With prices for baggage becoming more and more expensive and airlines limiting your carry on size even further, now is as important a time as ever to start traveling carry-on only.
I’ve flown carry-on only for a number of trips, including to Hawaii, Puerto Rico and even for a week in London. I highly recommend it on trips where you’ll be taking small, regional flights within your destination or even for much longer trips.
It’s totally possible if you can eliminate the excess!
Here’s what to expect, and how to do it, when you’re a first-timer going carry-on only.
What to Expect When Traveling With Only a Carry On
- Expect a more stringent toiletry packing experience. You’ll need to be more cautious of the liquids that are going into your kit since they have to fall into the 3-1-1 rule. Pare down, repackage, and go for multipurpose items when possible.
- Expect potentially longer security checks. By going carry on only, you’ll have more stuff with you since you’re not checking things in another piece of luggage. Keep your belongings organized so there isn’t so much drama at security.
- Expect to need more overhead luggage space. Instead of a smaller carry on bag that can go under your seat, you may need to get on the plane sooner so that precious overhead space is available.
- Expect to wait less. You’ll wait less in lines that are mainly for checking your luggage, and you’ll wait less at the baggage carousel after a long flight.
- Expect to worry less. Worry less about whether or not your luggage will actually be with you at your destination!
- Expect to stress less. The physical stress of excess baggage is one thing, but the mental stress is real as well. With less stuff to manage, you have more mental bandwidth.
- Expect to pay less money for luggage. Check fewer bags, pay less cash.
How to Go Carry On Only for the First Time
Choose the Best Carry On Travel Bag
Decide what bag you’re going to bring. You might already have one at home that you’ve used for shorter trips or you may need to buy a new one. We’ve covered all ranges of carry on bags on the site, including backpacks, suitcases and duffel bags, so do your research.
A 40 liter backpack is completely doable, and it is our max size recommendation for just about any trip.
The most important part of this whole process is to check the size and weight requirements of the airline you’ll be flying. Does your chosen bag fit into it or will you need to go smaller?
I always check my bag’s dimensions against budget carriers like Ryanair before purchasing, as I know they have the strictest luggage allowances. Consider future trips before you purchase a bag that will only work as carry on for domestic flights.
Also ensure that it will be comfortable to carry through the airport when full of your stuff:
- Will the duffel bag strap start to wear on your shoulder?
- Does having a bag on each shoulder affect your balance?
- Are the straps or wheels sturdy enough to last for long distances?
- And don’t forget about the handles you’ll need when it comes time to place it in the overhead bin.
Create Your Carry-On Packing List
Crafting your packing list for carry-on-only travel is important, as you’ll want to make sure you pack just what you need and nothing more. Optimizing your travel wardrobe, minimizing your toiletries, and cutting back on extras are key.
Don’t worry – it’s easy if you spend a bit of time planning!
- You may want to have a look at these carry-on packing lists: RTW trip and Morocco. This post on Carry On Only for a Year of Travel is also helpful.
Specifically for your travel wardrobe, choose solid color clothing that can go with multiple travel outfits and dress up with accessories. Pick your number of tops and bottoms and work out how many outfits they can create to ensure you don’t put down more items than you need on your carry-on packing list.
For toiletries and beauty items, pare down to essentials in reasonable quantities and look into multipurpose beauty items. Also, consider the 3 1 1 rule for liquids, which is explained in more detail in the section below.
For everything on your list, be sure you’re not adding things:
- just in case
- that are duplicates
- that you don’t love or use in your daily life
- that you most likely will not put to use (ie. workout gear or work supplies)
Here are 3 resources that can help with this step of the process:
HPL's Editable Packing Checklist Template
3 Steps to Packing Everything You Need and Nothing More
Carry-On-Only Crash Course
❌ What is not allowed in a carry-on bag?
There are a number of prohibited items for carry-on bags including firearms, knives and razor blades, flammables, explosives, and toxic materials. If it’s sharp and/or can be used as a weapon (like a baseball bat, for example), keep that item at home!
Pack Your Carry-On Luggage in the Best Way Possible
Organize Your Belongings
We recommend using pouches and packing cubes to create an organized system inside your luggage. This will help you find what you need faster, repack faster, and get through airport security faster.
Our best tip for this section is to consider the items you might need quick access to when in transit. Put those in an easy-to-reach section of your bag. See this article on how to pack a suitcase for ideas.
Remember the 3 1 1 Rule for Liquids
Traveling with only a carry-on also affects the amounts of liquids, gels, creams, and aerosols you can bring thanks to TSA requirements. That means you will need to be extra focused on packing items like toothpaste, mascara, shampoo, conditioner, lotion, mouthwash, sunscreen, hair gel, and other necessary liquids.
Why is it called the 3-1-1 rule?
All “liquids” items need to be in containers less than 3.4 ounces (or 100 milliliters) each and fit into 1 quart-sized bag. Each passenger is allowed 1 quart-size bag of liquids in their carry-on. That is why it’s called the 3-1-1 rule.
This includes makeup and food items like peanut butter, but does not include medications with the original label, baby formula or duty free items purchased at the airport.
If you’re worried about bringing everything you need while still going carry on:
- opt for solid versions of items like shampoo, soap, deodorant, and perfume
- invest in good travel-sized toiletry containers
- learn the best ways to pack your liquid toiletries
Do you still have to put liquids in plastic bags in 2023?
You may have heard that some airports are no longer requiring you to pull out your bags of liquids while going through airport security – and this is now true for some European locations with new scanners. Some airports in other parts of the world, like in the US and Australia for example, may not ask you to take any liquids out of your carry-on baggage while others will.
However, the 3-1-1 liquids rule is still in effect by the transportation security administration, so you will want to abide by these rules while packing so that you aren’t caught off-guard while moving through a security checkpoint.
Don’t Forget the Personal Item!
While it may be overwhelming to pack carry-on-only in one bag, don’t forget that you may also have a personal item. It’s easy to go overboard, but definitely make sure it’s smaller than your carry-on and can fit comfortably under your seat while still giving you foot room.
Many airlines limit the size of your personal item, and some carriers don’t even allow you one. Do your research.
As of 2023, on many airlines traveling with just a personal item is the only way to travel without needing to pay extra for luggage! Learn how to make ultralight packing a reality inside Handbag Packing Masterclass.
The best bags to use as personal items are large purses, totes, briefcases, daypacks, or other soft bags that can be placed at your feet and under the seat in front of you. The bigger they are, the more likely the airlines are to make you check at least one of your bags.
Use this bag for your most important and most needed items. Your personal item is where you should store your passport, documents and items to keep you entertained. I typically use either my PacSafe Slingsafe (now discontinued), my Manhattan Portage messenger bag or my Simic briefcase as my personal item with my purse stored inside for easy access.
Weigh It Up
Before leaving for the airport, give your bag one last check of the dimensions and weight. It can be different when full and you don’t want to fork over unnecessary fees for a few inches (or few pounds)! Investing in a luggage scale can be useful for this step of the process.
When you get to the airport, check the dimensions in the baggage checking station to make sure it fits easily and move items around as necessary before you get to the gate. I’ve had to wear a number of items from my carry on to avoid paying 50 euro on a Ryanair flight before!
This is where a little extra work on packing can come in handy. Check out an HPL Program to start getting the help you need.
Getting Through Security
Even though you have more stuff to take through security than when you check your luggage, the experience shouldn’t be too difficult if you have your belongings well-packed and organized.
Think ahead to what things will need to be removed from your bag before running through the x-ray machine, such as toiletries and laptops, and have those in an easily accessible location.
Consider the clothing you’ll be wearing as well. You may need to remove hats, jackets, belts, and even shoes for this process.
More Motivation to Help You Travel Carry-On-Only When You Haven’t Done It Before
- If you’ve never done carry-on-only packing before, you may feel like you don’t have enough stuff. You might feel uncomfortable. That is totally normal!
- If you go on a trip and you feel like you did everything wrong, that is totally okay! Each trip is a learning experience. You use the information that you gained and make changes and improvements as needed. Don’t give up.
- If you feel like you need a bit more guidance and support, to help with the confidence to go carry-on-only, Her Packing List is here to help. Check out packing programs and products today!