I’ve written in the past about my preference for carry-on only travel and about my journey from over-packer to carry-on pro. However, I must admit, I recently broke my carry-on luggage only rule and the outcome, as you may expect, was disastrous.

First, my flight was delayed several hours while I was waiting at the airport. I wasn’t able to get on the earlier (on-time) flight as my checked bag couldn’t be moved over in time. Watching people in my exact situation who were traveling with carry-on luggage only was utterly upsetting, especially as I knew that could’ve (should’ve) been me.

When my plane finally landed several hours late, I was so far behind in my schedule but had to wait another half an hour for my bag to come out. Ugh. On my way home, I had a connecting flight through the US so had to get my bag and lug it across the airport only to recheck it again, which was the absolute worst. Oh and I also paid $75 to check my bag across all my flights, which I would’ve rather put towards dinner and drinks. Ok – rant over.

So now I’m in Mexico for two months with just a small carry-on bag and my trusty Herschel backpack and I couldn’t be happier.

My Carry-On Luggage Only Rules

1. Everything you pack has to be functional & play well with others

Traveling only with carry-on luggage isn’t the time to experiment or bring along pieces that have never been worn. It’s also not the time for a last-minute throw everything into your bag as you will inevitably do a terrible job, like packing a dozen t-shirts but no pants. Take some time before your trip to think through what you want to bring (I often lay everything out on the bed) and omit anything that seems inconsistent with everything else.

This works well for me personally as I gravitate more to classics, incorporating quality basics that fit well. I love rompers and jumpsuits that are a one piece outfit. Layers are also key to get the most of your clothing, especially if you’ll be traveling between places with varying temperatures.

2. Never pack anything that wrinkles

Wrinkles are the carry-on traveler’s nightmare. I loathe ironing at home so why would I expect that I’ll be up for doing it while I’m traveling? I have amassed a collection of dresses, pants, and tops that are entirely resistant to wrinkles that pretty much come with me everywhere I go. Some clothing like t-shirts can attract wrinkles even when packed correctly (roll don’t fold!), but I always take them out of the bag as soon as I’m settled and either hang or lay them flat for a day, which seems to do the trick. If it’s a particularly stubborn wrinkle, I’ll use my mini flat iron (which is cordless and USB charged!) to smooth it out.

3. Bring a few dispensables

I always pack my bag to the brim before I leave. If I have excess space, I will fill it – I can’t help it! This is problematic as I love to collect things on my travels like embroidered blankets in San Cristobal de las Casas or hand-weaved rugs in Oaxaca. So to free up space during my travels, I’ll donate shoes or clothing that I’ve brought entirely for that purpose and then replace them, if necessary, with something local and of higher quality. While I don’t advocate for throwing things away to make room as that’s so unnecessarily wasteful, I’ll research donation options before I go so I’m prepared or bring things that are on their last legs anyway.

4. Sorry books – you’re not coming

This is a tough one for me. I not only love reading when I travel, I love nothing more than a physical book (or five) but it’s just not practical to bring with me anymore. I swear by my Kindle (the new version is incredibly similar to reading a physical book – plus it’s waterproof), which has taken me awhile to get used to but I appreciate the huge variety of books available without the weight. Though I have been known to find a book in a guesthouse or hostel that I’ll take with me on my journey and leave for another traveler to enjoy somewhere along the way when I’m done.

5. Choose the right carry-on luggage

In my personal opinion, soft, malleable bags are better than those with wheels. They’re not as heavy, can fit more, are easier to stuff into overhead bins, don’t attract attention from airline staff, and allow you to walk briskly past everyone else who’s wheeling their bags. I’ve used this Longchamp bag (my second iteration) for almost ten years. I pack the shit out of but no matter how heavy it is or how hard I pull the zipper to get it shut, it never rips or breaks.

As an alternative, I do enjoy the hardshell roller by InCase. What’s particularly useful about it is that as a hard case, it can be checked if necessary while still protecting its contents – I like to buy craft beer everywhere I travel and this bag gives me the option of bringing some back for friends if I feel like being nice. And it’s got a cool yet minimalist design that people love – I get compliments on it all the time.

6. Have a relief bag

I bring extra foldable bags in my carry-on that I can use to handle some of the overflow. Let’s face it, when you travel with carry-on luggage, fitting everything in your bag is an art form and not something you want to be doing every time you move to the next spot. I usually bring a couple Longchamp bags of various sizes, which fold into practically nothing but carry a tremendous amount giving me some buffer space. Once it’s time to fly home, I’ll pack like I’ve never packed before to get everything back in one bag, or decide to check one if I’ve picked up too many souvenirs.

7. Know the rules in advance

It’s often much cheaper to pay for a non-confirming bag in advance than getting busted at the airport. Here’s a good resource that includes the carry-on luggage limits of many (but not all) airlines. Though don’t underestimate the power of kindness and ignorance if you’re in a bind.

8. Who gives a damn about liquids

I certainly don’t. I haven’t traveled anywhere yet where I wasn’t able to find toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner and all of those other liquids one needs to be a clean and hygienic human. If you’re worried or require something special, bring travel sized versions or samples until you can find full sized alternatives. Amazon has a wide selection of travel sized bottles if you want to bring your own and still comply.

9. Consider packing cubes

While I haven’t yet become a compression cube convert, they do intrigue me as a savvy carry-on luggage traveler (I’ve had my eye on these ones for awhile now). By using these small pouches to pack your clothing, you can compress all of the excess air to essentially fit more into your bag. It can be an excellent travel hack but don’t forget that although you can fit it all in, the excess weight may be an issue and get you flagged nonetheless.

Carry-on Luggage Only Travel Tips photo by STIL

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Lauren Barth

Lauren Barth

Lauren Barth co-founded Departful in 2012 and is the Managing Director of Departful Media. 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.

Departful is a travel magazine that provides accessible, relevant, and thoughtful travel tips and ideas to inspire people to explore the world around them. We feature travel articles, travel tips, and photography based on our own experiences from over 100 countries covering all things adventure, culture, food and drink, technology, and gear. Made with ❤ in Toronto.


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