How To Pack To Travel Carry-On Only

Most of my life I have been an over packer. I can distinctly remember going to London with my best friend in 2014 and having a suitcase that weighed 80 pounds and only two wheels on it, packed to the brim. When we arrived in London, we needed to take the train into the city and what came next was a delight. 

Not only did I have to pull the heavy suitcase everywhere with me because I didn’t have a suitcase with four wheels, but I also had to climb several staircases with all my luggage, then drag it down several streets (including cobblestone) to get to our hotel – and that is when I changed my tune on packing.

In retrospect, I should have just paid for a transfer, but I was on a near month long trip that was already expensive and I was trying to save where I could. 

All that to say – I didn’t even use half the stuff I brought. And that wasn’t the first or last time I overpacked a suitcase with stuff I never used. It still happens from time to time. 

So let’s get to the basics and how to actually pack carry-on only. 

Packing for carry-on only travel

I know a lot of people feel like carry-on only travel is impossible. It is only if you trick yourself into thinking that way. To be fair though – there are trips that it will be hard to do carry-on only – and those are trips that require a lot of heavy clothing/equipment/etc. 

I’ve done two near month long trips in Asia on a carry-on and personal item and was fine. I did not pack for a month though, I planned ahead when and where to do laundry. 

When you are on a trip that long, you do not need a months worth of clothing. You need to prepare to get laundry done.

The very first thing you want to do is check with the airline you are flying and see what the luggage dimensions are suitable for the overhead bins, weight restrictions (if any) and if you are allowed a personal item. Why do all of these things matter? Because it dictates what you can bring without paying more or being forced to check your luggage. 

For example – if I was to fly to Phoenix on most major airlines from Washington, D.C., I can bring a standard carry-on size suitcase or bag and they will not weigh it. I am also allowed a personal item with no weight restrictions that can fit under my seat (sizeable bag). If your bag exceeds the dimensions of their carry-on size allotment, you will be forced to check your bag.

Always be aware of these numbers and that they can and do change between airlines. You do not want to be forced to check your luggage.

You also want to make sure you re not purchasing a ticket that doesn’t assign you a seat. For example – some airlines offer a “basic economy” ticket and you will board last and may not be guaranteed to bring your luggage on board and forced to gate check. 

Highly recommend skipping the ultra budget ticket option for this reason or there is a high likely your bag will be checked at the gate. 

Above is my carry-on suitcase from when I spent a month in Asia visiting Bali, Singapore and Sri Lanka! I layered packing cubes on the very bottom two rows, at the top, toiletries, easy change of clothes and my curling iron underneath. 

On the left, I have shoes in the top flap and some of my electronics in the bottom. I also traveled with a purse that doubled as a camera bag and I kept that equipment in there. This was my “personal item.”

Selecting the right Luggage

The next thing I would do is decide on luggage. I have found that each person and trip is unique – some people prefer backpacks only or only suitcases. It really depends on you and your trip. 

I have been through so many suitcases and bags and unequivocally, this is the best style carry-on.I have tried every style of suitcase and even purchased ones because they were pretty, and they have mostly all failed me at some point in time. 

The worst is when a suitcase breaks mid trip.

Here is what I LOVE: soft sided, four wheels and opens from the top, not the middle. Because it is a soft sided material, more stuff fits due to its flexibility. It is not a hard side with nowhere to go and because you are opening it from the top, you have one deep pocket instead of two half pockets (most likely with hard sides). 

I’m not saying this is the only luggage option in the world and I know everyone has their favorites – but I have done two month long trips in Asia in this style suitcase, carry-on only!

Having four wheels instead of two is crucial. If you can pack this suitcase tight, it can get heavy. You don’t want to drag it, you want to push it or have it glide on the floor.

If you are moving around a lot, backpacking or just aren’t interested in using a suitcase, there are so many backpacks to choose from. However, one of the best backpacks I have seen (and it really qualifies for a personal item on most major airlines) you could easily do carry-on only with. 

If you are using this backpack or another one of your choosing, I highly recommend using packing cubes so you can keep your clothes organized. Otherwise, everything is a mess and you constantly find yourself repacking and digging looking for stuff. Make your life easier. 

What to pack.. or not

This is arguably the most important. I would check the weather in your destination(s) and make sure you are packing correctly and make a list of things you absolutely need for this trip. 

If you are going somewhere for a long time, you can most likely get laundry done. I’ve had laundry done all over the world and it was a quick turnaround. You could also do it yourself.

I like to layout everything I want to bring and then start cutting it down from there. I don’t know what my problem is, but every time I pack, there are always pieces laid out that I have either never worn or haven’t worn in over 6 months that I think I’ll bring because “you never know.” Put those back. You are not going to where them now or on your trip, most likely. 

I try and pack an outfit per day for up to a week unless the travel is longer – then I just plan for laundry. Things like swim cover-ups, bathing suits, beach dress, etc – you can hang dry them and use them again, minimizing what you need to pack.

When it comes to shoes, you have to be practical in your selections if you want to do carry-on only. My best tip – wear the biggest pair you are bringing (most likely tennis shoes). I have a rule that I only pack up to three pairs: tennis shoes, sandals and a dressy shoe. That is it. The only exception is water shoes and they take up so little space I could put them in my purse if need be.

Packing for warmer destinations is easy, in my opinion. My mind immediately goes to Bora Bora and I think about how I spend 90% of my time in a bathing suit outside. Most swimsuits and cover-ups do not take up that much space. To be honest, I travel with two swimsuits max. 

Now I know some people love to bring a suit for each day or multiples, and that’s ok! When you love to pack lots of options, I highly recommend using these space saving bags because they compress your items, creating more room in your luggage.

I also want to mention this bag to put your wet swimsuits in – this waterproof wet bag takes up basically no space and it will keep everything else in your luggage dry!

The space saving bags are also great if you are doing multiple destinations and are packing different items for each. You can pack your outfits for one destination separately and they can stay compressed until you are ready to open them.

Alternatively, you could go for packing cubes. This will help you stay organized, and if you are moving around a lot, keep your clothes not thrown about, but together in their compartments. 

If you opt not to use compression bags, make sure to roll your clothes, not fold them, when packing. Rolling your clothes can save you so much space in your luggage and if you do use packing cubes, definitely roll your clothes in there as well. 

Something I have to remind myself every time I pack, do not pack anything valuable in your carry-on if you can avoid it. I always try to keep it on me just in case I am forced to gate check. 

My top tips for what to pack in your carry-on:

  • Pack a capsule collection. Make sure the pieces you are packing can be used with other items so it doesn’t feel like you are wearing the same thing (but this is ok too – I do it all the time). 
  • For warmer destinations, I always select clothes with super thin fabrics and items that don’t occupy much space. This will leave you with a lot of leftover space.
  • Be honest with yourself about what you will actually wear and use.
  • Don’t overpack shoes. Set a limit.

Only bringing the “must have” beauty Items

This section may get tricky if you pack a lot of make-up and skincare items. The airlines allow liquids with each one being max 3.4 ounces and in TSA approved liquids bag

My number one trick to save space and not overpack on liquids, especially liquid makeups and lotions, is to use these cases. They hold quite a bit and you can label them if you want with a sharpie. Best travel hack ever. And then I use my hand to apply those items as to not lose them in make up brushes and blending sponges. 

Alternatively, if you need more space, I also love these make-up containers

This is where you have to decide what you need and don’t need. 

One of my top items I pack instead of a bottle of liquid aloe for sensitive skin after being in the sun or sunburn are these face and chest/shoulder masks. I was severely burnt in the Maldives and these I swear made it better. So I never leave home without them. 

A point worth noting – there isn’t a luxury resort I have stayed in that doesn’t already have a ton of stuff in the bathroom for your use that you can take with you or even leave, like toothbrush, toothpaste, lotion, comb, shampoo, condition, razor, shaving cream, etc. Something to consider if you are stretched to the max on space. 

If you are traveling with someone else or even a group of people – you should all splurge and get poo-pourri Trust me – it is like nothing happened in the bathroom. 

Swaps for liquids:

Favorite beauty minis that meet TSA requirements for carry-on

Mini perfume bottles – these are my holy grail travel item! I no longer waste money on smaller versions at the store, they are easy to use and refillable. Bonus: they are inexpensive!

Healing lotion – without a doubt, traveling, air in the plane, saltwater or pool water, etc., makes my skin dry! This is my ride or die lotion

Reef Safe Sunscreen – I talk about this sunscreen a lot because I am always in the ocean. I don’t want to damage the coral or marine life – and swear by this brand. 

..the most important tip

Last but certainly not least, if you are packing heavy clothing like sweaters, jackets, etc. You can always wear those on the plan to save space in your bag. Personally, the plane is always too cold for me so I always wear some sort of long sleeve shirt/sweater on board. 

I can always take it off if I get too hot or use it as a neck pillow or to lean against the window.

No matter what you pack or how you pack, try not to stress out. Your trip is going to be amazing. If carry-on only is not your style, at least consider getting this airtags so you can locate your luggage should it be lost in the airport luggage systems. 

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