Finding The Perfect Cabin Bag For My Four Month, Hand Luggage Only Trip

Filed Under: Advice, Travel

This week I’ve headed off on the longest trip I’ve ever taken.

After travelling non stop for around three months last year, this year I’ll be travelling for even longer, from now through to the start of next year. I’m starting with a few places in Western Europe followed by a lengthy trip through Northern Africa and the Middle East (working my way from west to east) and then I’m heading to the USA, followed by the Caribbean, and back to Eastern Europe for Christmas and New Years.

Almost all the flights are booked and about the first 85 nights accommodation is also booked. I’m purposely leaving the last few weeks flexible, as I quite like the opportunities that should bring to do things I wouldn’t have otherwise planned.

I’ll keep writing as I travel, and hopefully there will naturally be some travel experiences that provide good content to write about. As per the OMAAT philosophy, I won’t be writing about specific destinations unless I think they are especially unusual or interesting. I’m taking plenty of flights from ultra low cost carriers through to legacy airline premium classes, both revenue and points redemptions, so should have plenty to write about.

Hopefully there is nothing unfortunate enough to warrant a fourth edition of my Series Of Unfortunate Events!

Packing strategy

For last year’s trip, I took a medium sized suitcase (with a carry on bag) for some of the trip, and then just carry on for the remainder of the trip. I’ve taken the decision to travel with hand luggage only (HLO) for this entire trip, and that is what I wanted to write about today.

I always travel HLO for weekend trips away and have also managed it for longer individual trips of up to two weeks. I’ve written before about some tips of travelling hand luggage only.

While it may seem like a pain to not be able to take every single item you might want to, there are so many benefits of travelling hand luggage only. I’ll be doing at least 15 flights on this trip so the time saved both checking a bag in as well as waiting for it to be delivered at the other end is enough of a time saver for me to commit to this.

Selecting the perfect bag

Last year’s HLO trip to Asia involved a cheap, large Ebay backpack where two of the three zips quickly broke. It barely survived the trip and was pretty uncomfortable to lug around. This year I’ve been far more strategic and have done a lot of research to try and find the perfect bag.

The bare minimum requirements are:

  • While I have a hand luggage sized roll away, I’m heading through the deserts of Africa and the Middle East so I needed a backpack that I could walk decent distances with — I won’t be on the polished tiles of major airports for most of the time!
  • Must be the maximum size allowed as hand luggage by strict low cost carriers like easyJet and my arch nemesis, Vueling, which I have decided to put myself through again. So I’m looking for a capacity of at least 40 litres, ideally 45 so I can still take everything I need.
  • A decent laptop sleeve so I can take my Dell XPS13 so I can keep writing for you all. This laptop is one of the best things I have ever bought.
  • Decent back support and adjustable straps, ideally with a waist/stomach strap. I won’t be trekking up Mount Everest with it, but there will be plenty of walking with it so it needs to be comfortable.
  • Available for the shipping in the UK, so I can pack it at home before the trip.
  • Not look hideous.
  • Not horrendously expensive (so under $200 including shipping) — the trip is costing me enough already!

I’m travelling with my partner for the entire trip and we’re both going HLO, so decided to purchase one HLO bag first, try that out on a shorter trip to Sardinia, Italy, and then either find a second, other bag, or purchase a second type of that same bag.

Bag #1 – Low Alpine Liteflight Backpack

This was good value at around $100, looks good (I’ve already had some friends compliment me on its appearance on a weekend away trip) and is certainly very lightweight without feeling cheap or flimsy, so even if my hand luggage is weighed it’s unlikely to be overweight.

And it fits a LOT of stuff in it while also being completely cabin bag size approved.

Unfortunately the only laptop sleeve it has is a large net which is way too big for my small laptop, meaning it slides around inside, and doesn’t otherwise have a lot of features. So it’s a good bag, but not perfect.

So I decided not to purchase a second one.

In looking for alternatives I was ready to stretch to invest in a Tortuga Outbreaker backpack as they were so well rated but they do not ship to Europe, and given it was already $250, I was not willing to pay the additional cost to use a mail forwarding service from the US.

I considered an Osprey bag as they’re also well rated and quite affordable, but I really don’t like the design.

So I kept looking.

Bag #2 – Standard Luggage Co Travel Backpack

This bag was significantly more expensive than the Lowe Alpine at around $180, but I can instantly tell it is better quality. It’s heavier, sturdier and has more zippered pockets than I know what to do with. I’ve packed and started the trip and I’m still finding pockets!

This is both a positive and a negative — it’s great to have so many places to store things so they’re not just rolling around inside the main section of the bag but it means I have to spend more time looking for things because there’s so many pockets they could be in.

It has various sleeves that would fit various sized laptops.

It comes with an odd, hidden detachable document satchel that I didn’t even see on the product description and didn’t find until I’d almost finished packing, and while it’s great to have this ‘freebie’, it doesn’t serve any purpose for me as I’m not carrying any documents around.

So I’m leaving the satchel at home.

It’s extremely comfortable to carry because it is so thickly padded. It did seem quite slim when I first started to pack it, but I then realised one of its dozens of zips extended the size of it and it easily fits everything I need for four months.

It does look like a giant box on my back but that is because it is designed to fit perfectly into any measuring device an airline might use to ensure it is cabin bag compliant. It fits all my requirements so I’m very happy with it.

Day Packs

We will be out and about as much as we can each day, whether it’s hiking, or exploring beaches. I was ideally looking for a backpack with a small attached day pack, however this took up valuable overall dimensions, and there were very few options available that met my other requirements.

Instead we eventually decided to both take very lightweight, cheap gym-type drawstring bags that were purchased for just a few dollars on Amazon.

I was very skeptical of these at first (and have never owned one), as I associate them with gay circuit parties and gym junkies, but I tried it out both on flights to Italy as well as on the beaches in Sardinia last week and they work great. They’re not that sturdy because they are so lightweight so I don’t put my laptop in there but they’re ideal for throwing things like a phone charger, a hat and bottle of water into, and most airlines will allow you to take this as a second bag on board as it can go between under the seat in front of you.

I think the only airline I’m taking on this trip that does not allow a second small cabin bag is easyJet, which I’m taking on the short hop from Munich to Berlin next month. I should be able to squeeze the items in the drawstring bag into my main cabin bag and this drawstring bag easily collapses into a pocket of my main HLO bag.

How to physically pack

Previously I would pack everything I thought I needed, and then if it didn’t fit in my luggage I would regretfully remove one item at a time. Four pairs of shoes? No problem, provided they fit.

For this trip, I took a different strategy. Before I packed a single item I wrote a packing list of every single item I actually needed, and before adding it, thought carefully about what I actually needed it for. I ran through the various scenarios and situations I will be in for the rest of the year and thought about the bare minimum possessions I will need for them.

I purposely packed mostly plain, versatile clothes that can be worn either hiking up a volcano, or in a cocktail bar.

I’m taking almost no ‘what if’ items like non-prescription medicines, which I recognise is a bit of a risk but despite going to some unusual and remote places I won’t be that far from civilisation so should easily be able to purchase things if I need them.

For all of my non-clothing items, like the chargers, cords, accessories, eye masks, I’ve used three old amenity kits (one from Qantas and two from Virgin Atlantic). It keeps everything neat and easy to grab, and because each one is a different colour I instantly know which kit is which.

Packing this way was surprisingly easy.

I can’t even really think what I needed all that space for when I would check in a suitcase before anyway. To be honest I haven’t even needed to use the extension zip in the Standard Luggage bag, and I certainly didn’t need to sit on the bag and squeeze it tight as I did up the zips.

Even my partner who I would classify as a ‘mild hoarder’ found it easy to pack HLO by following a strict packing list and still had space in his bag when he left.

Bottom line

I’m incredibly excited about starting this trip. I write every week about travel, and travel every few weeks but haven’t done a really big trip since joining the team. I’m writing this on a TAP flight to the Azores islands in Portugal as we speak, which I must admit I had never heard before Ben visited there.

If you would like to follow the trip outside of what I write about on the blog you can follow my instagram @benjames_84 and I’m hoping to even takeover the OMAAT official instagram on occasion where I’m somewhere particularly special or unusual.

If there’s anything you’d especially like me to write about during this gigantic trip please let me know in the comments below.

What is your trusty bag for extended, hand luggage only trips?

  1. I took a Bubba Gump Shrimp drawstring bag on a recent flight on Spirit – in a BIG FRONT SEAT. Cash fare. Haters gonna hate!

  2. James. Have you ever heard about Nomatic? They started like a Kickstarter projetc, but nowadays they have come to create great types of bags and backpacks. I’ve just purchased a messenger bag from them and I used it in my USA weekend. It was very good!

  3. For such a long trip, it’s really best to not skimp on quality and shell out a little more money. When I went hiking in NZ last year I was really glad I did given the conditions and weather it had to endure!
    Speaking of which, I strongly strongly recommend that you get a backpack rain cover that is as fitted as possible. Even if your bag says it’s waterproof, if you have to stay hours under the rain you’ll be glad to have dry stuff to wear later.

    Either way that looks like a super exciting adventure and will look forward to follow your adventures on Instagram 🙂 . What I’d personally love to know is how you plan trips like that, how much it costs in money vs points, etc…
    Have fun!

  4. I have a Farpoint 40 which is a 40L bag from Osprey. The look is a little on the sporty side rather than fashionable but it has an internal frame which is pretty nice and the layout is good. Ive never had an airline say I couldn’t take it as a carry on. For my toiletries I have the bag from an old AA first class amenity kit, which is the perfect size.

  5. Have a wonderful trip! I have the Standard that you are taking along. It’s wonderful. Although I have not tried a four month trip with it, I have often used it for 2-3 week trips and still found that I over packed. The amount of space is deceptively large. Given that, I have also been required to remove stuff because of weight restrictions for a carry on, so be forewarned. I am looking forward to your travel adventures.

  6. Really nice approach for a travel…LVMH wallet with some centurions could be useful to avoid 1kg socks & underwear

  7. I been buying various Eagle Creek brand bags for several years after a recommendation by Very durable and superior warranty. Lightweight.

  8. My go to is the Tumi alpha 2 expandable satchel. By itself and if not too full, it can fly as a personal item and you can tag on another bigger carry on. If you need room, you can open up the zippers and it can carry as much if not more than a regular carry on. It’s so versatile.

  9. Just did five months RTW with my eBags weekender … it has now logged over 100k miles in 2.5 years and still looks great! Never had a problem taking it on any airline though my upcoming flight with Ukraine might be a challenge as apparently they do sometimes weigh it to ensure it isn’t over 7kg (I have around 8kg)

  10. Try the Northface Overhaul 40, slightly outside your budget but Northface is very comfortable, durable and has a lifetime warranty. I use the Surge model when traveling. Have used it for over 10 years still looks good. Been to the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, the Caribbean, Hawaii, Yosemite, and Europe with it. No issues. Taking it with me on my Asia/Pacific trek next year.

  11. Anything by Osprey is just fab. I’ve just got the Rolling Transporter 40L for our next trip and have a Farpoint 40L too. Pockets everywhere and just so user friendly.

  12. I use the Osprey Farpoint 40L although I’ve never put it under the seat so I don’t know if it fits since it has a built in frame.

  13. I use a Deuter ACT Trail 30L backapack – I was nervous about such a small bag but it is surprisingly spacious. I used it for a month+ trip and had plenty of room, including running shoes & work laptop. It has a zipper that allows it to open more like a suitcase, which is much nicer than stuffing everything through the top like a traditional backpacking bag. Great shoulder straps, pockets and hip straps too. I use a REI ultralight backpack with a removable back support for a day bag- packs down to nothing but still fells substantial enough for hikes and things.

  14. Damn Endre, I guess saying it enough times didn’t make it true. What kind of drinks does Spirit serve these days?

  15. REI RUCKPACK 40. Built to the maximum allowable dimensions for checked baggage. I used it for an extended trip to India and it worked so well. It has little compartments so you can organize and it super versatile. Has great functionality, too: opens like a suitcase which is way easier than a toploading pack.

  16. Another fan of osprey though you said you don’t like the aesthetics. I took a 40L on a month long trip to the South Pacific with my husband and our two kids. It is very durable and easy to carry, taking the fatigue off of your back. I guess it all depends on if you are looking for a backpack more to actually backpack or for travel instead of a rollaboard.

  17. @James, don’t you also need to consider the weight of the bag? European/Asian airlines tend to have insanely ridiculous weight limits for hand luggage (and actually weigh them). IIRC, 8kg seems to be the norm. :-\

    Check out the ebags Mother Lode Weekender, as others have mentioned. Its capacity is ~50L, is lightweight, and has an adjustable laptop strap.

  18. @ Tennen – I’ve taken around 100 flights on European airlines over the last 3 years and have never had my hand luggage weighed.

  19. In one month I leave for a 6 month trip to Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Peru, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan and the Philippines. 49 flights.

    40L, eh? For the past 8 years I’ve traveled 6 months each year using nothing but a ~20L Camelback daypack. This is the new model:
    But, my version is shown on the webpage below the text, “First off, my pack is NOT the one pictured. But it is a Rim Runner according to the tag. This is the model I have. I believe it’s a 2007 model.”

    Get some cheap, zippered, meshed, light, new-zero volume organizer bags:

    Laptop? Please. All I carry is an iPod Touch.

  20. Osprey Ozone 46L (backpack)
    Kelty Redwing 44L

    Both are carry-on size, approximately 46L and good tough packs. I would say the Kelty is built more like a tank for Africa and mine came out with nary a scratch after six months.

  21. So green with envy I can hardly see straight! Good on for you, and we can’t wait to read about it. I have a canvass/leather backpack from Duluth 12w x 14h, super thick canvass rivited with tough zippers and straps like rifle slings. Been to Africa and back dozens of times and survived dunking in the ocean and even falling out of a helicopter.
    Happy trails!

  22. Having an ultra-long travel with a hand luggage only has a huge problem – you can’t fit all those 20 first class amenity kits and first class terminal rubber ducks in it.

  23. I’m guessing that your etiquette in using backpacks is better than the typical millennial. Many are so thoughtless in the way they wear them in public areas, especially transport.

  24. I would really love to see your packing list. Like clothes. I will be doing a trip early next year to SEA and would love to travel light. But i am always fighting with “what if” Before i used lot of merino stuff (underwear and shirts) they really can last for days without getting stink. But you need was them in special detergent. They are not cheap but totally worth.

  25. 1. James, what are you taking to stay connected? I recently bought a GlocalMe G3 and although it is not cheap, the data plans are very reasonable and it works like a charm.

    2. I travel a lot (3-25 day trips). To cut down on weight (on longer sectors I fly first or business but still limit what I take) I use Icebreaker t-shirts and polos. They are very fine wool and can be worn up to 3 days without odour. I wash them in the bathroom sink, roll them in a towel which I walk on to wring out the excess water, hang them to dry and they are dry by morning.

    3. chitownflyer – I agree the Samsonite Lite Cube Spinners are an excellent range (in my family we have 6 larger sizes we all share). I have looked at the 55cm many times but have not bought it because it does not have any outside pockets to easily access passport, mobile etc.; which means you need to carry another small bag for those items.

  26. Seems to me you are going to encounter a 7kg weight limit more than a few times. You may have to reconsider those 4 pairs of shoes perhaps. Leave behind those volcano climbing ones, or the cocktail bar pair. Decisions, decisions……..

  27. Seems like I’m not the only one who didn’t understand the connection between small drawstring bags and “gay circuit parties.”

  28. Instead of getting those secondary hand bags….. get one of those Tumi Alpha Bravo Kirtland and for a primary backpack get a Tumi Alpha Bravo Knox…..
    Both are super dope and I can’t travel without these….

  29. Because I travel nearly always with a camera, I ordered the Wandrd Hexad Access Duffel on Kickstarter last year. It’s a 40L duffel that is actually pretty decent to carry on your back for a few hours. Would not go hiking with it, however, the straps are too thin for that. I’ve never weighed it, but I’m quite sure it’s always above the 8-10-12 kilo maximum for the EU flights I generally take. But then again, as you said James, no one ever checks it in my experience.

    It’s a bit tough sometimes to fit it in overhead bins of a Dash 8 or an ATR 72, but it kinda works. Quite happy with it overal, though now my eye has fallen on the recently released Peak Design Travel Backpack…

    Also check Chase Reeves, a great vlogger who does in-depth bag reviews with a lot of humor:

  30. Easy – Osprey 40. Can be a backpack or a sports bag. You need only to carry ten days worth of supplies anyways.

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