Converting to Carry-on-Only Travel (and Some Packing Tips)

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I'll admit it: I'm a chronic over-packer.

Don't judge me.

No matter how hard I try, whether it's a long trip overseas or just a weekend out of town, I always end up taking more outfits and pairs of shoes than I really need.

Part of this is often due to me packing at the last minute, just throwing random things into a duffle bag.

The other part is because I'm really indecisive. I find it nearly impossible to plan what I'm going to wear a few days or a week ahead of time. What happens if I change my mind? I like having options. So I inevitably end up packing extra outfits.

And I always return home having not worn everything I took with me, wondering why I bothered bringing so much extra stuff.

So, after I booked my tickets to Hawaii (with more layovers than I could shake a stick at), I decided that it was time to put an end to my over-packing tendencies. Because I didn't want to chance losing my luggage as I went in and out of 4 airports each way, I made a vow to convert to carry-on-only travel.

That's right — just me and my carry-on bags.

I knew it would be a challenge; perhaps it would even be impossible for me, who can't fathom living out of a backpack for a year at a time. But it was really the smartest, most economical plan. And I'd only be in Hawaii for a week. I could do it, right?

Turns out, yes, I could.

In order to make my carry-on-only dreams a reality, I stuck to some tried and true packing tips that travelers have been using for years to help them avoid the over-packing curse.

And now I'm going to share a few of them with you:

Know what you really need

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? How long will you be gone?

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 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.

Edit your packing pile

Lay out what you think you want to take, then try to reduce it by half. If you're only going to be gone for 7 days, you definitely don't need more than 7 outfits. (In fact, you probably don't even really need 7 outfits, but remember — I'm a girl who likes her options.)

Unless you know you're going to need more than one outfit per day (for example, if you're going to go to a formal dinner one night), don't take anything extra.

If you're like me and like to have those choices, pack pieces in neutral colors that can be mixed and matched to create multiple different outfits without adding extra bulk to your luggage.

Roll your clothes

Make the most of the space you have by rolling up the clothes you're taking that won't get ridiculously wrinkled. I was skeptical of this method at first, but it really does work! By rolling up T-shirts and skirts, I was able to fill in some of those spaces that usually end up empty when you simply fold everything in your luggage.

And, rolling often can make it easier to find things in your suitcase, since it means you don't have to rifle through piles of clothes.

Use space-saver bags

These vacuum-seal bags can be a great packing tool, especially if you have to take cold-weather gear like sweaters that tend to take up a lot of room. When I studied abroad in New Zealand, I used these bags to pack sweaters and bedding, and they worked like a charm.

But a word of warning: Remember that those 5 sweaters, even if you can squish them down to take up the same amount of space as 2 sweaters, will still weigh the same as 5 sweaters. If luggage weight is an issue, make sure to keep this in mind. Overweight baggage fees are no fun.

Using some of these tips helped me pack for a week in Hawaii in just one little suitcase.

Did I over-pack? Probably.

But these things don't just happen overnight, people. I can't let go of ALL my over-packing ways all at once. I improved, and that's a start.

Though, I still needed that extra skirt. And that one last fancy tank top, just in case. And of course a couple of pairs of cute sandals…


Are you a fan of carry-on-only travel? What tricks do you use when trying to travel light?

(Top photo by jasleen_kaur.)

*This post was sponsored by a third party.


  • Way to go Amanda! Since our RTW I certainly pack much lighter than I ever have. I learned just how often you can wear the same clothes, and how much other people really don’t care! Cheers!

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Thanks, Gillian! This, of course, is a lot different than a RTW trip… but limiting myself to 1 carry-on suitcase and a backpack is certainly a step in the right direction!

  • Pedro says:

    I for sure won’t judge you. It’s awesome Amanda! Space saver bags are the s*it. They help so much. I am making my way to becoming a carry-on only too. It took traveling this long to realize what I really need and what can be left behind. And I totally agree with Gillian about the clothes comment. Yep, don’t really care how many days in a row I can wear the same clothes anymore either, until of course my better half tells me that I need to change, hehe.


  • I overpack like my life depends on it! Which it doesn’t, obviously. For a seven day trip I’ll bring ten or twelve outfits… just in case (of what, I’m not sure).

    I really need to get this under control before we travel abroad later this year for an indefinite time period….. ruh roh. 😛

  • Alouise says:

    Very nice. I went with just a carry on when I went to New York and Toronto last year, and it worked well. I think the more you travel the more you learn what works for you and what doesn’t. I’m going to Mexico in May and hoping to have everything to 1 carry on, and a laptop case.

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Yeah, I think a lot of it ends up being trial and error, and learning from all your stupid packing mistakes. For this trip, I have it narrowed down to a small carry-on suitcase and a backpack (that’s also serving as my laptop case). I know I could pare it down even more, but I’m over it at this point. Lol.

  • Liv says:

    Those space-saver bags could land you in trouble if you cannot achieve the vacuum effect at your destination on your return journey. Always worries me that! Your warning about luggage weight is very valuable too – easy to think that the suitcase won’t be all that heavy since it’s not stuffed full!

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Good point about those space-saver bags! It’s probably a good idea to bring some back-ups, just in case. I’ve never had an issue with mine breaking, though (knock on wood!).

  • Christine says:

    I’m definitely an overpacker as well (mostly because I stay for a long time, through seasons)–but even on short trips, I haven’t been able to convert to carry-on yet, unfortunately. My biggest issue is the darn liquid rule. I can totally fit space-wise, but I hate having to switch around my makeup, moisturizers, etc. You’ll have to let us know how you did AFTER the trip!

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Traveling for a long time through multiple seasons definitely makes it tough to pack light. Luckily, it’s going to be fairly warm in Hawaii, so I only have to pack for one climate. Also, I’m staying with a friend, so I don’t need to worry about things like shampoo, towels, or a hair dryer. Saves lots of space!

      I’ll definitely report back on the carry-on-only experience, though!

  • Amy says:

    good tips! Definitely space saver bags are the way to go. We have to pack for four as we travel with our children. I wonder if we could do it with a carry on? That might be wishful thinking for us!

  • Laura says:

    Packing light is such a great strategy. Arriving in a new place I always feel like I have so many more options when I’m not weighed down with a ton of luggage. 🙂

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Exactly. I have to take a bus to and from the Honolulu airport, so having only small bags will be so nice. I also like being able to skip baggage claim!

  • Marsha says:

    Yes! Yes! Yes! Carry-on travel only if I can help it. You can hit the ground running without having to wait for your luggage at the baggage claim carousel and have less to lug around. The only time I do more than carry-ons is if I’m backpacking (then my backpack doesn’t fit in the overheads) but carry-on only travel is the way to go!

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Thanks for the enthusiastic support, Marsha! I hope that my first carry-on-only experience goes well tomorrow!

  • Laurence says:

    It’s all about the rolling! Since I started rolling my clothes instead of folding (or stuffing) them into my bag, I’ve found I have loads more space than I used to have!

    And as for the space saver thing.. a great idea in theory, but my experience is that I just end up taking more stuff because I have more room, and then it all ends up super heavy 😉

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Rolling is amazing! It’s weird, because you wouldn’t think it would make any difference. But it totally does!!

      And yes, you’re right about the space-saver thing. That was exactly my problem when I studied abroad in NZ. I could pack more because I smooshed everything down, but then it was all SO heavy.

  • Sheryll says:

    I’m terrible at overpacking. I always bring at least 4 pairs of heels, 2 pairs of flat shoes, sandals…and that’s JUST shoes. I love your tips though. Makes fitting things in a carry on a little less daunting!

    • DangerousBiz says:

      You’re a shoe fiend like me! I’m proud of myself on this trip – only the sneakers I’m wearing and 2 pairs of sandals!

      Glad you like the tips. Hopefully they’ll come in handy for you someday!

  • When I’m packing, I try to play a game (most of the times against myself) to pack as little as possible. When I’m at the airport I get totally excited when my bag gets put on the scale.
    My record until now: 6,8kg for a 3 week trip (including 3 books).

  • Jeremy says:

    I did a demonstration on my site on how space saver bags really do help, so I swear by them now! Love my bags. I still don’t think I can get on as carry-on though, mostly because I really want room for souvenirs! I took a tiny tiny rolly suitcase for a 5 day trip to Banff which included my SLR and netbook, as well as a big hoody, which made me pretty happy. My 5 months in Asia I made 14kg in my checked and probably another 6 in my day bag. 😡 Overpackers Anonymous here.

  • Alison says:

    Yes rolling clothes is a must but don’t be shy of wearing lots of layers – especially bulkier garments. Once you have boarded just strip off and neatly fold and place them in the overheads.

  • Dawn says:

    I’m another who always over-packs. I love to travel but I also love my home – the result, I try to take as much of it with me as I can! I never use half the things I take and typically take things that can be bought at my destination if required. Shall certainly apply our packing tips for my next journey.

    • DangerousBiz says:

      That’s a good way of putting it, Dawn – that you like home so much that you want to take it all with you! If only we could, right?

  • charles aka @hotelprguy says:

    I swear by carry-on-only travel and here are my tricks:

    – invest in a good suit bag with lots of compartments, you can pack more in than it looks. I like tumi
    – balance the suit bag over a laptop trolley, again Tumi is my top pick
    – remember things like toothbrushes and razors are not liquids and need not be squeezed into the ziploc
    – ditch the ziploc, instead find a good see-thru toiletry bag. Even if it’s slightly larger than the traditional ziploc, many airports let you thru.
    – call ahead and ask hotel what brand/range of body/bath/hair amenities they use. Then you know not to overpack
    – invest in an adaptor with USB ports, then you can pack less wires
    – pack a three way multi plug (for UK appliances) so one adaptor can charge up to three appliances
    – use reversible belts. I have a good one by dunhill (check out their contemporary designs)

    • DangerousBiz says:

      These are all really great tips! I like the idea of the adaptor with USB ports. I just bought an all-in-one electronics charger that charged both the battery for my camera and video camera, and has a USB port so I can also use it to charge my phone and iPod. Great investment!

      Using reversible belts is also a smart idea!

  • Andrea says:

    I used to be a terrible overpacked but have since mended my ways. My trick is to pack clothes that work together and don’t get too wrinkled (that always eliminates so much of my closet!) This year I’m travelling with a 60L pack for the whole year. I don’t know if that is light, but it was the best I could do. It doesn’t hurt my back, that’s all I know =)

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Wrinkle-resistant clothing is ALWAYS a good idea! And hey, as long as it doesn’t hurt your back, who cares what size backpack you have, right??

  • Sarah says:

    Ooh! Some great tips!

    I’m such a packing geek. I got such a thrill out of travelling hand-luggage only to Cyprus last year. It was only a 10 day trip and it was warm and sunny for the whole thing, which always helps. The one drawback to the hand luggage only travel is not being able to take razors, tweezers and nail files on board. I end up spending a fortune on some rubbish tweezers when my wonderful ones sit neglected at home. Still… these eyebrows can’t go a week without plucking. Hello, Yeti!

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Nothing wrong with being a packing geek! It feels good to be able to pack everything you need into a small little bag, doesn’t it?

      On this latest trip, I actually did pack my razor and tweezers, and they made it through the security checkpoint just fine! So there’s something to think about.

  • I am used to carrying on my luggage and bags so I’m fine with all of these. Especially the way of putting your clothes into the bags, roll the shirts to have extra spaces inside your bags and etc. I find it more convenient if I have my bags on a stroller to make it a rolling bag but then I need to be practical, so I still carry my bags. Thanks for the packing tips you have given!

  • AJ says:

    On each of my trips i have managed carry-on-only. I have found that a rolling backpack works GREAT! Also, one of my purses is large enough to count as a carry on, so i pack it flat in the bottom om my backpack (for anything i buy while on vacation), and i use a convertable purse backpack as my “personal Item” it it goes all my liquids, make up, and other purse items. The rolling backpack has duel full size adjustable compartments, in one goes my shoes and my dresses that can get wrinkled while in the other goes everything else. On the return trip my convertable purse gets packed and out comes the larger one. That way, nothing has to be done without. and, if I get tired, the back pack can be pulled behind and on it i can rest the larger carry on sized purse. I love it! I have never had to wait in line at baggage claim, i walk off the plane and head straight for the rental car!

    Oh for those who like to rewear clothes, two liquids that are a MUST :Downy wrinkle release …&… Gain with febreze. Both are small travel size sprays and they both work WONDERS. If my flight is rather long and i dont have time to change before dinner once off the plane, i go to the restroom, spray my shirt, give it a little shake and i’m good to go!

    Another trick i learned, go to the perfume store, get a sample of my favorite scent, now i can take it on the plane,… in a little pot or bottle put your oderless lotion and mix in some of your perfume. this way your moisterizing, and your perfume scent will last longer! (this is a trick i use everyday)

    Another thing that happens if you don’t typically wear close toed shoes, your feet realy stink when you get to the hotel and take your shoes off. Place a dryer sheet in the toe of your shoes so when you take them off, its not as bad.

    One last thing i learned and would like to share, If traveling in a dress or skirt…. or even a low-ish cut blouse… hairspray the back of your legs, and the cleavage of the blouse. It keeps your skirt from rising up and revealing anything on the plane, it also keeps the blouse from accidently opening up while your curled up asleep. using a water based hairspray on your face (after aplying makeup) will also keep your makeup from smudging on the plane. spray it in to the air infront of your face and just lean into it.

    sorry, just one more helpfull tip. white tooth paste (NOT GEL) works like magic on dark under eye circles. When i wake up the morning after a flight, i put a layer on my under eyes.. do my morning ruitine, wash away the paste and the circles are virtuly gone.. On an occation it hasn’t worked well enough, so I reaply a smooth thin-ish layer, let it dry, and cover with my liquid foundation. nobody even knows 😀

    Happy travels!!

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Thanks for sharing so many fantastic trips!

      I totally agree with you on the little bottles of Downy wrinkle release and Febreeze! I always travel with those, too!

  • Alicia says:

    Very useful tips, I’ll be going on a trip next week, so I’ll have a field to apply all them! I’m know as the messy packer of the family, so hopefully this will be a big surprise for some people around me.

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