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Home » How to Travel With Only Carry On Luggage Like a Pro in 2023

How to Travel With Only Carry On Luggage Like a Pro in 2023

Passengers walking along the terminal at Abu Dhabi Airport

You’ve booked your dream vacation and started fantasizing about the things you’ll do there. Next, comes the physical act of packing everything you’ll need to carry along on this trip. This is where many of us start getting overwhelmed. Given the number of bags that we’ve seen get delayed or lost during the last year, it is no surprise that many of us are increasingly wondering – How do I travel with only carry on luggage?

I’ve traveled for more than 15 years including moving to a different country. I’ve been on backpacking trips, city adventures, visits to friends and family, and moving abroad for studies. My luggage has also ranged across the spectrum – from carrying only a backpack to using every inch of my three check-in bag allowance when relocating halfway across the world.

With every trip, I’ve honed not just my packing skills but my ability to let go. Leaving behind an extra top, carrying only one lipstick, and taking comfort in soft flats have all contributed to simplifying my travels.

Traveling with only carry on luggage is not a travel hack or an action to earn bragging rights. It is a mindset that brings mindfulness and intention to your travels. It frees up your mind from becoming overwhelmed with the anxiety of packing or arriving early at the airport or losing your luggage.

It also physically frees you up to walk around at the airport or after reaching your destination. It lets you walk right out when you land rather than watch the minutes trickle by at baggage claim. It lets you hop on that bus instead of waiting in line for an Uber. It lets you spend your last morning after checkout walking around a neighborhood market rather than watching over your bags at the airport.

Without further ado, here are my 11 tips that will teach you how to travel with only carry on luggage.

1. Double-check your carry on allowance

The first step to traveling with only carry on luggage is knowing exactly what it means. If you’re a planner like me, you may have booked your flight well in advance. Start by refreshing your memory on the permissible carry on allowance for your flight based on your ticket type and airline.

Budget airlines like Frontier will only allow one personal item like a backpack while airlines like Southwest will allow you to carry one personal item and one carry on bag. Airlines like United and American may have different allowances depending on whether you’ve booked a Basic Economy or another class ticket. Plus having a credit card with airlines or a Premier status on their mileage program could also impact your allowance.

So start by double-checking all this to make sure you pack for the perfect-sized bag(s). That way there are no surprises at the airport.

Backpacking along the Nakasendo Trail in Japan
Backpacking along the Nakasendo Trail in Japan

2. Select the best bag(s) that fits your need

Once you know the exact number and size of your bags, you can proceed with selecting the ones that best fit your trip purpose. Opt for the bag(s) that will be the best fit for the type of trip you are taking. For example, if you are going to be walking along the hilly streets of St. John, it makes more sense to opt for a backpack rather than a roller bag. The same goes for if you are planning a hiking trip to Yosemite and plan on taking public transportation to get there.

On the other hand, if you are visiting a friend or staying a short cab ride away from the airport, you can definitely bring the roller bag along.

You could even carry both a small backpack and a roller bag if that’s the best fit for your trip if your backpack counts as a personal item.

3. Imagine your typical day on the trip

Most people love to pack with a checklist. And while a checklist has its advantages, it also makes the packing process robotic since we often default to adding items to our bag without really questioning their usage on this particular trip.

No two trips are the same.

Rather than starting off with a checklist, I take a slightly different approach to packing. I try to imagine what my typical day on this trip would be like.

Is it a beach vacation or hiking trip or a mix of both? Is it a city adventure where I’ll be based in one place but walking around a lot?

When you nail down your intention for the trip, it’s easy to see that many of your days will look like some variation of the same. There are certain things like a swimsuit, sunglasses, sunscreen, and coverup that are must-haves for a beach vacation. A hiking trip on the other hand requires hiking shoes, comfortable t-shirts, hiking pants, and hydration packs that are needed for making the most of your time on the trail.

Packing by purpose allows you to carry the things you will actually need versus the things you think you need or the things you needed on the last trip.

Passenger looking outside the large windows at Abu Dhabi airport
Plane watching at Abu Dhabi Airport

4. Identify your must-haves

In software engineering, we have a concept of a minimum viable product or MVP. It focuses on identifying a basic version of the product that has just enough features to be usable for early adopters.

Try doing the same for your trip. Identify the MVP or must-haves that you truly need to make this particular trip enjoyable. For example, one of my must-haves is a camera. I have traded my bulky DSLR for a sleeker mirrorless camera these days. But I am yet to embark on a trip where I relied only on my phone to capture the memories.

Photography is a big part of my travel experience. Documenting memories as they unfold helps me pause and savor them even more.

There are other must-haves that vary from trip to trip. The previous point about imagining a typical day on your trip is precisely for the purpose of helping you identify your must-haves. A nice dress or blouse is a must-have if I’m planning on going out for a nice dinner on one of the nights. A pair of walking shoes are a must-have for a day of sightseeing in the city.

Also, think about the hotel or vacation rental amenities when you try to identify your must-haves. A swimsuit is a must-have not only on a beach vacation but also if you have access to a swimming pool and jacuzzi during your stay. Chilling out in the jacuzzi after a long hike was one of my favorite parts of the day during a winter trip to Sabino Canyon near Tucson, Arizona.

5. Carry no more than a week’s worth of outfits

No matter if you are traveling for six months, one month, or twelve days, you only need enough outfits to last for a week. This is one of the mainstays for traveling with only carry on luggage.

We turn to laundry every two or three weeks when we’re home. Life on the road doesn’t need to be any different.

Vacation rentals are increasingly equipped with in-unit washers and dryers. Hotels may have coin laundry in the building or laundromats within walking distance. If you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and get to work, it’s definitely possible to soak and wash the clothes in the bathroom sink or tub.

Now, comes the question of what is enough clothing for a week. The answer may be slightly different for everyone but I’ll share my rule of thumb. I usually pack one top for every couple of days and one bottom for every three to four days.

So I end up with three or four tops and two bottoms for an entire week. Tops include everything from t-shirts to blouses and bottoms can be jeans, pants, skirts, or leggings. Then I’ll throw in a dress or swap one of the blouses for a dress.

Next, I apply the same ratio for lounging outfits or nightwear. A couple of lounging outfits (like track pants and t-shirts) plus a couple of nightdresses proves to be more than enough for a week.

Reflection of sunrise on the airport walls
Catching a sunrise at the airport

6. Prioritize multi-purpose items

When you are traveling with only a carry on, every piece of clothing needs to earn its place in your suitcase. Anything that can be worn in more than one way is always a winner in this regard.

I love traveling with a beautiful color-blocked Egyptian scarf that I purchased as a souvenir. It keeps me warm on flights and doubles up as my headscarf when offering namaaz. Similarly, I opt for shorts and pajamas that can be worn to bed, for lounging at home, or for stepping outside to pick up groceries.

7. Pick lightweight items

The journey to travel with only carry on luggage begins much before you start packing for a trip. In fact, it begins before you even plan or book your trip.

It begins when you purchase an item and bring it into your home. Because at the end of the day, you can only pack from what you already own, with the exception of any specialty item borrowed for a trip.

This realization dawned on me recently when I found myself almost always packing a camisole since many of my nice blouses weren’t opaque. And depending on the color of the blouse, I might have carried more than one camisole, say for a black versus a white top.

The next time I was out shopping for a blouse, I explicitly made sure to pick something that didn’t need a camisole. That’s now become one of my go-to blouses since it is lightweight and doesn’t need an extra item to be worn.

Similarly, when you’re buying sweaters, try to pick lightweight fabrics like cashmere or merino wool. While these items may be pricier, buying just one or two of them in lieu of multiple fancy sweaters will go a long way in keeping your baggage volume and weight in check.

Passengers walking with bags under Christmas decorations
Holiday spirit at O’Hare International airport

8. Be intentional with electronics

Every time we start packing for a trip, one of our default actions is to start gathering all our electronics. There will be a laptop for each person, an iPad, phones, kindles, and cameras. And before you know it, you have a pile of electronics before you’ve even started packing at all.

When it comes to electronics, it is not just the number but also the weight that is super important. Instead of packing every portable screen in the house, take a moment to pause and reflect on what items you really need.

Is a laptop really necessary on this trip? If yes could you make do with one laptop for your family? In the past, my husband and I defaulted to carrying our own laptops. But we often realized that we weren’t using the laptops at all or at least not enough. We were busy hiking or going to the beach or eating great food and spent much less time in front of our screens than we would at home. We now carry the laptop only when we’re sure that one or both of us will be working.

For several years, I owned a large and bulky laptop with a 15.6″ screen. When it was time to replace it, I bought the Samsung – Galaxy Book Pro 360. It is 13.3″, weighs only 2.34 pounds, and has been a game changer for my travels. We don’t own iPads or tablets and this compact laptop can easily serve that function if needed.

One of the electronics that I finally adopted thanks to traveling is the kindle. I’ve been the old-school paper books kind of person for the longest time. But packing multiple books on a trip can easily eat up the space and volume. I warmed up to the idea of reading on Kindle and it just makes traveling a lot easier. Using a backlit Kindle also helps when you’re traveling with companions so you can read on flights or in bed without disturbing people around you.

To summarize, be intentional about every electronic item you take along on your trip. Having devices that share a charger can also be helpful in cutting down the number of things you need to pack. And that can often make the biggest difference that allows you to travel with only carry on luggage.

9. Pack solid toiletries and small liquid containers

We can’t talk about fitting everything in carry on baggage without talking about the 3-1-1 rule. Each passenger can only carry one quart-size bag of liquids, gels, and aerosols in travel-size containers that are 3.4 ounces or 100 milliliters.

Almost all toiletries are available in solid forms so consider switching at least for the duration of your trip. You can get a solid deodorant stick, shampoo and conditioner bars, soaps and sunscreen sticks all of which are just as effective as their liquid or gel counterparts.

You don’t have to switch for every product but be judicious about the ones you carry in liquid form.

The other thing to keep in mind here is that the maximum allowed size here is 3.4 oz or 100 milliliters. But just because travel-size products are sold in these sizes, doesn’t mean you need to always carry products in that size. For example, if you use a hair or face oil and just need a few drops of it every day for a 6-day trip, opt for a 5 ml bottle. Similarly, there are body lotions and moisturizers that come in small 1 oz or 1.69 oz sizes that can allow you to stretch your liquid allowance to more products.

Also, keep in mind that your hotel or vacation rental may already be equipped with some items to get you started. Always check the listing and reach out to the host in advance with any questions to make sure you’re only carrying what you need.

Substituting some of the items with their solid counterparts and using smaller containers for the remaining liquids and gels is what will allow you to travel like a pro with only carry on bags.

Plane on a runway amidst mountains at San Luis Obispo
Plane on the runway at San Luis Obispo

10. Wear your biggest and heaviest items

This one is a simple tactic that I’m sure you’ve used already. But it deserves a mention on this list just in case. I always wear my hiking boots or fall boots instead of packing them in. The same goes for large jackets that I need at my origin or destination or both.

This will inevitably come with some tradeoffs though. If I’m leaving Chicago in the winter, there’s no way I can travel without my winter parka. I’d have to leave more than half the bag empty to make room for it if I wanted to squeeze it inside after reaching the airport. It’s much better if I just wear it around at the airport and later tuck it under the seat in front of me or use it as a blanket during the flight.

11. Buy on arrival

We often forget this simple fact when we’re engrossed in the art of perfecting our packing. Unless you’re traveling to a very remote corner of the world, you can find almost everything you need at your destination. Plus it is a fun way to start exploring your destination by doing a quick grocery run to pick up local snacks and toiletries.

Even if you were traveling to a remote location, your journey still begins at an airport in a city or town where you can usually find the things you need before going further. This is especially helpful for carrying larger liquids or combustible materials like fuel canisters that you anyways can’t carry on an airplane.

With some planning, you could even have items delivered to you at your destination. When we traveled to Yosemite in the fall of last year, we started our trip at a friend’s place in San Francisco. We were easily able to order some body wash and even a hiking pole at our friend’s home before heading into the mountains.

The only caveat I’d like to mention here is to do a little bit of research about the living costs at your destination. Traveling to an island like St. John of the US Virgin Islands means that everyday items like body wash or sunscreen might be more expensive given the transportation costs from the mainland. In such cases, it definitely makes more sense to carry as much as you can to stay within your budget.

And that concludes my list of 11 tips on how to travel with only carry on luggage. I do want to add a couple of caveats though. As much as I love traveling with only a carry on, don’t beat yourself up about it if this doesn’t come as easily to you, especially in the beginning.

Also, keep in mind that a carry on bag may not be the perfect style for each and every trip. I certainly couldn’t have moved continents as a student without each of those large check-in bags that were permitted. I still travel to India with check-in bags loaded with traditional outfits and gifts for friends and family and bring them back filled with gifts, clothes, and food. I don’t see that changing anytime in the future!

But these tips will help you back better and lighter overall, even if you decide to check in a bag, or two. Having the most important items for your trip in a carry on will also lessen the impact of a lost or delayed bag.

Hope these tips were helpful and gave you a headstart for traveling with only carry on luggage. I’d love to hear your packing tips and strategies in the comments!

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