Pack Less, Carry On, Save Money

January 30, 2008

in Airlines, Airports, Luggage, Packing, Travel

A recent comment to an older post on RyanAir’s online check-in policies has me mulling over the obvious benefits of carrying on vs. checking luggage when you travel. There are times when nothing but checked luggage will do (which I promise to cover in another post), but even if you’re a tried and true “heavy” traveler, I encourage you to read the following and consider the benefits of packing less and carrying on as much as possible.

Packing light from the get-go saves you time, money and hassles on your travels. It saves you the money you’d pay your low-cost carrier to transport your luggage and it saves you any overage fees. It often saves you money on the ground in luggage storage or extra baggage fees on buses. You will never have to pay for cabs or (I swear I am not making this up) entire train coupes because of your copious luggage. You will never have trouble fitting your suitcase in the overhead bin or in the bathroom stall. You will never complain about lifting, carrying or wheeling it about town. You will be the envy of everyone who wasn’t as smart as you and packed too much stuff!

There are many travel gurus who extoll the virtues of traveling light far better than I ever could. You will find great advice on packing from Rick Steves and from One-Bag Doug, for starters. (Actually, to read all the packing information on those two sites, you will probably need all day . . .)

Cindi’s comment took issue with my statement that RyanAir has never charged me for checking a bag at the last minute. While this is true in my case (with two examples I can remember from recent travels), I note in my reply that the major difference between her case and mine is that I was traveling with carry-on luggage that needed to be checked following a security issue while she was traveling with (overweight) checked luggage from the start. Because RyanAir charges per checked bag AND because they are well-known for charging for overages (as Cindi notes), I prefer to sneak by with my small (but often quite heavy) carry-on suitcase instead. I have trouble remembering an exact incident when RyanAir or another low-cost carrier had me put my carry-on luggage on the scale to make sure it was not over their weight limit, but in theory this could happen. As I noted, RyanAir maintains a policy in which they can deny you boarding if your suitcase is too large, so I do not recommend you pack your bag heavier than their allowances! If this is a regular problem, perhaps you might consider flying EasyJet instead, which has no weight restrictions (within reason) on carry-on bags?

Nevertheless, if you fear your bag including new purchases is too heavy, there are a couple quick tricks for getting around any potential weighings. I usually get to the airport early with plenty of time for repacking and fussing if necessary. This allows me to scope out the check-in teams and see how they respond to other fliers: Are they sending everyone away to pay overage fees? Are they weighing anyone’s carry-on luggage? If they’re not, you’re scot free. If they are, use their policies to your advantage. Most airlines allow you to have a laptop bag or purse, a coat and an umbrella in addition to your carry-on suitcase. So never place these things in your carry on! Even if they make you weigh the suitcase, they often don’t make you weigh your other items. You simply need to make sure that your suitcase is lighter than they require while you are checking in (you can use scales at other, empty check-in counters to check the weight while you repack). Often this means nothing more than placing your guidebooks or heavy souvenirs in your purse or laptop case (or coat pockets, if desperate). You can often move them back over before the security check. If you are traveling only with carry-on luggage and trying to game the system, remember to do your fancy shifting away from their watchful eyes.

If you, like in Cindi’s case, are checking luggage and it appears your suitcase will be overweight, carry on the overage. Be prepared for such an incident by packing along a small folding duffel, tote bag or other such bag (these Chinese-made trader bags are worth every yuan at such a moment — apparently around the world, London too!). Transferring the heaviest items first allows you to save time and space. In Cindi’s case, being prepared in this way would have saved her 32 euros! Another fast-thinking work-around I suggest for the unprepared is to invest that money in a new bag at the airport rather than forking the money over to RyanAir. A 20-euro bag still “saves” you 12 euros — and at least you get something out of the deal!

Perhaps most importantly: always look like you have your luggage under control. I usually have 4(!) carry-on bags: my suitcase, a laptop bag, a tote bag (with food) and my purse (which can usually cram on top in the tote). Yet I never look overburdened by my stuff at or near the check-in counter so that anyone would think to count. Even if you’ve just transferred 4 kg of books into your laptop bag, keep on smiling as if it were light as a feather. Think of it as your 32-euro smile!

Work-arounds aside, you can still be thwarted by security personnel, such as those in UK airports who require travelers to enter the security check area with only one bag. In theory, I can understand that such a limit should speed security lines by limiting the amount of stuff needing to be checked. Problem is, x-ray equipment is much less efficient when a lot of stuff is crammed into one bag rather than spread out. This leads to the need to open such bags and rescan the contents individually, which in fact lengthens the entire ordeal. Further, if you’re trying to speed the security process for everyone, you need to have your liquids bag and laptop out before you get to the front of the line. I usually put all of my “need to be examined separately” items in an extra tote bag I have before I enter the security line so I can quickly unload and reload them when I get to the table with the plastic bins. This is a no-go with a one-bag rule, and fishing them out while in a moving queue is unpleasant to say the least.

Long story short: everything is a heck of a lot easier if you carry your luggage and simply carry less. If you end up with just a little more weight than allowed, try the cheats I recommend to save yourself overage fees. On the other hand, if you’re rather the honest type and can think ahead, consider mailing your suitcase to yourself instead!

Do you regularly carry on more than you should? How do you beat the system? Leave your comments and suggestions below.

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

1 robinmadrid 01.30.08 at 5:08 pm

One thing I’m surprised that no one has mentioned when checking in, is to get someone to hold the offending items while you check in, whether it’s an extra bag or a heavy book or three. Once you got the ticket it’s rare they ever say anything beyond that. Perhaps with the exception of the UK security never says anything about the size or weight of the bags. I am forever amazed at what people bring on the airline.

Personally I am 50 50 on whether to check a bag or not. It is really nice having nothing but a small bag with my wallet and glasses (age unfortunately) and none of the hassle of fighting with 3-4 bags. But on the other hand I hate waiting for the bag. Generally if I’m not in a hurry I will check even a small bag. I don’t dragging everything aournd the airport.
On the other hand my Wife flies for business and never checks a bag but then has to man handle two bags, two – three trays through security.

2 Dana 01.30.08 at 8:27 pm

I haven’t willingly checked a bag if I could help it ever since a domestic airline lost my entire suitcase forever on a flight with only one layover, at which point my father, a frequent flyer, introduced me to the world of roll-aboard suitcases. Ironically, he now checks his bag, because he got tired of the liquid/gel restrictions. In any case, I have been amazed at how much less I feel the need to pack now. I was even able to pack for a month in China in one carry-on suitcase and a small backpack. I think I was the only person in my group who didn’t get charged overages on the way back. Less is definitely more.

3 poetloverrebelspy 01.30.08 at 9:13 pm

robinmadrid, another good workaround, if you’re traveling with a partner. I have also found in my experience that you can carry on a lot more than regulation, as long as it looks like you have it under control and don’t have a flight attendant help you hoist that heavy bag into the overhead . . .

On these low-cost carriers, the “tax” on checking luggage and the short nature of my trips keeps me from checking, even when I might like to and am not concerned about breakable items or weight. There’s something so unsatisfying about having paid 2 euros for your flight and then paying 3 euros for your suitcase! Especially when they’re likely to damage the suitcase somehow in the handling — or maybe you’ve been luckier with airlines than Dana and I?

Dana, the other smart thing about packing light on the way over is that you can bring back two suitcases of souvenirs, if you so desire :)

4 joanne 02.02.08 at 2:33 am

hi as i will be travelling to the usa in early feb-march with mt disabled aunt iam told it will still be cold in missouri and also there will be a stop in chicago so i do not know what to pack and what we can carry on weight wise ect also the carrier is air lingus and i dont know if they mean stopover as in get off the plane to refluel or a stay over night can u please advise as we are new to this flying lark my aunt is 69

many thanks

5 joanne 02.02.08 at 2:34 am

aso what is a roll aboard case

6 poetloverrebelspy 02.04.08 at 11:48 am

Hi Joanne.

I will need more information in order to assist you.

If you look at the flight itinerary that you booked, it should be clear how much time you have between flights. There are rarely overnights scheduled anymore, so it is unlikely you will have to find a hotel in Chicago or anything. You will definitely have to deplane and go through passport control and customs in Chicago, however — which will mean reclaiming your luggage for a short stretch in the airport. Then you will recheck your luggage, go through security control again, and have to walk to your next flight (to St. Louis?) within the amount of time you have for the layover. If you’re still confused, please type out for me the itinerary that you booked. You can email me at the address in the “contact” tab above.

Next question is how “disabled” your aunt is — can she walk on her own without assistance? Will she need a wheelchair? Can she carry her own luggage, or will you have to carry hers in addition to her own? If she will need assistance, you should contact the airline and arrange for ground transport at all the airports. If she walks independently but you will have to wrangle her luggage, you’ll want to pack accordingly (i.e. pack less, so that you can handle it all).

Finally, Aer Lingus’ allowances can be found at their website. Hand luggage here, checked luggage here. Note that in the latter category, you are (most likely) “2. Economy Class to USA.” Please also be aware that there are new security regulations in place, such as limited amounts of liquids in your carry-on luggage. You can get a head start on this by reading my posts “Help Speed up Airport Security” and “Navigating London Stansted Airport.”

As regards your next comment, a roll-aboard suitcase looks like this (note I am recommending neither this bag, nor this company per se). It’s a trolley-style suitcase with wheels which is small enough to be taken onto the airplane as hand luggage. It might be possible for your aunt to pull or push such a suitcase more easily that carrying a duffel or other suitcase.

If you have further questions, leave a comment or contact me via email.

7 Jack from 02.06.08 at 8:23 pm

This is a great primer in getting away with just carry-on luggage! I especially like your 32-Euro smile, certainly better than my £10-frown every time I fly Ryanair as I’m checking a bag…

Sigh, one day I’ll manage with just carry-on…

8 Jason Dragon 03.17.08 at 11:37 am

Another Trick is the Duty Free Stores. If you travel internationally you can simply get a bag from the duty free store. You then load your stuff into it. I have never been asked to weigh or check a duty free bag. It also counts as an extra bag.

Jason Dragon

9 Marina 05.25.08 at 10:26 pm

How about liquids, creams and other make-up(this is a girl question:) Do they let u board without problems if u just check in online and buy that transparent bag?

10 poetloverrebelspy 05.26.08 at 7:49 am

Your liquids must meet the 3-1-1 rule: 3 oz or less for each item, 1 transparent, resealable bag, 1 quart size.

Here’s a link to 3-1-1, and here’s a link to the UK “translation.”

11 Cornelius 06.26.08 at 4:54 pm

It’s my habit to pack less and carry only as far as I can. I had a bad experience once with over weight luggage and the charges slapped on me, it’s terribly costly. So lesson learnt.

Another good thing about no check in luggage is the time saved. Once out of immigration you just head straight for the taxi stand before anyone else.

12 Libertarian Girl 07.29.08 at 9:07 am

The shopping bag strategy is magic. I was coming back from studying abroad in the UK and my bag was 20 or 30 pounds overweight. A friend took some of my things, and I stuffed two shopping bags full of stuff and just carried it on like I’d bought it all on the concourse. I had no problems except being stopped once by security in Chicago asking if I only had shopping in the bags. I got a bewildered look on my face and the woman backed off.

I just checked my toothpaste and it’s 3.5 ozs– just over the liquid limit. Is Ryanair really going to be that picky about something like that, especially if it seems that it’s not full? That would be the only reason I might have to check my bag for my upcoming flight. I’m an American, so otherwise I wouldn’t have to pay for the airport check-in or anything.

My friend will have a typically sized small rolling suitcase– is that going to be too large for Ryanair’s carry-on restrictions?

Thanks for your valuable tips by the way!

13 poetloverrebelspy 07.29.08 at 2:22 pm

Thanks for your comment, Libertarian Girl.

As for liquids, it’s not the airline who cares, it’s the security checkpoints. They will throw out any liquids in a container that is larger than the regulation 100 ml. How long are you traveling? So long that you can’t get by with a travel toothpaste? Another option would be to squeeze some from the large tube into a film canister and travel with the latter.

Your comment on fees makes me wonder if you’ve read this post on RyanAir check-in for non-EU passport holders? It’s quite important to know what you can and cannot do, so as not to be denied your flight by the airline.

In the comments of that post, there is a link to the page with RyanAir’s carry-on dimensions. Measure your bags to be sure.

14 Libertarian Girl 07.30.08 at 7:24 am

Thanks, I will definitely do that.

I can travel just with a travel toothpaste, but my friend I’ll be sharing the bag with apparently can’t. :) I’ll have her pay the extra fees.

15 poetloverrebelspy 07.31.08 at 12:32 am

Why not then BUY toothpaste wherever you’re headed and toss it? If it is *just* the toothpaste, that is . . .

16 Nick 12.10.08 at 6:53 pm

Another way is if you go to the airport with a friend, don’t even bring your carry-on bag to the counter! Then they wont have the chance to check its weight/size!

17 Adam 12.17.08 at 12:17 am

If you have a Non-EU passport and have to pay online check-in charges to Ryanair, please write a complaint letter to: and The more people will complain the more likely they will be pressured to cancel such a discriminatory practice.

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