How to pack carry-on only for any trip and season

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

Carry-on only packing

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.pack carry on only

Read More: 10 Style and packing tips for holiday travels

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.

A Kindle helps to pack carry-on only

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

Pack carry-on only in cold weather.
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.

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

 Family carry-on only travel
This is everything Sharon, her husband, and two children 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

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.

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?

 A mirrorless camera helps to pack carry-on only
A mirrorless camera is much smaller and lighter than a DSLR.

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.

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

Carry-on packing for artists

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

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.

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.

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20 thoughts on “How to pack carry-on only for any trip and 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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