There are few things more freeing than travel with carry-on only luggage. You know your bags won’t get lost, you can breeze out of the airport without having to wait for checked bags, and maneuvering through crowds is less intimidating. Less stuff equals less hassle. And while that phrase can be applied to life in general, it is particularly poignant when we talk about traveling.

Since 2011 I have checked my bag a total of 1 time when flying a standard plane. That one time was out of pure laziness when I didn’t want to bother carrying my bag through the airport on our way home. We’ve gone on two-week-trips going from cold weather to tropical weather with carry-on only. Follow our suggested steps and you’re well on your way to travel carry-on only.

Step 1: Make a List

Making a list helps you to evaluate what you truly need to based where you are going and what you will be doing. The list will help prevent you from overpacking as well as reducing the chances you’ll forget something. The list will also highlight if travel with carry-on only is practical for your needs.

Step 2: Check Airline Cabin Regulations

Be sure to check read through your airline’s cabin regulations. Your bag must fit within certain dimensions. Did you know there are in cabin bag weight restrictions? You’ll usually see these on international flights. Pay attention to the weight limitations because if your bag is too heavy, they might force you to check. You might be able to talk your way out of checking after you mention that you didn’t check any bags. One way to avoid an overweight bag is to use a scale to weigh your bag before you depart for the airport. I’ve seen people somehow get through the gate agent with massive frame backpacks that clearly violate the dimension and weight regulations, but don’t take that as a hint that you can do the same.  I would highly advise against trying to be sneaky with the babe you bring on the plane. If you want to travel with cary-on only to save money, triple check that your airline doesn’t charge for in cabin luggage.

Step 3: Choose the Right Bags

The bag/luggage you choose can make or break your ability to travel carry-on only. One thing that is for sure, the kind of luggage you choose is one of the most important steps to travel with carry-on only. We’ve decided to go the route of a backpack for these reasons: flexibility, portability, and packability.  You might go the route of a roller-bag for other reasons.  For us, the Osprey Porter 46L is the perfect carry-on bag for the overhead bin. It’s flexible because we can expand the straps or compress the straps as needed. It’s portable in key situations, like when we had to wade through murky water in Raily,Thailand to get to our long tail boat. It’s easy to pack/unpack because the main compartment zippers open like a roller-bag rather than a top-loading bag.
Your under the seat bag is just as important as your overhead bin bag. This is where you’ll store your in-flight comforts, entertainment items, and your valuables.  This is where I store my camera equipment as well. Depending on the trip, I use a different under the seat bag.  On our trip to New Zealand I use my Osprey Day Lite because we were going to be hiking frequently. On my trip to Tokyo I used my Timbuktu Convertible Tote Bag because it was a business trip and I needed the room for my work laptop. If it’s a weekend trip, I bring my Keen Westport Shoulder bag.

Step 4: How You Pack Matters

To achieve travel with carry-on only status, you need to pack purposefully and be organized. Be smart about how you use your packing space. At times, it will feel like a Tetris game, and this is where packing cubes come in.  They are one of my favorite pieces of travel gear. I use them in both bags to help stay organized by separating by tops, bottoms, underwear, electronics, and in-flight comfort.  I typically roll my clothes to save space, although there are some items (jeans) that I feel pack better folded. I also try to fill in spaces when possible, for example putting socks in to shoes. For backpacks it’s important to keep the heavier items closer to your hips, so lower in the bag, to reduce strain on your back.

Step 5: Pack What you Need First

When you begin packing, start backing the items you need to bring first.  Once you have those items packed, then you assess how much room you have for the rest of your stuff.  Things I define as things you need are: valuables (cameras), travel documents (boarding pass, hotel info etc), identification (passport for international travel), any prescription medications (with supporting documentation), enough clothes for 3 days. This prevents you from having to pull the less important things out of your bag if you run out of space.

Step 6: Plan Your Outfits to Mix and Match

How does one travel with carry-on only for multiple weeks? By planning your outfits carefully and mix and matching pieces.  Mix and matching allows you to extend your trip wardrobe, but keeps the number of clothing to a minimal. Some people say bring enough clothing of 7 days. I usually pack anywhere from 3-5 days of clothing/underwear so that I have room for my camera equipment as well.  As unglamorous as it sounds, plan to wash items by hand or find a washing machine.  At minimum pack 3 days of clothing/underwear because this allows you to have a clean item ready to wear while your other two are drying.  Another thing to keep in mine is to pack clothing that is not bulky and can be layered. If the thought of traveling with such few clothing terrifies you, give it a shot once to see if travel with carry-on only is right for you.  It might not be and that’s OK.

Step 7: Beware Toiletries

This is one that I see frequently trips people up. They’re all set with their carry-on only dreams, only to have TSA steal some of their glory by throwing out a shampoo that is too big for carry-on. Remember to follow TSA’s 3-1-1 rule and try to pack a solid rather than a liquid when possible. When we traveled to the Cook Islands for 10 days, we managed to pack more than enough sunblock by packing enough travel size tubes in our liquids bag and packing solid deodorant and soap.  We also travel with bug repellant wipes rather than spray, which saved a ton of space.

Step 8: Be Your Own Pack Mule

I recently saw a post on Facebook of a woman that wore a vest with pockets filled with so much, that she actually didn’t have to bring a bag onboard (trying to save on a carry-on fee from a budget airline). While I wouldn’t recommend going to that extreme, I do recommend wearing your bulkier items to save space in your bag.  When we flew to New Zealand I wore my hiking boots on to the plane and changed into flip flops on the plane. I also wore a t-shirt, long sleeve shirt, hoodie, and coat to reduce the bulk in my bag. I managed to wear all of this without looking like I was wearing all my clothes simply because my clothing was meant to be layered and light.

Step 9: Don’t Sacrifice In-Flight comforts

Just because you are traveling with carry-on only luggage doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your in-flight comforts. By using a small packing cube to create an in-flight comfort kit and an inflatable pillow, you can still manage to bring all the small items you need to catch some sleep and feel refreshed after a long flight. For easy access, pack your in-flight comfort kit last in your under the seat bag.

Step 10: Embrace the Minimalism

Even after all these years of traveling carry-on only I still have to fight the ‘What-if’ scenario.  ‘What if we do x, I’ll have to pack y.’  A good rule of thumb that I follow is after I’ve laid out all the clothes that I want to bring, I reduce it by half. Chances are you won’t use half of what you plan to take. You’ll be shocked not only by how quickly your bags fill-up, but also by how good it feels to cull the items.

Do you travel carry-on only? Let us know in the comments what works for you!

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