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10 Easy Tips for Becoming a Carry-on Traveler

After an absence of a couple of weeks, I’m back with some thoughts and tips on how to make your summer travel a little easier and cheaper. I’m going to start with packing, which is always a controversial topic. Since virtually all the major U.S. airlines (except for JetBlue and Southwest) now charge for all checked bags, it’s worth carrying your bags onto the plane to save $15 to $20 each way (not to mention the time at the end of the trip you would otherwise spend at the baggage carousel).


The cost of checked luggage (and especially second or oversized bags) differs by airline, but if you had any doubts that you could save money by carrying on your luggage, familiarize yourself with the baggage costs for all the U.S. airlines. If you are a family of four, that’s real money we’re talking about. And as for time, I recently landed at La Guardia, walked right off the plane and out the door, and was home eating dinner 30 minutes after my plane landed. It would have been impossible to do that if I hadn’t carried my luggage onto the flight.

10 Simple Tips for Becoming a Carry-on Traveler

1. Know the rules and limits for carry-on bags. This warning is especially important if you are traveling overseas, where baggage limits can be much stricter. Happily, Web luggage retailer has a useful section with the carry-on requirements of many major airlines and even recommends which bag to buy for the airline you plan to fly. Also, Seat Guru has a very thorough list of all the baggage rules for every major and minor airline around the world (click on the airline’s name, then click on the “baggage” tab).

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2. Measure your bag correctly. Once you know what you can take, ensure that you have a bag that meets those limits. Be sure to measure the entire length and width of your bag, including all handles and wheels (these can add more than an inch in some cases). Although you can always buy a new bag, the point of going carry-on is that you are not spending all that extra money. Luckily, most domestic carriers have very generous limits of over 50 linear inches. As a rule of thumb, you can almost always take a 19-, 20-, or 21-inch rolling bag onto a plane; most 22-inch bags will also fit. Above that, you might be asked to check your bag.

3. Wheels are not always best. It may be hard to remember, but not so many years ago it was rare to find a wheeled suitcase. For a shorter trip, a simple duffle or small backpack might suffice and will lighten your load considerably since the wheels and handle add at least 2 or 3 pounds to your bag. The lack of wheels also works in your favor if you are flying on a small commuter plane, where wheeled bags must almost always be gate-checked. And if you are going onto a train or subway after leaving the plane, it’s sometimes easier to walk with a backpack or duffle over your shoulder.

4. Ditch the liquids. The hardest part of becoming a carry-on traveler for a lot of people is the necessity to lose most of their liquids and gels. Men can minimize their shaving products by buying shaving oil. Women might simply have to take fewer liquid cosmetics. Definitely leave the shampoo and conditioner at home; let the hotel shampoo work for you. Ditto with shower gel; just use soap. Use a solid deodorant stick or crystal rock deodorants, which I really like (especially in the summer). Take just a small tube of lotion, and a small sunscreen. It’s possible to find most liquids in 3-ounce or less sizes at Walmart, Target, or most drugstores, or you can order travel sizes online.

5. Limit your wardrobe. You don’t have to look like a slob, but you also don’t have to take two changes of clothes for every day of your trip. Plan on wearing your nicer dinner-time clothing two or three times. Bring stuff that will work together in different combinations. Put your underwear and socks in gallon-size Zip-loc bags, and squeeze out the air so they take up less room. For a trip of 10 days, I can get everything I need into a 20-inch carry-on roller bag and still not have to do laundry.

6. One pair of shoes. Or at least one pair of shoes in addition to the ones you wear on the plane, which should be the bulkier ones. I usually throw in a pair of loafers for going out at night. But I also include a pair of flip-flops. In the summer, women are the lucky ones because they can wear sandals and look quite elegant. But make sure whatever shoes you take are comfortable. Don’t take anything new.

7. Pack carefully. It’s important that your stuff fit into the bag. I usually roll 3 or 4 shirts together in a very tight roll to keep them from wrinkling so badly. Put socks and small things inside of shoes. Put heavier clothing like jeans and shoes on the bottom, and then fill in around them. Use all the hidden pockets in your suitcase. If I pack carefully, I can easily get a week’s worth of clothing in my 20-inch rolling bag, which then weighs about 20 to 22 pounds. I almost always throw in a travel size bottle of wrinkle releaser, which I find works wonders.

8. Plan on doing a bit of laundry. It’s cheaper to do a load of laundry along the way (or even have your hotel clean 3 or 4 pieces of clothing) than to pay $40 to check a suit-case round-trip. You can wash stuff out in the sink for free, and most items will dry overnight if you wash them out before going to bed (if you go this route, then definitely pack a little dry laundry detergent in a Zip-loc sandwich bag, or get some packages of Woolite). If you don’t want to be bothered, then you can spray wrinkle releaser on your clothes at night and let them air out. It’s not a perfect solution, though.

9. Don’t take the extras. If you are not going to a place where you expect to be cold, then don’t take a jacket. Don’t bother with back-ups of anything. If you get your clothing dirty, then do a bit of washing up. In the rare even that you need something unusual (an umbrella in Arizona, a warm jacket in Florida, dress-up outfits for a trip to Yellowstone), that’s why God invented outlet malls.

10. Leave some of the electronics at home. One thing that weighs a lot of people down these days is all the extra electronic gear that they may be tempted to bring. While no one would hesitate to bring a cell phone or ipod, do you really need a laptop? This is where I love my iphone. I can put a couple of movies into it if I so desire, and when I find free Wi-Fi, I can check and even answer my emails. But I wouldn’t bother with a DVD player or laptop anymore. Just too heavy.

Useful Carry-on Travel Resources

General Resources

There are two “bibles” of carry-on travel which I consult regularly.

Sources for carry-on luggage

  • has virtually every brand, including their own house brand, and plenty of guidance and reviews.
  • Target has lots of luggage brands including Swiss Gear, Eddie Bauer, and Heys, and you can shop by color online.
  • Walmart has Heys luggage as well as super cheap off-brands.
  • Amazon’s carry-on luggage section has a wide range of luggage, good prices, and free shipping if you spend enough, though the site is not as helpful as ebags even though there are many reviews.

Luggage Suggestions

  • Outdoor Products makes a really cheap (under $35) bag called the Essential Carryon, which has stowaway backpack straps but no wheels.
  • Ebags has their own brand of luggage, including a cute wheeled duffel and a convertible suitcase/backpack without wheels called the Weekender Convertible.
  • The Heys company of Canada makes a really lightweight polycarbonite hard-sided bag called the xcase (it’s also sold by Walmart, ebags, and Amazon).
  • If you have the money, there are three really excellent sources of quality, U.S.-made carry-on luggage (though none with wheels): Tom Bihn (one of our editors swears by his Tom Bihn Aeronaut); Red Oxx; and MEI. Each has its devotees, but these are all favorites of one-bag carry-on packers. Bags from all these companies will generally cost over $100 and several are over $200.

Travel sizes

If you can’t find what you want at your local store, has almost any travel size product you can imagine, and shipping is free if you spend over $20 (which is surprisingly easy). Walmart or Target is usually cheaper, but the selection here is unbeatable.

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