Carry-on only travelling seems to be all the rage these days, at least in the online minimalism/slow living space. Indeed, when I came across a blog post recently that mentioned packing a carry-on AND a checked bag I felt almost like I’d stepped through the looking glass. Here there was, another person on the internet who commits the mortal sin of checking a bag when she goes on holiday!

Of course, I’m exaggerating here, but it felt like a breath of fresh air to see someone else reference taking a checked bag. Travelling carry-on only is so often lauded as the only way to travel that sometimes it feels like I’m the only person who checks a bag (of course, that’s not true, as evidenced by the crowds around the baggage carousel whenever I fly).

There are undeniably benefits to travelling carry-on only. Fewer queues, easier transport at your destination, and zero risk of your luggage being misplaced or lost. For many people, these benefits outweigh the drawbacks, no matter how long their trip or where they’re going.

But for me, it really depends on the trip. Some trips I take just a carry-on, while others I check a bag. As far as I’m concerned neither is inherently better than the other; it all depends on the specifics of your trip. And there’s a lot to think about! From where you’ll be staying to how you’ll be travelling once you reach your destination, so many things factor into whether travelling with a checked bag is right for any given trip.

Where are you staying?

Hotel, hostel, AirBnB, your aunt’s house? Where you’re staying can affect how many changes of clothes you choose to bring. For instance, when I visit my in-laws, I usually bring about half as many clothes as I need for my stay (if I’m there for a fortnight, I bring a week’s worth of clothes). There’s not a lot of clothes storage space in the room we stay in, and we’re always welcome to use my mother-in-law’s washing machine, so there’s just no point in wading through two weeks’ worth of clothes in the suitcase every morning when it’s time to get dressed.

On the other hand, if I’m in a hotel with a chest of drawers and wardrobe, I like to have enough clothes that I don’t need to find a launderette or use the (very expensive!) hotel laundry service. I know some die-hard carry-on only travellers like to bring quick-dry clothing and hand wash it in the bathroom sink, but I wear mostly natural fabrics and hand-wringing cotton (then drip drying it over the bath) isn’t my favourite thing to do.

How will you be getting around?

I’m assuming here that you’re flying to your destination, because that’s usually what people talk about when they talk about travelling with just a carry-on, but one of the big factors is how you’re travelling when you arrive.

For instance, we always rent a car when we visit my husband’s family. They live in a rural part of Scotland that’s hard to get to otherwise. The nearest train station is over 45 minutes away, and there are only two trains from Glasgow on Sundays (the day we’re most likely to fly in). While renting a car isn’t a carte blanche to bring the biggest suitcase I can find (I still need to cart it up two-and-a-half flights of stairs when I get to my in-laws’ house!), I don’t mind checking a reasonably-sized suitcase when I’m just wheeling it to the car and then popping it in the boot.

On the other hand, when my husband and I went to Venice a few years ago, we each brought a backpack and nothing else. We were only there for four days, and neither of us fancied hauling a wheeled suitcase along cobbled streets. I would definitely recommend this approach, because not only was there lots of walking along cobbled streets, but also along the narrow platforms Venetians use in winter to avoid the flooded streets.

It was quite a difference from the time I brought a suitcase and backpack for my friend’s wedding in northeast London. Dragging that on the bus and through tube stations to the airport (a 2-hour trip) certainly taught me the value of packing light!

What are you packing?

I always check a bag when I go to Scotland. Even if it’s a small suitcase that could technically fit in the overhead locker, I’ll be checking it on the way home at the very least. Why? Because I can find a far better whisky selection — at a much more favourable price — in a rural supermarket in Scotland than I can at the LCBO here in Ontario (the bottle I bought last time was half the price it is here!).

Because of liquid restrictions, if I only had a carry-on I wouldn’t be able to buy a bottle of whisky while I’m over in Scotland to enjoy back home. This might seem like a daft reason to check a bag, but given that it’s typically included in the price of the ticket, and between my husband and me we’re usually packing enough that a larger suitcase is worth bringing, it’s really just one more thing in a list of reasons why we bring a checked bag.

On a related note, I find uncertainty really stressful. I’ve read accounts from carry-on only travellers about extended trips with varying climates where they’ll buy a jacket in a thrift store when they arrive in the cold place and donate it again when they’re about to leave. 

This kind of thing makes me want to curl into a ball in my bed and never leave my house again (as a side note, this is also why I tend to prefer AirBnBs and holiday rentals over hotels if I’m away for more than a few days; I like to have the freedom to go to a supermarket and stock up on food rather than have to find a café or restaurant for lunch and dinner every day). 

I’m not saying I would pack my biggest, puffiest coat, but I definitely prefer to bring a bit more and not worry about having to shop when I arrive.

Airline and airport considerations

Is checked baggage included in your ticket? What’s the hand baggage allowance? Do you have a layover? Are you afraid of your luggage being misplaced or lost? All of these might sway you one way or the other.

If checked baggage is included, particularly if the hand baggage allowance isn’t very generous, then it might make more sense to check a bag than try to fit everything into a small backpack. On the flip side, if checked baggage isn’t included and you have a generous hand baggage allowance then it probably makes more sense to take everything in the cabin with you.

Personally, I hate carting a large bag around when I have a layover, so on those occasions I’m more likely to check a bag and only bring what I need for the flight with me. However, my primary experience with this is a layover in London on the way up to Scotland (or vice versa), where the bags are checked from the start to end of the journey and I don’t need to collect them, go to customs, then drop them off again. If that were case, I’d be far more likely to try to squeeze everything into my carry-on.

I admit every time I fly I get a bit of anxiety about the possibility of my bag being misplaced or lost, but the truth is the likelihood of this happening is quite small (only 0.5% of bags are mislaid, and only 5% of those are lost or stolen), and the majority of misplaced bags are found and delivered to the owner quickly. Personally, the only time I’ve had a mislaid bag was after a delayed flight with a short layover; I made the flight, but my suitcase didn’t. The airline took my address and delivered it to me later that evening.

For some people, that half a percent risk is still too high. This is completely valid, and if packing everything into a carry-on isn’t much of an inconvenience then there’s no reason to take this risk. But I think it’s worth remembering it if you feel like checking a bag is the right approach for you and your trip. 

So … what should you have in your carry-on, then?

If you’re not checking a bag, the answer’s obvious. Everything! Well, everything you need for your trip, at least. If you are checking a bag, there’s a bit more to think about.

First of all, you’ll want anything you need for your flight. Passport, wallet, reading material — that kind of thing. I also like to make sure I have everything I need to get by for a day or two at my destination, just in case my bag is mislaid. That means medication, some toiletries, and a change of clothes and a couple changes of underwear.

And finally, because bags do get lost or mishandled, anything valuable or fragile like jewellery or a laptop goes in the carry-on. If I’m taking my camera and my laptop, I often take the padded inner sleeve from my camera bag and put that in my backpack with my camera, then stuff the outer camera bag with clothes and put it in my checked bag.

A final note

Obviously, there’s no simple answer to the question I posed in the title of this post. For some people, the awkwardness of carting a large suitcase around makes every trip carry-on only; for others, the idea of living out of a backpack for more than a few days fills them with dread. Only you can know what’s right for you — whether that’s for a particular trip, or for every time you travel.

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Carry-on only travel | tourism | travel | Edinburgh | Scotland | Visit Scotland | minimalism | sustainable travel | Scottish holiday