To be sure it’s best to choose luggage that fits the restrictions of the airlines you’ll be travelling on. If you’ll be travelling with a backpack look for one in the range of 30 to 45 litres, but do check the dimensions as well, and be aware of how overpacking can make the backpack expand over the stated measurements. We recommend the Tortuga Outbreaker backpack if you’re looking for the maximum carry on size or the Osprey Farpoint 40 (which I use) for something a bit smaller. We have written a detailed review of these carry-on backpacks.
It’s best to try to board the plane as early as possible as space in the overhead bins can run out, and some budget airlines (like Ryanair and Easyjet) don’t guarantee that there will be space for your hand luggage even if you meet the restrictions. We’ve never had an issue with this but if you are worried you might want to pay extra for priority boarding, which many budget airlines offer.
Hand luggage usually has a weight restriction from 5 kg to 12 kg, with most airlines in Asia and Australia limiting it to 7 kg. This is a big concern for many people, as by the time you’ve added up the weight of your bag, a laptop, and a camera, it doesn’t leave much for other things.
The weight of our backpacks vary but mine is usually 8 to 9 kg and Simon’s is 9 to 11 kg, so we are over the limits for many airlines we fly. But in over five years our carry-ons have never been weighed so it hasn’t been a problem. We aim not to draw attention to ourselves—if the bag doesn’t look big and heavy then the airline is less likely to weigh it. It helps that we carry a backpack rather than a suitcase which are more conspicuous and look heavier. Backpacks also tend to use up less of your weight limit than heavier suitcases.
There are a few things you can do to help reduce the weight of your luggage and avoid getting it weighed at the airport:
Check in online – Print your boarding pass in advance (we use internet cafes or save it on our phone if the airline allows it) so you can avoid the check-in desk and go straight to security. The check-in desk is where your bag is most likely to be weighed.
Use your personal item – If you have to use the check-in desk and the airline allows an extra personal item (see below for details) remove something heavy from your bag like a laptop, camera, or packing cube while you are checking in. You can always put it back in your bag afterwards. You could also do this if you get weighed at the gate—there’s no need to check your luggage if you haven’t maximised your personal item allowance. Most airlines don’t include your personal item in the weight limit but a few do so always check before you fly.
Wear it – Wear your heaviest clothes and shoes on the plane—we did this for a ski trip to Finland. If it’s too warm to wear your jumper or jacket carry it or tie it around your waist rather than pack it.
Compress – Be careful how you pack your bag so it doesn’t look too bulky. Use packing cubes or compression bags to reduce the size of your clothes and compress the straps on the outside of your backpack to make it smaller. If it doesn’t look big the airline is less likely to weigh it.
One bag – If you travel with just one bag you’ll be less conspicuous—the aim is not to draw attention to yourself. The airline is more likely to weigh the bags of people who look loaded down with luggage.
Fill your pockets – If the airline is really strict you could fill your pockets with some of your heavier items—cargo pants or a jacket with pockets would be ideal. We’ve never had to do this but Benny Lewis managed to carry on 15 kg of gear in his jacket!
The worst case scenario is that your bag gets weighed and you’re forced to check it in. Have a backup plan for this scenario—Simon says he’ll take out his packing cube of clothes and check that (although I’m not sure that will work in practice). Or we might have to carry our laptops onto the plane and check the bags, or rearrange our stuff to check in one of our bags and carry on the other. Luckily we’ve never been in this situation.
Don’t let the weight issue stop you travelling with a carry-on. Try to keep the weight down, apply some of the above tips, and remember that if you do end up having to check it in, it’s unlikely to happen on every flight, and it’s still better than checking your luggage all the time.
Note: One airline that does regularly weigh hand luggage at the gate is Jetstar in Australia and Asia. They only allow 7 kg combined weight for your cabin bag and personal item, and will charge you AUD $50-160 to check in over the limit bags at the gate. We travelled with them on a domestic flight in Vietnam without a problem though.
Most airlines allow one piece of carry-on luggage plus an additional personal item which must fit under the seat in front of you. Some airlines allow any small bag including a backpack, handbag, laptop case, or shoulder bag, while others only allow a small purse or handbag. Check with the airline you’ll be travelling with for the size and weight restrictions on personal items.
Not all airlines allow personal items, especially low-cost airlines, so I think it’s best to manage without a second bag. Our day bag is a packable backpack that we pack inside Simon’s backpack when needed, and can take out when a personal item is allowed—it’s often convenient to have a bag under the seat for items we need on the plane. A tote bag is another option.
In addition to your carry-on and personal item some airlines allow extra articles such as a jacket, umbrella, small bag of food, and bag of duty-free items. Check with the airline as allowances vary. If weight is a concern carry rather than pack these things.
Resources for Travelling Carry-On Only
If you’d like to learn more about how to travel carry-on only, see my book, The Carry-On Traveller: The Ultimate Guide to Packing Light, which is available for Kindle or paperback on Amazon US, Amazon UK or your local Amazon store.
You can also see our other posts about packing light:
- The Best Carry-On Backpack for Digital Nomads
- Our Carry-On Packing List (Updated)
- Carry-On Travel in 10 Easy Steps
- How to Pack Carry-On Only For Cold Weather
- Ski Trip Packing List
- How to Buy Travel Insurance When You Are Already Travelling
Are you planning your travels for 2018? See our Travel Resources page for our favourite tools and gear to help you plan the perfect trip.