I’ll admit it: I used to be a chronic over-packer.
No matter how hard I tried, I could just never limit myself to just the essentials. I’m generally an indecisive person, and I found it nearly impossible to plan what I was going to wear a few days or weeks ahead of a trip. What if I changed my mind? What if I really did end up needing that extra pair of shoes or swimsuit or 10 extra pairs of underwear??
If you’ve ever had a peek into my closet, you’ll know that I like options when it comes to my clothing.
But, the more I’ve traveled, the more I’ve learned the benefits of packing light. Not only does it save on things like overweight baggage fees and help me avoid lugging heavy bags around a destination, but it just makes travel easier!
Taking “packing light” to the extreme is challenging yourself to travel with just a carry-on. I know this can sound impossible to lots of people, but I promise it’s not! And there are a lot of benefits to traveling carry-on-only. Things like:
Carry-on-only travel isn’t *all* great, though. I can certainly be a challenge, and there are some downsides. Like:
But honestly? I think the pros outweigh the cons in a lot of cases. (In most cases in 2022, if I’m being honest, where the chances of having a checked bag lost have been pretty high!)
I don’t always travel carry-on-only, but I’ve done plenty of longer trips with just a carry-on – including a 3-month trip around Europe with just a carry-on-sized backpack! If you want to challenge yourself to travel with just a carry-on for your next trip, here are all my best tips:
There are two main types of carry-on bags to choose from: the small rolling suitcase*, and the overhead bin-friendly backpack.
I’ve traveled with both – I have a small Delsey spinner suitcase that I love, and an Osprey Farpoint 40 backpack. (We also have a Samsonite hardside spinner that’s more affordable.)
I prefer a rolling bag for getting around airports, but a backpack is often easier to squash into an overhead bin. Backpacks are also often more convenient if you’re going to be walking a lot with your luggage, or getting on/off lots of public transportation.
(Also, anecdotally, backpacks are often less likely to get flagged or checked by gate agents for size/weight.)
All airlines will allow you a “personal item” in addition to your main carry-on piece that must fit under the seat in front of you on a plane. If I’m traveling with a small suitcase, my personal item is usually a small backpack (like this Pacsafe one). When traveling with a backpack, then a purse is usually my personal item.
*Note: Luggage dimension limits can vary from airline to airline, and generally the size allowance for international flights and flights within Europe is smaller than flying domestically within the US. Keep this in mind when purchasing luggage! This chart is helpful for checking size limits.
This is probably the most important thing to think about when it comes to packing. Where are you going? What season will it be there? What kind of weather can you expect?
Obviously, if you’re going somewhere tropical, you probably can leave the winter coat and fuzzy socks at home. In fact, if it’s going to be hot and humid, you can probably leave the jeans behind, too. Not only are they uncomfortable in hot weather, but they also really weigh down your luggage.
Conversely, if you’re going somewhere cold, you probably shouldn’t bother with shorts, and your flip flops should probably be reserved for hostel/campsite bathrooms.
Simply knowing what sort of weather to expect can do wonders for your packing list, and is the easiest way to decide what things you really need.
Whether I’m traveling for 1 week or 5 weeks, I stick to packing roughly the same amount of clothing: enough for about one week. That means enough tops and bottoms for a week, and one week’s worth of underwear (sometimes I’ll take enough undies for 10-12 days if my trip is really long, but I stick to my one-week rule for everything else!).
Whittling things down to just enough for one week is tough – but this is the point where you have to force yourself to leave behind most of those “just in case” items that you might otherwise be tempted to pack if you had more room. (Check out my guide to the 12 things you probably never need to pack.)
I used to think this was only something that models and the most serious Instagrammers did, but plotting out outfits in advance can really help you pack in just a carry-on!
A lot of people will tell you to pack lots of neutral colors that you can mix and match, but I honestly don’t follow that rule most of the time. I think about where I’m going and what sorts of outfits will work the best, but also pack things that I know I’ll enjoy wearing. (I mean, wanting cute vacation photos is not a crime!)
And remember that you can wear things multiple times – I promise no one will know except you!
People are always confused as to how I can travel for weeks with just a carry-on. But it’s no secret: washing machines exist all around the world!
I have done laundry in a sink, sent it out with a laundry service, booked apartments at strategic points in a trip in order to do laundry, and even sat in foreign laundromats before.
Don’t stress about needing a clean outfit for every single day of a longer trip; pack enough clothes for 1 week, and plan to have laundry done along the way if you really need to.
(And don’t forget that it’s easy to hand wash things like underwear and socks in the sink. I travel with quick-dry undies that will dry overnight when I wash them.)
I’m a huge, huge proponent of using packing cubes to organize my suitcase. I use one for tops, one for bottoms, and one for dresses/skirts or sweaters, depending on the trip. I’ll sometimes use a smaller one for socks, underwear, etc., too.
I roll my clothes in my packing cubes, which helps both to save space AND to keep my clothes from getting extra wrinkly. (If you are anti-packing cube, you should still roll your clothes for more efficient, less-wrinkly packing!)
Carry-on suitcases and backpacks are not very big. That’s just a fact. So if you’re going to a colder destination where you might need things like sweaters and warm layers that tend to be very bulky, you might want to consider utilizing one or two spacesaver bags for those items.
These vacuum bags aren’t the same kind you use for comforters in your linen closet, though; they make smaller, carry-on-sized ones that you just ROLL to squeeze all the air out of. No vacuum or pump required! (I have these ones, and they are perfect for my carry-on suitcase – and cheap, too!)
I would personally only use these sparingly for bulky winter clothes, though. Otherwise you run the risk of making your bag too heavy! (And while most US airlines don’t weigh carry-on luggage, airlines in other countries sometimes do!)
Sorry ladies, but you will have to limit yourself on the amount of shoes you take when you’re traveling carry-on-only. (As someone who owns way too many pairs of shoes at home, it sucks, I know!)
I usually limit myself to 2 pairs total – or maybe 3 pairs if one pair is a light, packable pair of flats (I love my SUAVS for this reason!). Resist the urge to pack shoes that you may only wear once (like heels or other dress shoes, rain boots in a destination that isn’t known for being wet, or workout shoes if you probably won’t actually work out).
When you pack bulkier shoes, make sure to utilize the space *inside* your shoes – stuff them with socks, travel adapters, a hat, swimsuit, or any other oddly shaped items.
I like to use a bag with a hook for easy hanging in a bathroom (like this one), and I also utilize reusable silicone bottles for things like face wash and conditioner to cut down on all those tiny plastic bottles.
If you’re packing carry-on-only, though, that means you won’t be allowed to take any liquids larger than 3.4 oz (100ml) with you on the plane. For shorter trips, this is fine – travel-sized bottles of shampoo will be plenty. But what if you’re going on a longer trip?
Instead of trying to pack 12 little bottles of shampoo and body wash into your carry-on bag, consider getting yourself some solid shampoo/conditioner, and reverting to solid bar soap. Not only are these things more eco-friendly, but they’ll last longer and take up less room. (AND you won’t have to worry about that shampoo exploding in your bag!)
I love the shampoo and conditioner bars from Ethique, and recently am really loving this solid shampoo bar from Garnier that lathers a ton!
If you’re tight on space, plan to wear/carry your bulkiest items on the plane. This might mean tying a sweatshirt around your waist and slinging a jacket over your arm – but it works. I also tend to wear my bulkiest shoes on the plane if possible.
I often feel like I look like Joey from Friends wearing all of Chandler’s clothes, but if it helps me avoid checking a bag, I’ll do it!
This won’t help you when traveling outside of the US, but for domestic flights (and international flights starting in the US), having TSA Pre-Check when you’re traveling carry-on-only is absolutely worth it!
Not only will you usually go through a shorter airport security line and get to keep your shoes on, but you also won’t have to remove your liquids or any electronics from your bag(s), which is alway nice if you’ve very carefully and precisely packed your bags so that everything fits.
Many travel rewards credit cards will even reimburse you for TSA Pre-Check these days (it costs $85 for 5 years).
READ NEXT: My Travel Essentials: The Top 12 Things I Can’t Travel Without
These are just the most basic tips for traveling carry-on-only, but they really can help you go from an over-packer to someone who breezes through the airport (and doesn’t have to stress about lost luggage!).
Are you a fan of carry-on-only travel? What tricks do you use when trying to travel light?
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