Postcards & Passports

Seriously, How Can You Travel with Only a Carry-on Bag?

I’ve seen plenty of posts and even YouTube videos that claim you can pack everything you need in one carry-on bag. Is it really possible? Can it really be done? NO! Well, maybe just for a weekend.

But it IS possible to travel anywhere for a week or more, with just one carry-on bag and one personal item, and I will tell you exactly how I’ve done it many times. I never pay bag fees for checking on luggage, and I never have to have a bag gate-checked, either. My carry-on fits in the overhead bin and my personal item fits under the seat in front of me.

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1. Make sure your carry-on bag is the right dimensions

My personal favorite is a spinner carry-on. I can pull it behind me like traditional carry-on bags, but I can also nudge it with my hand or elbow when it’s standing upright. I bought mine at Target for only $45.

But there are also many kinds available at Amazon, and this spinner has two charging ports as well, for only $65.

Your carry-on bag must be able to fit in the overhead compartment or under the seat in front of you. Airlines publish dimensions for carry-on bags; they often have a box near the boarding area for you to test to see if your bag fits within it.

2. Roll every single piece of clothing

Yes, roll every single item — socks, underwear, shirts, slacks, etc. and even secure with rubber bands if you need to. You will wear your bulkiest clothing on the plane. If you’re worried this will wrinkle your clothes, I’ve actually found it’s better than folding. Depending on the fabric, rolled clothing often un-rolls without any wrinkles at all.

Check out all the clothes I’m going to pack in my carry-on:

5 blouses, 3 sweaters, 2 scarves, 10 pair socks, flats, jeans, dress slacks, capri pants, swimsuit, pajamas, exercise pants, t-shirt, exercise bra, maxi dress, skirt, and blazer. I’ll wear another pair of jeans, a  blouse, a heavy coat (for cold weather), and my bulkiest shoes (tennis shoes or boots). And in my personal item, I’ll typically add another lightweight outfit, just in case I ever get separated from my carry-on!

Note: I didn’t include underwear in this demonstration, but I’ve saved room for it. Just didn’t want to be showing it off!

Will they fit? Yes! And I’ll still have room for another layer of clothing…or my laptop! In fact, I still have a large empty zipper pocket on the outside of the suitcase I can use. See how rolling your clothes makes all the difference? In the next section, I’ll explain how compression bags give you even more space.

3. Use compression bags or Ziploc bags

You will be shocked by how much smaller everything is when placed inside a compression bag and all the air is pressed out. I can take enough clothes for a two-week European trip this way. Compound the size reduction by rolling your clothes and then inserting them into a compression bag. Even a ziploc bag will work. Zip it up most of the way. Press down on the bag, or even sit on it to get all the excess air out, and then finish zipping it up!

And here’s how to use your space wisely — look for gaps or empty space. For example, there’s empty space inside your shoes. Fill it with socks. Space between rolls of clothes is perfect for a curling iron. If you’re taking your laptop, you can pack clothing around the sides of it, or slide it into one of your sweaters. If your carry-on has elastic straps, use them to compress your clothing even more.

4. Plan to wear each outfit twice

At home, don’t you wear clothing more than once before washing? I often wear a pair of jeans two or three times before washing…and I can usually wear shirts twice. But if you absolutely cannot, then just bring along some packable laundry detergent.  You should only have to do laundry once mid-trip. You can wash items in a sink or tub and hang them to dry overnight.

5. Look at everything with different eyes

In other words, inspect every item you need and see if you can find a way to pack a smaller version of it.

  • For example, use only sample bottles of shampoo and conditioner (or none at all if they will be provided where you are staying).
  • Take lightweight scarves, not bulky ones, unless you are traveling in the middle of the winter. Can you take one neutral scarf that goes well with everything?
  • Put medications in smaller pill containers, rather than bringing the larger bottles (but do have a copy of your prescription labels just in case).
  • Rather than bringing an address book, take photos or store information on your phone.
  • Plan your clothing so it coordinates — as in one pair of slacks that goes well with all or most of the shirts. One skirt that also pairs well with your blouses. And so on.
  • Do you really need that huge beach towel, or can you use a leaner sand-free towel?
6. Use a personal item with lots of pockets

My personal item is always a backpack and my favorite one is an Eastport. It isn’t very expensive, and it has three separate sections with additional outside pockets. I use it to store one day’s worth of clothing (again, rolled up tight and stored in a zip-loc bag), a lightweight sweater in case I get cold on the plane, my make-up bag (my fluids bag goes in an outside pocket of my suitcase), my Canon PowerShot camera, a small book to read or crossword puzzle book, travel documents, a few snacks, a refillable water bottle, my sunglasses, travel journal and pens, plus my laptop if I absolutely have to have it. In the side pockets, I stash my camera batteries and phone charging cord.

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Anti-theft cross-body bag

I also save room for a small cross-body purse that will hold my passport, ID, and cash/creditcards. Many times I can get away with wearing that purse in addition to the backpack and carry-on. For me, that is the most convenient way to travel. However, I am occasionally asked to put the smaller purse inside one of my two allotted bags.

7. What should you wear on the plane?

Remember I said to wear your bulkiest items? If you’re taking a winter coat, wear it. If you’re taking heavy jeans, wear them – don’t pack them. Wear the long sweater with large cowl neck. Those items take up too much space in your carry-on.

If you’ll need boots or bulky athletic shoes, wear them on the plane. You can always take the coat off after you board. Heck, you can even kick off the shoes during the flight (if your socks are clean!). I have a shirt designed especially for travel, with a hidden zip pocket for my passport. It’s practical and comfortable too.

8. Why travel this way, anyway?

Want to know the advantages of traveling with just a carry-on and a personal item?

It’s cheaper — you don’t ever have to pay to check on a bag

It’s faster — you won’t be losing 20-30 minutes at baggage claim, waiting for your checked bag to appear.

It’s easier — Ever tried to navigate through a European city of cobblestoned streets with several pieces of luggage? Pretty much unbearable!

I hope by now you believe me, that it is possible and preferable to travel with only a carry-on bag and a personal item. Enjoy the extra freedom it gives you!

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20 thoughts on “Seriously, How Can You Travel with Only a Carry-on Bag?

  1. Patricia L Hatch

    Great idea, but I didn’t see how you also fit your “undergarments” in that carryon. Do you only take 2 or 3 pairs and do wash every few days?

    1. Tami Post author

      I roll all of my “undergarments”, put them in a compression bag, squeeze all the air out, and lay it in the carry-on. It’s only about an inch thick at most for two weeks worth. And you may not be able to tell from the picture, but I still have at least two inches of packing space left.

  2. Heather

    Amen to this!! My international trips have always gone so much smoother (and cheaper!) when I use only a carry on. My husband and I have successfully done this for a trip to Italy, and another time to the UK; seeing everyone around us lugging huge bags into the metro, through alleyways, or up and down stairs made me grateful I’d packed light!

  3. Linda (LD Holland)

    I must admit that I can only travel with carry on only for up to about 5 days and for certain kinds of trips. I have tried folding and have had mixed results. It is probably hardest for me to be ruthless about the shoes I take. And the electronics! But each year I get a bit better. Thanks for the tips that work for you.

  4. Christina

    That’s an impressive bit of packing! I don’t think I could ever travel anywhere with just a carry-on bag! Most of the time, my laptop and cameras take up more than one carry-on bag! Maybe if I can bring myself to leave them behind I might try packing like you do.

  5. Ivan Kralj

    Hm, nice set of advice. But usually I travel with my cameras/laptop pack, and that’s already a carry-on size!
    I guess there’s no help for me!
    For shorter trips, it could probably work, but nowadays my trips usually last for months. Which doesn’t mean I carry all my belongings along 🙂 my checked-in bag is typically around 15 kilos, and then the carry-on around 10. I always pretend it is so easy to carry, so nobody checks if it exceeds 8 :)))

  6. Thomas Bourlet

    It is funny when people go to travel for the first time and pack their bags with absolutely everything, when around 3 weeks later they’ve given up on most of it and conceded that clothes are to be worn several times in between finding a washing machine. I’m still guilty of overpacking a little though

  7. Ruth

    I travel with carry-on only on every single trip. Even for two-week trips. I would not ever go back. It is so much easier and the light suitcases make things way easier! I reuse clothes or wash if necessary.

  8. Danik

    Other travelers make this look so easy to travel with a carry on bag, me, I am useless. Seriously. Even when I have checked in luggage I am nearly always over my allowance. I really need to get my act together on this one. 🙁

  9. Rosemary

    I try to roll my clothes and wear the bulkiest items when traveling, but I still have not yet been successful in traveling with a carryon only. This a great reminder to invest in ziploc bags and more compression bags, as I do have a trip coming up. Not having to check in bags is a huge plus!!

  10. Indrani

    Great ideas. Now I think it is possible to travel with a carry-on bag. Rolling up clothes is a great idea. I always carry sachets of toiletries.

  11. Lisa

    Rolling every item is definitely a super smart idea! And makes a huge difference. I always try to wear my bulkiest item on the plane, as you suggested and saving all that time that would be spent at baggage claim is the best reason to pack better and put everything in a carry-on!

  12. sherianne

    I have never tried to travel with just a carry-on bag but am always jealous of people who can. Transferring prescriptions to smaller containers and bringing a copy of the original bottle is a great tip.

  13. krystal Braggs

    I really wish I could do it. However I have three small ones, the same ones that make a suitcase much fuller. It doesn’t bother me, but I would love to be able to apply only one backpack to travel… it would be great!

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