One-bag wonder: why I’ll never travel with checked luggage again

Anna Brech

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For the past four years, I’ve travelled without checked baggage.

Granted, I haven’t tackled anything mammoth – an expedition to the Poles, say, or a year-long sail around the Galapagos.

But my rovings have included a two-week trip to India, 10 days in the Bahamas (tough life), and action-packed escapes in Jordan and Brazil, as well as smaller fly-bys to Europe. All on hand-luggage only.

Once upon a time, I would have stashed an enormous backpack full of misc. “stuff” for these adventures. Diaries, extra hiking boots, spare bog roll, a random sprawl of undecided-upon tops, you name it… it found a home in my mish-mash of c**p.

I was even stopped at customs once – in a pre-Kindle era – and forced to explain to the baffled security woman why I was travelling to Toulouse with the contraband of 16 actual books. BOOKS. I’m surprised I even managed to lumber through the airport.

Naturally, these trips have been amazing, and I’m lucky to have been on them at all. There’s no denying that the luggage you choose to travel with is the ultimate first-world problem.

But like the icing on the proverbial cake, my globe-trotting has been made 100% better by ditching the excess clobber. Here’s why:

Everything runs more smoothly without baggage

You know when you’re stuck behind that person with the supersize roll-along? They’re getting it caught on every other train door and escalator edge, and you’re secretly wincing on their behalf?

That’s the kind of hassle you eliminate when you travel without hold baggage. The same goes for the endless check-in queues you merrily skip on both ends, meaning you’re first in the taxi rank/bus queue to your new city.

But it’s not just the sheer slog of it all. When you travel with tons of stuff, you bear the parallel weight of responsibility.

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So that mildly stressful time when you’re rummaging in your bag before putting it through the scanner is magnified tenfold every step of your journey.

Back in my baggage days, I remember lugging my unwieldy, one-wheeled excuse of a bargain basement suitcase through the terminal before sprawling everything on the floor in a panic to find that photocopied visa I thought I’d left behind.

Travelling with loads of stuff pandered to my neurotic self. Instead of being more prepared, it made me less organised.

You need much less than you think you do

The thing about the travel belongings is that we sometimes use them as a buffer for the unknown. Travel, by its very definition, is about fresh frontiers and horizons new.

And however cool we think we are with this concept, on some unconscious level, we often look for comfort in the stuff we bring along for the ride.

We tell ourselves we need four different pairs of shoes “just in case”, or a bulky First Aid kit that would make a small army proud, and eats up roughly half a holdall.

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Here are a few random things I’ve taken with me on my travels in the past that I didn’t use once: travel bath plugs (really), washing gel (nope), a roll-up mac (never took it when it rained), fancy heels (why!), bandages (no idea how to use), a sheet sleeping bag (wasn’t even camping), journals (= guilt for not writing them) and sentimental jewellery (total faff).

Part of this is down to bad planning, of course. You need to be strategic and precise about what you bring on a trip, and really pin it down.

But I think it’s more to do with that queasy night-before travel feeling lots of people get, where you’re not quite sure what to expect or how anything will play out. So you just chuck a load of things in, to cover all bases and make yourself feel better.

You can buy stuff abroad

Another fallout of this fear of the unknown is that we react like our packing list is last-chance saloon. There’s a paranoia about forgetting stuff that’s hard to ignore.

But, specialist equipment aside, it’s very rare you’d travel anywhere these days without being able to get what you want on the road. Sometimes, you’re actually better off buying when you’re there.

Don’t bother bringing flip-flops to Brazil, for example: it’s home to the Havaiana, with some of the best designs on the planet, and cheaper prices, too.

Hanoi has a big backpacking community, so you’ll find plenty of knick-knacks you need here in the Old Quarter stores, and the same goes for Bangkok (use your common sense though; second-hand Malaria tablets are a no-no).

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And don’t forget whoever you’re travelling with: you can arrange to divide things between you, or if you’re travelling with group, check in on what the group leader will already have access to. There are things that are really annoying to go without (looking at you, adaptors).

If you’re going alone, know that you are rarely actually alone! Travellers, hotels and local people are always your friend when it comes to trading and borrowing stuff. So there’s no need to arm yourself to the hilt, as if facing some travel version of Armageddon.

Without things, you free yourself up to see the world

In her best-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying, Marie Kondo says we look for comfort and identity in our belongings. But in actual fact, they weigh us down and stop us seeing the world clearly for what it is.

When we rid ourselves of the items that surround us, Kondo says, we begin to realise who we are and want we want: unhampered by clutter.

The same goes for the things you travel with. The more you bring with you, the more you’re tethering yourself to your comfort zone and your everyday self.

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Loads of baggage is a physical pain in the a***; you can’t just throw your passport in your lightweight backpack, and hop from A to B.

But it’s also a cognitive burden. When you travel with lots of belongings, your head is half on everything you have with you, rather than where you’re at.

It’s the equivalent of trying to take the perfect photo, while missing out on that killer view.

To truly travel, and rinse an incredible, life-affirming experience for all it’s worth, you have to have your eyes wide open and on the prize.

You need to be receptive to any new opportunities, and that means travelling with a bare minimum of stuff to get in your way.

This is especially true of valuables. They’ll just stress you out! No-one needs a laptop unless they’re working (and please please, leave your work at home). Who has time for drones when your itchy feet can take flight whenever you want to? Without belongings, the world is truly your oyster.

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One last thing to think about is that travel, on some level, is about survival. You’re testing your mettle, seeing what you’re capable of, venturing out into the Big Crazy World.

Even if travelling light means you forget something you need, you’ll cope. You’ll use that initiative of yours, and find a way around it. YOU are the only accessory you need.

The bare necessities

Here’s my whittled-down pack list for any trip

  1. Passport (perhaps the only thing you actually can’t travel without)
  2. Phone and headphones, pre-loaded with podcasts
  3. Kindle, pre-loaded with books
  4. Sarong, to double up as a pillow or blanket
  5. Pants x 3, swimmers and a few socks and tops (rolled for extra space)
  6. Cleanser – one bottle brought after check-in instead of wet wipes
  7. Toothbrush, paste and sun cream (brought after check-in)
  8. Water bottle, to save on cash and plastic waste
  9. Charger and adaptor
  10. Spare canvas bag, for laundry and day-to-day outings
  11. Sunglasses
  12. Minimal extra clothing, location dependent (and wear bulkier items)

Images: Shutterstock


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