How to travel with JUST a Carry-On [Top Tips & Guide]

Let’s face it:

A well-packed carry one is one of a frequent traveler’s little pleasures.

Everything is present in its own proper place, with neither too much nor too little inside the bag, suitcase or other conveyance. Best of all, (apart from security checks) no one else will handle, maul, misplace, or otherwise disturb your personal items.

Why take only a Carry On while traveling?

Now, why should you stop with just a carry on?

What are some of the advantages to taking only what you can carry and stow with you? And how does one go about making this happen?

That’s what I’m here to answer.

It can be easy to default to packing a checked bag. You get more space and apparently, more flexibility.

But that’s not always the case.

Some of the benefits of the “carry-on only” life include:

  • Less time waiting during your travels
  • Lighter loads to carry
  • Fewer (or no) baggage fees
  • Easier to track your belongings
  • Can be strangely liberating

While each of these points will vary depending on your personal preferences and travelling style, they’re a good summary of what you can expect from the carry on life.

Let’s take a closer look at how you can efficiently maximize your reduced space in a variety of different situations.

How to pack everything in a carry on

Now pay attention:

The first rule of packing everything in a carry on is to think small and strategic.

Some people think in terms of events and some think in terms of outfits. Focus on the bigger picture – what will you be doing? Where will you go and what will be expected of you?

After you have some idea about where you’ll be going and doing, it’s time to consider what type of carry on you will be taking.

Examples include backpacks, duffel bags, and two- and four-wheeled roller bags. They each have advantages and drawbacks, which should be considered before you start packing.

Packing everything in a carry-on backpack

In the case of backpacks and other soft-sided bags, packing can be trickier, as you don’t have the built-in structure and buffer that a roller bag or suitcase offers. During the main part of your packing in these bags, try putting rigid, bulky, and breakable items in the center and arrange your clothing around them.

Or, pick up a set of packing cubes to add a modular, rigid structure to your backpack!

Packing all your stuff in a roller bag

When packing a roller bag, have a backup plan if your wheels give out.

On a four-wheel bag, this may not be as big of a hassle, but if the wheels give out on a two-wheeler, you may end up carrying it for long periods of time.

Can you make that happen? It can be pretty annoying.

General packing tips

In any situation, some general tips apply across the board.

Space is at a premium, so investments such as packing cubes and vacuum bags deserve some consideration. Do remember that you are going to have to fit everything back into the bag if you use innovative methods of packing!

This repacking process can take a long time, so keep an eye on the clock when you have a set checkout time at your hotel or need to get to the airport for your flight home.

Finally, focus on multi-use articles, stay calm, and remember: it’s about the journey, not the stuff.

Heck, you can buy a lot of the small stuff (like toiletries) at a convenience store at your destination, or plan on doing some laundry either by having the hotel do it or doing it yourself in the hotel bathroom.

Specific tips for specific types of trips

Let’s dig down a little deeper now.

When you are facing a specific travel situation, it’s easier to find specific advice from people who have been there and done that.

I’m going to take a look at some common scenarios and how best to navigate them in the confined space of a carry on.

Packing for a weekend business trip (including how to pack a suit!)

Weekend business trips require smart and semi-formal clothing that:

  1. doesn’t wrinkle and
  2. doesn’t draw too much attention.

For these types of trips, it’s best to assume that you will be in business clothing all the time and pack accordingly (except for your relaxing time at the hotel).

Stick to cotton dress shirts and wrinkle-free blouses. These and your suit (if taking one) should all be folded vertically and rolled into loose, long tubes of fabric. This helps prevent wrinkles.

Go easy on your shoe choices and stick to absolute minimum that you are comfortable with using. I go with my more “formal” shoes for business packed in the bag (stuffed with socks and underwear, of course), and wear a comfortable pair of shoes like Allbirds for the travel time.

Don’t forget what you wear on the trip!

That’s another outfit to either relax into or wear in the trip. Consider wearing your suit jacket then or other clothing that might wrinkle in your bag. Many airplanes and trains will have a hook to hang your jacket up, or the flight attendants may be able to do it for you.

Just don’t leave them on the plane…

How to pack a carry on for 5 days

When you’re packing for five days, the rules change slightly.

Cotton shirts are still best as they don’t wrinkle as much and they pack well. More formal clothes and jeans should still be rolled vertically to save the most space possible. And put your sleeping clothes near the top – you’ll want access to them much more than that cute dress or pair of sandals.

For a five-day trip, it’s also worth considering (depending on your location) a swimsuit, jacket, boots, or other bulkier items.

To free up space, wear the heaviest articles you can on the way and don’t be afraid to leave things behind that are nearly used up or are disposable.

How to pack a carry on for 10-14 days

Ah, the long vacations of our dreams.

Everything that we’ve said about five day trips applies here as well with one important addition: pack more t-shirts and underwear.

While it may not be your favorite thing to do, you can wear that sundress multiple days in a row. Skip the second dress and fill that space with extra underthings. Remember to roll them and shove them into your packed shoes, so you’re maximizing the use of space.

Also, plan on buying some necessities at your destination. Generally, it will still be less expensive than checking a bag. With a little research and a great packing list, you’ll be set to go.

Important Rules and Regulations to Remember

Before we go, it’s important to always check the (very real and enforced) rules of the road. Here’s our quick cheat sheet of rules and regulations to remember:

  • What are the current TSA regulations on liquids, gels, and spray bottles? See the handy table below!
  • What are the carry on dimensions of your airline? Other airlines that you’ll be taking?
  • If you are travelling internationally, what are the restrictions on your luggage?
  • What is your backup plan for important medications, documents, and other essential items?

TSA Carry-On Regulations

Electronic Devices (Note: Check with the airline for any restrictions on the use of electronic items during your flight) Carry-on? Checked bag?
Camcorders Yes Yes
Camera Equipment Yes Yes
The checked baggage screening equipment will damage undeveloped film in camera equipment. We recommend that you either put undeveloped film and cameras containing undeveloped film in your carry-on baggage or take undeveloped film with you to the checkpoint and ask the screener to conduct a hand-inspection.
Laptop Computers Yes Yes
Mobile Phones Yes Yes
Pagers Yes Yes
Personal Data Assistants (PDA’s) Yes Yes
Personal Items (Note: Any sharp objects in checked baggage should be securely wrapped or in a sheath to prevent baggage handlers and security getting injured) Carry-on? Checked bag?
Cigar Cutters Yes Yes
Corkscrews Yes Yes
Cuticle Cutters Yes Yes
Eyeglass Repair Tools (including screwdrivers) Yes Yes
Eyelash Curlers Yes Yes
Knitting and Crochet Needles Yes Yes
Knives, round-bladed butter or plastic Yes Yes
Nail Clippers Yes Yes
Nail Files Yes Yes
Personal care or toiletries with aerosols, in limited quantities (such as hairsprays, deodorants) Yes Yes
Safety Razors (including disposable razors) Yes Yes
Scissors-plastic or metal with blunt tips Yes Yes
Scissors-metal with pointed tips No Yes
Toy Transformer Robots Yes Yes
Toy Weapons (if not realistic replicas) Yes Yes
Tweezers Yes Yes
Umbrellas (allowed in carry-on baggage once they have been inspected to ensure that prohibited items are not concealed) Yes Yes
Walking Canes (allowed in carry-on baggage once they have been inspected to ensure that prohibited items are not concealed) Yes Yes
Lacrosse Sticks No Yes
Pool Cues No Yes
Ski Poles No Yes
Spear Guns No Yes
Flammable Items (Note: Check with your airline to see if ammunition is permitted in checked baggage. If ammunition is permitted, it must be declared to the airline at check-in. Small arms ammunitions for personal use must be securely packed in packaging specifically designed to carry small amounts of ammunition. Ask about limitations or fees) Carry-on? Checked Bag?
Aerosol (any except for personal care or toiletries in limited quantities) No No
Fuels (including cooking fuels and any flammable liquid fuel) No No
Gasoline No No
Gas Torches No No
Lighter Fluid No No
Strike-anywhere Matches No No
Turpentine and paint thinner No No
Guns and Firearms Carry-on? Checked Bag?
Ammunition No Yes
BB guns No Yes
Compressed Air Guns No Yes
Firearms No Yes
Flare Guns No No
Gun Lighters No No
Gun Powder No No
Parts of Guns and Firearms No Yes
Pellet Guns No Yes
Realistic Replicas of Firearms No Yes
Starter Pistols No Yes
Tools Carry-on? Checked Bag?
Axes and Hatchets No Yes
Cattle Prods No Yes
Crowbars No Yes
Hammers No Yes
Drills (including cordless portable power drills) No Yes
Saws (including cordless portable power saws) No Yes
Screwdrivers (except those in eyeglass repair kits) No Yes
Tools (including but not limited to wrenches and pliers) No Yes
Wrenches and Pliers No Yes
Martial Arts/Self Defense Items (Note: Any sharp objects in checked baggage should be securely wrapped or in a sheath to prevent baggage handlers and security getting injured) Carry-on? Checked Bag?
Billy Clubs No Yes
Black Jacks No Yes
Brass Knuckles No Yes
Kubatons No Yes
Mace/Pepper Spray (Note: One 118 ml or 4 Fl. oz. container of pepper spray is permitted in checked baggage if it has a safety mechanism to prevent accidental discharge) See note Yes
Martial Arts Weapons No Yes
Night Sticks No Yes
Nunchakus No Yes
Stun Guns/Shocking Devices No Yes
Throwing Stars No Yes
Explosive Materials Carry-on? Checked Bag?
Blasting caps No No
Dynamite No No
Fireworks No No
Flares in any form No No
Hand Grenades No No
Plastic Explosives No No
Disabling Chemicals and Other Dangerous Items Carry-on? Checked Bag?
Chlorine for pools and spas No No
Compressed Gas Cylinders (including fire extinguishers) No No
Liquid Bleach No No
Spillable Batteries (except those in wheelchairs) No No
Spray Paint No No
Tear Gas No No

Last Call!

As we said before, at the end of the day it’s about the journey, not about your luggage. Packing only a carry on can be a great way to smooth travels if done properly.

And it’s entirely possible, with a little creative thinking along the way.

Happy travels!

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