Sure, you could load everything into a massive rolling suitcase for your next trip across the pond, but then you’re stuck lugging that monster through cobblestone streets, up staircases, and across the busy city center to your hotel. When traveling with checked luggage, most travelers will find they don’t even use everything they brought, whether it’s a few shirts that never get worn, a book that never gets read, or extraneous electronics that only get used once. 

So, for your next trip, consider traveling with just a carry on. You’ll save money on baggage fees, save time waiting for your suitcase on the luggage carousel, and save your poor muscles from having to cart around a massive backpack or a suitcase you could fit into. Carry on bags also offer peace of mind because your bag stays with you at all times, eliminating the possibility and stress of lost luggage.

It might seem daunting to restrict your packing space so much, but carry on travel can actually be super liberating. Living a minimalist lifestyle during your trip will allow you to be a lot more flexible in where you go and what you do, and you’ll be surprised to find that it’s a lot easier than you think. Follow these tips to travel light like the pros, and once you do, you’ll never go back. 

Pack Your Personal Item Wisely

Most airlines allow a carry-on bag and a personal item, so be sure to pack both of these carefully. Know which items, like food, passports, and electronics, will need to come out of your bag at security, or which items you’ll want on the plane, and keep them easily accessible in your personal bag or at the top of your carry on so you don’t need to rummage through your belongings and repack them all unnecessarily.

Resist the Call of Your Shoes

Pile of shoes

I don’t care where you’re going; you’re not going to need six pairs of shoes for your trip. Wear your bulkiest shoes onto the plane to save space, and if you really need another pair, pack a pair of versatile flats or sandals that don’t take up much room into your bag. Trust me, you don’t need high heels while exploring the streets of Rome, and you can forgo those stylish knee-high boots for your trip to the beach. Hitting a nightclub in a pair of cute flats is just as acceptable as doing it in a pair of stilettos, and both your feet and your carry-on bag will thank you for it later. Shoes are one of the bulkiest items to pack, and even when you squash them down or stuff your socks and undies inside them, they’re still pretty difficult to optimize for space. Make sure the shoes you do bring are comfortable for walking, as well as functional and appropriate for your destination.

Follow the 1-2-3-4-5-6 Rule

The general rule of thumb for a week-long trip is this: 1 hat, 2 pairs of shoes, 3 bottoms, 4 tops, 5 pairs of socks, and 6 pairs of underwear. Anything else is extraneous, and if we’re being perfectly honest here, you could easily get away with a lot less than this if you’re prudent. Be open to wearing your clothes more than once or doing some laundry while you travel. 

Invest in Some Compression Bags

Compression bags push all the air out of your clothes, making sure they take up as little space as possible. If you fold or roll your clothes carefully and then compress them in bags (extra points if they’re organized so you can easily find what you need), you can pack them into your carry on like neatly stacked bricks. Compression bags are a solid investment for frequent travelers, and also serve the added benefit of providing protection against any leaks or rain for your belongings.

Roll Your Clothes

Rolling your clothes instead of folding them is one of the most popular tips for traveling light. It’s like the cheater’s version of packing with compression bags, and if you combine both of those tips, you’ll save even more space (and also minimize the number of wrinkles in your compressed clothes). Check out this tutorial on Youtube for tips on rolling your clothing like a pro.

Pack Outfits That Go Together

Deciding which clothes to pack can be one of the hardest parts of going on a trip. Especially when you’re traveling with just a carry-on, you need to make sure you pack clothes that are light and versatile. A great way to pack is to choose a single-color palette and make sure all your clothes fall within it, so you can mix and match all your tops and bottoms blindfolded and still end up looking great. Or bring dresses and only one or two pairs of leggings, which are much less bulky than shirts and pants. You can also choose to go with one or two ‘traveling uniforms’ that are pretty basic and similar and bring a couple of bright scarves and accessories to dress them up and make them feel different.

Coordinate with Your Travel Buddy

Travel buddies laying and reading map

When you’re traveling solo, you have to be responsible for all your needs, but if you’re traveling with a friend or in a group, then you can share some of that burden. Instead of packing redundantly, coordinate with your friends so that only one of you brings toothpaste, and someone else provides shampoo and conditioner. If you wear the same size clothes or shoes, coordinate your outfits or swap accessories to double your wardrobe without doubling the size of your bag. Like you learned as a kid, sharing is good, and you can save a lot of space between you if not everyone is bringing their own curling irons and power converters.

Wear Your Bulkiest Clothes/Shoes on the Plane

Hiking boots take up a lot more room than flip flops, so make sure you wear those on the plane to save space in your carry-on bag. Likewise, a bulky jacket stuffed into your bag means there’s a lot less space for your other belongings. Wear your bulkiest clothes on the plane — or at least sling that jacket over your arm until you can put it into the overhead compartment after boarding — so you’re not struggling to make everything fit in your bag. 

Go Digital Wherever You Can

Books are bulky and heavy, but an e-reader is not. If your ebooks are on a tablet that can also replace your laptop for your trip, then that’s just a bonus. Or better yet, just bring your smartphone. It can access the internet, provide you with ebooks, work as a navigational device, and even function as your camera for the trip. 

Don’t Stress if You Forget Anything

Unless you’re traveling to an incredibly remote location that’s devoid of human life, you shouldn’t worry about forgetting the little things. You’ll be able to buy shampoo, or toothpaste, or even a warmer jacket while traveling if you forget yours at home. In fact, depending on the length of your stay, it might be in your best interest to leave some of these items, like toiletries, off your packing list entirely. You can buy them when you get there and save the space in your carry-on bag for other important things, like one more shirt or extra space for souvenirs.

Pack and Repack

If you have a tendency to overpack, then try packing your carry-on bag a few nights before you leave for your trip. Regardless of whether everything fits, go through it again the next night, and you’ll be surprised at how much stuff you decide you don’t really need to bring. Keep in mind the tips listed above, and over the course of a few days, you’ll pare down your luggage until it’s just right.

Say ‘Au Revoir’ to Bulky Baggage

By following these tips while you travel, you can kiss your massive suitcase goodbye and say hello to the world of light traveling. Carry on travelers can arrive a little later to the airport, don’t have to worry about losing their bags, and can travel much more flexibly. It might take a bit of trial and error before you get it right, but that’s perfectly okay! Every test run means another trip you get to take, and that’s the fun part.

Traveler with small backpack

Categories: PackingPlanning

Emily Krempholtz

I am a writer and traveler currently living in Denver, Colorado. I recently returned to the US after a year of backpacking in Europe, where I worked with horses, learned to make cider, became certified to teach English, and ate a lot of really delicious food. When I'm not working on my novel, changing my hair color, or daydreaming about my next trip, I enjoy quality beer, hiking in the mountains, petting every dog I encounter, and leaving the country for extended periods of time.