Last Updated on June 17, 2022
My current trip to New York is the shortest trip I’ve taken in years. Only three weeks. When I realized I was traveling to the U.S. and back on two budget airlines (Norwegian and Ryanair) – both airlines that make you pay for checked baggage – I decided it was time for a challenge: Traveling with carry-on only. To put this in perspective – we are not talking about pennies for checked-in baggage, but a considerable amount of money which easily outweigh the price for ticket. Taking a 20kg suitcase on Ryanair sets you back at £35 (US$56), Norwegian charges £26 (US$42) – so for the flight to NYC I would have paid $98, and the same amount for the journey back – that’s nearly $200! Since I am sure that there are other travelers who struggle with overpacking, I wanted to share my tips for traveling light.
My best tips for traveling light
Finding the right carry-on
Carry-on luggage is (still) free, so I decided to try to fit in three weeks’ worth of clothes into a 55cm x 40cm x 20cm suitcase. That’s where packing light already starts: finding a suitable suitcase or bag. I usually prefer duffel bags, but they don’t really have the measurements that airlines require for carry-ons, and so I decide that it was time to shop for a small wheeled suitcase. Luckily, there are online retailers like Tortuga Backpacks, which specializes in carry-on backpacks that fit into overhead luggage bins. What is great about the backpacks is that they open up exactly like a suitcase when you lay them flat on the floor, but a backpack makes moving around airports quickly so much easier: I whiz up and down the stairs, past people who’re waiting on the escalators, slowed down by their suitcases. The backpacks also have a pocket for water bottle on each size, which makes it easy to stay hydrated. I don’t have to open my suitcase to stay hydrated.
When choosing a bag or suitcase, I recommend picking something that is convenient for the place you’re visiting: in the hilly cobblestone streets of Peru I would have struggled with a wheeled suitcase, and if you’re planning to go island hopping – be it Greece, the Philippines, or Thailand – you’ll be beyond grateful for having chosen a backpack over a suitcase.
Usually, when I check my baggage, I carry a small daypack with me as my carry-on, in which I keep my camera gear and electronics, but since my suitcase would be my carry-on and low-cost airlines are really strict about the amount of pieces you have (only one is allowed), I brought the cheap foldable tote bag I had picked up at the Brooklyn Flea this past summer. I could easily slide it into the side pocket of my suitcase but get it out quickly as soon as I exited the plane to have things like my wallet, my passport, etc. handy.
Plan what to pack
I have to admit that usually, when I travel with my giant 65-liter backpack, I don’t put much thought into what I pack and what I don’t – because the bag is big enough to fit it all! Traveling only with a carry-on made a huge difference for me: I actually had to plan what I’d bring. So I sat down and made a list of things I knew I would really need, and the clothes I was planning to wear.
The list looked something like this:
- 1 jacket
- 2 pair of jeans
- 2 long-sleeved shirts
- 4 button-downs
- 1 sweater vest (to go with the button-downs)
- 1 short-sleeved shirt
- 1 hoodie
- Scarf, hat and gloves for colder days
- Socks and underwear for 1 week
- 1 pair of boots
- Running gear (1 pair of shoes, 2 pairs of pants, 2 shirts)
- Toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, mouthwash, makeup remover, deodorant, brush, diva cup, contact lenses storage container and solution, mascara, eyeliner, eye shadow, lip gloss, ibuprofen)
- Electronics (iPod, laptop, Kindle, camera with two lenses and spare batteries and filters, external hard drives, flash drives, SD cards, plus all sorts of chargers)
- Documents and magazines (Passport, wallet, credit cards, notebook, magazines for the flight)
Note: Obviously I was wearing most of the clothes that take up a lot of space – like my jacket, hoodie, hat one pair of jeans and my clunky boots – on the flight.
I’ve already raved about them on my Travel Gear Page, and I can’t say it often enough: packing cubes revolutionized my packing! Not only do they safe space, but they also make it easier to find things. I have one cube just for my underwear and socks, for example, one for tops, and so on. In those cubes, roll your clothes, and you’ll be able to fit even more.
This one might be obvious, because you’re taking only carry-on, which means you have to comply to airline regulations for how much of a liquid you are allowed to bring on the plane – which is usually 3.4 ounces (100ml) per container; packed in a clear plastic zip-top bag. So I bought a miniature makeup remove, miniature mouthwash, contact lens solution and toothpaste – and that’s about it. I knew I wouldn’t need to bring shampoo, shower gel, etc. – because:
Buy it there
You can buy everything you need in almost any place in the world! Unless you have a special brand you use, shampoo brands like Pantene, Herbal Essences, Garnier Fructis or Head & Shoulders can be found in most countries, and things like toothpaste and mouthwash are needed elsewhere just as much as they’re in your home country. Other products for daily needs such as contact lenses solution, condoms or female hygiene products are widely available – I have yet to go to a place where I can’t find the things I need. And as Rick Steves, a huge advocate on traveling with carry-on only, puts it in his article on traveling light: if millions of people can exist without a certain thing in the place you’re visiting, then you can, too.
While it might seem hard to pack less than usual (especially for chronic overpackers like me!) – it is definitely possible. And if you think you might want to pick up some souvenirs in your destination, you can pack a foldable duffel bag – that way you can still check a bag on the way back if you really need to.
Are you a light traveler or an overpacker? Any tips to add for traveling with carry-on only? Share in the comments below!