This post was most recently updated on June 3rd, 2023
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.
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. Use a storage service
If all that we’ve discussed above sounds like too much effort, you can also just store your luggage away while you’re seeing the sights. These days, you don’t have to carry it onto the train at all.
For example, a luggage storage company at a train station or in town like the luggage storage Santa Maria Novella provides a convenient and secure place to keep your possessions in one place for as long as you want. All you need to do is pay a small fee per bag. This way, you can manage more luggage and then just go travelling with your carry-on. It’s a clever fix to an annoying problem many travellers face.
9. 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!