Laura Yuen: How to travel with only hand luggage – and a few tips if that doesn’t work

When you love something, share it—by packing it in your checked baggage.

Meaning: You may never see it again.

Flying with checked baggage is a gamble this summer, especially if you’re traveling internationally. Airport staffing shortages during a summer of pent-up travel demand has not only delayed and canceled flights, but is conspiring to thwart the intended journeys of suitcases loaded with all of our favorite belongings.

“I would say to travelers flying into or onward via major airports like London Heathrow, Amsterdam and Paris that you might as well flip a coin to see if your bag makes it to your destination,” said Kyle Potter, editor by Thrifty Traveler of Minneapolis.

Social media abounds with horror stories of bags that have gone missing permanently, been sent to faraway places or been reunited with their owners weeks after returning from vacation. In May, nearly six in every 1,000 checked bags were “mishandled” — either lost, damaged, delayed or stolen, according to the latest federal data available.

While that doesn’t sound terrible, it “doesn’t capture the true start of the summer travel season,” Potter said, “nor does it show how bad things were in Europe.”

Earlier this month, Delta sent a plane from London to Detroit with no passengers — but with about 1,000 lost bags, which were then shipped to where they needed to go.

Travel experts are always advising you to pack only the essentials in your hand luggage this summer. If you can pull this off, you’re a god in my book. Aside from the time in my 20s when I was backpacking around Asia and washing my socks in hostel sinks, I tend to prepare for every possibility when I fill my suitcase. It’s even worse now that I have children because I fear moral judgment if I fail to plan for the unlikely.

I asked Potter and other carry-on crusaders for their minimalist packing tips. Here’s what they said:

Carry the bulkiest items on the plane

Space-saving sandals in the bag, chunky sneakers on your feet. Wear heavier clothing such as jackets, sweaters, hoodies or jeans on the flight. When packing, opt for quick-drying clothes from outdoor stores like REI that fit in your carry-on.

Roll your clothes

My girlfriend swears by rolling her clothes army style like little Twinkies. You can also buy TSA-friendly compression packing cubes, which can help you pack more clothes in your bag, or at least help you stay organized.

Ruthlessly evaluate your outfits

Another friend says she interrogates every piece of clothing. Can it be worn multiple times, multiple ways? Items that cannot be “team players” stay at home.

Potter, who admits he’s a “pretty plain dresser” by nature, chooses versatile attire – simple t-shirts and quasi-sporty attire that work just as well on a hike as they do in the pub. “People have this impulse to bring as much as possible,” he said. He encouraged me to think about the last time I checked my bag, “and take a mental inventory of everything you packed that you never wore.” Eek.

No better gift than cash

I have childhood memories of my mother packing her suitcase with jars of Pond’s Cold Cream to give to relatives traveling overseas. I’m sorry aunty – this time you’re getting cash.

When Gatachew Teklu, owner of Admas Travel, flies back to Ethiopia to visit his family, “I just give them money instead of buying them all this TJ Maxx and Marshalls stuff,” he said.

Make the most of your personal item

Don’t waste the space under the front seat with a tiny purse. A medium-sized bag or backpack with multiple compartments can hold electronics and headphones, fresh clothes, and airport essentials. Just measure the dimensions and check airline restrictions to ensure you can stow it under the seat.

You can always do laundry

No matter how long your trip, only pack a week’s worth of clothes. When choosing your place to stay, consider an Airbnb that has an on-site washer and dryer, or a hotel that offers laundry and folding services, Potter advises.

Traveling with children

When Allie Hawley March of Oakdale travels, each child gets their own backpack. E-books are a must. If your child is old enough to use a car seat, consider inflatables like the BubbleBum to save space. On her recent family outing, Hawley March said, “The booster seat literally fit in my carry-on, along with all my clothes, and was in my pocket under the seat in front of me. No overhead bin or checked baggage. It was wonderful.”

How’s that for winning the bonus round?

“I don’t want to try and fight kids AND a rolling suitcase,” said Hawley March, who hasn’t checked in a bag in 20 years. “I like to have both hands free so I can hold on to small people – hence a backpack. And then once the kids have all the backpacks, they can be responsible for their own gear.”

If you have to check a bag…

Make sure you pack essentials in your carry-on: medicines, toiletries (travel size, bien sûr!), clothes and shoes, valuables, contact lenses, and any clothing you plan to wear for special occasions like weddings.

Apple AirTags or similar wireless tracking devices “are almost a must right now,” Potter said. It won’t prevent your bag from getting lost, but it can help you get it back faster since you’ll be able to pinpoint its location. I found them on Amazon for $27.50 each or $89 for a set of four.

Buy your airline ticket with a baggage protection credit card, which can reimburse you for a change of clothes and toiletries during your trip if your baggage is significantly delayed or lost. While airlines may be on the hook for some of these costs, they may take time to sort out, Potter said. Make sure you get paperwork from the airline about your lost luggage and keep the receipts for your purchases.

Another option is to purchase your own travel insurance. But be sure to read the fine print and make sure your policy includes baggage insurance.

Already converted? Potter said that most travelers have their routines and don’t want to be told that there is another way. But he trusts that during this unpredictable and potentially stressful time of travel, some of us might open our minds — and our carry-ons — to the beauty of packing light.

“The only thing worse than going somewhere for two weeks and not having all the clothes you want,” he said, “is going somewhere for two weeks and not having any clothes, period.”


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