Packing Light: How to Travel With Only a Carry-On Bag

Packing light enough to fit everything into just one carry-on bag is the secret to stress-free travel—especially once you’re out the door. Deciding what makes the cut? That can be tough!

But doing so is worth the effort. In fact, traveling light is usually regarded as a sign of an experienced traveler because, despite seeming restrictive, sticking with only a carry-on can actually give you more freedom.

Traveling With Only a Carry-On Is a Stress-Free Experience

With only a carry-on in tow, you’re free to hit the ground running right after you exit the airplane—instead of sitting around a baggage carousel for 45 minutes, waiting for your things to appear.

You’re also free from the fear that your airline will lose your bag, thus messing up your entire vacation.

Unencumbered by large bags, you have your choice of transportation options, including local trains and buses, which are often far less expensive than shelling out for a taxicab upon arrival.

Once at your accommodations, the benefits continue: When you’ve brought less, you can find what you need more quickly. You’re also less likely to leave anything behind.

Consider Saving Your Shopping for When You’ve Arrived

My travel experiences have taught me that you can purchase pretty much anything you need once you’ve arrived (and often for less).

Traveling with this mindset saves you from trying to buy items before you go, then attempting to fit a myriad of “what ifs” into your bag.

Mind you, the key is “need.” You’re unlikely to find a bikini shop if traveling to the Irish countryside. But you can be darned sure that they’re everywhere near the beach in any resort town.

Not that you need to purchase a ton upon arrival—you really can cram most of what you’ll use into a carry-on.

But, having the option to peruse beachside market stalls for an extra pair of sandals or wide-brimmed hat means that you’ve also got a souvenir that’s far more useful than some location-specific sand in a paperweight.

In short, traveling with only a carry-on can save you money (baggage fees), stress (is my bag there?), backache (stairs are the worst), and time—when you’re ready to uproot, just pack up and head out in 15 minutes.

Hopefully, I’ve got you thinking why traveling with only a carry-on is better, but how to winnow down your “take” pile to fit in a small case?

Carry-On Only Packing 101: Deciding What Clothes To Bring

In You’ve Been Packing Your Luggage Wrong All Along: 3 Methods to Pack Like a Pro, we mention the core principle of packing less: Pack the same for a week or a year.

Clothing takes up most of what’s in your suitcase, and not having enough options for what to wear is the biggest concern for most people who are attempting to pare down to a carry-on for the first time.

But there’s a surprising advantage to having fewer choices—you’re more careful when selecting what you do bring, and end up spending less time deciding what to wear once you’re there.

It makes no difference if you’re traveling for seven days or seven months, you only need enough clothing to wear one outfit every day of the week. Then, do just what you would at home once you run out of clean clothes—laundry!

Here are four steps to paring down your clothing before packing:

1. Decide on Your Own Ratio of Bottoms to Tops, But Limit the Total Number of Articles to 10

My general rule of thumb for how many articles of clothing to bring is 10. Since that’s not a lot, an item must be able to pull double (or triple) duty to be worth its weight and space.

Try to limit what you select to three bottoms, six tops, and one jacket or sweater (unless you’re heading somewhere tropical).

2. Pick a Color Scheme With Things That Will Get the Most Wear in Neutral Colors

To start narrowing down your week’s worth of clothing, pick a color scheme and stick to it. Not that everything has to be the same color, but it should be complimentary.

Outer layers, such as sweaters and long sleeved shirts, need to go with everything, so I find it useful to make sure these items are neutral in color.

Then, you can pick articles of clothing that will rotate more frequently, such as shirts, shorts, or one bottom, in patterns or brighter tones.

3. Make Sure That Everything Goes With Everything Else

Once you’ve got your items narrowed down to a week’s worth of outfits, chances are that you’ll still be above ten articles of clothing. To help you narrow down what you’ll bring, lay your items out to visually mix and match.

The goal is to make sure that every top goes with every bottom, and your sweaters or outer layers also match each selection. If something clashes with another item, out it goes! 

4. When Possible, Replace Bulky Items With Performance Wear

There are many articles of clothing intended for daily wear that successfully blends fashion and performance, such as tailored wool coats or thick winter parkas.

Unless you’re heading to a location where these items are absolutely necessary, such as Helsinki in January, and will be wearing the bulky item as you get off the plane, these simply take up too much space and weight to deserve space in your bag.

Instead, look to travel and outdoor gear for lighter, less bulky options.

For example, if you’re facing the possibility of showers, ditch the winter parka and head to a sporting goods store to purchase a water-resistant windbreaker that can compress down to the size of your fist.

Or, if it’s cold you’re bracing yourself for, spring for a down coat that can keep you ultra-warm but pack small.

Three Ways to Wash Your Clothes on the Go (and Which Fabrics Do Best)

Of course, if you’re traveling for longer than a week, you’ll need to wash your clothes.

Not to worry! In many parts of the world, there are inexpensive laundry services where you can drop your clothing off to be washed, dried, and folded for a small fee.

Not comfortable seeking out laundry services or fear they might not be found? If you’re staying in a hotel or vacation rental, it’s worth calling ahead to check if facilities are available.

If not, you’ll have to put some extra thought into which fabrics make the cut. For example, when packing for a trip where you’ll launder your own clothes in a sink, you should steer clear of 100% cotton fabrics unless very thin and loosely woven, otherwise it will never dry.

Instead, aim for blends that combine the comfort of cotton with performance fabrics such as modal, polyester, or rayon. These are lighter and quicker drying than 100% cotton, but are inexpensive and can still be found in regular styles.

Then, pick up a small packet of travel laundry soap sheets (50-count for $6.86) and a bungee clothesline ($5.25), and wash what you brought in the sink.

If you’re concerned about being able to get items clean, you can even consider a travel wash bag, like this one from Scrubba. These sealable sacks are lined with silicone nubs that allow you to get a washing machine quality clean in just a few minutes. As a bonus, they can double as a waterproof sack, should you need to keep items dry.

When Packing Only a Carry-On, Try to Bring Multipurpose Items

Depending on your itinerary, it’s surprisingly simple to select items that have multiple uses.

Will you be exploring European cities? With a little preparation and the right apps, a smartphone is also an alarm clock, camera, e-reader, guidebook, and map.

For travelers heading to the beach, a sarong can be a skirt, beach cover-up, towel, and even a sheet.

When packing your toiletries, liquids are a major limitation of carry-on only travel. Consider shampoo bars that can also act as body soap.

My favorite travel-friendly shampoo bars are made by Lush, and several have built-in conditioning agents to save you extra space. (Plus you never have to worry about leaks and they last for ages.)

Think beyond the just-in-case items as well. Ditch the lint roller, bandages, and blister tape for a small roll of duct tape instead—just an inch or so can be used to fix, hold, or cover most anything you’ll encounter.

Be Aware of Airline Restrictions When Choosing a Carry-On Bag

Unless you already have a carry-on that you know and love, you’ll need to shop for an appropriately sized bag.

Do you already own a carry-on case that you think will do the job?

Be aware that airlines are more strict than ever about measuring the size and weight of your carry-on, so what might have been allowed in the overhead bin as little as five or six years ago might now be considered too large.

Also, know that complimentary carry-on bags are a perk that’s quickly disappearing. Spirit Airlines, Frontier Airlines, and United base fare tickets are just a few domestic carriers that are now charging for bags that you bring on board.

With the recent attention to hand luggage in mind, it’s important that you visit your airline’s website to learn if a carry-on item is free, and what restrictions they place on the bag.

As a general rule of thumb, carry on luggage can be 22 x 14 x 9 inches (56 x 36 x 23 cm). Note that these measurements include all handles, side pockets, and wheels.

If you haven’t purchased your ticket yet and intend to travel with only a carry-on bag, it’s helpful to know the restrictions of each airline:

  • Aeromexico: 22 x 14 x 9 inches, 22 pounds
  • Air Canada: 22 x 16 x 9 inches, 22 pounds
  • Alaska Airlines: 24 x 17 x 10 inches, no weight limit
  • American Airlines: 22 x 14 x 9 inches, no weight limit
  • Delta Airlines: 22 x 14 x 9 inches, no weight limit
  • JetBlue Airways: 22 x 14 x 9 inches, no weight limit
  • Southwest Airlines: 24 x 16 x 10 inches, no weight limit
  • Spirit Airlines: 16 x 14 x 12 inches (free) or 22 x 18 x 10 inches (paid), no weight limit
  • United Airlines: 22 x 14 x 9 inches, no weight limit

When it comes to North American airlines, Alaska and Southwest offer the most generous carry-on luggage policies—something to keep in mind when shopping for your airfare.

Note that the above allotments were researched in January 2017, so you’ll want to recheck just to be sure.

Flying Within Europe? Be Prepared to Have Your Carry-On Luggage Weighed

Notice that only Air Canada enforces a weight limit? Those heading across the pond won’t be so lucky.

Normally transatlantic trips offer much more generous luggage requirements. However, if you’re planning to fly to another country once there, know that European airlines tend to be much more strict about carry-on weight and personal items, such as a computer bag, which are sometimes not allowed.

Again, this is a general rule of thumb, but size regulations on carry-on luggage for European airlines tend to be similar to what we’ve shared above.

The weight limit is typically around 22 pounds, except for British Airways, which allows a generous 51 pounds.

Final Tip for Traveling With Only a Carry-On Bag: Be Sure to Board First

If you’re traveling with only a carry-on, it’s important to try and board the plane as early as possible. Many passengers aren’t aware, but the space in the overhead bins isn’t guaranteed, particularly not the space directly over your row.

If things fill up too quickly, you might be forced to place your carry-on bags further towards the back of the aircraft, which can cause you to be delayed once it’s time to deboard.

If space has all but ran out, the gate agent may ask to check your bag.

Generally, when this happens at the gate, airlines waive the fee (especially if it’s due to overfull bins). However, that still leaves you waiting at the baggage carousel after you’ve landed.

Related: Bumped Off Your Flight? Your Guide to Compensation

Which is why, again, it’s best to board in an early group. Generally, boarding groups are assigned by seating class and then the time of check-in, so be sure to do so online as soon as possible. (Online check in is usually available 24 hours before your flight.)

Checking in online also means you have a better chance of sneaking a slightly oversized or overweight bag by unnoticed. Be sure to print your boarding pass out at home, then skip checking in with a person and head right to security when you arrive.

Don’t Forget to Tailor Your Packing List for Your Destination

Life with less is simpler, especially on vacation. However, we’re creatures prone to seeking comfort and familiarity, which often leads to packing items that aren’t necessary simply because we feel more secure when they’re on hand.

But there’s no point packing jeans if you’re heading to Thai islands for a beach vacation, or a swimsuit if you’re heading to Rome.

The length of your trip also comes into play when considering what makes it into your carry-on. If you’re only traveling for a week, there’s no need to worry that the fabrics you pack are quick drying.

You’re also less likely to be working on a short holiday, so leave the laptop and it’s heavy charging cord at home.

By targeting your packing list for your destination and the length of your trip, you can reduce unnecessary gear to sneak in a few luxuries like a dressier ensemble for heading out in the evening.

When in doubt, go casual, simple, and very light. Remember, while traveling, you’ll meet two kinds of tourists—those who pack light and those who wish they had.

Read Next: What to Expect from Your Flight Attendant: Insider Tips for Air Travel

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.

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