How to Travel the World with Carry-On Luggage Only

How to Travel the World with Carry-On Luggage Only
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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.

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. Ideally, you want to pick a carry-on backpack instead of rolling luggage, even though both are technically sized correctly.

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.

[box type=”note” icon=”none”]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”.[/box]
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.

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.

Carry-On Travel Packing List

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

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!


READ MORE:

The One Simple Secret to Traveling Light. And It’s Easier Than You Think

11 Tips to Make Planning Your Travels a Million Times Easier

50 Lessons I’ve Learned After 5 Years of Traveling

The Ultimate Guide to the Best Travel Gear

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  1. Is there a correct way to “check in” for a flight when travelling with carry on only if you cannot do so online? I recently did 2 weeks in New Zealand with just my North Face Borealis backpack (granted it was their summertime so I didn’t need any bulky items of clothing). It feels like the norm is that everyone is assumed to have checked luggage so the queues were hella long. I ended up going to the airlines customer service desk instead and explained it wouldn’t let me check in online. They weighed my bag (6.1kg!) and printed my boarding pass and that was it. What do you usually do? Thanks!

    1. If you can’t do it online and there aren’t any self-serve kiosks at the airport, I’m afraid the only way is to check in at the counter. I’m surprised they even weighed your carry-on bag, though. That rarely happens!

  2. I wish I could travel with a carry on only. I’m really missing the days when I went abroad without a laptop and professional camera equipment. I really hope that Airlines in the future will allow heavier carry ons for an additional cost. It’s a real bummer that most airlines have a maximum of 5-10 kgs. The size wouldn’t even be a problem for me if I were allowed to bring more kilos.

    How do you travel these days? I only travel with hand luggage only on weekend trips.

  3. Interesting that point… I for example started my travels around the world to my 18 years of age and even though it was not something my parents wanted very much followed my adventurous heart and I have been through more than 20 countries. Traveling is something that is addictive and amazing to me. But I just find it interesting when you have an income of money that doesn’t depend on a physical medium to win. And I really prefer to travel by car on the roads rather than by plane. The plane misses a lot of amazing things like landscapes and impressive places. But unforeseen things can happen and always something unexpected happens. Very good Article:)

  4. The thought of travelling for longer than a weekend with carry on only gives me anxiety 😀 Kudos to you though, it definitely is much easier getting around with less luggage!
    I think a good alternative for people like me are the typical backpacker backpacks. I travelled around Australia with a 60 litre backpack fora year, that’s doable.

  5. I also travel a lot and try to reduce my luggage more and more. One of my weapons is to use arm warmers. I travel with around 3 to 4 merino t-shirts. Combined with one pair of merino arm warmers I don’t need longsleeve shirts. Also important is to use a lightweight Pack. I travel with the D3 Traveller Duffel. This ultrastrong Dyneema Bag does not come cheap but it is a lifetime investment and the weight ist only around 515 g or 1.10 lbs.

  6. I do roll my clothes, my two kids’ when travelling. I find it easier to find which ones belong to who when I can spot them easily compared to having them all folded side-by-side. One pull and everything has to be re-folded.

    I also want to see your ‘personal bag.’ I’d like to see how it fits your laptop and camera. Is it a flat hand-bag or something? I’d love to have one for my own. Thanks!

  7. Great article. We’ve been travelling with Tortuga Air backpacks and love it. We haven’t bough packing cubes yet — that is something we should consider, though. Another great tip is: You should always wear heavy cloths that are hard to pack, for example a pair of jeans and heavy tracking shoes.

  8. Wonderful tips! This is something I have always struggled with. I have never thought of rolling my clothes or using compression sacs; definitely a must try for the next trip. Shoes are my downfall. We tend to eat at nice restaurants from time to time when we travel, and I always have a pair of heels which do take up space. Also, if we go somewhere cold, those clothes get bulkier and harder to fit in a carry on. But perhaps compression sacs will help with that. And then there’s those good old toiletries – fitting everything I “need” in 3 oz. container in a tiny zip lock bag has been difficult. I And if we’re going somewhere for a longer period of time, I’ll just buy it when I get there. Thanks for the tips!

  9. We travel carry on as well but WITH jeans 😀 Can’t go without those jeans man. We do however have less (t-)shirts than you do so maybe that is how we get the extra space.

  10. Great tips… I use clothing made of merio wool; for both summer and winter (undeclothing, socks, shirts, pants, skirts – base layering, top layer).I need to take a small carry on case becase I have back issues. Merino doesn’t stink and dries ovrnight and comes in different weights.Absolutely fabulous product.

  11. I struggle with this! I went from one of those silly big backpacks to a holdall, but I struggle with footwear. I have one pair of running shoes, flip flops, smarter shoes and hiking boots. I know I could probably combine the running shoes/hiking boots which may help and I could perhaps lose the smarter shoes; but I suppose I’m not yet ready to – good footwear is really worthwhile in my view.

    The actual travelling part of travelling is a real pain with extra luggage and i’m sure I will gradually get better at it (maybe just by not replacing things as they wear out). I take my hat off to all you super minimalists out there, but take comfort from the fact I only have a laptop bag and a holdall and not a house, garage, loft and a storage unit that I know many people have in their lives.

    1. I know—the shoes—that’s my never ending struggle, as well. I love my footwear and have a hard time traveling with just a couple pairs. Ultimately, we all have to decide what’s important to us. Taking an extra pair of shoes may mean not taking something else, but if you’re happy with the tradeoff, then there’s nothing to worry about!

  12. Great tips, and as an expat living in Nepal, I could not agree more with you and the commenters above. Osprey makes great bags, and I was lucky to find one here – I moved to Nepal in 2001, bringing with me just 30kg of stuff. Unfortunately, a decade later I’ve accumulated just about the same amount of stuff I originally left with. It’s a disease – what to do?

  13. Your personal bag with your macbook and stuff do you carry that on you all the time or leave it in the room in the main Farpoint?

  14. Beware that some airlines apply other size restrictions than the ones you’ve shared. My advice would be to always check with the airline you’re flying with, so you won’t risk having to check your bag.

    Very much like the idea with a substantial personal item though, where you can put all the stuff you need/want to have available during the flight ( and are expensive!).

    Humbly sharing my own packing tips 😉

    http://travelgeardepot.com/how-to-pack/

  15. Hi Jeremy,

    Very interesting packing list but your setup is based on being able to bring two carry-on bags.

    What do you usually do if this is not possible and the airline only allows 1 carry on bag?

  16. What about toiletries???!!! Love your blog. I did a 14 month trip and am heading on another. I’m thinking I should stick to warm places to keep the luggage down. my issue is sun cream, shampoo, toothpaste, etc.

    1. Nicola I use sun cream as my general moisturiser in warm countries. Got the toiletries down to minimum I think.

  17. Want to add it is less the waiting for the baggage carousel than being able to travel between cities without carrying big cases that appeals to us.

  18. We went carry on last trip three weeks in Europe with ultra light wheeled cases and 7kg limit. Cases were 1.5kg I think. We are going to Europe, sailing London to New York and then some US content totaling eight weeks and want to do carry on again. We won’t go to dinners or shows, won’t need heels and will stay in the downmarket ship restaurants rather than drag a tiara and tux with us. The aim of the ship portion is the “experience” and not the “tizzy”.

    I still felt very uncomfortable in trains through Italy because our bags still had to be left in the luggage rack at the ends. I’m wondering if we are better to buy carry on size backpacks rather than wheeled cases? I think they will still have to be left in the luggage racks though.

    We are visiting two cooler places for two days each and I want to avoid having to take a coat so maybe a light wind breaker would be best and layer our clothes under it rather than drag a heavier jacket for those colder side trips (base of Eiger and Niagara Falls).

  19. Travelling HLO certainly helps beat the queues at immigration. It also helps when there is a tight connection between trains/planes. I don’t know that I could go back to checked luggage.

    My last trip started with a flight on a low cost carrier so I was limited to 7kg (15lb) including my jacket (yes really). That was challenging but quite possible. Normally I have 10kg (22lb) to play with. Fortunately it was to Asia, so I didn’t need the ‘winter woolies’. Oh, that included about 1.5kg of laptop/tablet/phone equipment too. That was the first time I weighed my clothes piece by piece and selected the lightest.

  20. YUUUUP. Only way to travel! Have you noticed it also helps you get rid of more STUFF when you come back home…? I find myself going through closets and drawers and storage at my parent’s place of stuff I just don’t need. And typically, you can just find what you need on the road anyways. If you’re on a budget, consider a trade or exchange with another traveler! 🙂 Check out my pack list for our year on the road! http://www.theyoganomads.com/travel/travel-essentials-women-packing-list/

    1. Absolutely. I keep reducing possessions all the time. Carry on all the way for me. Though haven’t tried a cold country yet.

  21. I agree with many of these tips — I couldn’t live without packing cubes and always roll my clothes. I disagree that you can’t travel carry-on only with jeans, though. I’ve been carry-on only full-time for six years and have had jeans the whole time. The trick is to choose lighter weight summer jeans that aren’t too heavy or bulky. They may be slightly heavier than other trousers, but they are worth it for me for the comfort, familiarity, and blending in with locals. Ultimately, it comes down to choosing what’s important to you.

  22. Great tips! I learned the hard way that traveling light is definitely the way to go. My heaviest items are my books! Never heard of packing cubes- interesting.

  23. Yes! I totally agree with you!
    I rarely travel with any massive suitcases simply because I hate carrying them and hate waiting for them at the luggage belt – that feeling that all other bags are coming out but yours isn’t is quite scary!
    If I’m going away just for a weekend I don’t even carry any spare clothes other than underwear, washing a shirt and let it dry overnight it’s easy done in any room.

    Most people think they will need all of their stuff and then realise they don’t. That’s why I use a small backpack big enough to carry my Nikon D5100, a notebook and some spare clothes.

  24. Rolling your clothes can really save space on your bag. I believe on this because I’ve been done folding clothes for years when packing and pile it on my bag and when I tried doing the other method which is rolling your clothes, I found out the difference and it’s really better to have the rolling method for it compresses the clothing while also making it easier to stack and pack into a tiny section of your bag or suitcase.

  25. This is the only way I travel! My checked luggage has been lost/delayed several times, and it is SO STRESSFUL each and every time. I feel much better being 100% in control of my stuff. The hardest thing for me is shoes…I always want to bring way more than what’s practical! But, I’m getting better 🙂

  26. Awesome Jeremy! My wife and I go bare bones but we can lose the big suitcases for the next trip maybe…..after reading your post. Thanks so much!

    Ryan

  27. Great insight and recommendations! I could definitely cut down on my shirts, but as I have been traveling so much and for so long, it’s nice to have some variation. I, too, only carry dark pants, but they’re khakis, not jeans.

    I’ve also had no issue with my carry-on on any flight, and it fits under the seat every time. Because I run this website, though, I have to have a laptop and camera gear, otherwise I could carry even less!

  28. I think that you could cut down by not taking 13 tops (6 t-shirts+2 button-down shirts+2 long-sleeve shirts+3 tank tops/singlets). I generally take 4 tops (2 Icebreaker v-necks which can be worn under the short sleeve or long sleeve shirt for layering. I often wear a pair of black jeans on the airplane with a full zip merino sweater, as I find that if your trip involves a lot of urban destinations black jeans can look dressy enough.

    Your personal item size would be rejected by many airlines – many only accept a maximum third dimension of 6″. To avoid fighting for overhead space I make sure that I only take enough to fit under the seat on the smallest planes. My preferred luggage for hiking/rural/wet destinations is a 19L bag (I put a 20L drybag inside it to keep my stuff dry); if I am predominantly visiting cities I can get everything in a briefcase that fits under the seat in front and that doesn’t look like luggage.

    I use an iPod Touch as my computer and camera, so I don’t need a second bag.

  29. Great tips – love the cubes idea. Spent 3 weeks in Brazil/Ecuador on a family vacay last year and with 19 flights, tight connections and packed schedule, carry-on only made it work! As a woman, I have one black, long, light spaghetti strap dress as a staple in my packing: paired with a pashmina, works in every country in the world from Brunei to Bolivia!

    1. I’m planning on going travelling next year for 12 months with a 40L backpack so I only use carry-on and don’t have to worry about checking in cases etc. but as a woman it’s a very daunting feeling! I love the idea of a thin, long black dress and pashmina as a staple and compression bags! Great tips! 🙂

  30. Recently went to Vietnam and Cambodia with just a carry-on and backpack. Best decision ever! It’s just so easy to have all of your stuff on you and not lugging it around! When traveling you really don’t need to bring a lot of stuff with you. You can easily buy things at your destination! The only issue I found with bringing carry-ons is that it is less space for souvenirs, but really a few small trinkets are all you should want to bring back anyway.

  31. Definitely a great post showing people that it’s possible to travel with carry-on only (read: less junk and unnecessary stuff). Lightweight travel is the way to go if you’re constantly moving from place to place – especially if you’re travelling over a longer period of time 🙂

    However, like I said on the group post… it’s not all adventures that allows you to travel with carry-on only. At least I could not see myself bringing only carry-on if I went to the cold north to trek for several days while also bringing a lightweight tent and sleeping bag – not to forget I would need room in my bag for food supplies on such a trip. I would need a proper check-in backpack for an adventure like that. Of course there are other types of travelling that allows for carry-on only but it really depends on where you’re going and what you’re doing.

    1. Since I travel for longer periods of time, I try to rent things like tents and sleeping bags as I need them. Since I also usually stick to one region of the world at a time, I can pack appropriately for a few months, then switch out my gear when I go to a different area. This means I never get bogged down with too much equipment.

      Of course, not everything works for everybody, but this is an inside look to how I do it 🙂

  32. Yes! Good tips. We too use soft packing cells and are addicted to them. We went on our last 2 week family trip with carry-on only. We are a family of 5 with 3 under 12! So it is possible.

    We admit for our gap year we had one carry on but the hardest thing was lugging around over 7kg of school books and supplies.

    Next time we do a long trip we want to achieve carry-on only. 🙂 Yes, it is freeing!

      1. Well the next year we insisted it was given to us all in digital formats ie 3 USB sticks but then you have the problems and expense of printing, digitally capturing and digital submission. Sadly the distance education school we were in would not accept digitally filled out work even for maths.
        So the obstacle can be that you may want a certain option or lifestyle but others do not want to accomodate.
        Still we managed and gained wisdom on what to change next time.
        Truth is I am not a fan of pure unschooling or world schooling – people can’t deny it is different from mainstream schooling and ultimately I do want my children to have the option to live in mainstream society.
        Surely you must plan to marry and have kids one day, Jeremy?

  33. Great stuff and tracks with much of my own travel evolution. I’m typing this while sitting in Vancouver Airport with a tiny 10liter pack. Once you get into washing underwear/socks/shirt every night, I dropped even more gear. Indespensibles for me are baby wipes, an extra long phone charger, and a cell phone large and powerful enough, maybe with a Bluetooth keyboard, to substitute for a laptop. Arcteryx convertible pants do double duty as fairly dressy pants and shorts. Flip flops made from stiff insoles and paracord are super thin and light (although mostly only appropriate for showering or in room). Still.. I’m always surprised at how I seem to return from trips with stuff in my bag that I haven’t even used once!

  34. I started rolling my clothes maybe a year or so ago and I don’t know why it isn’t how we do it from the beginning. I’ve even started to roll them when putting them in my drawers now too. It’s also easier to choose shirts from a row of rolled shirts in a drawer (lined up like a colorful piano keyboard haha), rather than digging through a pile of folded shirts.

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