ONEnya Lakovlieva, who posts on TikTok as @nolimitua, has had 25 million views for the airport selfie video she posted last September. It wasn’t because of a Balenciaga tracksuit or a Timothée Chalamet photobomb, but because a sneak peek inside her travel pillow revealed that she’d taken out the foam padding and stuffed it with clothes—to maximize a few extra cubic inches of packing space.
If you’re rolling your eyes at what sounds like an overwhelming trick, you might want to read the fine print of your holiday booking a little more closely. EasyJet, Ryanair and Wizz Air now charge high fees, not only for luggage stored in the hold, but for bags and wheeled suitcases that have to be stored in overhead lockers. Only a bag small enough to fit under the seat in front of you is included in most seats. And – just in case you were planning to – yes, these rules are enforced. Flying home from Bilbao airport recently, I witnessed Ryanair ground crew fining passengers with wheeled suitcases they hadn’t paid for, some of whom were taken out because they hadn’t realized the rules had changed.
Meanwhile, this summer’s airport mayhem adds a will-you-ever-see-it-again adrenaline rush to the financial cost of checking in your luggage. A shortage of baggage handlers has left passengers at Gatwick facing anxious waits for bags stranded on planes because there are no staff to unload them. On a particularly bad day at Heathrow recently, three-hour queues at check-in counters left some travelers with a stark choice between missing their flight and leaving their bags behind.
Full disclosure. I’m not a natural light packer. For many years my rule of thumb was: if I can lift my own case, I don’t have enough shoes. So believe me when I say that if I can pack light, anyone can. I’ve changed my ways and now much prefer a streamlined package – not least because it cuts down on the boring post-holiday laundry pile. It will also reduce your carbon footprint as a lighter aircraft uses less fuel. I present: a 10-point plan for your smallest vacation wardrobe ever.
1. Know your rights
The rules vary between airlines. For example, the size of your free seat bag is 40cm x 25cm x 20cm on Ryanair, but 45cm x 36cm x 20cm on easyJet. Some airlines charge different fees for extra cabin and storage bags according to weight; some only care about goals. These are not facts you will struggle with for the first time in the departure hall. If you’re traveling with kids, or going away for a long time, or just really, really can’t live without your yoga mat or omelette pan or whatever, consider sharing a suitcase with friends or family so you’re only paying for one .
2. Pack light by dressing heavily
You know that Friends episode, The One Where No One’s Ready, where Joey wears all of Chandler’s clothes at once? Well, Joey Tribbiani is the style icon of the airport outfit, my friend. If you’re traveling super light, with only what fits in an underseat bag—we’re talking about the size of a regular daypack, the kind you see middle school kids at the bus stop—then you need to wear almost as many clothes as you carry. (When you get on the plane, keep cool by turning on the fan.) Just because you don’t need a coat on vacation doesn’t mean you shouldn’t wear one on the plane: dig out a light coat or jacket with big pockets and fill them with phone chargers, holiday reading, socks, whatever. If you have, or can borrow, one of those small flat zippered crossbody bags, put your passport, wallet and sunglasses in it and wear it under your jacket, where it keeps them safe and out of sight, then won’t count towards the allowance – it will be useful on holiday too.
3. A few fun clothes are better than a lot of boring ones…
You know how you get told that a “capsule holiday wardrobe” should be color coordinated in navy and white or whatever? Absolute rubbish. It’s a holiday wardrobe, not a school uniform. The way to be happier with fewer clothes is to take pieces that you love and that make you feel instantly well-dressed. Take your favorite vintage band T-shirt instead of three neutral crew necks. Grab a dress that’s comfortable but special enough to wear to dinner, and wear it during the day too, instead of boring shorts and a vest.
4. … But be realistic about your vacation
It’s another maddeningly unhelpful trope of the holiday wardrobe narrative, which goes, “At the golden hour, throw a taffeta skirt over your bathing suit and you’re ready for cocktails.” That’s all very well, but who wants to cook the kids’ pasta and shake the sand out of their bath towels while you swish around in your imaginary taffeta? Come to that, who makes the cocktails? Resist the Instagram influencer cosplay and think about the details of your vacation. For example: this year we’re going to Hydra, Greece, and renting a house that as far as I can work out is at the top of about a million steps, so although I love long dresses (swishiness, plus mozzie protection) will take shorter ones like that I don’t trip over them.
5. Take what you can wash
It’s easier to pack light if you take clothes that you can wash and wear again after you’ve gotten sweaty/dropped ice on them. You don’t need a washing machine: a sink and some travel soap (or just regular soap) is fine. Choose light fabrics such as silk, which dries faster than cotton and takes up less space in your bag.
6. Do not wear high heels
Is your destination Casa Amor? No? So leave the high heels at home. There are plenty of elegant flat sandals that will work both day and night. (If you’re buying, check out Kin’s Lillian flatform slingbacks in black leather at John Lewis, £59.)
7. Learn to live without the tracksuit
Observation from my post-pandemic flight: the soft, brushed material from which most tracksuits are made has become a comfort blanket for the modern male. I have seen many men on their way to hot destinations wearing sweatpants on the plane. The fabric is very bulky and too warm for weather above 30C. Mate, I know trackies are comfortable, but it’s a two-hour flight; it’s not going to kill you to wear, say, a pair of lightweight tailored trousers, which will be much more useful on holiday.
8. Roll everything
Rolled up clothes take up less space. Lay two or three pieces on top of each other on your bed – very flat if you don’t want them to curl – then roll tightly from one end, squeezing out air and wrinkles as you go.
9. Be a god(in) for small things
Try to pack lots of small but wonderful things. Swimsuits and bikinis take up almost no space, so if you’re going to spend much of the day in them, you can double your holiday wardrobe while adding minimal bulk. I’ve got my eye on the expensive (€170) but very chic Bay swimsuit from Kióhne, which has stone beads on the straps and a thick, textured fabric that would make it an instant beach lunch outfit paired with a pair of denim cut-offs. Some smart earrings, a colorful silk scarf to tie in your hair: these are the little things that go a long way.
10. Think outside the box
When my kids were little, they were obsessed with inflatables. These were brilliant on holiday – hours of book reading time for me! – but since they never shrunk back to their original size, they are large and expensive to travel with. One year I agreed with the owner of the villa we rented in Spain to put them out in advance. OK, she thought I was crazy, but it worked and cost a fraction of the price of taking them as luggage. A friend of mine orders the books she wants to read on holiday online a few days before she goes away and sets the holiday destination as the delivery address. Crazy, yes, but also kind of genius. Oh, and don’t forget your travel pillow.