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How to pack for a family holiday using only cabin bags: hand luggage hacks from real parents

Can you really pack for a family holiday using just carry-on luggage? If you’re armed with savvy space-saving tips and travel only with the bare essentials, it’s entirely doable. We’ve turned to the Mumsnet talk forums for insights from travellers that have been there, done that and packed their souvenir t-shirts into compression bags for the flight home.

By Rachel Erdos | Last updated Apr 12, 2024

Mother and daughter packing a suitcase

Yes, kids come with a lot of stuff. But you really don’t need to take it all on holiday. Opting for cabin bags over suitcases for your next family holiday may seem daunting but it’s not impossible. Not only will you save money by not paying hold luggage fees, you’ll also save time by skipping the baggage reclaim scrum and you won’t have to lug heavy cases around either, particularly if you opt for a cabin-sized backpack. This approach is better suited to families flying with kids aged 5+ who can carry their own lightweight cabin bags and works better if you’re travelling to a warm-weather destination. One that will allow you to stock up on bulky items (wipes, toiletries etc) when you land.

“Do it! Back in the day I travelled longhaul to Asia with just my small rucksack and the kids had school rucksacks on their backs. It was brilliant and freeing!”

- Mumsnetter, AnuSTart

The key is to strip things back to the bare essentials and be prepared to wash items while you’re away. If that doesn’t sound like much of a holiday, go forth and stuff a suitcase, but if you’re keen to simplify your next escape, read on for advice, tips and recommendations from family travellers. As an added bonus, the fewer items you take away, the less there is to leave behind, or lose en route.

To keep you organised on-the-go, we’ve got handy guides to the best packing cubes, the best vacuum storage bags, the best suitcases, the best cabin bags, the best kids’ luggage, the best bum bags and the best beach bags.

What to pack in your carry-on luggage. 8 top tips for your next family holiday

1. Essentials only

“Capsule wardrobe for you and DH, minimum day wear for DC and use 1 bag for accessories and extras. Don't take extra shoes other than what you wear to travel and carry your sun hat in you hand” - Mumsnet user, blithefool

If you start out with a large suitcase, it’s likely you’ll stuff it full of items you probably don’t need. Focus instead on putting together an edited selection of must-have items. You don’t need a different outfit (or swimsuit) for each day. Wear hats and bulkier shoes on the flight and pack sandals. Opt for microfibre towels (or check if your hotel provides them) and pick key separates made from lightweight fabrics (ideally items that are easy to wash and quick to dry). If you’re staying in an apartment or a villa, you should have access to a washing machine to replenish your wardrobe mid-stay. Leave the hairdryer and travel iron at home.

2. Bag the right bag

"I don’t do hold luggage any more. I roll it all into a backpack and buy sun lotion at the airport" - Mumsnet user, KangarooKenny

"We got the Cabin Max backpacks and can highly recommend. They unzip on 3 sides so it is really easy to see everything. Very spacious" - Mumsnet user, BrandNewBicep

Investing in the right bag is key. Check (and double check) your airline’s cabin baggage allowance and max out on the capacity. Personal preference will dictate whether you opt for a suitcase or a backpack but according to parents on the forums, a small lightweight rucksack can be priceless when it comes to snack distribution and ushering kids through airport terminals. And it’s easier to slip under a seat than a case. Easy-to-access pockets (we love pockets!) are handy for passports and travel documents. Kids with booked seats get the same cabin baggage allowance as adults - ideal if they’re old enough to carry a cabin-sized bag. Younger children may be better off with smaller-sized kids’ luggage to lighten the load.

Newdora packing cubes

3. Roll, don't fold. And stock up on packing cubes

"Rolling clothes like t-shirts makes them more compact and easier to pack. Packing cubes are the answer, they keep your bag neat and organised and make it easy to find stuff when you are there" - Mumsnet user, NannyR

"We do two weeks with carry-on only; including pool inflatables, snorkels and multiple books for each of us. I use vacuum bags, which probably halve the space the clothes take up"  Mumsnet user, JeanMichelBisquiat

When it’s time to pack, rolling clothes instead of folding them is a savvy space-saving hack that genuinely works. Not only does it maximise space in your cabin bag, it also reduces the risk of creases in your clothes. A win-win. Mumsnetters also swear by packing cubes as a way to neatly organise (and access) your items. Compression packing cubes are particularly good if you want to cram in as much as possible. Consider vacuum storage bags too for airtight organisation - just bear in mind that you’re kneeling on each bag to remove the air rather than using a vacuum cleaner as you may not have access to one on your return.

4. Layer up

"I always recommend taking a basic cotton fold down type reusable shopping bag also for flights with children. Means it fits away tiny in another bag, but you have somewhere to shove everyone’s coats and jumpers if they get hot or on arrival in hotter country when they are small enough to not want to hood and you're not an octopus yourself. Can use for shopping and beach there as well" - Mumsnet user, Caspianberg 

Not only practical for the journey itself (hello in-flight pillow fashioned from a sweatshirt!), layering your clothes will give you outfit options when dealing with a variety of different temperatures en route (airline cabins can be both stifling and frosty during the same flight) and saves you valuable hand luggage space to boot. Get the whole family to start the trip wearing their bulkiest items and strip off when needed. Pack a small tote bag or a foldable shopper to store excess layers.

5. Minimise liquids

"I buy every day stuff like shampoo & conditioner, shower gel, razors, sanitary products and body lotion when I'm away" - Mumsnet user, ShakeTheRoom

"I just take my toothbrush, a proper bar of soap and any samples I’ve amassed. Then I go into a local shop near where I’m staying for whatever I need if I’ve run out" - Mumsnet user, ihatethefuckingmuffin

If you have an elaborate 11-step twice-daily skincare regime, you’re probably better off checking in a suitcase to allow for a weighty toiletry bag. If you can make do with a body wash that also doubles as a shampoo and a face wash that can be passed around the whole family, you should have enough space in your cabin bag to fill a clear plastic bag of essentials. Consider buying things like sunscreen and bug spray at your destination or check if your hotel or apartment offers supplies like shampoo, conditioner, body moisturiser and toothpaste, before travelling. If you’re able to take duty free bags as part of your carry-on allowance (check with your airline) you could consider placing a click and collect order to pick up from Boots before boarding.

Holiday packing

6. Pack versatile items

"Reversible clothing is a game changer. I have a cotton skirt from White Stuff. A reversible swimsuit from Lands End. A reversible summer dress and a reversible short sleeve top" - Mumsnet user,  HelebethH

"I'm a big fan of a couple of cotton sarongs for extra beach towel, general cover up, pillow, shade maker etc" - Mumsnet user, ChiselandBits

Prioritise items that can be worn multiple ways or used for different purposes. A sarong is the ultimate hardworking holiday hero - a beach cover-up, a scarf, something to sit on… If you’re taking a carry-on backpack you could re-use it as a family beach bag on arrival (just be sure to shake the sand off on your return). Instead of separate cables consider an octopus-style multi charger to charge different devices at the same time. Reversible clothes (and swimming costumes) can broaden your options too.

7. It’s all in the planning

"I think carefully about the clothes I will actually need, choosing lighter fabrics, and usually only one pair of shoes. It helps when you know the forecast will be reliable. Warm weather holidays are easier too" - Mumsnet user, Aragog

"I planned outfits, wore things more than once, wore trainers and packed sandals. As long as you plan it's definitely doable" - Mumsnet user, JeezYouLoon

For precision packing, it’s well worth mapping out exactly what you’re going to wear ahead of a trip. It might sound like overkill but it can really help you focus on what’s really worth putting in your case and you don’t want to waste valuable space by stuffing it with items that you’re unlikely to wear. Make a list and plan out a family holiday wardrobe before you pack.

8. Max out your pockets

“I took my purse, phone and kindle out of said bag, put them in my coat pockets and put the bag back on the scale and received the desired 'approved for hand luggage' tag” - Mumsnet user, BarbaraofSeville

Mumsnetters LOVE pockets. A stylish way to stash bits and bobs, pockets really come into their own when you’re travelling with hand luggage. Perfect for storing passports, travel documents, snacks, books and tech, make sure you max out your family pocket allowance to give you more space inside each bag.