How to become a “carry-on only” traveler

carry on travel packing tips

One of the things that struck me on my first trip abroad—as I hoisted my bag up the minuscule staircase of our Italian hotel—was that all the Europeans had small suitcases. I mean tiny. I didn’t think I could even fit my lunch in one of those things. How did they do that? It must be something they’re born with, like a French woman’s je ne sais quoi or the way Colombians make salsa dancing look effortless.

Well, that’s partly true. Your culture definitely plays a part in how you pack. As an American, I’m used to the idea of having a ton of choices. And when it comes to suitcases, bigger is better, right? But there’s something to be said for giving the other side a whirl.

Because once I traveled with only a carry-on, I realized that packing light is LIBERATING.

With only a carry-on you won’t break out in a nervous sweat waiting for your bag to plop onto the carousel—you’ll be breezing through the customs line. You won’t pull a muscle lugging your behemoth suitcase up and down metro station stairs. I feel safer having my things with me at all times. Checked bag fees? Nope! And probably best of all, you’ll discover that a few well-chosen items are better than sifting through a heap of ‘meh.’

I have a little bit of personal experience when it comes to doing “carry-on only,” but don’t worry because I’ll point you toward the pros. Keep reading for tips from me as well as two experts on packing light for your next trip.

Start small.

Maybe you think packing for a two week trip in a carry-on bag is beyond your ability because you always fill your giant suitcase to the brim. I’ll let you in on a little secret: there is some kind of law floating around the universe that says any empty space will be filled. Our luggage is no exception.

I went on a weekend trip to Guernsey over the summer and didn’t have a smaller bag, so I used my roll-aboard bag. In reality, I needed only a couple of outfits. Still, I filled the whole thing! Do I even need to say that I  wore only half of what I brought? If you limit the size of your container, you’re on the right track to packing less.

Know what you need.

With a smaller bag, each item you put in there must pull its weight. If your intention is to pack for every scenario you may encounter on a vacation, you’re setting yourself up for failure. When I’m getting ready for a trip there are three things I do before I even open my closet doors: check the weather, make a list of what I’ll be doing during the trip, and do a little research into what kind of dressing is appropriate for the destination.

I always get a little stressed out about what “appropriate” means. I know basics like Europe is more formal than the U.S. or that some countries have different guidelines as to how much skin is acceptable. Still, I like to see what other people do.

That’s where Travel Fashion Girl comes in. This website is full of packing lists and clothing suggestions for practically every region and season. You’ll also find reviews of shoes, clothes, and luggage, as well as advice about condensing your beauty routine to carry-on size.

Laundry! 

If you have a handful of outfits, how do you make them last? WASH! Depending on where you are or the type of trip you’re on, you can do it by hand in a sink, use a hotel or hostel laundry service or just go to a laundromat. I’ve used all of the above-mentioned options, depending on what time allowed or was cheapest and I’ve never been without enough clean clothes. Hey—you can even turn it into an afternoon activity as Cody and I did one sunny day in Germany when we sat outside a laundromat sipping beers and reading.

The Carry-on Traveler

In my humble opinion, there really is no better resource than The Carry-on Traveler. This little e-book is totally worth the $4.99 price tag. Erin McNeany covers everything from airline restrictions (and how to finagle around them) and how to choose a piece of luggage to a detailed discussion of what to (and not to) bring. The end features interviews with parents, an artist, a tech junkie, and a fashionista, all to show you that anyone can travel using only a carry-on.

So, what’s your packing style? I’d love to hear your “carry-on only” stories in the comments below!

2 thoughts on “How to become a “carry-on only” traveler

    1. So glad to hear that, Kyle! Hopefully, I’ll be a pro like you soon—it seems to get easier the more I “practice.”

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