ANya Lakovlieva, who posts on TikTok as @nolimitua, 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 quick peek inside her travel pillow revealed she’d taken out the foam filling and stuffed it with clothes – to add a few cubic inches more storage space.
If you roll your eyes at what sounds like an over-the-top ruse, you might want to read the fine print of your holiday flight booking a little more closely. EasyJet, Ryanair and Wizz Air now charge hefty fees, not only for luggage stowed in the hold, but also for bags and trolley cases that need to be stowed in the overhead compartments. Most seats only include a bag small enough to fit under the front seat. And – just in case you wanted to risk it – yes, those rules will be enforced. On a recent flight home from Bilbao Airport, I witnessed first hand Ryanair ground staff levying fines on passengers with unpaid trolley cases, some of whom were caught for not realizing the rules had changed.
Meanwhile, this summer’s airport chaos is adding to the financial cost of checking in your luggage an adrenaline rush of danger that you’ll never see it again. A shortage of baggage handlers has left passengers at Gatwick anxiously waiting for bags stranded on planes because there are no staff to offload them. On a particularly bad day at Heathrow recently, three-hour check-in lines left some travelers with the difficult choice of missing their flight or leaving their suitcase behind.
Full Disclosure. I’m not a natural light packer. For many years, my rule of thumb was, if I can carry my suitcase, I don’t have enough shoes. So believe me when I say if I can pack light, anyone can. I’ve changed my habits and now prefer a streamlined pack – not least because it saves on that annoying mountain of laundry after vacation. It will also reduce your carbon footprint as a lighter aircraft uses less fuel. I present: a 10-point plan for your smallest holiday wardrobe ever.
1. Know your rights
Rules vary between airlines. For example, the size of your free underseat bag on Ryanair is 40cm x 25cm x 20cm, but on easyJet it is 45cm x 36cm x 20cm. Some airlines charge different fees for additional carry-on and checked baggage depending on the weight; Some only care about measurements. These are not facts that you want to deal with for the first time in the departure hall at 6 a.m. with tired eyes. If you’re traveling with kids or going away for a long period of time or just really, really can’t live without your yoga mat or your omelet pan or whatever, consider sharing a suitcase with your friends or family so you can only pay 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 your style icon for your airport outfit, my friend. If you’re going super light and only carrying what fits in an underseat pocket — we’re talking about the size of a standard daypack, like the ones you see bus-stop high school students carrying — then you’ll need to carry almost as many clothes as you wear. (When you get on a plane, keep cool by turning on the ceiling 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 you big bags and stuff them with your phone charger, holiday reading, socks, whatever. If you have or can borrow one of those small, flat, zip-top shoulder bags, put your passport, wallet and sunglasses inside and wear them under your jacket, where they’ll be kept safe and out of sight—doesn’t count toward spending money— also useful on vacation.
3. A few fun clothes are better than a lot of boring ones…
You know how you’re told that a “capsule vacation 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 less clothing is to choose pieces that you love and that make you feel instantly attracted to. Go for your favorite vintage band t-shirt instead of three neutral crew necks. Pick a dress that’s comfortable but distinctive enough to wear to dinner and wear during the day as well, rather than boring shorts and a vest.
4. … But be realistic about your vacation
There’s another maddeningly unhelpful trope to the holiday wardrobe narrative that goes, “Pull a taffeta skirt over your bathing suit at golden hour and you’re ready for cocktails.” That’s all well and good, but who’s cooking the kids’ pasta and shakes the sand from the beach towels while you swim around in your imaginary taffeta? Come on, who makes the cocktails? Resist Instagram influencer cosplay and think about the specifics of your vacation. For example: This year we are going to Hydra in Greece, renting a house which as far as I can tell is at the top of about a million steps so although I love long dresses (speed plus mosquito repellent) I’ll take shorter ones so I don’t trip over it.
5. Take what you can wash
It’s easier to pack light if you bring clothes that you can wash and wear again after getting sweaty/dripping ice on them. You don’t need a washing machine: a sink and some travel soap (or just regular soap) are perfectly fine. Choose lightweight fabrics like silk, which dry faster than cotton and take up less room in your bag.
6. Don’t wear high heels
Is your destination Casa Amor? No? Then leave the high heels at home. There are many chic flat sandals that work day and night. (If you’re buying, take a look at the Lillian Black Leather Flatform Slingback Pumps from Kin at John Lewis, £59.)
7. Learn to live without your tracksuit
Observation from my post-pandemic air travel: The fluffy, brushed material that makes up most tracksuits has become a comfort blanket for the modern man. I’ve seen many men on their way to hot destinations wearing sweatpants on planes. The fabric is super bulky and too hot for weather above 30C. Dude, I know trackies are comfy but it’s a 2 hour plane ride; it won’t kill you to wear, for example, lightweight tailored pants that will be far more useful on vacation.
8. Roll everything
Rolled up clothes take up less space. Lay two or three pieces on top of each other on your bed—really flat if you don’t want them wrinkling—then roll them up tightly from one end, squeezing out air and unfolding as you go.
9. Be a goddess of the little things
Start packing lots of small but nice things. Swimsuits and bikinis take up practically no space. So if you spend a lot of the day in it, you can double up on your holiday wardrobe while adding just a little volume. I have my eye on Kióhne’s expensive (€170) but very chic bay swimsuit, which features stone beaded straps and a thick, textured fabric that would make it an instant beach lunch outfit, paired with a pair of denim cutoffs. A pair of chic earrings, a colorful silk scarf to tie in your hair: these are the little things that make a big difference.
10. Think outside the box
When my kids were little, they were obsessed with inflatable boats. These were awesome on vacation – hours of reading time for me! – but, since they were never squeezed back to their original size, bulky and expensive for travel. In a year I agreed with the owner of the villa we rented in Spain to send it in advance. OK, she thought I was a total lunatic, but it worked and cost a fraction of what you would pack as luggage. A friend of mine orders the books she wants to read on vacation online a few days before her departure and gives her vacation destination as the delivery address. Crazy, yes, but also kind of awesome. Oh, and don’t forget your travel pillow.