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As someone who primarily travels with just a carry-on bag, I’ve been asked numerous times how to pack your carry-on bag and how to make it work. Recently, my mother asked me how to fit a week’s worth of clothing in a smaller carry-on bag as she’ll coming to visit me in the Netherlands and she’ll be flying with a budget airline. Whether you’re traveling for a month or a week with a carry-on bag, I promise that’s possible to save on those extra baggage fees.
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Know your carry-on baggage size requirements
This is very simple, however if your bag is too large for the carry-on size requirements, you’ll end up paying extra fees. I recommend checking this handy chart for the carry-on sizes for 170+ airlines. Once you know the requirements, you need to ensure that you have a bag that fits your airline’s requirements. It can a bit tricky if you’ll be traveling with a more restrictive airline as well as looser airline. It’s best to go somewhere in between and hope for the best if you’re not feeling like you can downsize.
For stricter airlines: Make sure your second bag fits inside your main bag!
Some budget airlines are very strict about their requirements, so it’s very important that your handbag (or a second bag) will fit inside of your larger bag. I’ve flown with Wizzair and Easyjet numerous times. Sometimes, they’re strict and other times, they’re not. I always leave a little room at the top and check to see if my handbag will fit in the carry-on bag. It’s best to pack smartly with your bag of liquids on top as you don’t want to have to completely repack your bag to prove that it will fit inside.
I truly believe that soft bags are much better for carry-on only trips as I’ve routinely gotten away with an oddly shaped bag that fit perfectly in the bin above without crushing my fellow passengers’ bags, even when it wasn’t 100% compliant to size requirements. (Sorry for being that person!) Unfortunately with hard bags, you’re restricted to the size/shape of the bag. As a result, if you’ve overpacked and/or your bag isn’t compliant, you’re more likely to be hit with fees as it’s also easier to measure.
With soft bags, you’re more likely to be given a chance to prove that it can fit in the bin and it’s more likely to. I’m currently using the Tortuga Setout backpack. In the past, I’ve used those little weekend bags that people use only for a few days …for a month. (I ended up having to leave my laptop at home, which was a good thing as it saved me space and weight.) Click to read my backpack review of the Tortuga Setout.
Think about what you’re doing during your trip
If you’re doing general travel, you really need to focus on having comfortable clothes that fit the climate that you’re in and comfortable shoes. If you’re just walking around in spring/fall, don’t feel that you have to dress up perfectly like you’re in a movie. Be comfortable and minimize your packing as most fashionistas travel with far more than a carry-on. It’s certainly possible to be chic with a carry-on, but you need to be intentional with your clothing selection. Keep in mind that you might not smell like roses, but most of the time, nobody cares, especially if you’re backpacking. One of my go-to travel outfits is jeans, flats, t-shirt, a light jacket, and a scarf. Every bit can be reused later on.
If you know that you’ll be hiking or doing an adventure activity during your trip, try not to go crazy with packing for it. I often use my hiking bottoms for pajamas to minimize clothing. Unless you have multiple days planned, one day of hiking clothes with one pair of sneakers should be enough. I’d recommend two tops suitable for outdoor activities if you’re unsure as bottoms are typically not the problem. If you have multiple days planned, pack two days worth of hiking gear and let the other outfit dry after rinsing it in the sink.
Avoid rolling bags with cobblestones
Although a lot of people think that a carry-on bag is a rolling bag, you’ll find a lot of newer backpacks with strong back support that pack more similarly to a rolling bag. I find that these are much easier when you’re traveling to a place, like Italy or Albania, where you’ll encounter a lot of cobblestones. Cobblestones will destroy your bag, so I recommend reconsidering if you’ll be visiting a lot of hill-top villages with a rolling bag unless you’re splurging for a taxi each time.
Do you really need your laptop? If you’re traveling for a shorter period, trust me: you don’t need your computer. I’m guilty of bringing my computer of shorter trips, however unless you’re traveling for work, you’ll find that you’re more likely to be in the moment if you’re exploring rather than sitting at home. I find that a smartphone does 99% of what you need although I’ve found that a good phone power bank is helpful if you’re using your phone to stay in touch with your family, for directions, for photos, and for research.
You don’t need everything
It’s tempting to bring all your lenses, multiple pairs of shoes, small bottles of every toiletry, and a few extra shirts. Unless you’re going somewhere very remote, like the jungle in Borneo, you can buy things at your destination. Realistically, you won’t touch those extras and you’ll lose out on space in your bag for souvenirs.
Although some people recommend buying the perfect pants for travel, you don’t often need to buy a brand new pair if you’re traveling carry-on only. I bought my coat in Kosovo after arriving to save space and money as I needed a new jacket and it was cheaper to buy it in Kosovo than at home. On my first day, I went shopping, which was fun.
I recommend minimizing your packing by thinking about what you’ll use at least two times per week during your trip. If you cannot come up with a use beyond “If X happens,” cut it. I often bring an formal dress on a trip, just in case I want to go out to a fancy restaurant. I’ve increasingly come to terms with the fact that I will use it.
Roll and fold
I personally have become a fan of packing cubes as I’m not the world’s neatest packers and I find that it’s easier to portion off clothing that you may not be using immediately. For instance, I usually roll/fold my pajamas (my hiking clothes) and my underwear into one cube to make it easy to get it out at night without taking apart my bag. Similarly, I will separate out my jeans and my tops. Rolling is proven to be more effective for saving space with packing. If you have anything fragile,I recommend packing it in your tightest cube to minimize movement.
Pack a capsule wardrobe for 5-7 days …and do your wash.
This is simple, but come up with a capsule wardrobe that will be the basis for your outfits for a week…to months. I lived out of one bag for months last year. My basic week involved varying up the same seven outfits. My go-to capsule wardrobe is typically good for five days with seven days worth of underwear, in case I don’t get the chance to do my laundry. If you can believe it, my husband and I usually share a carry-on bag for up to four days.
The key is to ensure that your outfits mix and match well with each other. I find that packing with a carry-on is easier if you’re traveling in colder weather where you’ll be wearing pants for most of the time and you can throw on a nice scarf. However, in summer, the key is to avoid patterns and/or stop caring about whether it goes together. One beautiful dress that can go from day to night will save you room in your bag–and you can always vary it up by wearing it with a scarf.
When I was traveled to Serbia for a week with a carry-on bag this winter, I packed one pair of pants, five shirts, one lightweight dress, a sweater (in case I got cold), one pair of tights, and one pair of boots in addition to my winter coat, which I wore. As you can imagine, that didn’t take up that much space in my bag as I wore most of it on the plane with me. My husband makes it even easier for himself: 1 pair of cargo pants, 3-5 metal shirts, a good pair of shoes, and a jacket.
When I went to Iceland in winter, I also minimized my clothing by bringing only two pairs of long johns, a pair of snow pants, and a good winter jacket. Both my husband and I did this and honestly, we didn’t smell much as we weren’t really sweating much. I alternated between my long johns and it worked well in giving us extra room in our bag. The willingness to reuse your clothes is key if you’re packing in a carry-on for winter and you need to bring more bulky clothing.
Minimize footwear and jackets and accessorize
If possible, I recommend bringing only two pairs of shoes: one that you’ll use every day for walking and one for special activities (e.g. heels if you intend to go out a lot or boots for hiking; choose carefully). I feel the same about jackets. I try to wear my heavier jacket on the plane with me if I’ll be using it wherever I’m going and/or bring a lighter layer if I’m flying from cold weather to warm weather, so I don’t end up having to carry around my winter jacket with me in warm climates.
While I was in Malta in winter, I ended up wearing a raincoat that I found on clearance for 5 euros with a sweater underneath to the airport. Although it was freezing cold in Amsterdam, I timed my trip to minimize time outside, so I ended up leaving my winter coat at home. I ended up wearing my one pair of shoes 24/7 during the trip and layering up with my sweater when I got chilly. Otherwise, I brought only a few shirts, one skirt, and one dress for a romantic dinner out. Still chic in the photos, no?
The biggest tip on how to travel with a carry-on only: use your accessories wisely! Instead of planning your outfits around your outfits, plan a few days worth of your accessories to spice up your outfits. If you’re a woman, consider bringing a cute scarf with you and/or some nice earrings. If you’re into hats, bring one hat (that you wear on the plane).
Your hidden advantage: A sturdy plastic bag from home
This is a carry-on packing secret that I try not to tell people as I worry that I’ll ruin the advantage that it brings, however you’re typically allowed to bring whatever you buy in the terminal with you on the plane in addition to your carry-on allowance. You may not have purchased anything in the terminal, however why not bring a plastic bag from home with some snacks to avoid paying extra fees? Avoid fruit if you’re flying internationally. On occasion, I’ve used one of my Albert Heijn bags (there’s one in Schiphol airport) for my clean/dirty clothes after doing a poor job of packing after buying souvenirs. You never know when these bags will come in handy. (I also try to bring one from home to avoid buying extra plastic bags.)