How to Travel With Only a Carry-On
One way to reduce the stresses of holiday travel is to stick to carry-on luggage only. Of course, this comes with its own issues, due to the size and weight restrictions. However, if you read the guide below then you will learn how travelling with only a carry-on is achievable. It might seem like a daunting task if you are new to carry-on only travelling, but you might find that the pros outweigh the cons. Many people get into the habit of carry-on only travel and don’t look back.
The Benefits of Carry-On Only Travel
If you need some extra convincing to forgo a roomy suitcase and check-in bags, consider the following advantages:
- Saving Money – The major benefit of doing this is that you can usually take carry-on luggage for free and avoid the hefty fees for checked baggage at the airport.
- Increased Mobility – Less baggage means it’s easier to get around, both in the airport and in your destination city, especially if you will be using public transport.
- Less Time at the Airport – Not having to check bags should speed up the process going through security before departure and getting through customs on arrival. No more waiting at the carousel to claim baggage!
- More Manageable – You don’t want to have to worry about keeping your eye on multiple bags to prevent theft (which could be more likely if you are obviously a tourist with excessive bags).
- Straightforward Simplicity – You should have everything that you need with you and nothing more, and be able to access things easily whenever you need them.
One of the main reasons that people prefer to go carry-on only is to avoid the risk of airlines losing bags. Being able to always keep your luggage with you means that there should be no nasty surprises when you arrive at your destination.
How to Choose a Carry-On Bag
The first step in committing to carry-on only travel is to choose the right bag. There are several major factors which should influence this decision. First of all, you need to know the carry-on policy for any airlines that you are going to travel with. The size and weight restrictions for carry-on bags might vary, so you need to make sure that your luggage fits within all of them. Check whether you are only allowed one carry-on bag, or the bag plus a personal item. A small personal bag or laptop case could be a way to bring more with you if you need to. Once you know the size limits, you need to make the decision between a backpack or a suitcase. A travel backpack or a duffle bag can often get away with appearing smaller, avoiding weight checks. However, it is not ideal if you might not be able to lift it or carry it on your back due to health issues. Many people find a small rolling suitcase to be the best option (unless your destination will have cobblestoned streets). If you go with this route, you must then decide between a hard shell or soft suitcase. Hard shells are more protective if you have fragile items, but fabric suitcases can stretch to include more if necessary.
How to Downsize for Carry-On Only Travel
Packing just one small suitcase or bag for a trip can seem daunting. However, the key is to prioritise what you actually need to take with you and minimise it. If you gather everything that you think you need into a pile and then go through it, you will find that you don’t need most of it. Separate some items into a “just in case” pile – as in, you are only packing them just in case you need them – and then discard these. Identify the most critical items and trial-pack these first to check how much space you have left. Wherever possible, choose smaller alternatives, such as a microfibre towel, a lightweight pack-away windbreaker, or travel-size toiletries. In fact, you could save space by simply buying whichever toiletries you need at your destination instead. Things like toothpaste and shampoo are available everywhere. Or avoid liquid restrictions by switching to solids, like shampoo bars. Go paperless with an e-reader rather than bringing books. Avoid bulky electronics by reducing cables and plugs (share with a travel partner if possible). Finally, the biggest thing is to pack the right amount of clothes and shoes without overdoing it. Leave heavier stuff out to wear when travelling.
How to Pack Clothes for Carry-On Only
Going carry-on only means that you have to be more strategic about packing clothes and shoes. Firstly, never pack for more than a week, no matter how long your trip is. You can do laundry anywhere if you have a sink and detergent. The rule “one to wear, one to wash, one to spare” is a good guideline, so never pack more than 3 of anything. Make a list of clothing items before packing and only include tried-and-tested items, no just-in-case pieces. When choosing clothes and shoes, consider the climate of your destination and the activities you will be doing there. Lighter fabrics which can be layered will always come in handy. Try to choose fabrics that don’t wrinkle so easily, and roll the clothes rather than folding them. Separating items into packing cubes is a great way to keep your suitcase organised once you get to that point. Before that, you need to plan your outfits. Everything you bring must be comfortable and co-ordinated so that you can re-wear and mix and match items of clothing. Neutral designs and a consistent colour scheme will help with this. Generally, you should not need any more than the following list of clothes, no matter how long you go away for:
- 3-5 tops (short-sleeve + long-sleeve)
- 3 bottoms (pants or skirts)
- (1-2 dresses – optional)
- 3-5 pairs of underwear (2 bras)
- 1 workout outfit
- 1 pair of pyjamas
- 2 jackets (1 light + 1 warmer)
- 1 swimming costume (if appropriate)
As for shoes, no more than 3 pairs should be necessary. You will probably need one casual pair of shoes for travel, one sturdy pair of shoes for walking, and one more formal pair of shoes for events. If you bring a heavy pair of boots, wear those on the plane instead of packing them. Flip-flops are also a good idea for showers or pool areas. These could be extras if you already have 3 pairs of shoes, as they are usually small and lightweight. One pair should be some trainers.
How to Pack Toiletries for Carry-On Only
Liquids in carry-on baggage often have strict limitations. This can make bringing toiletries difficult when travelling with just a carry-on bag. Miniature toiletries for travel or samples can come in handy for this if you must bring toiletries. Your accommodation might provide toiletries, or you could buy them when you get there instead. Otherwise, you can get around liquid restrictions by opting for solids. You can buy solid shampoo and soap from places like Lush, and solid deodorants and sun creams are also available. In your small toiletries bag you are likely to need the following things:
- Shampoo & conditioner
- Body wash/soap
- Face wash/moisturiser
- Toothbrush & toothpaste
- Travel-size hairbrush
- Antibacterial hand gel
- Wet wipes
- Disposable razor
- Sun cream (if appropriate)
- Sanitary protection (if appropriate)
If you need to bring menstruation products, reusable cups take up less space than tampons or pads. For gels, lotions, or powders, look for multi-taskers like a 2-in-1 facial cleanser or hair product if you absolutely need a specific brand.
How to Pack Medication for Carry-On Only
Separate from your general toiletries should be a small bag for medications. It’s always a good idea to carry a small medical kit. It doesn’t take up too much space in your bag and having quick access to items in it can be a lifesaver.
- Hand sanitizer
- Antiseptic wipes
- Small dressings & tape
- Travel straws (with filters)
- Plasters (different sizes, waterproof)
- Paracetamol tablets (or other painkillers)
- Antihistamines (if you have allergies)
- Indigestion or travel sickness tablets
- Any vitamins or supplements you take
- Prescription medication
Measure out how much you will need for your trip rather than taking big pill bottles or bulky blister packs and boxes. Getting a small handy pill organiser can help to organise your medications and reduce packaging to free up space.
How to Pack Electronics for Carry-On Only
It is almost impossible to travel without electronics in this day and age, but you can still cut back on what you bring. Do you really need a laptop or bulky camera or even a separate music player or e-reader? Will a tablet or your trusty old smartphone do the job? Do you need separate plugs for things or can you use one charger with multiple USB ports and bring a few lightning cables? Are your headphones necessary or could you go with lighter, smaller earphones? You really only need your phone and its charger, plus a travel adapter depending on which country you are visiting. Hair-styling or gaming devices are unnecessary luxuries (your accommodation will probably already have a hairdryer).
How to Pack Essential Documents for Carry-On Only
These days you rarely need to print travel documents anymore. You can check-in for your flight online in advance and download your boarding pass onto your phone. You can also download copies of documents like your travel insurance policy onto your phone. Screenshot e-mails or account details for hotel reservations or rental car bookings and save them. You can save a digital copy of your itinerary on your phone, or print this off if you really want a hard copy. In the end, you should not have much paper. Important physical documents should be kept together in a travel organiser which you can stash in your personal bag for easy access. This should include your passport, driving licence, any other form of ID, travel-friendly payment cards, some petty cash, a pen and a small notebook. Small but essential extras that you also may want to carry in your personal bag include earplugs, sunglasses, a water bottle, and your luggage lock.
Items That You Can’t Pack in Carry-On Luggage
Remember that restrictions on liquids over 100ml aren’t the only limitations for the contents of carry-on baggage. If you are packing everything in 1 suitcase and a smaller personal bag, there are some things that you can’t take at all:
- Knives (including penknives)
- Scissors (unless blades are less than 6cm or rounded)
- Other sharp objects
- Large sports equipment
- Self-defence weapons
- Flammable or explosive materials (including flares and Christmas crackers)
- Chemicals (e.g. bleach or spray paint)
- Lighters or matches (unless on your person)
- Food or drink (unless for a baby)
- Food powders (including protein powder)
- Tent poles and pegs
- Work tools
- Musical instruments
- Snow globes
- Biological material (excluding sealed ashes)
Remember that things like contact lens solution and most cosmetics will count towards your liquids allowance and must be included with them. Soft cheese and candles are also counted as liquids, which you may not be aware of.
A Few Extra Carry-On Only Travel Hacks
So, you have your bags, you have your packing cubes, you have your clothing list and belongings narrowed down to the essentials. Your liquids are ready for security checks in a resealable transparent bag in an accessible place. You’ve left your heaviest shoes and jacket out to wear in transit. You can add smaller things to pockets on your person if your bag is too heavy. Even if it is on the heavier side, act like it is lighter than it is to get by undetected. Airlines usually do not bother to weigh or measure carry-on luggage unless it is very obviously too big or heavy. You should get by easily with a backpack, but hard shell suitcases increase the risk of size and weight checks. If you need to smuggle more items on board, especially on the return journey, a sneaky trick is to use a duty-free shopping bag. Most airports will exclude bags of duty-free shopping at the airport from carry-on allowances. You can sneak some extras from your bag in there as well to spread the weight. If you are super sneaky, you don’t even have to buy anything. If you know that there is a particular store in the terminal, and you already have a plastic bag from that store, then bring it along with you. This is a helpful tip if you don’t have enough room in your carry-on luggage for souvenirs on the return trip.