How To Travel With Just A Carry-On

The air travel chaos of summer 2022 brought mass cancellations, overwhelming lines and mounds of lost luggage to airports around the world. Although departure schedules and crowds are not within a passenger’s control, many travelers have decided to take action on the lost luggage front ― by vowing to never check a bag again.

“I only check a bag if it is absolutely necessary,” Phil Dengler, co-founder of The Vacationer, told Fylop. “I avoid checking a bag because it is often more expensive, and the risk of it getting lost or delayed is too high. This strategy saves me money and decreases my stress when flying.”

If you’re traveling with a ticket that allows for a carry-on bag and personal item, that’s the simplest way to get your things to your destination.

“I personally prefer to travel with just a carry-on to save time and avoid lugging a massive suitcase around,” said Casey Brogan, a consumer travel expert at Tripadvisor. “When I arrive at a vacation destination, the last thing I want to do is wait around in the airport.”

Fitting everything into carry-on luggage might feel easier said than done for some people. Still, there are practical ways to make it happen. Below, find 15 carry-on packing tips from Dengler, Brogan and other travel experts.

Wear your largest footwear on the flight

Be strategic about your plane outfit. What you choose to wear can free up precious space in a carry-on, especially when it comes to shoes.

“You should always fly wearing your footwear that takes up the most amount of space,” Dengler said. “Certain shoes, boots, and other footwear can take up a ton of suitcase space, and most can’t be folded.”

He also advised limiting the footwear you pack to what you absolutely need for the trip.

Stick to a color scheme

“The smartest thing you can do to minimize the risk of overpacking is to make sure you will wear everything you bring,” said Gabby Beckford, a self-proclaimed “carry-on-only queen” and founder of the aptly named travel site Packs Light. “I always try to pack with a color scheme in mind. With pieces in the same color scheme, you can mix and match as much as you need.”

As you select clothes for the trip, try to visualize how each piece could work with multiple other garments to create a variety of cohesive outfits. You can mix things up with well-placed accessories that don’t take up as much space in a suitcase.

“I recommend packing clothing with neutral colors that can make a variety of different outfits,” Dengler said. “That allows you to pack less and still not wear the same exact thing every day.”

Roll your clothes

“Rolling your clothing is the best way to maximize space in your carry-on,” Dengler said. “Additionally, your clothes will likely be less wrinkled than if you had folded them.”

He also suggested wrapping rubber bands around your rolled clothing to help keep things more organized and secure in the suitcase.

Choose accommodations with washer and dryer access

Before you even get to the packing stage ahead of a trip, you can help ensure you’ll only need a carry-on with your choice of accommodation.

“Staying at a hotel or Airbnb with a washer and dryer allows you to pack much lighter than you would otherwise have to,” Dengler said. “While many people do not want to do laundry on vacation, it allows you to take a potentially long trip with only a single carry-on.”

TripSavvy senior editorial director Laura Ratliff swears by stain-removing wipes to freshen up clothes she rewears while traveling. She also recommends doing laundry or dropping off your clothes during a trip.

“In many places, especially internationally, laundry services are incredibly cheap, so for longer trips, plan a day where you can drop off some dirty laundry and enjoy clean, pressed clothes by dinnertime,” she explained.

Take advantage of your personal item

In addition to luggage that goes in the overhead bin, major airlines typically allow passengers to travel with a “personal item” that must fit below the seat in front of them. This presents another opportunity to make use of extra space.

“I use a standard backpack as my personal item, and it is essential in allowing me to not have to check a bag,” Dengler said. “I often use it to store extra pairs of shoes as well as snacks and toiletries. That allows me to focus on clothing for my carry-on.”

Paul Jacobs, general manager and VP at Kayak North America, also recommended taking advantage of your personal item allowance.

“I use a laptop bag that has a sizable middle section,” he noted. “A sweater or light jacket and my toiletries can typically fit in there and save space in my carry-on. My wife also puts her purse inside a backpack to limit it to one personal item.”

Use packing cubes

“For travelers looking to join #TeamCarryOnOnly, I recommend the standard packing cubes,” Beckford said. “People recommend them all the time because they actually work.”

Packing cubes bring a sense of order and organization to a suitcase, which helps prevent over-packing as there’s less temptation to mindlessly throw in items you don’t actually need.

Try vacuum-sealed bags

“If you want to take it a step further [than packing cubes], there are vacuum-sealed packing bags you can use,” Beckford explained. “Place your fluffiest items into them and use the hand pump to remove all of the air. It compresses your clothes so you can fit twice as much. Just make sure you’re ready to do the same on the way home.”

Many people who live in small homes use vacuum-sealed bags to store winter clothes or other bulky items in the offseason, so it only makes sense that the same technology can help travelers maximize limited carry-on space.

Ensure your bags are carry-on compliant

It’s a terrible feeling to go through the process of packing what you think is carry-on luggage only to find out at the airport that you’re required to check it.

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“Allowed carry-on and personal item bag sizes vary by airline, so check to see if your bags are compliant when booking your ticket,” Dengler said. “In many cases, it is more expensive to add additional carry-on and checked baggage after booking, so you must figure it out during the booking process.”

Choose lightweight fabrics

Instead of packing your chunky sweaters and fuzzy socks, consider how many more garments you could fit if you chose clothes made with thinner fabrics. You’ll also be better prepared for temperature fluctuations at your destination.

“Avoid packing heaving or thick materials and instead opt for items you can layer,” Brogan said. “Also, pack outfits that allow you to mix and match so you can re-wear items.”

Swap full-size items for smaller versions

“Instead of a heavy laptop, I travel with a mini tablet,” said Marek Bron, a travel blogger at Indie Traveller. “While it’s small, it’s perfect for entertainment or reading e-books.”

With the Transportation Security Administration’s limits on carry-on liquids, many travelers opt for smaller versions of their bath products and other personal items as well.

“For toiletries, I fill up some 100 ml travel containers, or I use products like solid shampoo, which can always pass through security,” Bron noted.

Separate must-haves from nice-to-haves

“The key to traveling carry-on is to pack light,” Bron emphasized. “I pack only the must-haves and not the nice-to-haves.”

Before you start putting items in your suitcase, take time to carefully consider each thing. Ask yourself, “Will I use this enough to justify taking it with me all this way?” Paring down may require some tough choices.

“Pack less than you think you need,” Brogan advised. “Lay it out, then put back 30% to 40%.”

Pack small items inside shoes

As you place items in your suitcase, be on the lookout for any empty vessels, which can mean wasted space. Then, place smaller items inside.

Jacobs recommended doing this with your footwear (assuming it’s not too smelly of course).

“Electric razors, watches, pairs of socks ― all can fit inside the shoes you packed,” he said.

Wear your coat

Like footwear, outerwear has the potential to make the difference between carry-on and checked luggage.

“Even small jackets take up a lot of space,” Dengler said. “Wear your coat or jacket on the plane even if it does not make sense temperature-wise. In some cases, there will be enough overhead bin space for it, but I recommend waiting until everyone has a chance to put their carry-on in a bin first.”

If there’s no overhead bin space available, simply take off your jacket and put it behind you for the duration of the flight.

Plan to buy toiletries at your destination

“For toiletries, consider buying items like shampoo and conditioner, lotions, and toothpaste once you reach your destination to save room in your suitcase,” Brogan said.

This might not be the most economical option, but if the bag space situation is getting really desperate, you might want to remove your toiletries and plan to purchase new ones at a drugstore after you arrive.

Choose luggage that is lightweight itself

In addition to size limits, carry-on luggage is also subject to weight limits. Even if you think it’s unlikely your bag will be weighed, no one likes to schlep an uber-heavy suitcase to and around the airport and back.

“I ensure my luggage itself is lightweight,” Bron said. “A lightweight carry-on backpack or suitcase can easily be 1 to 5 pounds lighter than typical luggage, giving you more of your carry-on weight allowance to use for clothes or other items. Considering how much you can save on check-in fees, some lightweight luggage is a nice investment.”

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