The author’s one and only carry-on, packed and weighing under 11 pounds. The turquoise pouch is a raincoat. ( Alexa McMahon/The Washington Post)

The lightweight pack topped off with a fascinator headpiece. ( Alexa McMahon/The Washington Post)

Could I survive two weeks abroad with only 11 pounds of luggage?

When you book a cheap airline ticket, you convince yourself that you’re aware of all the not-so-hidden fees. That you’ll outsmart the low-cost carrier, avoiding additional costs and keeping a strong hold on the $200 you saved.

After booking two transatlantic flights on Wow air, I was forced to reckon with the Icelandic discount carrier’s extreme stance on carry-ons; it restricted their weight to that of roughly two full-grown Chihuahuas. I couldn’t dodge the $6 seat reservation fee, but I could cull the contents of my bag.

Close friends were getting married in the groom’s home country, Scotland, and I wasn’t going to let the excessive cost of summer airline tickets stop me from turning this wedding into an excuse for a European excursion.

Contemplating the 11-pound challenge, I worried about the combined mass of my hair-care products and wedding attire. (Note: I wasn’t in the wedding party, so no bridesmaid’s duties or dress required.) But these concerns disappeared when I saw the cost of a Wow-defined “large carry-on bag.”

Ticket holders are given the option to increase their carry-on load to 26 pounds for $38.99 prepaid online or $48 at check-in. Let me emphasize this was charged per l eg and that every flight includes a stopover in Keflavik, Iceland. The idea of paying for a bag that I’d still have to tote was unacceptable. (Checked bags — $48.99 prepaid online for 44 pounds on Wow air — only are for extreme circumstances.)

I was familiar with similar luggage upsells: U.S. airlines made $3.8 billion in baggage fees alone last year, according to the U.S. Transportation Department, almost $300 million more than 2014.

My hesitation turned to determination. I would only pack the allotted 11 pounds included in the airfare — no wedding clothes, just accessories — and spend my money on castle tours and at pubs instead.


Wow air ticket holders are given the option to increase their carry-on load to 26 pounds for $38.99 prepaid online per leg or $48 at check-in. (Courtesy of Wow Airlines )

An investment in the featherweight of daypacks (the REI Flash 22 pack weighs in at just under one pound) made it possible.

As I stood in line at REI a few months before my departure, I overheard another customer talking about his preparation for a Mount Everest excursion. The sales associate asked questions with admiration and awe. I did not get the same reaction when I explained my need to squeeze in a week’s worth of clothing while somehow safeguarding a fascinator until the Scottish nuptials.

Since most of this summer trip would be spent in the South of France, it was easy to cut down my wardrobe. And I made sure this wasn’t my usual last-minute shuffle, carefully assembling the chosen items a few days before my flight, setting them aside to prevent premature wear and allow for last-minute weight adjustments.

The contents of my carry-on were limited to: sandals; four shirts; one skirt; three dresses; one pair of leggings; two pairs of shorts; one bathing suit; five pairs of socks; and 10 pairs of underwear. Toiletries stayed at a bare minimum, with a travel-size toothbrush and toothpaste, three 2.4-ounce bottles of hair product and a few dollops of face wash — all in one 16-ounce Ziploc bag. Half of my usual makeup selection went into a small cosmetics bag. Running sneakers were tucked into two exterior pockets. Finally, I topped off the bag with the quintessential wedding accessory: the dainty pink headpiece.

To offset that 11-pound limit, I dressed in layers on travel day: Keds, socks, jeans, a tank top, cardigan, button-down flannel shirt and raincoat. My overstuffed pockets contained ear buds, wallet, phone, passport, tickets and a newly purchased but older model e-reader (this paperback fan adapted for the occasion), plus my portable luggage scale, ready and waiting.


The author’s clothing and toiletries laid out before being loaded into the pack at left. ( Alexa McMahon/The Washington Post)

It worked. Me and my meticulously curated belongs were off to the Old Country.

With the anxiety of curating its contents behind me, my lightweight bag began to pay unexpected dividends. I savored the smaller-bag life; every item gave me KonMari-style joy. I had seven flights, including stopovers, one overnight train and five destinations in three countries. Despite the schedule, I never worried about lugging my bag around if I got stuck with it all day. My shoulders and back were at peace.

With few, but versatile, garments and access to laundry during the first leg of the trip, clothing rotation wasn’t difficult. Yes, I repeated the same outfits, but I do that in everyday life, too, assuming that no one will point it out. As for souvenirs, I hoped family and friends wouldn’t notice their lack of gifts.

It wasn’t until the second half of my trip that I felt the sting of packer’s remorse. In Edinburgh, my boyfriend surprised me with a framed illustration of Dana Scully and Fox Mulder from “The X-Files.” We assumed that mailing it home would be easy. In the United Kingdom, you can ship two kilograms (about four pounds) internationally for about $25. Above that, the price increases exponentially. After several failed attempts, we fit the illustration and four bags of loose-leaf tea into the slim, rectangular box. Nothing else. No dirty clothing to free up room for our newly purchased wedding garb.

On our return trip, I resorted to cheating and stowed some of my new clothes in my travel companions’ luggage. As I placed my bag on the scale at the Wow counter, the red numbers flashed 4.8 kilograms (10.5 pounds). I had successfully evaded baggage fees a second time.

I was still congratulating myself back home when I realized the joke was on me. Rereading the airline’s luggage restrictions, I saw that Wow had updated its carry-on rules while I was watching the Euro 2016 semifinals at an Edinburgh bar. The five-kilogram limit had doubled. Wow’s 11-pound challenge was no more — and after this trip, a 22-pound challenge would be no challenge at all.

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