How To Pack Carry-On Only For Any Trip & Season

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If you’ve decided you want to travel light and save on the now extortionate hold luggage fees, then you’re going to want to know how to travel with carry-on luggage only.

Not only does traveling with carry-on made travel stress-free, but it saves time at airports since there’s no need to wait at the check-in desk or baggage carousel. Plus, you don’t have to worry about the airline losing your bag.

Needless to say, carry-on travel has many benefits, but it does require a bit of sacrifice since you can’t carry on every item you want to take with you on vacation.

I believe that, with smart packing, it’s possible to pack light for almost any trip. I’ve been traveling with a carry-on backpack full-time for many, many years – and that includes all the electronics I need to run a business online.

It was the best travel decision I made, and I never feel that I’m missing out on more stuff. If I can do it, anyone can.

How To Pack Carry-On Only

luggage on table

These basic principles make carry-on only travel possible and can be applied to any trip.

1) Pack for a week and wash clothes

It doesn’t matter how long your trip is, whether it’s 2 weeks in Italy or a year round the world, don’t pack more than a week’s worth of clothes.

After that, do laundry.

You can use laundrettes, washing machines in hostels or apartment rentals, or hand-wash clothes in a sink (you can even use the hotel shampoo or shower gel if you’re really traveling on a budget – I’ve done it!).

Inexpensive laundry services are available in many parts of the world—in Southeast Asia and Latin America, you pay around $1 per kilo of laundry, in Europe, it can cost around $5 depending on where you are.

Either way, it’s definitely cheaper than paying the hold luggage fee.

2) Wear Plain Clothes, and Mix and Match

lady and man holding hands

Fashionistas will find traveling carry-on a struggle, since it requires you to wear simple items that you can mix and match with each other. We’re talking plain black t-shirts and shorts. Try to avoid wearing white and black clothes, unless you don’t mind washing them all together and potentially spoiling the color.

You don’t need to carry a lot of clothes, only 10-12 items of clothing are enough for most trips.

An example packing list is:

  • 3-5 tops
  • 3-4 pants/trousers
  • 1-2 warm layers
  • Perhaps a workout outfit if you plan to exercise
  • A rain jacket
  • A jumper
  • Swimsuit

The trick is to make sure that everything can be worn together—every top must go with every bottom—so stick with a color scheme. By mixing and matching, you can create many different outfits.

3) Pack solid toiletries

If you are flying carry-on only, all your liquids must be in containers of 100 ml or less and fit inside a one-litre zip-lock bag. You can also only have ten liquids, which for women who wear make up, can easily rack up.

You can either buy travel-size products or fill small bottles from your large containers, which is ideal for the in-flight essential toiletries you need.

Or to maximize the amount you can bring, choose non liquid carry on toiletries when possible.

My favorites are shampoo bars, which work as shampoo but are in a bar form. I personally find they last for ages. You can also use a bar of soap and find solid deodorant (aerosols are usually not allowed by TSA anyway), perfume, conditioner, sunblock, cleanser, and more.

Alternatively, you can buy toiletries when you land. The world is not so remote, you can find toothpaste in every country, and most hotels come with shampoos and body wash.

4) Go paperless

man in hammock reading Kindle

We all love reading on vacation, but books are heavy. Pack an e-book reader instead and fit thousands of books on a device smaller than one paperback.

You could also read on your smartphone or tablet. I find these are best for guidebooks, but for general reading, I prefer the Kindle Paperwhite’s paper-like screen and long battery life.

5) Don’t take anything “just in case”

The biggest reason most people pack too much stuff is that they panic-pack items “just in case” they might need them.

Everything needs to earn its place in your bag by being used regularly.

Don’t pack a sleeping bag unless you’ll need it most nights. Leave your hiking boots behind unless trekking is a major part of your trip. Skip the umbrella—you can buy one locally if you need to.

Remember that most things are available around the world, so if you miss something, buy it at your destination.

6) Use packing organizers

How you pack is just as important as what you pack. By using organizers like packing cubes or compression bags, you can fit more clothes into your luggage.

I love Eagle Creek’s Specter compression cubes, which are ultralight and have an extra zip around the side to squeeze the cube down.

I use one for my main clothes and a smaller one for my workout clothes and underwear, so everything is well organised and easy to find.

7. Wear sneakers everywhere

You don’t need to carry several pairs of shoes. You can wear sneakers to pretty much any occasion and dress them up with a nicer outfit.

Shoes take up a lot of space so we don’t recommend taking too many.

You only need a pair of trainers and maybe a pair of flip flops or sandals to wear to the beach or around the hotel.

8. Buy cotton underwear

Cotton underwear is quick-drying, so you can save on carrying a hundred pairs of underwear by carrying less, washing them in your hotel sink, and leaving them to dry overnight.

9. Get a microfiber towel

Similar to the cotton underwear, microfiber towels are quick drying and also pack up small.

Most hotels will have a towel you can use, but if you’re backpacking and staying in hostels, the chances are there won’t be a towel and you need to bring your own.

Microfiber towels are your new best friend.

You can also use them as a blanket on airplanes that have the A/C blasting!

10. Be smart about where you stay

The biggest travel hack for those wanting to travel carry on only is to make sure you stay at a place that has everything you need.

Choose an Airbnb with a washer and dryer, hair dryer, towels and toiletries, so you don’t need to bring any of those bulky accessories with you.

11. Leave jeans at home!

Pack one pair of jeans, and you can say goodbye to 50% of your space. Jeans are heavy and bulky and they just don’t pack up small.

Not to mention they are uncomfortable in hot climates.

Unless you plan to wear them every day, we recommend you leave them at home.

12. Use a jacket as a travel pillow

This is another unnecessary item that people love to travel with. Sure, they can be comfy, but you use it for your flight and then end up dragging it around with you for your entire trip.

Leave the travel pillow at home and just roll up a jacket instead.

How To Pack Carry-On For Specific Trips

The packing tips above can be applied to any trip, but some situations are trickier to pack for than others. Here’s how to you can pack for specific climates and adventures…

How to pack carry-on for cold weather travel

Our ultralight down jackets kept us warm snowboarding in Finland.

The key to packing light for cold weather travel is layering! By packing thinner layers, rather than a thick sweater or jacket, you can adapt to changing weather conditions and save space.

Start with thermal underwear, a t-shirt, a long-sleeve top, and a fleece. Add an ultralight down jacket, which is warm but compresses into a tiny package.

If you’re going somewhere rainy, pack a lightweight waterproof too.

Choose technical fabrics that dry quickly and have a high warmth to weight ratio. Merino wool is ideal as it’s odour resistant, so you can wear it for longer without washing.

I like Icebreaker long-sleeve tops and SmartWool socks.

As you’ll be packing more clothes for cold weather, fit them in your luggage by using packing cubes, or even better, compression bags, which suck out excess air.

On the plane wear your heaviest items, such as a jacket, boots, and as many layers as possible, to avoid taking up space in your bag.

Read more: cold weather carry-on only packing list for a trip to Finland that included snowboarding in Lapland and sightseeing in Helsinki.

How to pack carry-on for multiple climates

Travelling to both hot and cold climates can be a challenge, but it’s definitely possible.

I spent a year in South America on a trip that included a snow storm in Argentina, the freezing Bolivian altiplano, the steamy Amazon jungle, and the beaches of Colombia.

Follow the advice in the cold weather section, and choose quality fabrics that pack down small.

Take multipurpose clothes that can be worn in both climates. A dress can be worn alone or paired with leggings and a cardigan when the temperature drops.

Tank tops and t-shirts can be layered in colder weather. Merino wool buffs are lighter than a scarf or beanie hat, but can be used as both.

If you are travelling long-term and your trip starts in warm weather, don’t pack cold weather gear.

You can buy or rent it when you reach the cold destination—secondhand shops, markets, and discount clothing stores sell inexpensive clothes.

Once you’ve moved on to warmer weather, donate or sell the extra clothes.

How to pack carry-on for family travel

children trunki suitcases
This is everything a family of four took on a 3.5 month trip to Europe

There’s no reason families can’t travel carry-on only too.

Kids don’t need more gear than adults, and their clothes are smaller, so they take up less space. Any child with a seat has the same carry-on allowance as adults, so each family member should take their own bag.

Older children can carry their backpack or roll a suitcase—all the clothes and toys they want must fit inside. A tablet can take the place of multiple toys and keep kids entertained on plane journeys.

For younger children aged 3 to 6 years old, a Trunki ride-on suitcase is ideal. They come in a range of fun designs, and kids can either pull it themselves or ride on it and be pulled.

As well as storing all their clothes and toys, a Trunki works as a chair, and even a toy to keep kids entertained.

If you are travelling with a baby or toddler, only take enough diapers for the first few days and buy more at your destination. If you use a stroller, airlines often allow you to check it for free when boarding.

Take advantage of this by filling the stroller’s pockets with your heaviest and bulkiest items.

How to pack carry-on for fashionistas

If you bulked at my earlier comment about only wearing the same color scheme, then this is how you can pack and still be fashionable (in my opinion).

Packing light doesn’t mean you have to start wearing zip-off trousers, don’t worry. Travelling light and stylishly is simple—follow the basic principle of creating a capsule wardrobe where you can mix and match everything, but choose your normal clothes.

Focus on items that are lightweight and quick-drying—you probably already have something suitable in your travel wardrobe.

Accessories can liven up your outfits and don’t take up much space. You can even buy scarves, jewellery, and hats at your destination as wearable souvenirs.

Make sure everything you pack is versatile. Instead of heels, take attractive sandals or ballet flats that are comfortable for city walks but can be paired with a dress and necklace for a night out.

Limit shoes to three pairs, such as walking shoes, ballet flats, and sandals.

For makeup, only pack the items that you use the most.

Multifunctional products are ideal, such as the multiple makeup stick by Nars, which acts as blush, eye shadow, and lipstick, or BB cream as foundation, moisturizer, and suncream.

Collect sample sizes or fill small tubs or contact lens cases from larger containers.

For more carry-on travel style advice, see Travel Fashion Girl.

Can photographers travel with only carry-on luggage?

person holding  A mirrorless camera to face
A mirrorless camera is much smaller and lighter than a DSLR.

If you are a serious photographer, your camera lenses and gear could take up most of the space in your carry-on backpack, so you’ll need to keep your clothes and toiletries to a minimum.

Only take the lenses you use the most. If you must take a tripod, choose one that’s lightweight and packable.

Consider switching from a DSLR to a mirrorless camera system. Mirrorless cameras are much smaller and lighter, and the quality has improved so much in recent years that many professionals have made the change.

I love the Olympus OM-D E-M5, and I’ve heard great things about the pro-level Fujifilm X-T1.

Remember that you can usually have a personal item as well as your carry-on bag, so if you have a separate camera bag, depending on the size of it you might be able to take it as a separate carry on.

Do check with the airline first for the size of the “personal item”. A laptop sized bag is usually the standard for this.

Can artists travel carry-on only?

 person drawing on An iPad Pro
An iPad Pro is perfect for carry-on only artists.

John Farnsworth is a professional artist who travels carry-on only. He minimizes his gear by choosing small oil or watercolour palettes and paper pads, limiting his colours to the three primary colours plus white, and using walnut oil as a medium to avoid dealing with solvents.

The best option for artists is to go digital.

The iPad Pro becomes a high-quality digital sketchpad when paired with the Apple Pencil, which is sensitive to pressure and tilt, so it replicates a conventional pencil or brush.

My partner Simon loves it and has now got rid of his sketchpads and pencils and gone entirely digital.

Final Thoughts

Carry-on only packing makes travel easier, whether you are travelling alone or with family, on a long or short trip, to hot or cold weather.

I hope this article has shown you that with a little creativity, packing light is possible in most circumstances.

More Packing Tips

Need more packing ideas? Check out these posts

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Do you have any tips on how to pack carry-on? Share a tip or leave a question in the comments below.

20 thoughts on “How To Pack Carry-On Only For Any Trip & Season”

  1. Yeah those “just in case” stuff can seriously start adding up and weighing down your pack. Had quite a few “just in case” items packing my bag but most of them have been thrown out somewhere along the way.

    1. That’s the important thing – regularly check whether you are using everything in your bag and get rid of the stuff you are not.

    1. It really is brilliant! So many carry-on travellers I know swear by it. It’s better for the environment too as you don’t use plastic bottles.

  2. Great tips! I travel a lot for work. Sometimes I stay away for 3+ months at a time. Over the last year, I’ve had to shrink my traveling gear down to only 1 carryon and 15 kilos. Most is taken up by my electronics (computer, camera, kindle). I LOVE my kindle! I used to carry so many books, now I don’t need to.

    1. I don’t know how I managed without my Kindle! I used to have to travel with a big stack of books, and I was always running out and not being able to find decent ones in English. Now I can get almost any book I want and it hardly takes up any space. Brilliant!

  3. Next Week I am planning to go to Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. Great tips !! Nice Article.. Definetely I will take in mind all the points mentioned in the article. SO that nothing will left behind.

  4. I try to pack carry on only, but when I’m traveling to one city for a 5-6 month stay that will include summer and winter, and formal (sometimes even black tie formal if I’m performing while abroad), informal and business events, I find it impossible to bring only one carry on! If anyone has any ideas for that kind of situation I’d love to hear them…

  5. I found your travel tips very valuable. Especially keeping stuff to a minimum. I told my wife if we are ever able to travel again I only wanted to carry a plastic card and that was all. I see after reading this I was being a bit over cautious.

    I remember our first family trip we had so much useless luggage it was embarrassing.

    Thanks for the read.

  6. I’m new to this and wondering what kind of backpack I want for packing to take as my carry on, and then to travel Europe with for two weeks? I love all your advice.

  7. With the current carry-on rules changing daily, even your packing list will cause issues. I use a 22L pack for all of my trips (excluding wilderness trips)… whether 1 week or 1 year…that includes clothes (including bathing suit), full toiletries (including a full roll of TP), electronics (including phone, mini keyboard, camera, headlamp, and portable charger), first-aid kit, hammock, jacket, gloves, hat, rain gear, hiking sandals (in addition to my trail runners), towel, water filter and water storage, and more…that will currently get on any airline for free, with the exception of Ryan, currently the smallest free carry-on in the industry…which I can do, but I drop some items and use a even smaller bag, if that is the only airline I’m using during that trip. I’m currently packed (and traveling) with 22L for a 6 month trip, 3.5 months in southeast Asia, 1.5 months in Spain, and 1 month in the Swiss Alps in April.

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