The moment it all clicked to me was in a nondescript London train station.
The Stansted express to London’s either worst or second-worst airport was about to leave and we were just rushing onto the platform, knowing that if we missed this connection our flight to Italy was at real risk.
But despite how late we were, we flew through the sea of Brits dragging huge roller-luggage suitcases onto the train, finding ourselves not just comfortably on the train, but with a seat and a shelf for our backpacks.
This was just the first moment of utter self-satisfied glee I have had travelling around Europe in the last month with nothing but an 8kg bag on my back – one-bagging.
There’s the countless times I have watched Americans clattering over cobble-stoned European streets with huge or small suitcases, heaving them up steep stairways on the cliffs of Santorini and the Amalfi Coast, or down multiple sets of stairs for a train.
There’s all the times we have largely been ignored by the kind of person who spots tourists and immediately tries to “help” them for some kind of money – either with a cab, a scam, or just a very bad restaurant invitation. And of course there’s the dream of airports with nothing but carry-on baggage, where you can turn up not long before the plane departs and leave just after it arrives, all for the price of a night at the movies back home.
As the travel world slowly exits pandemic-hibernation, everything at the airport takes more time, and airfares remain expensive. Saving time and money by not checking luggage has made things far smoother.
I have become the worst kind of convert, constantly reminding my girlfriend how much smarter than regular tourists we are and trying to find ways to bring it up in conversations with other travellers. It’s driven me to write a whole article about this topic, despite the fact our five-week holiday through Italy, Greece, Turkey, Germany, and then Italy again isn’t even over yet. I am here to evangelise.
The advantages are obvious in terms of both money and mobility.
Budget European airlines like Ryanair don’t make any money on you just buying a seat, instead charging huge amounts for checked luggage. Even if you don’t check your luggage, you may have to pay for “priority boarding” in order to get a regular-sized carry-on bag – but this is still far, far cheaper than checking luggage or flying normal airlines. Our most expensive flight yet, from London to Naples, was NZ$141 – all the others have been in the double digits.
Then there’s mobility, which also saves you money on cab fares to and from the airport or train station. Suddenly all public transport in every city is available to you, often letting you get to your accommodation in about the same time a cab would take, for a tenth of the price. Half the time in the old world of Europe your cab can’t actually drive to where you’re staying anyway, leaving you many 100 metres down a narrow alley from your hostel or Airbnb.
The mobility also makes those annoying halfway days far easier – the ones where you’re checking out in the morning but aren’t flying until the evening, or arrive in a city long before you can check in. Instead of sitting somewhere wedded to your luggage you can use the day for tourism.
This ease-of-movement can cover for mistakes made earlier. We had figured that any hotel near Pompeii in Italy would probably be close to the historic site that gives the town its name. Turns out we were actually 40 minutes of 33C walk away with no viable public transport. This would be hell with a lot of luggage but was only very annoying with a backpack.
Now for the catches.
The biggest one is laundry. Almost no traveller will have enough clean clothes for five weeks of travel. But with what I’ve packed I’m doing a load every four or five days – usually in a sink in the hotel room, with some special travel handwashing soap. This takes about 30 minutes, necessitates me carrying a portable drying line, and is a definitely a bit of a pain.
And, naturally, you have fewer sartorial options. You can fit a lot of T-shirts and shirts in a decent backpack, but when it comes to pants, jackets, and especially shoes you are quite limited. I have two pairs of pants, which is probably overkill given the heat, and a single pair of sneakers alongside by Birkenstocks. If I suddenly needed to be quite dressed up to go somewhere fancy I would be screwed. (Given this, I’d say one-bagging for work travel is probably still a bit of a stretch – if you need to wear a suit, bring a suitcase.)
You also lose the ability to really shop for items overseas. I have room to buy a T-shirt or trinket or two – but nothing of any real size, no books from art galleries or nativity scene from Naples.
But these limitations have not really held us back yet. And the freedom that one-bagging has given us is huge – far more than another set of clothes could ever provide.
- There are a huge range of backpacks specifically designed to fit under carry-on limits. My Osprey Fairpoint also imitates a suitcase by opening all the way up from the front, clamshell-style, with a very spacious main pocket.
- It’s so spacious that more organisation is key – cheap packing cubes make a world of difference.
- Bring clothes that dry fast and are breathable, avoiding heavy cotton. If you’re stopping in a major centre with an Uniqlo their “dry” range might be a good bet – or you can always grab an Icebreaker. My linen shirts and synthetic t-shirts have been my go-to.
- If you’re worried about the cold, wool layers are your friend – as are those packable puffer jackets Kathmandu and others sell.
- An inexpensive luggage scale will avoid any airport stressing. That said: No airline seems to want to weigh something that you are casually carrying on your back.
- You probably still want some kind of smaller bag for day-to-day travel. I’ve got a dorky fanny-pack and a packable backpack which folds down to being the size of a muesli bar.
- If possible, ditch the laptop for a tablet or just your phone. It’s a lot of weight, especially when you include the charger.
- I have regretted bringing two pairs of pants (I just wear shorts almost every day) and not bringing some kind of towel for the beach.
- Toiletries have been easy for me and tough for my girlfriend. She recommends: using your boyfriend’s liquid carry-on allowance. That said, you probably don’t need much of your make-up kit unless you’re an Instagram influencer. Obviously, travel-sized skincare is your friend and a good foot cream or scrub is worth the space.