While paying to check luggage has long been a standard practice for many discount European airlines such as Ryanair, Easy Jet, and Vueling, it has been increasingly adopted worldwide and is quickly becoming the industry standard. In fact, the top airlines generated $22B in these types of  “ancillary fees” in 2011 alone so these practices aren’t going anywhere.

When I first traveled to Europe, it was difficult for me to fathom paying to bring luggage on a plane but to avoid paying the hefty baggage fees, I have downsized considerably to get by with just a measly carry-on. At first, it seemed an impossible task but as I crafted and perfected my packing skills, traveling with carry-on not only became easier, but actually liberating. Here’s how you can fast track the process.

1. Know your Airlines Bag 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 and pay hefty penalties as a result – Ryanair’s fee for checking noncomplying baggage at the gate is 50E if it’s too big and 20E per additional kg if overweight. Also, look into what your airline actually constitutes as carry-on. While you’re allowed a personal item (purse/backpack/laptop case) in addition to your carry-on on most US carriers, many European discount chains only allow one bag per person, period. I learned this the hard way.

2. First Get All Necessary Items In Your Bag

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, 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.

3. Pack Outfits not Items

I used to be a serial over-packer with multiple repeat offenses. I have even been guilty of packing clothes that I’d had for over a year but still had the tags on (“maybe Spain will be the place to finally wear that designer poncho” – FYI, it was not). So as you can imagine, the physical act of putting less clothing into my bag was the hardest to tackle.

Now, I think out my outfits before I pack, trying to maximize the use of each item. As a result I no longer just pack ‘one-offs’. Arrange outfits (physically or mentally) for the number of days you’ll be away, trying to reuse each item at least once (Added bonus: If, like me, you’re not a morning person, this makes getting dressed each day a no brainer). If all else fails, stick with neutral clothing and a consistent colour scheme so that all items will work together.

4. Bring Items that Work Double Duty

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.) For the girls, a scarf/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.

5. Roll Instead of Fold

This one is pretty self explanatory. Rolling your clothes takes up less space and minimizes wrinkles. There are a few schools of thought on the optimal way to do this (I’m not kidding – Google it) but I find that tightly rolling bulky items (like pants) separately and thin items (such as t-shirts) together works best.

6. Don’t Pack Toiletries

By foregoing checked baggage, you will 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.

7. Plan on Doing Laundry

Depending on how long your trip is, you may have to do some laundry while traveling. For trips shorter than a week, you’re probably fine but anything longer and you’ll likely want to to do some washing, at least for your travel companion’s sake (“Pros of Traveling Solo” coming soon).  Bring a ziplock bag with laundry detergent so that you can always wash in your hotel/hostel/b&b sink if you can’t find an actual laundry machine.

8. Downsize you Gear

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.

9. If you’re Unsure – Leave it at Home

Chances are you won’t need it and if you do, you’ll be able to buy it there. I have always been able to find what I am missing while abroad whether it be flip flops in the Canary Islands, a hair straightener in Amsterdam, or a rain coat in Strasbourg. It’s better to buy a missed item while away then to over-pack in an attempt to prepare for every scenario.

10.Clip on the Overflow

Contrary to a recent Departful post, 8 Essential Tips for Travel Virgins, carabiners can come in handy if your trip involves jaunts to multiple places. If you pick up some extra baggage (ie. groceries, souvenirs) or have wet or dirty clothing that you do not want intermingling with your clean stuff, just hook it up to the outside of your bag. This will make traveling by rail, bus, car, etc. a breeze.

11. Wear Your Bulky Items Onto The Plane

I have done this on several Ryanair and Easy Jet flights, not out of practicality but necessity. If you’re afraid of going over the size and weight restrictions, then wear multiple layers and the jacket that you may have packed, 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.

12. If All Else Fails, 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 definitely not go unnoticed by the gate attendants who are trained to catch as many carry-on violators as possible (remember that $22B in extra fees I mentioned?!). You can also stand behind someone with a bigger bag than yours. 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 discretely run by and onto the plane. Don’t look back.

It has taken me a while, and many frequent flier miles, to perfect the art of traveling exclusively with carry-on, but I am quite impressed with my progress. Next month, I will face my biggest challenge when I travel to 3 countries and 10 cities over 4 weeks with just my carry-on approved bag – Stay Posted!

Have any of your own tried & tested tips for traveling with carry-on only? Please share them below. There is always room for packing improvement!