How to Travel in Winter With Just a Cabin Bag

This year (2017) saw the addition of low-cost routes from Singapore to Athens, London and Tehran (via Kuala Lumpur). That’s in addition to the existing flights to places beyond tropical Southeast Asia like Australia, Japan and China. A big part of what makes budget flights cheap is the ‘pay for what you need’ model. If you don’t pay for checked baggage, you’re restricted to just a 7kg cabin bag and a small item.

It’s easy to fit everything you need for a weekend getaway to Bali in a cabin bag. What about a two-week trip to a colder destination in winter, though? Surely there can’t be enough space for all the thick jackets, boots and thermals?

Surprisingly, I managed to do this for my 10-day visit to Iran in January. At that time, I need to take an AirAsia flight to KL first before boarding a full-service flight to Tehran, and the ability to do so enabled me to dodge checked bag fees.

Why go through all that trouble, though?

  • Save money when you book your flight by not incurring checked baggage fees. (Duh!)
  • It eliminates the risk of losing or breaking your possessions in transit. Have you seen how handlers load and unload baggage?
  • You don’t need to waste time waiting for your stuff at the baggage carousel.
  • It forces you to pack light and get rid of things that you’re unlikely to use. You’ll appreciate this on a multi-city trip.
  • The lack of space also forces you to spend on souvenirs sparingly and keep to a tight budget.

To me, they outweigh the downside of having to buy liquid souvenirs (like alcohol, jams and oils) only in the airport shops. So, these are tips that I used:

1. Go with a small backpack

Remember that (by right) you have only 7kg to play with. A roller bag with a hard shell adds unnecessary weight. In addition, the noise that the wheels create on a quiet European cobblestone street makes me want to die. I’ve been using a CabinZero bag #notasponsoredmessage – it’s smaller than those you typically see travellers use, yet it maximises the cabin bag weight and size limits. You can see at the end of this post how much I could fit into it.

2. Choose layers, not thick clothes

There’s a good reason why you see this tip everywhere. It’s easy to take them off when you switch between heated indoor environments and the icy streets. Be smart about it, however – make sure one of those layers is wind-proof.

To save weight, you can use each garment for a few days. Now, before you get squeamish, remember that you’ll perspire little in winter and you’ll see most of the people in your destination only once. You’ll be the only one who’s conscious of it but if you must, you can rotate the garments.

3. Wear your bulkiest clothing on board

It obviously helps to save weight. Also, the plane’s going to be cold! If you are wearing your jacket and your boots, though, be prepared to take them off quickly at security. And don’t be a muppet like James McElvar of Rewind.

4. Packing cubes and sandwich bags

They’re everywhere, everyone’s talking about them or giving them away and they’re useful for organising your possessions. If you need a starting point, head to your nearest Daiso.

If you want to save even more space, use zip lock sandwich bags. They have one advantage over packing cubes, and that’s their air-tightness. Here’s what you do after getting some from the supermarket, Daiso or the Army Market:

  • Reinforce the sides with tape.
  • After stuffing the bags with clothes, sit on them.
  • Use a vacuum cleaner to get more air out if necessary.
  • Seal and watch them retain their shape.

This is great for making puffy down jackets take up much less space. Before you wear them, remember to shake them to get the air back in.

5. Get fit

Airlines haven’t been consistent in weighing cabin bags before allowing them on board. Looking like you’re struggling with your load is likely to get you a request to check the bag in, however. If you can’t lift your bag overhead, work on your upper body and core strength at least four weeks ahead of your trip. It’d also be irresponsible to make the cabin crew hurt their backs carrying your shit.

Now that I’ve saved you checked bag fees, you might want to see my other money-saving tips.

What was in my cabin bag in winter

Clothes: 1 scarf, 1 hat, 1 pair of gloves, 1 down jacket, 3 pairs of thermals, 2 long T-shirts, 1 pair of trousers, 1 balaclava (when it gets too windy), underwear, 4 pairs of socks (very important due to perspiration and condensation)

Footwear: Sneakers with thin soles (all the better for stuff, rolling up and reducing weight), slippers

Cabin-sized toiletries and moisturiser tube, a micro-fibre towel (for the hostels)

Electronics: An advanced compact camera, spare camera battery, mobile phone, associated chargers, Mogics Power Bagel (#notasponsoredmessageoritemeither, and also available at Changi Airport), more zip lock bags to prevent condensation when entering buildings

If you bring a DSLR or mirrorless compact, that will end up being the other small item you can bring on board.

Accessories: sunglasses (sun + snow = glare), spare spectacles

What I wore on the plane: 1 T-shirt, 1 pair of jeans, 1 trench coat, socks and boots

Niceties you might want to add (but I didn’t): Heat packs from Daiso

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