How to travel with one carry-on

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Imagine packing so light you don’t have any bags to check. Sound too good to be true? It doesn’t have to be. With a few tips and a little self-control, you can lighten your travel load to just one carry-on.

Imagine packing so light you can skip the long check-in lines at the airport, since you don’t have any bags to check. Walking through the airport would be a breeze with your single carry-on, and finding an overhead bin once on your plane would be blissfully simple. Then, once you arrive, there would be no need to play the waiting game with the luggage carousel. Nope, you’d be on your way before the first checked bags even hit the belt.

Does this sound too good to be true? It doesn’t have to be. With a few tips and a little self-control, you can lighten your travel load to just one carry-on. Watch our video on how to pack in one carry-on bag, then read on for more.

Get a great bag

Choose the right bag (Image: Sue Waters used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license)
Choose the right bag (Image: Sue Waters used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license)

Whether you opt for a backpack, duffle bag or a small suitcase, your carry-on bag defines how much you can bring on board. You also want a bag that’s easy to carry when you’re rushing through terminals and easy to maneuver when you’re trying to place it in an overhead bin or under your seat. Opt for a quality rectangular bag that’s soft and lightweight. Also be mindful of your airline’s size limit for carry-ons, which is often 22 in. x 14 in. x 9 in.

Stop overpacking clothes

Do you really need that little black dress, the dry-clean only dress shirt or that third pair of shoes? Probably not. Chronic over-packers tend to stuff their bags with an outfit for every possible occasion, but if you’re going to travel light, you’ll need to learn to really scrutinize what makes it into your carry-on. Start by packing clothes that you can easily mix and match for multiple wears, rather than a dress shirt that will only get one wear at most. If you can keep the shoes to the pair you’re wearing, great. If not, limit your shoe wardrobe to two distinct pairs to cover most occasions (sneakers and dress shoes, flip-flops and flats, etc.). Also keep in mind where you are traveling. For example, the staples you may need for a beach trip to the Florida Keys will be different from what you will want for a cultural tour of Paris.

Invest in compression bags

Compression bags can help you save space (Image: JodyDigger used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license)
Compression bags can help you save space (Image: JodyDigger used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license)

Ah, compression bags. They’re every light traveler’s best friend. These space saving bags can either be rolled up or vacuumed to suck out every last bit of air, leaving you with the most compact travel bag possible. Once you’ve narrowed down your wardrobe essentials, stick them into a compression bag to free up even more room in your carry-on.

Embrace technology

Don’t waste precious carry-on space with bulky books or magazines. Instead, bring a gadget that acts as your e-reader and more. A Kindle or iPad not only lets you bring an immense collection of travel guides and trashy novels to read on the beach, but these tablets also offer access to email and Internet, meaning you can leave your heavy laptop at home.

Don’t pack what you can easily buy

Full-size toiletries can eat up luggage space (Image: garlandgrey)
Full-sized toiletries can eat up luggage space (Image: garlandgrey)

If you’re traveling for three weeks, do you really need to bring enough toothpaste, mouthwash, shampoo and conditioner for the entire trip? Or could you easily pack a day’s supply and then buy said toiletries after you arrive? Packing these products not only takes up carry-on space, but it also weighs your bag down. Pack what you need for a day or two, then buy what you’ll need for your stay after arriving.

Scrutinize everything

Scrutinize everything before packing to avoid overpacking (Image: brewbooks used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license)
Scrutinize everything before packing to avoid overpacking (Image: brewbooks used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license)

Before putting anything in your carry-on, ask yourself if you really need it or if you’re packing it just in case. Stick with what you really need and you’ll see your travel load lighten up immensely.

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What’s your favorite tip for traveling lightly?

(Main image: Corina Sanchez, Close via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

How to travel with one carry-on was last modified: June 26th, 2019 by Marissa Willman
Author: Marissa Willman (786 posts)

Marissa Willman earned a bachelor's degree in journalism before downsizing her life into two suitcases for a teaching gig in South Korea. Seoul was her home base for two years of wanderlusting throughout six countries in Asia. In 2011, Marissa swapped teaching for travel writing and now calls Southern California home.