How to Pack in Just a Carry-On


Traveling light with just a “carry-on” is an appealing idea, but many people hesitate to give it a try. It’s often easier to stick with what we know, packing everything “just in case,” rather than embracing a new, lighter way of traveling.

But those who have made the switch to packing lighter often find the benefits far outweigh the initial uncertainty.

In fact, I used to be a heavy packer. Our family of four would always check luggage at the airport whenever we flew home to see family—twice/year.

For us, the journey of shifting travel habits began when I was introduced to minimalism. As we began owning less at home, it seemed reasonable that a next step would be to apply the principles of minimalism to my travel habits.

And while I don’t remember exactly the first vacation that we decided to bring just carry-on luggage, I do remember how easy it made traveling and committing to never going back to the way we used to travel.

Similarly, I went on an international trip recently with a friend and told him that we were not waiting at baggage claim and that he had to pack in a carry-on for the trip. As we completed the trip and breezed through customs back home in the states, he turned to me and said, “You were right! This is so much easier. I am never checking luggage again.”

As a family, we follow the same practice on almost every trip. Each of us packs a carry-on—no more. Even on last summer’s book tour, which was close to three weeks long, we all packed our individual belongings in individual carry-on size suitcases.

This not only makes it easy to pack up and unload, it also eliminates the chaos of individuals shuffling through a large suitcase with multiple peoples’ stuff inside.

If the prospect of making this switch intrigues you, you’ll love it!

Here are some practical steps to help you get started:

1. Believe it is possible.

Break free from the mindset that traveling lightly is unattainable, or that your specific circumstances make it impossible. People do it all the time.

In fact, folks from every walk of life manage to pack lightly. Every age, every gender, every length of trip, every family size. If they can do it, you can too.

2. Be thoughtful.

My mom once said to me, “Overpacking is lazy packing.” And she’s right!

Adopting a minimalist packing approach requires careful planning—thinking through your daily needs and choosing items that fulfill those requirements without excess.

But thoughtful effort made on the front-end of the trip saves physical and mental (stress) effort during the trip.

3. Plan Your Outfits.

Avoid the common pitfall of randomly tossing items into your suitcase.

Plan your outfits according to your activities for each day. As I’ll mention later, consider opportunities to mix-and-match and repurpose (especially outerwear).

4. Pack versatile clothes.

Choose clothing items that offer flexibility—pieces that can be mixed and matched.

Neutral colors are your friends. Consider the potential for layering. For example, a light sweater can instantly transform any summer outfit into one suitable for a chilly evening.

5. Repeat outfits.

It might seem unconventional, but most people won’t notice at all. I mean, I’m not suggesting you wear dirty clothes over and over again, but most articles of clothing (especially pants) can be worn more than once between washings.

 Don’t be afraid to wear the same outfit more than once, especially if you’re mixing and matching different pieces.

6. Prepare for laundry.

For longer trips, washing clothes becomes a necessity. Look for accommodations with laundry facilities or locate nearby laundromats. Many hotels have washing machines available—as do most Airbnb’s. If necessary, you can even hand wash items.

7. Skip the souvenirs.

You won’t have room to bring back a bunch of souvenirs, but you’ll love not having to spend time shopping on your trips.

Remember, travel is about the experience, not the material possessions you bring back. If you do need to prove to yourself or someone else that you went on a trip, photos or small mementos like postcards can be as meaningful, if not more, than bulky souvenirs.

8. Pack travel-size liquids.

You won’t be able to bring large amounts of liquids in your carry-on (at least if you are flying). So make an extra point to think this through.

Most toiletries are sold in travel/sample size. That’s what I take. But for very specific items, there are TSA-compliant items to help you keep below the legal limit.

9. If necessary, roll your clothes.

If you find that you’re really close, but can’t quite fit in a carry-on suitcase, try rolling your clothes to save space, rather than folding them flat. You’ll be surprised how much more clothing you can pack with this method.

It does require an iron on the other end of your trip. So I don’t love the method all the time. But if you’re super-close to making it happen, and there’s an iron on the other end, give it a shot!

Personally, I’m more likely to roll my clothes for the return trip where there’s a washing machine waiting for me when I get home. But you can do it either way.

10. Limit your shoes.

Shoes can be the biggest suitcase hoggers. Stick to a couple versatile pairs that work for different occasions and consider wearing your bulkiest pair during transit.

One common justification for overpacking is the fear of running out of clothes. The thinking is, “I’d rather have more than I need on a trip, than be lacking something.”

On the surface, this argument seems logical. But dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that it overlooks the drawbacks of excess baggage. Extra clothes mean more weight to carry, more items to keep track of, more time spent packing and unpacking, more worries about losing luggage, and more time wasted (arriving much earlier to check your luggage at the airport and time waiting at the baggage carousel waiting for your bag to appear).

Contrast this with the benefits of a minimalist approach: simplicity, convenience, and the joy of focusing on the travel experience rather than managing belongings.

With careful planning, the benefits—saving time, reducing stress, and the joy of traveling lightly—far outweigh the minor inconvenience of potentially doing a little laundry.

If you’ve never tried it, I recommend it. I can almost guarantee, at the end of your first trip, you’ll think to yourself, “You were so right! This is much easier. I am never checking luggage again.”

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