I, like many, was raised to be an over packer, a side effect of the chronic what ifs and just in cases that lead to closets full of rarely- to never-used stuff. On the surface, packing for contingencies makes sense—it would probably ruin some travel memories to be woefully unprepared for a cold and rainy day or to have to re-wear an outfit so many times you start to become That Smelly Guy. But with the rise in baggage fees and the general hassle of having so much stuff to keep track of, the weight of over packing becomes too heavy in both the literal and figurative senses.
Thankfully, traveling with only a carry-on is not only doable, it’s easy and more than worth a few extra minutes of planning before your trip. To help you pare down and bring only what you’ll truly need, we’ve teamed up with Eartheasy to create this quick guide to traveling within the maximum carry-on allowance of most airlines.
Note: The links in this guide are affiliate links. If you click through to Eartheasy and purchase anything, we’ll get a small referral commission to support the magazine at no cost to you.
Know before you go
You may have already found this out the hard way, but looking at the weather in your destination one or two weeks out can lead to poor packing choices as the weather is likely to change by the time you arrive. Instead, you can get a solid idea of what the weather will be like by looking at daily averages rather than the actual forecast and pack accordingly, and only double check the day or two before you depart.
Amenities at your accommodations
There are a lot of items in your daily routine you may feel the need to bring with you, like a hair dryer or some nightly reading. Today, many hotel rooms and other accommodations come standard with handy amenities, have shared items you can check out from the front desk, and/or offer a convenience center with travel size products like hair gel, toothpaste and ibuprofen. Call ahead to see what will be available to you so you know what you can leave at home or pack in smaller quantities.
Not all destinations have safe water. Instead of buying and carrying bottled water with you throughout your trip, bring a filtering water bottle like the LifeStraw Go.
Your airline’s carry-on restrictions
This seems like an obvious one but is worth mentioning anyway. If you’re flying, look up the carry-on size and weight specifications of the airline(s), and even if you’re not traveling by plane this trip, it’s wise to invest in a reliable bag that would be allowed in an overhead compartment whenever you do fly. For most US airlines, this is 22” x 14” x 9” (or a combined 45 sq. inches) including handles and wheels, plus one personal item like a purse or laptop bag that can fit under your seat.
Choose the right bag
Your default bag choice may be a suitcase, but if you’re like me and dislike the awkwardness of tailing a rolling bag behind you, or if you’re going to a place with uneven or cobblestone walkways as in many historic places, I’d recommend a travel backpack. Much like a hiking bag, these are designed to be carried on your back with the weight situated ergonomically on your hips via a support belt. The travel varieties feature locking zippers rather than drawstrings and front loading openings rather than top loading. These are measured in liter sizes, and up to 80-85L is all you’ll need—and what will be accepted by airlines. Try the Numinous GlobePacs 65L Backpack or the 80L Wheeled Luggage Backpack. Many of these have detachable day packs that snap on while you’re on the go then unclip to keep at your seat with you.
Bonus tip: No matter which style of bag you prefer, consider packing cubes for quick organization and separation of dirty and clean laundry. Try the OnSight Equipment Clothes Boxes.
Strategize your wardrobe
Mix, match, and multi-functional is the way to go, and lucky for travelers, multi-functional clothing is all the rage. Ever heard of yoga work pants? Or golf dress pants? Things like this really do exist, and they’re perfect for travelers who need comfort by day and style by night. Find a few comfortable staples for active, day and night wear in complementary color palettes so you can mix and layer just a few options into a variety of warm- and cold-weather styles. Keep your accessories minimal and functional, like this cute collapsible cross body bag.
If your trip is a couple weeks or longer, don’t fall back into the trap of packing more! Many accommodations have a washer and dryer for guests to use, but if not, bring a travel-friendly Scrubba Wash Bag instead of extra clothes.
Be selective with your shoes
All you probably need when traveling is one comfortable casual shoe that’s supportive through lots of walking, one running/active shoe for working out, hiking, etc., and one dress shoe if your trip calls for a fancy occasion or business meetings. Leave the rest at home.
Bonus tip: For the shoes you do bring, maximize their interior space by packing your socks directly in them.
Limit the technology to the essentials
Consider all that you really need on this trip—your laptop, iPhone, tablet, video camera, DSLR and Kindle? Chances are you can and should do without some of these. If you love photography, prioritize your camera and laptop. If you’re traveling for business, bring only what’s required for work. Keep your tech accessories minimal, too. Upload your important files to cloud storage so you can skip external hard drives when possible and bring a charging dock instead of a handful of power cords, like this compact Voltaic Amp Solar Charger. Remember that when it comes to tech, it’s not just a space and weight consideration, it’s a safety thing too—more devices means higher risk of theft and damage.
Tone down the toiletries
If you’re using a toiletry bag that’s the size of a small briefcase (guilty), you’re doing it wrong. Downsize to 4-5 “servings” of the items you must bring–you can restock in most destinations–and leave the rest in your medicine cabinet. Challenge yourself to bring only what will fit in a small- to medium-sized travel organizer, like these cute cork fabric zip pouches or this compact OnSight Travel Organizer.
Note: This does NOT include prescription medications. Always bring extra of any prescriptions and separate them into multiple bags in case one gets lost or stolen. Also, don’t forget make your doctor aware that you’ll be traveling of any of your medications are essential to get an advance refill and/or to be prepared to call in a prescription in your destination if needed.
Bonus tip 1: Switch to solids wherever you can. Not only do solid versions of things like shampoos and soaps last a lot longer ounce for ounce, they don’t have to be screened separately by airport security. Yay!
Bonus tip 2: For any legs of your trip that take you through airport security, keep your liquids in the required clear plastic bag and in an easy-access pocket—NOT buried in your toiletry bag in the middle of your suitcase.
If you follow these basic strategies and be truly mindful of what you’re packing, a weeks-long trip out of a carry-on is entirely doable. Trust us! Allen and I spent a three-week honeymoon in Europe in a range of climates all with just a carry-on each. Here’s what each of us brought:
- 2-3 lightweight jackets/hoodies for layering
- 1 warm jacket
- 3-4 basic tees
- 2 pairs of jeans
- 2-3 workout outfits
- 1 bathing suit
- 1 dress outfit
- 1 pair of casual walking shoes
- 1 pair of athletic shoes
- 1 pair of dress shoes
- 1 towel
We also brought a few things we shared:
- 1 set of sheets for a weekend in a vacation rental
- DSLR Camera
The items crossed off are the things we should have left at home—my DSLR is long past retirement, which I knew before we left, and we could have dressed up a casual outfit instead of bringing specific dressy attire for a special dinner on the Eiffel Tower. Still, being as selective as we were in our packing overall, we each still had a little room in our bags to bring home some souvenirs. The minimal room forced us to purchase only those things that were special enough to take up the space and budget, which kept us from overspending on things we didn’t truly love. Plus—we never paid a baggage fee!