The moment it all clicked for me was at a nondescript train station in London.
The Stansted Express to London’s worst or second worst airport was about to depart and we rushed to the platform, knowing that if we missed that connection our flight to Italy would be at real risk.
But despite our delay, we made it through the sea of Brits lugging huge rolling suitcases onto the train, finding ourselves not only comfortable on the train, but with a seat and a shelf for our backpacks.
It was just the first moment of self-satisfied joy I’ve had traveling through Europe in the last month with nothing but an 8kg bag on my back – a bag.
There are countless times I’ve seen Americans slamming down cobblestone European streets with huge or small suitcases, lifting them up steep stairs over the cliffs of Santorini and the Amalfi Coast, or descending several flights of stairs for a train.
There are all the times we’ve been largely ignored by the kind of person who spots tourists and immediately tries to “help” them out for some sort of money – either with a taxi, a rip off or just a really bad invite to the restaurant. And of course there’s the dream of airports with nothing but hand luggage, where you can arrive shortly before the plane departs and depart shortly after it arrives, all for the price of an evening at the cinema at home.
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As the travel world slowly emerges from pandemic hibernation, everything at the airport is taking longer and airfares remain expensive. Saving time and money by not checking baggage has made things a lot smoother.
I became the worst kind of convert, constantly reminding my girlfriend how smarter we are than regular tourists and trying to find ways to bring it up in conversations with other travelers. This prompted me to write an entire article on this topic, despite the fact that our five-week vacation through Italy, Greece, Turkey, Germany, and then Italy isn’t even over yet. I am here to evangelize.
The benefits are obvious in terms of money and mobility.
Low-cost European airlines like Ryanair don’t make money just buying a seat, but charge huge sums for checked baggage. Even if you don’t check your bags, you may have to pay for “priority boarding” to get a normal size hand bag – but it’s still much, much cheaper than checking bags or flights with normal airlines. Our most expensive flight to date from London to Naples was NZ$141 – all others were in double digits.
Then there is mobility, which also allows you to save on taxi fares to and from the airport or train station. Suddenly, every city’s public transport is available to you, often getting you to your accommodation around the same time as a taxi, for a tenth of the price. Half the time in the old world of Europe, your taxi can’t drive to where you’re staying anyway, leaving you 100 meters down a narrow alley from your hostel or Airbnb.
Mobility also makes those boring halfway days easier – the ones where you leave in the morning but don’t fly until the evening, or arrive in a city long before you can check in. Instead of sitting somewhere married to your luggage that you can use the day for sightseeing.
This ease of movement can cover mistakes made earlier. We had figured that any hotel near Pompeii in Italy would likely be close to the historic site that gives the town its name. Turns out we were actually a 40 minute walk from 33C with no viable public transportation. It would be hell with a lot of luggage but it was only very boring with a backpack.
Now for the catches.
The most important is the laundry. Hardly any traveler will have enough clean clothes for five weeks of travel. But with what I’ve packed, I do a load every four or five days – usually in a sink in the hotel room, with special travel soap for washing hands. It takes about 30 minutes, requires me to carry a portable clothesline, and is definitely a bit of a pain.
And, naturally, you have fewer clothing 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’re pretty limited. I have two pairs of pants, which is probably overkill considering the heat, and only one pair of sneakers next to Birkenstocks. If I suddenly needed to dress up to go somewhere fancy, I’d be screwed. (Given that, I’d say a single bag for work trips is probably still a bit of a stretch – if you have to wear a suit, bring a suitcase.)
You also lose the ability to actually purchase items overseas. I have room to buy a t-shirt or a trinket or two – but nothing full size, no art gallery books or Naples nativity scenes.
But these limitations haven’t really held us back yet. And the freedom that just one bag has given us is enormous – far more than any other set of clothes could ever provide.
- There is a huge range of backpacks specially designed to fit within the limits of carry-on luggage. My Osprey Fairpoint also mimics a suitcase by opening completely from the front, like a clamshell, with a very spacious main pocket.
- It’s so spacious that more organization is essential – inexpensive packing cubes make all the difference.
- Bring clothes that dry quickly and breathe, avoiding heavy cotton. If you stop at a big center with a Uniqlo, their “dry” range might be a good bet – or you could always grab an Icebreaker. My linen shirts and my synthetic t-shirts are my favorites.
- If you’re worried about the cold, wool layers are your friend, as are the packable down jackets that Kathmandu and others sell.
- An inexpensive luggage scale will take the stress out of the airport. That said: no airline seems to want to weigh down something you’re casually carrying on your back.
- You probably still want some sort of smaller bag for your daily commute. I have a silly fanny pack and a packable backpack that folds down to the size of a muesli bar.
- If possible, ditch the laptop for a tablet or just your phone. That’s a lot of weight, especially when you include the charger.
- I regretted bringing two pairs of pants (I only wear shorts most days) and not bringing a towel for the beach.
- Toiletries were easy for me and hard for my girlfriend. She recommends: Using your boyfriend’s liquid carry-on baggage allowance. That said, you probably don’t need much of your makeup kit unless you’re an Instagram influencer. Obviously, travel size skin care is your friend and a good foot cream or scrub is worth it.
See also: There is (almost) no excuse for traveling with checked baggage
See also: Why I can’t travel with anyone for more than three days in a row