People are astonished when they see me rock up with a cabin approved sized suitcase and my small backpack for a 3 week trip. “That’s all your brought?! How do you travel so light?”

Well, after years of living out of a backpack and learning that you actually don’t need much – or even see half the things in your suitcase – I’ve gotten decent at it. I also have some tips for you on how to properly re-use items to their maximum potential and keep your bag smelling fresh!

So here is my Guide for How to Travel Carry-on Only 

How To Pack –

Space Bags

You may have seen these in my Go-To Traveler Gift Guide because I love and swear by them! I use Ziplock Space bags which come with some travel sized roll up bags and some medium and larger vacuum sealable bags. Since I stay in hostels more than hotels, there’s no guarantee I’ll be able to find a vacuum with a hose to properly use the latter, but if I know I’ll have one handy, I opt for bringing one of those to truly optimize my space. Standard plastic ziplocks are great for organizing small groupings of clothes too, ie. undies, socks, etc.

Note: these do not reduce the weight of your bag, just the space in it, so don’t expect to tip the scales in your favor at the counter… ha.


Packing Cubes

These Packing Cubes are also fantastic for rolling and squishing clothes into tight compartments, plus they help you stay organized. I like using one as a dirty laundry compartment because its a bad habit to throw stuff you’ve already worn back into your bag after a long day of site-seeing, causing confusion as to what’s “clean”. Granted, I wear clothes more than once, but these bags really help me keep on top of my belongings.

Packing Tips

Rolling your clothes is always smartest with the exception of heavy sweaters and coats. If you’re using space bags, rolling your clothes and putting them in will let you pack more for sure. However the bag will be left a little lumpy and not in an ideal state for packing flat into a carry on. Flat folding your clothes and adding rolled up bits along the sides is optimal for creating a flat, air-locked package.


Otherwise, roll your clothes and try wrapping a sock around the larger pieces to compact them further. Position your shoes towards the bottom of the bag and squish smaller items of clothes inside and in any gaps.

Shoe Tip: Tie up your sandals with rubber bands to compress and save space!


– What To Pack –

Basics + Statement Pieces

The biggest mistake people make is bringing items that are one-of-a-kind or that don’t easily go together. I recommend packing basic pants and/or shorts (depending on season, weather, etc) with some basic tops that go with everything. Then, add some colorful necklaces and scarves to brighten turn the same outfit into something new. In the summer, bring a few dresses that can be worn multiple times, that don’t require too much work to clean, and that dry easily.


Travel Sized Toiletries

It seems like an obvious point, but being prepared with travel sized liquids is vital. Don’t expect to buy them when you’re on the go, because finding what you need in a small enough size can be a challenge. Remember that certain items can be used to clean multiple things; shampoo and body wash are great for cleaning small clothing items in desperate situations. Don’t pack bar soap as it takes a while to dry out and is less sanitary (you don’t want that slippery sucker falling on a hostel shower floor). Sunscreen can be  hard to find or expensive if you’re going to a popular beach destination, so be sure to bring your own.

If you have something specific you want to bring but you can’t find it in a travel-sized, purchase some travel-sized bottles and fill them with it!

Downy To-Go

This little bottle of heaven is a god-send! I use it to keep my clothes smelling fresh, to de-wrinkle my dresses, and honestly as a perfume when times get desperate. It helps keep your clothes smelling fresh longer so you can get a few more wears out of them. Another smart addition are a few dryer sheets to line the bottom of your bag or your shoe compartment. Granted these don’t last forever and get crumpled up after a few rummages, but bring some extras in a ziplock for the future.

Cut Back on Make-Up

Girls, if you’re traveling long-term, you don’t need much in this department. Wearing too much on your skin will most likely cause break-outs because of excess sweat and dirt. Just bring the basics so you don’t have to worry about a whole face regimen everyday. When you’re going out for a full day, don’t put on a full face that you’ll have to constantly tend to. Pop on some mascara, a bright liquid lipstick like NYX Soft Matte, set with a setting spray and some sunglasses and GO.

Forget the Hair Electronics

I never travel with a blow dryer or curling iron. Yes, I honestly neglect my hair, but I don’t have time or space for that stuff. I like to tie it up in braids during the day while I’m out and about, then let it down and spray it with hairspray for some crazy night waves. If your hair won’t hold waves that way, look up some cute styles you can do on the go using a few pins and elastics.


Limit Your Gadgetry

I do bring all my electronics when I travel: laptop, camera, external batteries, hard drive, etc. because being a digital nomad requires it. However if you’re just on vacation, your smart phone will be your best friend. Trust that it can take photos, surf the web, make your next travel arrangements, and act as your connection to the world. You don’t need much more than that and after all, you’re not traveling to sit on your devices!

If you’re traveling for many months, a tablet and headphones are actually very handy for those long buses and plane rides, so stick to something durable and lightweight.

Bring one multi-slot USB outlet for efficient charging. If you’re traveling with multiple people through a general area for a long time, think about investing in a universal outlet + USB power strip so you don’t all need to bring converters or fight over precious wall sockets.

FUN FACT : You can actually use the TVs in the airport to charge anything with a USB end. This way, you don’t have to unpack a ton of items or worry about a converter!

– Be Prepared to Part with Your Belongings –

This is slightly overdramatic, but I do mean it to some extent. Depending on where you go, you may hit some figurative bumps that cause you to lose, break, or have to check your carry on or bag. I’ve learned not to bring anything I don’t mind parting with and to mentally separate myself from material possessions. There may come a time where your bag gets caught in the rain, soaked with fish guts (yes this happened to me in Madagascar), thrown from a truck, or simply lost by an airline. At the end of the day, remember that although your belongings seem like an extension of your self when you travel, they are just things.

Is anybody else team carry-on? What do you have in yours?

*I do not get paid to advertise any of the products listed but I do use affiliate marketing. I simply love/use everything I talk about!

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9 Thoughts on “How To Travel Carry-On Only”

  • My family of four went on a two-week vacation recently. We each had a carry-on and backpack, and it turned out great! We use packing cubes which makes things so much easier, especially because I have to organize my kids’ clothes. It’s easy to know what’s what, and we can just lay out the cubes in the hotel room. We also use a 5-port USB charging hub, which is super convenient. It’s the first thing that comes out of the bag when we get to a new hotel room. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing your packing tips. I need to look into those space bags. They look really convenient1

  • LOVE! I’m going to Europe for two weeks next summer, and I’m hoping to be able to pack in only one bag. I don’t know how successful I will be, but these were some great ideas. I agree about the packing cubes! I use them all the time with the rolling technique, and I save so much space and it’s so organized!

    • You can do it!! Using packing cubes will let you bring so much more and if you check in online they won’t check the weight of your carry on! Let me know how you do!

  • I only travel with hand luggage – no matter how long my trip is. The only condition: it has to be a place with at least 25°C during the day. I got a black trolley which looks very business-ish and usually a nice hand bag that I also carry for corporate meetings. My jacket is usually a black blazer that easily makes an outfit look corporate-ish and helps a lot when you want to get into lounges or are aiming to get an upgrade for business class during a flight.

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