First Timer’s Guide to Traveling Carry On Only

traveling with only a carry on

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.

The Smart Alec goes to America
If your airline has tight weight restrictions, you may need to scale back to what Brooke did on her last overseas trip. Just 7kg with the Tom Bihn Smart Alec (26L) backpack.

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.

>> 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.

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.

If you’re worried about bringing everything you need while still going carry on, opt for solid versions of items like shampoo, soap and perfume.

traveling with only a carry on

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.

traveling with only a carry on checklist

Written by Caroline

Caroline Eubanks is a native of Atlanta, Georgia, but has also called Charleston, South Carolina and Sydney, Australia home. After college graduation and a series of useless part-time jobs, she went to Australia for a working holiday. In that time, she worked as a bartender, bungee jumped, scuba dived, pet kangaroos, held koalas and drank hundreds of cups of tea. You can find Caroline at Caroline in the City.

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Gear We Use

Organization

Packing Cubes – Organize your luggage with the lightweight, durable and compressible Eagle Creek Pack-It Specter Compression Cubes.


Backpacks + Daypacks

Pacsafe – Since they come with extra theft-resisting features, Pacsafe bags make you a more confident traveler. We especially love this bag.

Sea to Summit – Of all the Sea to Summit products, our most recommended is the fits-in-your-palm, super packable Ultra-Sil Daypack.


Personal Care

Nalgene Toiletry Bottles – These leak-free toiletry bottles and tubs come in all sizes – even super tiny, helping minimalists pack it all without bulk.

Turkish Towels – They’re thinner than most travel towels, and they actually cover your body! We can’t get enough of Turkish towels for travel.


Clothing

Speakeasy Supply Co. – They make the awesome hidden pocket infinity scarves that are perfect for stashing secret cash, lip balms, and passports.

Anatomie – Anatomie travel pants come with luxury prices, but they offer many benefits for travelers. See our review of the famous Skyler pants.

Travel Resources

Booking Airfare

Dollar Flight Club – Get flight deal alerts for your preferred departure airport. There is both a free and premium version (recommended for more sweet deals). Members save on average $500 USD per flight!

Skyscanner – Skyscanner is our preferred site for searching flights. They offer unbiased search results and are free from hidden fees. You can also book your hotels and rental cars.


Accommodation

Airbnb – Airbnb is the best place to book out apartments around the world. Sign up using this link to get $37 USD off your first stay booking + $14 USD towards an experience booking!

Booking.com – Search for hotels, hostels, and apartments using this one resource. Use it for flights, car rentals, and airport taxis as well.

Hostelworld – For hostels, Hostelworld remains our number one source for booking stays. Choose from straight up hostels, budget hotels and bed and breakfasts.

Trusted Housesitters – Save money on travel accommodation by becoming a housesitter. Housesitters often have extra duties, like caring for pets and gardens.

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Jennifer Farley says

    Two days ago I returned home from my first carry on trip. I referenced many articles from this site to make it happen and really liked the experience overall. The other gals I was traveling with were very impressed that I was able to travel carry on for an entire week! The one issue I need to perfect for next time is weight. My duffel backpack was HEAVY and I was more than a little sweaty by the time I reached my destination. Not ideal when I want to reuse the clothes I’m wearing on the flight! I need to keep working on that minimalism.

    • Brooke says

      You’ll get there Jennifer! Now that you’ve done it once, you can really jump in and understand where you can change things. Did you brings things you didn’t wear? Could you have brought fewer toiletry items, or exchanged certain things for lighter weight models? So many possibilities, and I’d be happy to help you out. Feel free to drop me an email if you ever want to work on reducing the weight of your carry-on. I think it would make a good post to do a before and after!

      • Jennifer Farley says

        Thank you! It was quite a good learning experience. I did pretty good with the clothes (the fact that it was a warm location helped) but could probably cut back on a couple things. Definitely brought one more pair of shoes than necessary. My extra weight definitely came from gear and toiletries. I’m a photographer so I lug my SLR with me and I had my laptop. I’m going to try switching to an iPad next time, which will be a challenge for editing but that will get rid of 6 or so pounds right there. I am eager to get back on the road so I can try this again! 🙂

        • Sarah says

          Jen- how did you pack your SLR? We’re planning on traveling soon and I can’t imagine not taking it, but I’m struggling with how to pack it properly?

  2. Bunny says

    My mother and I took our first international trip this July to Paris and Italy. It was for 17 days and we managed to only take one 19″ roller bag and one tote bag each. It was hard work to get her on board, but I had done a lot of research, on this site and others, about carry on only packing and its benefits. We did end up checking our suitcases on the return flight due to all the souvenirs we bought (like artwork!) but it was not that difficult to manage the trains, busses, and airplanes we took during those 17 days with our small bags. Part of our trip was with a tour group, and we had the smallest and least amount of luggage out of 40 people!

  3. Amelia Hatfield says

    I just got back from my second carry-on only travel adventure. I cannot begin to explain how freeing it is. You never wonder if your bag is lost, you don’t look out the plane window and wonder “is that my bag that fell off the buggy and got trampled by a baggage handler?!”. Plus you get to skip lines! When re-entering Canada we zoomed to the front of the customs line while everyone else had to wait for their luggage. It’s nice to be independent (I never need help carrying a suitcase the size of Australia up the 3 flights of hostel stairs). I will never go back to checking a bag!

    • Brooke says

      That’s awesome, Amelia! YES, I know those thoughts! Especially while looking out the window at the baggage handlers- oh dear. It’s an awesome feeling to be in control and to not have to worry 🙂

  4. Steve says

    Very good tips. I am glad you mentioned checking weight limits. I stay under 7 kg (15.4 lbs) for all my travel as I then comply with just about every carrier worldwide. My wheeled bag (from IT) weighs only 3.5 lbs. My previous bag weighed in at almost 7 lbs and I could never make it under the weight limit. (FWIW I have no affiliation with IT)

  5. Gale PEI says

    I have been traveling with only a spinner luggage carry on and a tote since the airlines started charging baggage fees. I also carry a luggage scale to weigh my luggage as well keep in my tote The best Money I have ever spent.. I have often been asked at security if I had any other luggage and I smile and say this is all I have. Very freeing to be the first out of the airport coming and going. I have downsized my makeup as well only take mascara, tinted moisturizer and lipstick. I take a solid deodorant, solid perfume. and tooth paste 100ml. I use the the 5-4-3-2-1 method for packing. 5 Tops 4 bottoms 3 dresses, 2 shoes 1 bathing suit. and under garments. I roll everything I wear my heaviest clothing and shoes on the plane. Always wear a hat and take a pashmina on the plane with me. In my tote I have a digital camera, Ipod and a ereader, an empty water bottle that I fill up after I get through security. I also take snacks such as a bag of mixed nuts,raisins,dried cranberries and sunflower seeds.I carry green tea bags as well. I have a RDIF holder for my credit cards, passport and money in my Tote. I never take a cell phone or a computer. Never discard my boarding passes until I get home and than shred them as the the barcode has way too much personal info on it.

    • Brooke says

      You sound super prepared! Thank you for sharing your packing routine. I LOVE that “freeing” feeling of zipping in and out of the airport without checking or picking up bags!

  6. Katie D. says

    This is a great guide- definitely hit all the important factors. I’ve been flying on JetBlue a lot, so I’ve been doing carry-on only a bunch recently. I’ve found that a shape-shifting bag is hugely helpful (duffel, backpack). I also shove a smaller bag into the top of the larger bag to pull out with my “airplane items” so I can stow the big bag, but not bother other travelers if I need to grab a snack or want to stow my book.

  7. Gail says

    SO much better to use a roller bag and a tote. I have no lost luggage, no baggage fees and no line to wait for my bag after landing. PACKING CUBES are genius. You can get a ton of clothing in these wonderful helpers. I use 3 cubes–one for pants and larger items like a sweater, one for tops and one for underwear and socks. I went to the Container Store and got leakproof 1 oz. Nalgene containers for liquids. They’re cheap. I can get about 25 items in my 3-1-1 bag–toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, moisturizer, concealer, foundation, toner, hand sanitizer, body oil, hand cream, Neosporin, contact solution, eye drops, mouthwash. It you buy a 3-1-1 bag with a flat bottom, you can get more inside rather than a Ziplock which I used to use. I leave the 1 oz. containers filled and in the bag and they’re always ready and filled for the next trip. Another tip is to make a list of what goes in the bag and keep it in the bag. I use a tote for my under the seat bag with really important stuff. Always take some snacks along because planes get delayed and flights can be long depending on where you’re going. Airport food is expensive.

  8. Julia says

    So happy I found this Site! .I am turning 50 in 2 months and really just started my travelling adventures . Last year I invested in a really cute, 3 piece hot pink luggage set with wheels. I just thought it was the bees knees . Ha ha .I have travelled to the uk twice since then , dragging a suitcase up many many stairs in train stations and hotels with no lift . Not to mention the constant fear of snapping a wheel on those cobblestone streets ! My Christmas gift to myself will definitely be a backpack !! And probably cutting my packing list down to a quarter of what I’ve been taking ! Yikes !

    • Brooke says

      Hi Monique! Absolutely! Carry-on works for any trip length. You will need to check with any airlines you plan to fly as to their restrictions. Also plan to wash clothes more often so you can pack less.

  9. abdul ibrahim says

    I hope you don’t mind me asking what do you mean by (potentially longer security checks). Does it mean it raises a bar when you travel with a carry-on? I have a middle-eastern name and that’s enough hassle for me but I wonder if I travel with only a carry-on, shall I worry about extra issues?

    • Brooke says

      What we mean is when you have more stuff, there’s probably more you have to get out and put in the bins at security. Not only that, but it may take longer to repack after going through security. Also, if security spots something at the bottom of your carry-on bag that they want to investigate, there is more stuff to sort through to get to it. I cannot comment on whether or not this is something to worry about. If you pack simply and smart, there shouldn’t be a problem.

  10. Jhae says

    This is a great article! Very informative and I enjoyed reading the comments also.

    Question: i will be traveling from Atlanta-Paris-Vienna-Atlanta in September and I will be gone for a week. I am a self-confessed overpacker so I am challenging myself to do all carry on for this trip, especially since I’ll jave a packed itinerary.

    Do you think a wheeled carry on + a personal bag be okay? I’m worried because of the Paris-Vienna leg with a local airline and I’m not familiar with their rules on carry on yet.

    Thanks!

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