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 most recently 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 at your destination!
- 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.
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 also check my bag’s dimensions against budget carriers like Ryanair before purchasing, as I know they have the smallest sizes. 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 re-wear pieces of clothing or mix and match. Multi use items come in handy in these situations. Consider pieces like the Chrysalis Cardi that can be worn as a top and as a dress.
Also choose solid colors that can go with multiple travel outfits and dressed up with accessories. Pick your number of tops and bottoms and how many outfits it can create to ensure you don’t put down more than you need on your carry on packing list.
Traveling with only a carry on also affects the amounts of liquids, gels and aerosols you can bring thanks to TSA requirements. This means that you’ll need all items to be less than 3.4 ounces each and fit into a 1 quart bag. This includes makeup and snacks like peanut butter, but does not include medications with the original label, baby formula or duty free items purchased at the airport.
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 make sure it’s smaller than your carry on and can fit comfortably under your seat while still giving you foot room. Some airlines limit the size of your personal item and budget carriers don’t even allow you one. Do your research.
The best bags to use as personal items are large purses, totes, briefcases or other soft bags that can be placed at your feet. The bigger they are, the more likely the airlines are to make you check at least one of your bags.
Use this like a traditional carry on bag, where you’ll have your passport, documents and items to keep you entertained. I typically use either my PacSafe Slingsafe, 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)! 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!
Getting Through Security
Even though you have more stuff to take through security, 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, such as toiletries and laptops, and have those in an easily accessible location.