8 hacks for making the most of airline carry-on luggage limits

From selective packing to strategic luggage carrying, here are some great amateur tips to avoid paying extra for more allowance

Woman standing on overfilled suitcase.
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I’m a certain type of traveller that people loathe. The kind who is sized up as they stand in the aisle of a plane, people behind me simply unable to fathom how I’ve been allowed to get this far – or hoping I’ll be swiftly reprimanded. No, I’m not an ill-disciplined child. I’m a cabin luggage over-packer.

You know the kind – the ones who roll up to the gate with bags fit to bursting, clutching several other bags to lessen the main load, holding up the entire plane as they try to stuff everything into the overhead compartment.

But while it might be a slight hindrance to you, let me tell you, it’s an art form to me. Forgoing premium carriers and their opulent 21kg to 30kg baggage allowances can save hundreds of dirhams in airfare costs. Even more if you're willing to fly on those airlines so obscure you can barely pronounce their names. But it also means you inevitably lose quite a lot of those add-ons (even airline food trumps soggy home-packed sandwiches), meaning you’re confined to cabin baggage unless you're willing to pay separately for the privilege of a suitcase. It's probably no secret that I’d rather battle mild hypothermia than pay €50 (Dh207) to carry a couple of extra layers.

ABU DHABI. UNITED ARAB EMIRATES, 10 June 2017. Staff Portrait of Ashleigh Stewart. (Photo: Antonie Robertson)
Ashleigh Stewart advises travellers to wear their jumpers and coats on the plan. Antonie Robertson / The National

I haven't yet fallen foul of the carry-on law – and I’ve become pretty skilled at lugging many, many kilograms from country to country. In fact, I’ve just come home from two weeks of traversing four countries with wildly different climates.

And despite the fact that by writing this I can only assume an all-airline circular will be issued and I’ll never get away with this again – here are a few tips to help you get even your ski gear onboard without paying a dirham extra...

1. Always have an extra, tiny bag

I know, I know, it’s literally the first rule most airlines ask you to adhere to: have just one small bag in the cabin. But they’re not going to rattle you for a little H&M bag; it looks like you’ve just picked up some socks on the way to the airport. Little do they know that hidden in that bad boy are several kilograms of Cadbury’s and three giant soy candles.

2. Place all your super-heavy items in that small bag

Do not even think about putting clothes or anything easy to carry in there – now is not the time for common sense, people. I’m going to need you to throw in your laptop, that tea set from India and any granola you bought because it’s £1.56 (Dh7) in the UK and £8 in Dubai. Think about things that weigh a lot but don’t take up too much space – then shove them all in that unsturdy little shopping bag that is likely to split at any second.

3. It’s also about what you hold in your hands

Following on from points one and two, make sure you've expertly spread your two-plus bags across both hands as you approach the check-in counter. Do not, under any circumstances, put your sneaky bag on the floor with your main bag. When the attendant asks to see or weigh your cabin bag, given them the main one. They probably won't notice you have another firmly clasped in your grasp, just out of sight. And when you walk away, having successfully secured a cabin sticker on your main one, it'll be too late. You'll already be stalking off towards security control with one arm raised in the air like Judd Nelson at the end of The Breakfast Club.

Judd Nelson's moment of triumph closes out 'The Breakfast Club' (1985). Courtesy A&M Films
Judd Nelson's moment of triumph closes out 'The Breakfast Club' (1985). Courtesy A&M Films

4. Walk with confidence

Perhaps the most important rule of carry-on etiquette: don’t attempt to dupe staff by attempting to shield your bag with a coat, or walking with your arms extended, or averting eye contact. Instead, carry that bag like it’s feather-light and full of cotton wool.

If you don't look like you're struggling with those 14 kilograms of souvenir ceramics and new Le Creuset stoneware from a sale at TK Maxx, no one will know that one of your arms is red raw and lost blood flow several travelators ago.

5. Your carry-on should be a soft, lightweight bag

My friend once used a carry-on suitcase that weighed 1.5 kilograms. Come on, mate.

6. Duffel bags are best...

…because their shape is flexible and you’re not constricted by those regimented trundler suitcases that can barely hold a couple of pairs of shoes. Duffel bags can be stretched to their limits and can take on almost any shape or form – meaning, yes, if you want to, you can take Settlers of Catan on your beach holiday.

7. Stuff things into unexpected places

If you’ve ever used an actual laptop bag, you’ll know those things are absurdly sized, with enough room to house about four devices, should it be required. If, like most people, you have just one, why not use all of that vacant space to pack in bits from your main bag? No one is ever going to weigh your laptop bag – and if they do, ask why the small laptop bag allowance never seems to stipulate a weight limit.

8. Wear several layers

If you need to take a jacket and a jumper for a weekend away, you better believe you’re wearing both on the plane.

And that, my friends, is how you go to quite a lot of effort just to avoid paying a few extra dirhams.


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