Keep Calm and Carry-On: How To Travel With Carry-On Only

By Lauren Barth

Keep Calm and Carry-On: How To Travel With Carry-On Only

Increased competition and price wars have plagued the global airline industry in recent years. While it’s been to the benefit of customers (yay! lower prices!), it’s forced airlines to look for new revenue streams to support their often abysmal margins on base fares.

These ‘innovative’ moneymakers have taken the form of up-charges levied on things that we all used to take for granted, like advanced seat selection, food and drinks on board, and checked luggage. These are lucrative practices that provided $31.5B in revenue to the industry in 2013, a 16% jump from the year before.

Charging for luggage was revolutionary in the discount airline model crafted by the likes of Ryanair and Easy Jet. And it worked. Passengers were willing to forgo their bags for dirt cheap fares. Soon, more traditional airlines began taking notice and paying for your luggage is now the standard on most North American based airlines.

While many travelers despise this blatant cash grab, it is possible to become a successful carry-on only traveler and defy the system. Plus, eliminating the extra baggage will be unbelievably liberating and chances are you’ll never look back. As the old saying goes: Keep Calm and Carry-On.


If I can do it, so can you.

Carry-On Only

I was once the worst over-packer, notorious for bringing way too much. Like stuff nobody could ever conceivably need. I once traveled to New York with my family when I was in university and brought our two largest suitcases just for me. We were only there four nights. In contrast, my mother, father and brother shared our next largest bag. It was atrocious.

My overpacking tipping point was when I moved to Germany several years ago for what I thought would only be four months. I had 140 pounds of luggage, which I could not even carry by myself. Friendly locals who obviously felt sorry for me had to help haul my bags on and off of crowded trains. While I was unpacking later, and downing pain killers for my poor back, my friend was quick to point out my many rookie mistakes such as bringing along an insane amount of shoes, squeezing in more clothing than I could ever possibly wear, and, her favourite, taking three hardcover 600+ page books with me.

But now I like to think that I am reformed. I have not checked a bag in all of my trips over the last three years and have relied on carry-on only from trips lasting a weekend to four weeks. If you don’t believe me, see the photo above for proof. And I swear by my favourite carry-on bags – Longchamp’s Le Pliage line, specifically the Expandable Travel Bag.


Carry-on only is the way to go.

You’ll embrace the simplicity. You really don’t need that much crap when you travel. How many times have you gone away and only worn a handful of items while everything else just took up space in your bag? Becoming a more minimalist packer provides a respite from all of our consumerist habits. Plus, it’ll make getting dressed in the morning an absolute breeze.

Ease of transportation. You’re much more mobile if you just have a carry-on, making it easy to get around. Getting on a crowded train, bus, or subway in a new city is stressful enough without having to haul a ton of luggage. Having one bag can also save oodles of money as taking local transportation to and from the airport is more feasible and the cash you save on taxis can be put to better use on your travels.

Less hassle at the airport. Airports can be miserable places at times. Long lines, disgruntled personnel, and overpriced food whose edibility is questionable at best can cause even the most calm traveler to have a total meltdown. Bringing carry-on only alleviates a lot of the stress brought on by airports; get your boarding pass in advance so you can just walk to your gate without the hassle of dropping off your luggage; if you have layovers in the US, you won’t have to pick up your luggage and recheck it again, which is a major time and sanity saver if you have a short stop before your connecting flight; and you’ll never worry about your bags being lost in transit again!

Easier to keep track of. Having one manageable bag is easier to keep an eye on when you’re en route to your accommodation or heading back to the airport. If you’re on a crowded subway during rush hour or walking through a busy street to find your hotel, holding one bag securely will be less risky than trying to manage several, especially if you’re traveling somewhere with high levels of petty theft. Also, you won’t be immediately pegged as a tourist than if you’re schlepping around several wheelie bags.

No waiting for bags. This is my favourite carry-on only advantage. Don’t waste your prime travel time standing around a conveyer belt hoping that you’re bag will be in the next round. It’s a fantastic feeling to jump off the plane and bypass all of those suckers waiting for their luggage. A few months ago, I was meeting JP in Amsterdam and had to bring a bag that he had forgotten meaning I couldn’t get by on carry-on only. Waiting for his bag at 7am after not sleeping for 36 hours was horrendous and I complained the rest of the day about it. Beat the rush to exit the airport and get on with your travels sooner than everyone else.


Carry On Travel Tips

Top Tips to Travel Carry-On Only

1. Be strategic and plan ahead.

Know your airlines luggage policy. Before you board that plane, know exactly your airline’s size and weight restrictions for carry-on to ensure that you don’t violate these limitations as some airlines charge a premium if you don’t pre-check your bag and are busted at the gate. For instance, Ryanair charges 50E if a bag is too large and 20E per additional kg if overweight at the gate. Also, look into what your airline actually constitutes as carry-on. While you’re allowed a personal item like a purse, backpack, or laptop case in addition to your carry-on on most North American carriers, some only allow one bag per person, period. Many learn this the hard way.

Start with the bag. I’ve come to realize that my overpacking was often triggered by focusing on clothes first, and the bag as an afterthought. I’d have this monstrous pile of clothes so naturally I would pick my largest suitcase. If there was excess room, I’d fill it up until it was overflowing as it would be a waste not to, right? So avoid this altogether if you’re going carry-on only by starting with a bag that complies with your airline’s policy and then make your ‘what to pack’ decisions. I prefer pliable duffle bags rather than wheelie cases as I find them easier to cram into the carry-on testers and they’re often lighter as they don’t have the wheel structure.

Think outfits not pieces. I used to throw all of my favourite items into my bag without a care if it all went together, and because I packed so much, chances are every item worked with something else. But if you’re limited to carry-on only, you need to be more strategic with your clothing choices. It’s a real drag when you open your bag and it’s all a mishmash of random stuff. Arrange outfits (physically or mentally) for the number of days you’ll be away, trying to reuse each item at least once – this also makes it much easier to get dressed each day if, like me, you’re not a morning person. If this is too much work, stick with neutral pieces and a consistent colour scheme so that all items will work together.

Only bring along the tried and tested. I used to be the worst at this. I would pack things that I had owned for ages and never worn. And I’ve seen many people commit this mistake as well. There’s likely a good reason you’ve never worn it, maybe the fit is awkward or the colour unflattering, whatever the reason is, it doesn’t really matter – it isn’t suddenly going to work once you’re in a new place. So my advice is simple; if you don’t wear it regularly, leave it at home.

Focus on multi-taskers. Some great multi-purpose items are ziplocks (carry excess food, contain wet clothing, waterproof electronics when traveling on rickety boats), flip flops (beach appropriate, shower shoes, wear around your hotel/hostel), and travel towels (beach mat, blanket, sun shielder, etc.). Girls, a scarf or pashmina can be incredibly versatile. Use it as a blanket or pillow while in transit, as a sarong to wear over your bathing suit, as a shawl to keep you warm on cooler evenings, a mat for sitting on the beach or grass, or even to replace your towel.

Bring non-wrinkle items. Ironing is bad enough when you’re at home but while staying in hostels, apartments, B&bB and hotels, finding a workable iron can be frustrating. Plus, what a waste of valuable travel time. Same goes for dry clean only items.

2. How you pack is as important as what you pack

Start with the things you can’t live without. Start the packing process by filling your bag with all of the critical items first; these are things that would negatively impact your trip if forgotten. These include, but are not limited to, passport, travel documents, IDs, camera, medication, laptop, chargers, security blanket, etc. By getting these essentials into your bag first, you’ll have a realistic picture of how much space you have left for everything else.

Roll, don’t fold. Rolling your clothes takes up less space and minimizes wrinkles. I find that tightly rolling bulky items (like pants) separately and thin items (such as t-shirts) together works best.

Use all free space. To maximize your packing capacity, fill every available inch in your bag. Use the extra space in any shoes that you’re packing for trinkets, jewellery, and other bits and pieces. If you have a pocket in your carry-on, fill it with things that you might need easily accessible.

Don’t pack toiletries. By foregoing checked baggage, you’ll be limited with toiletries because of liquid restrictions. But don’t fret, this is a good thing. Common toiletries such as shampoo, soap, face wash, and toothpaste take up valuable baggage space yet are often the easiest things to purchase once you arrive at your destination. If you absolutely cannot forgo an item while you’re away, put it in a compact travel size container or, better yet, see if you can snag a few samples of it before you go.

Downsize. If there are certain items that you just cannot live without while traveling, look into whether smaller or more compact versions exist. If you’re an avid reader, invest in a Kindle or Kobo instead of lugging around multiple books. If you’ll be staying in hostels or self catering apartments, bring a travel towel which is thinner, and faster drying, than your regular version. And if, like me, you always need to be connected, opt for a tablet instead of a laptop if possible.

Follow the one week rule. You might be traveling for such an extended period of time that you feel these rules don’t apply to your travels, but I respectably disagree. You should always pack for one week, regardless of how long you’re traveling. You can always do laundry if you have running water and a sink. Bring a ziplock bag with laundry detergent so that you can wash in your hotel/hostel/b&b sink if you can’t find an actual laundry machine.

3. Fake it till you make it.

Wear your bulkiest stuff on the plane. I have done this often on discount flights, not out of practicality but necessity. If you’re afraid of going over the size and weight restrictions, then wear multiple layers; including the jacket that you may have packed as you’re headed to a colder climate, even if it is the hottest day of the year. Who cares if the boarding attendants think you’re insane. Wear your bulkiest shoes, even if they are uncomfortable and look ridiculous with your attire. Pack your pockets with anything and everything to free up space in your bag. Basically, do whatever you need to to get through the gate undetected.

Look the part. If you are still unsure about violating the baggage limits, it’s time to get strategic. If you’re worried that your bag is over the weight max, make it look like it’s lighter than air. Looking like you’re having trouble will surely not go unnoticed by the gate attendants who are trained to catch as many carry-on violators as possible. I’m sure that’s built into their compensation model.

Stand behind someone with a bigger bag than yours. This is a trick I’ve employed successfully in desperate situations. Find another passenger who does not understand the rules and is certainly going to get nailed. You could be a good samaritan and give them advice on their non-complying luggage, but they’re likely too far gone by now. When the gate attendant is preoccupied trying to fit the other passengers bag into that awful carry-on size test contraption, show your ticket and ID and briskly walk past and onto the plane. Don’t look back.

Duty free trick. This is a relatively newbie. To combat the strict baggage rules, especially at many discount European airlines, airports have been able to get duty free purchases exempt from the carry-on limits. This means that you are able to bring the duty free plastic bag on the plane with you in addition to your carry-on allowance. What this means for the carry-on travel hacker is that after passing security, you can buy something at the duty free (big bag please!), and discretely pack in some of your excess luggage.


Do you have any other carry-on only travel tips? Let us know in the comment section below! You can also visit our Travel Tips feed for more helpful hints. Some of the links in this article are for affiliates 

Lauren Barth
Lauren Barth co-founded Departful in 2012. Since then she has worked between North America and Europe and has published content in partnership with a variety of tourism boards and businesses based around the world. Lauren is currently based in Toronto, Canada.

8 Comments

  1. Alan 3 years ago

    We did England, Spain, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, USA and New Zealand with hand luggage only, all in onw round trip! The simplicity is easy to fall in love with. Everybody should take the plunge! We’ve blogged about our trip, of course…

  2. Kat 2 years ago

    Love this post, Lauren!

    I’ve been a digital nomad for a year now, lugging a 70L Osprey around the world. Snaps to them for comfort, but today I decided to downgrade to a 33L carry on and stumbled upon your post looking for tips.

    I had such a giggle reading your tip on hiding behind some poor sod with a huge bag. Hahaha that’s seriously something I would do too – and will be doing when I fly low-cost again.

    x KT

  3. Maria 3 months ago

    My trick on a long haul flight my first travel experience of its kind from San Francisco to France for a two week vacation in south eastern France at the beginning of September: there is not really much restriction of what you can wear on the plane On the plane*. But of course for a nearly 13 hour flight who wants to wear layers and layers of clothes and this was in coach the space was cramped and being comfortable is paramount. My trick was I literally wore a weeks worth of clothes on my body I had several layers of leggings I believe I was wearing three layers of leggings over that I had a pair of shorts and over that I had a calf length wrap skirt. I wore 4 different shirts of T-shirt material 2 short sleeve 1 long sleeve and a tunic style T-shirt with a hood over that I had a chenille sweater. I also bought a huge piece of fabric of gauze material which I manage to look like a hugely oversize scarf wrapped around my neck. When we got to my tiny little seat to the very back of the plane I stood in the aisle and and proceeded to strip myself of the extra layers first I took off the wrap skirt my sweater the extra layers of shirt except for the one closest to my body and the shorts and two of the layers of leggings which left me very comfortable with 1 pair of leggings and a T-shirt and I put my lightweight sweater back on for comfort and warmth I felt like I was wearing pajamas it was heaven. But what to do with the extra clothes? Well these days you can find many of those packable tote or backpacks That stuff into their own pocket. There are many brands on the market my personal favorite are the Travelon and Eaglecreek and chicobag. I proceeded to stuff the extra clothes in the very soft and pliable tote. There’s always extra room in between the suitcases in the overhead bin’s most people put their coats or sweaters and stuff them in between the suitcases since my clothes were light weight and not terribly bulky they really did not take up much more than a bulky jacket would take so I proceeded to quickly stuff them into my hideaway tote and then stuffed the tote up in the bin easily between the suitcases since it was soft. When I first started taking the layers off a few women in in the back of the plane we’re looking at me oddly and then when they finally saw what I was doing I found them looking admiringly and nodding in agreement at how clever this was.
    * being a novice traveler I was not prepared that wearing so many bulky things through TSA was not the best option so before you go through TSA plan ahead if you’re using this extra clothes on the plane trick and make sure to dissrobe and put them in your packable tote or packable backpack before going through security and make sure to leave plenty of time to put them back on before boarding the plane.

  4. Marie 2 months ago

    I will be leaving out of the country for a week for the first time. I will follow your advice 👍😊

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