Carry-on luggage packed efficiently for light travel

10 Pro Tips for Packing Light: How to Travel with Just a Carry-On

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One question I often encounter is how I manage to travel with only a carry-on. From week-long getaways to backpacking adventures lasting four weeks or more, I’ve become quite proficient at packing light.

Picture this: you’re standing at the airport, the excitement of a new trip ahead of you, and there it is – the dreaded check in and baggage drop line. But wait, not for you! You stride past, carry-on in tow, ready to explore the world.

This is just one of the perks of traveling carry-on only.

In this guide, I’ll give you tips that will transform the way you approach packing for your travels.

Why Pack Light

Gone are the days of wrestling with oversized suitcases, enduring long waits at baggage claim, or the anxiety of lost luggage. By choosing to pack light, you’re not only freeing yourself from these hassles but also saving money by avoiding checked baggage fees.

Traveling carry-on only completely streamlines every aspect of your trip from navigating airport terminals to hopping on public transportation at your destination.

Additionally, with the convenience of online check-in, you can bypass the check-in and baggage drop queues entirely and head straight to airport security —a convenience now available even on certain international flights with the implementation of online passport checks.

While it may seem daunting at first, mastering the art of packing light is a game-changer. With a bit of practice and the right strategies, you’ll find that traveling with just a carry-on is not only feasible but incredibly freeing.

How to Pack Light

Packing light may initially push you out of your comfort zone, requiring you to embrace the “risk” of not having every item at your disposal. Yet, like any skill, the more you do it the easier it becomes.

My fundamental insight into carry-on packing is simple: Rather than preparing for, say, a three-week trip, approach your packing as if it’s a one-week trip. I’ve found that my packing remains largely consistent whether I’m going on a one-week trip or a month-long backpacking adventure. The only difference is you’ll do more laundry for the latter.

You got this, here are my tips below.

#1 Choose the Right Bag

The foundation of packing carry-on only begins with selecting the right bag. Backpacks, in particular, offer the advantage of maximizing space, as the absence of wheels allows for a roomier interior. This is what I have chosen for my own setup. Although there are also cases where I sometimes still pack a roller bag and use a small backpack as my personal item.

When choosing a bag, you’ll want to first consider the size. Not all carry-on labeled bags actually work on all airlines. My Cotopaxi Allpa 35L backpack is 20” x 12” x 8” which fits well within every major airline carrier’s requirements.

A few of the other features that I wanted my bag to have was a clamshell opening, removable hip straps, raincover and a laptop sleeve. My Cotopaxi Allpa hits all of these checkmarks for me.

#2 Make a Packing List

Making a packing list is important to ensure you don’t forget anything essential. Even seasoned travelers can overlook items without a checklist.

A packing list helps you stay focused on necessities and prevents the temptation to pack unnecessary items. By outlining precisely what you need for your trip, you’re less likely to fall into the trap of overpacking.

#3 Pack Multi-Purpose Items

When space is limited, multi-purpose items become your best friend. Look for clothing and accessories that can serve multiple functions, such as a sarong that doubles as a beach towel or dresses that can be dressed up or down depending on the occasion.

By packing items that serve dual purposes, you can end up saving a lot of space in your luggage.

#4 Use Packing Cubes

Packing cubes are a game-changer when it comes to organizing your luggage and maximizing space. They allow you to compartmentalize your belongings, making it easier to find items and pack efficiently.

While compression cubes are an option for further reducing the volume of your packed belongings, I currently don’t use them because I already have perfectly good regular packing cubes which work just fine for me. However, many people do find compression cubes beneficial, as they can provide additional space-saving capabilities.

Tip: Rolling your clothes before placing them in packing cubes is a space-saving technique that maximizes the available room in your luggage. By tightly rolling your garments, you can minimize air pockets and make things more compact, fitting more items into each cube.

#5 Wear Your Bulkiest Items

Save precious space in your luggage by wearing your bulkiest items, such as your coat and sneakers, during travel.

I usually pack my sandals or smaller footwear into my bag and wear my sneakers or boots on the plane. Same with any jackets or larger sweaters I want to bring.

Travel Essentials Arranged in Flatlay Composition

#6 Limit Your Shoe Options

When it comes to footwear, less is definitely more. Shoes tend to take up a significant amount of space in your luggage, so it’s essential to limit your options to just a few versatile pairs.

As a general rule of thumb, aim to pack one pair of closed-toed shoes, such as sneakers or comfortable walking shoes, and one pair of sandals or flip-flops for warmer weather destinations.

Personally, I swear by my Chacos for warm destinations, as they’re comfortable, durable, and suitable for a variety of activities. I also love my Birkenstocks as well.

If you’re traveling to a colder climate, wear your bulkier boots during transit to save space in your bag.

#7 Laundry for Longer Trips

If you’re going on a longer trip you will have to do laundry. I can generally manage a week and a half or two weeks before needing to do laundry.

There are various approaches to tackle laundry while traveling. You might opt to wash quick dry clothes in your accommodation’s sink, however I personally tend to just use a laundry service or make sure to book an accommodation part way through my trip with laundry facilities.

Many accommodations offer laundry facilities for guests, or you can seek out local laundromats in the area. From self-serve laundromats in Thailand to full-service lavanderias in Mexico, I’ve never faced any challenges getting my laundry done while traveling. Plus, It’s typically very affordable.

#8 Optimize Your Personal Item

In addition to your carry-on, you can use a small bag for under the seat in front of you. This can get you a lot more space to work with.

My first carry-on set up was a roller bag for the bin above and a laptop bag for under the seat in front of me. As mentioned above, I will still use this setup in some particular cases.

These days, I’ve significantly minimized my personal item, which is now just a small camera/electronics bag. This choice allows me to avoid feeling cramped and leaves the room under the seat mostly free, making the flight more comfortable.

#9 Streamline Your Selections

A tried-and-true method to perfect carry-on only packing is to lay out everything you plan to bring and then challenge yourself to remove a portion of it.

This rule is very helpful and really makes you to prioritize your essentials. Even now when traveling super light, there are STILL things that I bring that I don’t use. This method helps me avoid that and forces me leave behind items that aren’t absolutely necessary.

#10 Don’t stress

It’s natural to feel a bit anxious about packing light, and packing in general, especially if you’re accustomed to having everything at your fingertips.

However, it’s essential to remember that most destinations have stores where you can purchase any forgotten or overlooked items. This seems obvious, but remember, people live where you’re going, so rest assured that you’ll have access to essentials if needed.

As I always say when embarking on a trip, as long as you have your passport and wallet, everything else can be figured out along the way. Embrace the adventure!

Additional Tips

Streamline Your Makeup: Pare down your makeup routine to essentials only, opting for multipurpose products whenever possible to save space and weight. I keep my toiletries really simple and makeup is no exception. Brow pencil, eyelash curler and mascara, blush stick, highlighter stick and chapstick.

Bring a Lightweight Water Bottle: Stay hydrated by packing a collapsible or lightweight water bottle that can be easily refilled during your travels.

Layering for Cold Destinations: When traveling to colder destinations, use layering techniques to avoid packing bulky outerwear. Consider bringing a packable down jacket, which offers excellent warmth while remaining lightweight and compact for easy transport. Pair this with layers of long underwear and sweaters to provide more insulation.

london, heathrow, plane

Things to Be Mindful Of

Bag Weight Restrictions: It’s crucial to check both the dimensions and weight restrictions for carry-on luggage set by your airline before traveling, to prevent unexpected fees or complications. If you’re traveling multiple airlines, it’s wise to base your packing decisions on the restrictions of the strictest airline among them. Note that bag restrictions, especially on budget airlines and in Europe, may be stricter, so plan accordingly to avoid any issues.

Toiletry Restrictions: Be mindful of airport security regulations regarding liquids, gels, and aerosols in your carry-on luggage, and pack accordingly to breeze through airport security checkpoints.

I pack for the most strict rules on this, regardless of whether I’m traveling through a particular airport. Maintaining a consistent packing routine simplifies everything for me.

In the US, they’re not as strict about the 1-quart bag size as they are, for example, in London Heathrow (which is updating its liquids rules soon 🎉). However, I still pack my toiletry bag the same way every time. If it works for one trip, why not stick with it for all?

Final Thoughts

If you want to travel carry-on only, you have to let go of excuses as to why you can’t do it; otherwise, it simply won’t happen. Embracing the challenge of packing light can be enjoyable and rewarding, although it won’t be for everybody, as everyone’s travel styles differ.

For me, travel ranks high on my list of priorities, so to sustain my adventures, I aim to keep them budget-friendly and manageable. Packing light is just one piece of the puzzle, but it’s a crucial one that contributes to smoother travels and greater flexibility.

I’d love to hear from you! Feel free to share your thoughts, experiences, and any questions you may have in the comments below.

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