10 Tips for How to Pack Carry On Only for Your Next Trip

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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!

You don't need this much luggage, I promise!

The pros of carry-on travel

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:

  • No need to arrive the the airport early to check a bag.
  • No need to wait at baggage claim when you arrive.
  • No fear of your luggage getting lost.
  • Less struggle to maneuver your luggage in/out of taxis, within hotels, or on sidewalks/city streets.

The cons of carry-on travel

Carry-on-only travel isn't *all* great, though. I can certainly be a challenge, and there are some downsides. Like:

  • Obviously you have less space, and can't take as much stuff!
  • You'll have to abide by the 100ml/3.4oz liquid rules if you aren't checking a bag.
  • Not all carry-ons are created equal; you may still have to gate-check larger bags on smaller planes.

But honestly? I think the pros outweigh the cons in a lot of cases.

10 tips to pack carry-on-only for your next trip

Carry on only tips

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:

1. Find the right carry-on bag

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.

2. 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? 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.

Amanda in rain gear at Studlagil Canyon
In Iceland, for example, a full set of waterproof gear is essential to pack!

3. Take enough for one week

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.)

4. Plan outfits in advance

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!

5. Remember that laundry exists

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.)

6. Roll your clothes in packing cubes

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!)

7. Consider vacuum bags

Clothes in a vacuum bag in front of a small suitcase
There's a bulky sweater and puffer jacket in this one vacuum bag!

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!)

8. Pack shoes strategically

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.

9. Pack solids instead of liquids

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!

10. Wear your bulkiest items

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!

BONUS: Get TSA Pre-Check

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?

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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50 Comments on “10 Tips for How to Pack Carry On Only for Your Next Trip

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  1. Agree with everything here! I can travel for 2-3 weeks with my carry on suitcase and I refuse to check bags anymore. I don’t trust airports/airlines anymore after my suitcase was mid loaded and sent to Mexico (I was not there!). I got it back w/many items stolen. Never checking again!

    Carrying super heavy luggage to/from airport and when using public transportation is chaos from my past experiences, and ya know not every accommodation you stay at will have an elevator. It’s just much simpler to pack less.

    I find most people who can’t believe I travel this way are most surprised by how few toiletries I bring but you know those items are also sold in other places if you run out right? 😉

      I try to do carry-on-only as often as I can. And whenever I go on a trip when I really do need to check a bag, I always am so annoyed by how bulky and unwieldy said bag always is!

    Very nice, just bookmarked your page.

    I just don’t get why people hate checking luggage, I for one hate dragging luggage through the airport and onto the plane (I already travel with a large backpack filled with a lot of required electronics that almost always have such as two laptops, external monitor etc.) especially if I have a connection.
    I generally am not in such a huge hurry that I can’t wait for it at baggage claim, in fact when we come home I go get the car, my wife collects the baggage and by the time I come around with the car, she is waiting with our bags. On the destination end, we often do the same with getting our rental car.
    I have flown at least a dozen times this year and never had a problem with lost luggage, and most on Southwest so I never pay for it either.

      Different strokes for different folks, Marlin. I don’t *hate* checking luggage, but as someone who has already dealt with a piece of lost luggage while traveling this year, sometimes I’d just rather not risk it or have to stress about it! If I’m carrying everything on, I at least know where all my stuff is. And sometimes it’s nice to not have to deal with a large suitcase if I’m going on a trip where I’m staying somewhere different every night or two, or using lots of public transportation.

    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.

    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!!

      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!

    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!

    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!

      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 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 =)

      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??

    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)

      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!

    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.

      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?

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