Packing a carry-on suitcase only is the secret to stress-free travel.
You save time at airports – there’s no need to wait at the check-in desk or baggage carousel. You save money on checked baggage fees. And you don’t have to worry about the airline losing your bag.
Most of all, you gain freedom—you can navigate new places easily without heavy luggage weighing you down.
Life with less is simpler.
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 six 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
These basic principles make carry-on only travel possible and can be applied to any trip.
1) Pack for a week
It doesn’t matter how long your trip is—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. Inexpensive laundry services are available in many parts of the world—in Southeast Asia and Latin America, I pay around $1 per kilo of laundry.
In developed countries, you can use laundrettes, washing machines in hostels or apartment rentals, or hand-wash clothes in a sink (I use the hotel shampoo or shower gel).
2) Mix and match clothes
10-12 items of clothing are enough for most trips.
An example packing list is
- 3-5 tops
- 3-4 bottoms
- 1-2 dresses
- 1-2 warm layers
- perhaps a workout outfit if you plan to exercise.
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 either buy travel-size products or fill small bottles from your large containers.
To maximize the amount you can bring, choose non liquid carry on toiletries when possible. My favorites are lush shampoo bars, which work as shampoo and soap and last for ages. You can also find solid deodorant, perfume, sunblock, cleanser, and more.
4) Go paperless
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.
Read More: How to pack with packing cubes
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.
How to pack carry-on for cold weather travel
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.
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.
You can see my 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
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. They are highly recommended by Sharon of Where’s Sharon, who travels carry-on only with her two children aged 3 and 5. You can see their packing list for 3.5 months in Europe.
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
Packing light doesn’t mean you have to start wearing zip-off trousers.
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 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 (I love Tieks) 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.
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?
If you are a serious photographer, your camera 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.
Carry-on packing for 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.
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.