Checked luggage vs carry-on only: Why I always check luggage in on flights

You know, I don't really want to wind up as the poster boy for over-indulgent, environment-destroying, entirely pointless packing. I don't want to ruin my cred as a hardcore traveller who only needs the bare minimum.

But here goes.

I take checked luggage most places I go – internationally, anyway. I was chatting to another member of the Traveller team the other day, who mentioned she was going carry-on only for an upcoming three-week trip to Italy because she planned to hire a scooter. It was a big deal for her to pack so light, she said, even though, "I'm sure you pack light all the time."

And that's when I had to admit: I actually don't. If I'm travelling on a flight with a checked luggage allowance and I'm going to be away from home for more than a week or so, I'm probably going to have checked luggage. I seem to average about 12-15 kilograms of the stuff, though more if I'm heading somewhere very cold.

And this is after many, many years as a backpacker, when everything that went into my bag would have to be carried on my back, and you constantly marvel at how little you really need. This is after a lifetime of travel and knowing exactly what's necessary and what is entirely superfluous.

This is after having stood at baggage carousel after baggage carousel around the world, getting frustrated because my bag is taking forever to arrive. And after having had my luggage lost several times. And experiencing the horrendous airport queues and reading about the thousands of items of lost luggage recently. And even after I spoke to another Traveller team member who went to Singapore recently with hand luggage only, and managed to get from the plane's exit in Melbourne, through immigration and customs, to the taxi queue outside in seven minutes (he timed it).

Seven minutes!

But yeah, I'm not that guy. I have not mastered the art of light packing. I travel with checked luggage.

You might be wondering why, and since I've started thinking about this I've come up with several reasons.


One is that I don't really want to do any washing of clothes when I'm travelling. If I'm away for more than two weeks, then sure, it's probably unavoidable. But if I'm travelling for less than that, I'll just take all the clean clothes I need with me.

I know some people who only have, say, three days' worth of clothes with them, and wash in their hotel rooms or hostels as they go along, and that's great. But my priorities are elsewhere. I'll just bring enough clean clothes to see me through.

I'm also utterly useless at picturing other climates and other cultures when I'm not in them. Even now I'll pack for Thailand and think, it's hot there, so just the two pairs of long pants will do. Of course, you never wear any long pants in Thailand. There's no need. But I can't seem to process that when I'm packing.

The third, and probably more important reason, is that I like to have the right clothes for the right occasions. And often when you travel for a decent amount of time, there are a lot of occasions.

So if I'm going hiking for a day, I want gear that's going to make hiking comfortable and enjoyable. Decent shoes. A pack to carry. All the other stuff. If I'm spending the day walking around a city though, I don't want to do it in hiking gear. So, different shoes. Different clothes. If it's cold, I need layers. If it's hot, I need changes of clothes.

If I'm going out at night to a restaurant or a fancy bar, I want to dress to a standard that everyone else around me is dressed to. If the locals are all getting around in shorts and singlets, no worries. I'm in.

But if you're travelling in, say, Paris, it's not shorts and singlets. You see so many travellers out there in cities like this who are just so obviously travellers, who look – compared to the locals they're sharing space with at least – like they've put absolutely no effort in at all. I don't want to be that guy. So, I bring nice clothes with me. And more shoes.

And sure, you can say that there are some items of clothing that will take you across all three of these activities and more, but I don't totally buy that. And maybe you don't care what locals think of your night-time dress sense, which is fine. But I do. I don't want to be another daggy tourist.

So yeah, I can definitely see how I could pack lighter. You don't need to tell me about a few plain shirts and some decent trousers and a sarong. One pair of shoes that will work for all occasions. I get that. I also understand how much easier it would be to walk off an international flight and just sail straight out the door, instead of nervously hanging around the carousel hoping to see a particular bag come floating around.

And I can recognise that after all this time, after 40 years of travel and so many opportunities to figure out a better way, I'm still technically a chronic over-packer.

But I use pretty much everything I take with me. I feel comfortable in all situations. I feel like I don't stand out as a daggy tourist, I don't stink, I don't make anyone else uncomfortable.

And I always have the right shoes.

Do you travel light? Or not bother? Have the recent airport delays and luggage issues caused you to rethink your packing strategy?




​See also: Why I'll never travel with a suitcase again - unless I need a suit

See also: There's (mostly) no excuse for travelling with checked luggage

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