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How to Travel the World with Carry-On Luggage Only

Take a look around your house real quick. Seriously, go look. Look at all your stuff. It’s okay, I’ll wait.

How does all your STUFF make you feel? Individual items might improve one’s life, but when you look at the collective whole of things that you own, does all that stuff make you feel happy? Enlightened?

Having STUFF is nice. I love stuff. But how necessary is it really? I used to have lots of stuff, but in recent years I’ve shed my layers and downsized. I’ve been traveling the world for five years and I’ve never, at one time, had enough stuff to fill more than two bags.

This means that in five years of travel, I have never had the need to check a bag.

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The key to traveling with carry-on luggage is to look at the collective whole of what you’re taking with you and getting rid of the unnecessary items. It’s nice to have some of that stuff, but if you don’t need it, get rid of it! It will be there waiting for you when you return home.

Without a bag to check, you can make the quickest of exits from planes and airports, bypassing everybody else who is stuck waiting for their luggage to appear. Without a big bag to lug around, you are also able to maneuver trains, buses, taxis, and other forms of transport with extreme ease.

You become more lightweight, more limber, more sexy.

To be honest, traveling carry-on only is one of the best decisions I ever made, and I didn’t even make it on purpose. It just…happened. As I continued to travel, I continued to downsize, leaving more and more of my items behind.

To be perfectly honest, traveling carry-on only is a lot easier than most people think.

Manto de la Novia Waterfall, Baños, Ecuador

With my daypack at Manto de la Novia Waterfall, Baños, Ecuador / Photo by Brendan van Son

How to Travel with Carry-On Luggage Only

The key to traveling carry-on only is to put soft items into a soft bag, which can then be easily molded to fit the right space. My main bag is the 40L Osprey Farpoint backpack (though the 55L version with detachable daypack would also work), and when compressed, it fits the approximate dimensions of a carry-on. This could work for a duffel, leather bag, etc, but probably not for a hard, wheeled suitcase.

Ultimately, you need to pick the right bag.

Then, if your airline allows, have a second bag that you carry on the front (your “personal item”) with your laptop, camera, and other valuables and essentials. This bag easily fits underneath the seat in front of you, while your main bag sits in the upper head compartment.

Boom. Carry-on only.

PRO TIP: For most airlines, your carry-on bag should measure 22” x 14” x 9” and your personal item should measure 17” x 10” x 9”.
Traveling carry-on only in the Antwerp Train Station

Traveling carry-on only in the Antwerp Train Station

How to Pack Efficiently

You may have heard it before, but the key to saving space in your bag is rolling your clothes. This compresses your clothes, decreases their surface area, and makes them stackable. Even the military packs their bags this way.

To save even more space, use compression sacks to vacuum seal your clothes. Put all of your shirts into one, socks and underwear into another, and so on. When you need a shirt, pull out the bag that has shirts in it. Packing cubes are another really great alternative, though are generally better suited to suitcases.

Don’t underestimate the usefulness of these items—imagine having just three or four large items packed into your bag instead of 30 various pieces of clothing floating around and getting lost.

RELATED: 50 Lessons I’ve Learned After 5 Years of Traveling

And leave your parka at home. Get a travel-friendly jacket like the Storm Logic from ExOfficio—it doesn’t take up much room in your bag, and it can roll up into a travel pillow so you don’t even have to pack it in your bag when you fly.

The jeans have to go, too. Though they’re the staple of any wardrobe, if you want to travel carry-on only, it’s almost impossible to travel with jeans. I have a dark pair of khakis that work as a substitute which are much more economical.

It’s about picking and choosing and making some sacrifices. No, you can’t have everything you want, but you can have everything you need. That’s the underlying rule for picking which stuff to bring with you when you’re traveling carry-on only.

Hitchhiking in Albania with everything I own.

Hitchhiking in Albania with everything I own.

What I Pack in My Bags

What do I pack in my bags? Here’s a rundown of everything I carry in each of my two bags.


What’s in My Carry-On?

  • 6 t-shirts
  • 2 button-down shirts
  • 2 long-sleeve shirts
  • 3 tank tops/singlets
  • 6 pairs of underwear
  • 5 pairs of socks
  • 1 pair of long pants
  • 1 pair of shorts
  • Rain parka
  • Sneakers, hiking shoes, flip-flops
  • Dopp kit and toiletries
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What’s in My Personal Item?


And that’s it. Simple. Effective. Lightweight. Sexy. Carry-on only, anywhere in the world.

What do you think? Can you travel carry-on only for your next trip? I challenge you to try it, and tell us about it in the comments below!

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