Packing Light with Checked Luggage

Packing Light With Checked Luggage

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I always aim to travel carry-on only. But I do realize that sometimes it just isn’t practical. Maybe the airline you’re traveling with has strict carry-on luggage size restrictions, or maybe you’re bringing things that aren’t allowed in the cabin with you. This doesn’t mean you can’t pack light. Traveling with less stuff means less weight to lug around, which gives you more freedom and flexibility. Even when you’re traveling with checked luggage, you can still pack light.

Choosing luggage

Just because you can check a huge suitcase doesn’t mean you should. Pick luggage that is still small enough to pass as carry-on luggage. This will ensure you don’t over pack and you won’t have a heavy bag to carry around.

Whether you prefer a backpack or a wheeled suitcase, bringing one that could fit in the overhead compartment will make your life easier. Even though someone else is carrying it through the airport and onto the plane, you will still have to carry it once you arrive. Remember this, and don’t take a suitcase you can fit your whole closet into. It’s still worth downsizing your luggage to something smaller.

pack light with checked luggage

Since you’re still trying to pack light, just bring a small daypack for your carry-on bag. A 20L backpack (roughly the size of a book bag for school) works well for things you want with you on the plane and an extra set of clothes in case the airline loses your luggage. While you’re out sightseeing, this bag will be helpful for carrying whatever you need for the day.

Some of our favorite daypacks include this stuffable bag from REI and the Osprey Momentum 22.

Packing clothes in your checked luggage

Since you’re still taking small luggage, you still need to pack as if you’re traveling carry-on only. Think about the weather at your destination and the activities you plan on doing, and pack accordingly. No shorts for a ski trip, and no bulky sweaters for a trip to the tropics.

Limit the options you bring along. If you plan on going to a nice restaurant or a play, you really only need one dressier outfit even for two or three activities like this. You also don’t need half a dozen pairs of shoes. Comfortable shoes you can walk in, maybe flip-flops depending on where you’re going, and maybe dress shoes if you have fancier activities in mind should be sufficient.

pack light with checked luggage

In general a week’s worth of clothing should be plenty no matter how long your trip is. If you’re traveling for longer than a week, either have your hotel or guesthouse do laundry for you, or if that’s too expensive, find a nearby laundromat. It might seem weird to do laundry on vacation, but it will save space in your bags and it’s a nice excuse to relax and read a book while waiting for dryer to finish.

Packing liquids in your checked luggage

As with your clothing, it’s still best to limit the liquids your take on your trip. If you’re taking a short vacation, carry-on sized toiletries should work just fine. If you’re taking an extended trip, decide which items you’re willing to buy on the road as you run out and which ones you want to bring with you if possible.

For example, if you’re traveling to the tropics and you expect to be outside a lot, you’ll need a lot of sunscreen. A small carry-on sized bottle might not be enough for a long trip and it’s usually expensive to find in touristy areas. Since you’re checking luggage anyway, that might be a good one to pack in your checked bag.

Or try non-liquid options like solid sunscreen to limit your liquids.

On the other hand, your shower gel can probably stay at home. Pack a small bottle to get you started and then buy a replacement or even a bar of soap when you run out.

For any liquids you’re putting in your checked luggage, I highly recommend putting them in plastic zip-top bags in case the bottles leak during the flight. The last thing you want on arrival is a bag full of clothes covered in shampoo and sunscreen.

pack light with checked luggage

Things you should and shouldn’t pack in your carry-on

Even if you’re checking luggage, there are certain things that should always stay with you. Things like jewelry, money, credit cards, ID, passport, medications. For a complete list, read here for what to pack in your carry-on bag.

On the other hand, certain things should never go in your carry-on bag, so pack them in your checked luggage. Things like liquids over 3.4 ounces (100ml), sharp objects like scissors or tools, and most sporting equipment. For a complete list, read here for what NOT to pack in your carry-on bag.

Packing light with checked luggage is possible. Use the same guidelines as packing carry-on only to limit the amount of stuff you bring. You’ll still have lighter bags to carry if you pack as if you weren’t checking your luggage. You’ll also have a little more flexibility this way because you can pack things you can’t bring in your carry-on bag. The freedom of packing light doesn’t have to be limited to those who travel carry-on only.

Other Travel Made Simple readers have purchased this luggage:

carry-on chart luggage travelprocarry-on chart luggage briggs riley3-samsonite4-ospreyluggage scale6-gotoob

Read more about packing:

How to Pack Light with Checked Luggage

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  1. Joan

    good advice Ali. We’re so used to travelling by car that we don’t ever think about packing lite. this will really come in handy when we go to Italy later in the year. thanks

    1. Author
      Ali Garland

      Thanks Mom! It’s easier to deal with the trains when you pack light too!

  2. Corinne

    You are so right! I think it’s difficult to still think light when knowing you are going to check luggage, which we almost always do thanks to our mondo-tripod! No matter what, we only pack one small bag to check and then Jim and I each have our day packs for carry on. It’s perfect. Great info!

    1. Author
      Ali Garland

      Thanks Corinne! It somehow seems easier to pack a lot of stuff when you have the extra allowance of checking luggage, but you still have to lug it around for your whole trip. My husband and I tried packing really light (a 40L backpack plus a daypack each) on our past trip, with the 40L as checked luggage, and it was great.

    1. Author
      Ali Garland

      Hmm, that’s a new for for me! If it’s in powder form (I’m guessing this is something you mix with water?) and as long as it’s not flammable, it should be fine in either the hold luggage or hand luggage. You might want to verify with the airline to be sure.

  3. Sonja

    I recently spent a whole month in London, combining work and diversion. I knew that I had to cross town to get from the airport to my accommodation, and I did not want to schlep a huge suitcase through the tube. But I was also aware of the fact that I would probably buy quite some clothes and books during my stay. So here is how I resolved it: I checked my luggage for both flights, because I wanted to bringe my usual cosmetics in big bottles, not the little bottles allowed for carry-on luggage. On the way to London I packed my clothes and cosmetics in a small carry-on size suitcase with wheels. I also put an empty 40 liter-backpack inside the suitcase. My carry-on on this flight was my small daypack. For the flight back I squeezed everything I had accumulated during the month into both the little suitcase and the 40 liter-backpack. They were much easier to transport than one big suitcase. I put the cosmetics in the big backpack and checked it in, because it was larger and heavier as the little suitcase. The suitcase was my carry-on and the daypack my handluggage.

    1. Author
      Ali Garland

      Sonja, that sounds like a great way to do it! I personally love traveling carry-on only, but I know it isn’t for everyone and it doesn’t work in every situation. I love that you were able to find a way that works for you to check luggage and still not have giant suitcases to lug around.

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