There are several reasons why you would want to travel with carry-on luggage only, especially on international travel, traveling during a pandemic, or both: Avoiding airline checked luggage fees or loss of luggage; saving time in the airport; avoiding claiming bags for customs; ensuring only you handle your bags for personal safety; having flexibility in case of last-minute travel restrictions; and, well, you get it.
It is possible to do carry-on only travel on your solo travel, no matter where or how long you travel. Just use my top 20 tips on how to travel carry-on only. These tips have worked for me traveling across multiple countries during a pandemic.
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Start with Your Solo Travel Itinerary
- It’s best to have a solo travel itinerary where you know your destination climates are similar for ease of wearing the same clothing in all locations (night and day). You don’t want to switch between extreme climates – this will require a lot more clothing – unless you’ll be in one of the extremes for a very short period of time and you can get by with layering your outfits.
- Re-check the weather of your destinations periodically, and plan your activities, so you know what type of clothing you’ll need.
- Check daylight hours beforehand to travel carry-on only. Will your itinerary provide for more night time activities requiring warmer clothing or day time activities for more minimal clothing?
Airline Baggage Weight and Size Policies
- Check your airlines’ size and weight requirements on both carry-on and personal item baggage. We are spoiled in the U.S. by only having to adhere to baggage size for carry-on and personal item bags. International carriers are stricter by taking into account both size and weight. Avoid extra charges by going over weight or, worse, having to check your over-weight baggage. That’s not how to travel carry-on only.
- Use the lightest weight carry-on bag and personal item bag possible. If you’re starting with a heavy bag, you’ve already shot yourself in the foot by adding needless weight. Use the weight for your packing essentials instead. I prefer eco-friendly bags for sure, but I have to guiltily say that I do love my Perry Ellis Lexington carry-on bag, which I bought many years ago. It’s on spinner wheels and meets practically all international airlines’ size requirements. It has held up on all big trips, and it looks nice – I don’t look like a backpacker from when I need to go from hostel to nice hotel. As soon as this carry-on quits I’ll replace it with an eco-friendly bag, like my Osprey travel pack – also light weight!
Airport Security and Liquids Rule
- Check your airlines’ websites for rules on what is allowed on board and what is not (liquids, etc.). Pack only the essential liquids you need. To reduce your liquids, go with eco-friendly bar shampoo and conditioner, toothpaste tablets, and face cleanser wipes. Think of how much in liquids you’ve saved right there! I use these and love them. Remember, hand sanitizers do not count towards the airport security liquid allowance.
Pandemic Travel Tip
Check your airlines’ face mask requirements. Some airlines may not allow cloth face masks. Ensure you meet all airline safety requirements so you can make your flight.
- Check your hotels’ amenities. Will they provide a hair dryer and toiletries? Although I don’t normally use the hotel toiletries to cut down on plastic waste, the option of just having them could help you travel carry-on only. Try to limit hotel toiletry use to only once every few days.
Plan and Pack Early
- Make a packing list of everything early, from clothing to computer to contact lenses. This way when an item pops into your head you can keep adding to the packing list and have time to think about what you’ll really need.
- Pack your entire list of items a week in advance (I call it “mock packing”) to know all items will actually fit in your carry-on and personal item bag. Don’t forget to set aside what you’ll be wearing on the plane. Have your carry-on only travel packing completed two days prior to departure and weigh your bags. If they won’t comply with airline weight restrictions, you have time to readjust. Seriously, this will take any stress of trying to decide at the last minute or have outfit remorse on your travels.
Carry-On Only Packing List
- Some people say pack for a week. Some use the 3:1 rule (3 tops to 1 pair of pants) or other methods. Your method will really come down to how long you’ll be living out of your carry-ons. Most trips are fine with 3 pants and 9 tops.
- Mix and match clothes with basic colors and prints that match. Capsule wardrobes can be a big help with this. Include a scarf to help tie outfits together.
- You shouldn’t need too exceed three pairs of shoes: walking shoes, a pair of sandals and flip-flops. If you only have room for either sandals or flip-flops, make them fancy or shiny eco-friendly flip-flops so they can also double on a nice occasion in addition to the beach.
- Bring a variety of tops: long sleeve, short sleeve, and tank tops. You can always layer your outfits. Have at least one nice top to dress up a pair of pants or skirt for an evening out of dining or entertainment, even if it’s not in your itinerary. Try your outfits on so you have confidence you’ll know you’ll be looking and feeling your best. Of course, it’s also best to bring clothing that doesn’t wrinkle easily.
Best Way to Pack a Carry-On
- Roll your clothes for better space saving instead of stacking. Use the corners and sides of your bags to fit smaller items of clothing (delicates) into.
- Organize your carry-on bag into sections by clothing type and pack/repack the same way so you know where everything is. Although packing cubes are great for organizing, I mostly find these better for larger, checked-on bags, not carry on bags. The cube itself can take up precious space, especially if you’re on extended travel. I don’t bother with compression bags either – it’s just more stuff to take up space.
- Will you be buying gifts? If so, you may want to reconsider the all-carry-on option. Or, if you can get away with it, leave a small amount of space free and only purchase the small, essential gift(s). Keep in mind your bag weight when making purchases.
- At the end of the trip, reassess what you used and didn’t use. This will help your next trip. Also, re-up and organize your travel essentials (toiletries, etc.) and put them back in your carry-on and personal item bags to be on the ready for your next trip. This will save you time.
Dress for Travel Comfort
- Wear your heaviest (or bulkiest) clothing on the flight (sneakers, pants, long sleeves and jacket) making sure this clothing is comfortable as well as befitting for your destination’s climate, of course. A light jacket can always be tied around the waste, if need be, and help act as a pillow on a plane (instead of bringing an inflatable head rest).
Be Prepared for Travel Emergencies
- Pack your travel essentials in your personal item bag (that goes under your seat). This includes all wallet items, PPE, electronic devices and chargers, adapters, a days’ worth of toiletries, and medications in case you have to check on your second bag (e.g., you didn’t make weight or size) and if that bag gets lost. You’ll still have the basics to get you by for enough time to retrieve your bag back or buy more necessities.
- Have a few zip lock bags of varying sizes for dirty clothes or in case of an emergency, like a leaky toiletry bottle.
Let Me Hear From You
I would love to know if 20 tips on how to travel carry-on only was helpful to you. Post me your thoughts or questions in the Comments section below. Thank you!