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 (which, after the travel mayhem of summer 2022, this is a big bonus!)
  • 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. (In most cases in 2022, if I'm being honest, where the chances of having a checked bag lost have been pretty high!)

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

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  1. 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.

      Yes, this is also a great tip that I utilize often!

    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.

    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).

      Wow! That’s really impressive!! I need to start playing that game… haha.

    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!

      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!

    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 😉

      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.

    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!

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

    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. 🙂

      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!

    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!

      I would be really impressed if the four of you could travel carry-on-only!

    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!

      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!

    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!

      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!).

    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.

      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.

    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. 😛

      You sound exactly like me!! I should have been a boy scout – because I always like being prepared!

    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.

    Cheers!

      Yes, I suppose once things start to get a bit stinky, that might be a sign to change the clothes! Haha.

    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!

      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!

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