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Pro Tips for Traveling With Just One Carry-on Bag

Do I absolutely need four French Horns or am I ok with three?

A packing adage I get the most mileage out of is to lay out all the clothes and money you tend to pack, then take away half the clothes and take twice the money. Naturally, there are more specific packing tips than just that, but it’s one of the most enduring.

I’ll gladly dine out on the fact that I once went around the world without checking a bag, and I even managed to pack a rigid straw boater hat in my rollaboard carry-on. We all have our reasons for not checking a bag. Sometimes we want to avoid bag fees or schlep factor, or long waits at baggage claim. While there’s a distinct sense of relief and pride that comes with being able to fit your life into a carry-on, don’t push your limits. Sometimes there are good reasons for checking bags, like carry-on weight limits or liquid restrictions. There are also travelers who, for accessibility reasons, can’t fit everything in a carry-on. There’s no right or wrong when it comes to packing—it comes down to what’s right for the individual. But, if you’re keen to travel with just one carry-on, here are my best tips.

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Let’s Talk About the Bag

I use the Louis Vuitton Carryall. It’s a handled duffle without a shoulder strap, two side pockets, and no internal structure aside from one slim side pocket. At 9.4” x 10.6” x 16.1”, it fits under the seat on most aircraft (sometimes I have to turn it on its side). It has two zipper pulls (so it can be zipped closed in the middle of the bag instead of all the way to one side) that can be locked together with a small padlock (this can be a deterrent for pickpockets). Fodor’s has oodles of recommendations at different point prices for all sorts of carry-on needs.

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The Benefit of Using Small Pouches

The lack of internal structure is on purpose—it’s for flexibility. Inside, I pack a dual-compartment day bag with an external pocket and a shoulder strap. If I want a day bag at my destination, it just comes out of the carry-on, and I switch out items to what I need for the day, and I’m ready to go. Most of the time, it provides internal organization for my carry-on. It takes up about 75% of the space in my Carryall, so there’s room on all sides for other items.

Outside of the day bag but inside the carry-all, I keep three zippered pouches (which are repurposed Economy Class amenity kits from Emirates). Inside these pouches are medications (at minimum, an analgesic, an antacid, and a laxative, in addition to any prescriptions or supplements), cosmetic items (toner, moisturizer, sunscreen, nail clippers, tweezers, hand cream), and electronics (earbuds, electrical adaptors, and charge cords, which is important to avoid “cord clutter”).

My laptop goes on one side of the day bag, and a book or magazines go on the other. The remaining compartments of the day bag are free for the detritus of travel. Some things I usually carry include:

  • A toothbrush (arrive feeling much refreshed after an overnight flight by stepping into the lav to brush teeth at the top of descent).
  • A pen (to fill out customs forms).
  • A mobile hotspot (my current one is a Skyroam Solis).
  • Treats for the flight crew (individually wrapped in a factory-sealed bag).
  • A protein snack.
  • Lip balm.
  • Tea bags (a favorite tea is a comforting reminder of home while traveling and can also be used as an emergency deodorant!).
  • A refillable water flask or bottled beverage from the airport (sometimes the beverage cart takes a bit).
  • A ballcap (they fold easily and are helpful for sunshade).
  • A lightweight scarf (familiar, soft items are a sensory comfort that can help de-stress; also helpful when it gets cold in over-air-conditioned aircraft or airports).
  • Any liquids (you don’t want to fish them out of a harder-to-open bag at security).
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The Big Bag

My Arlo Skye Frame carry-on is sturdy with a clamshell-open, TSA locking clasps (I despise zippers), quiet glide-y wheels, and a built-in, removable USB charger. The big bag is for clothes: a pair of underwear for each day of travel, a couple of versatile tops and bottoms, swimwear, and packable shoes—that means shoes that are flat or smash-able, like sandals, espadrilles, (not bulky) sneakers, etc. It’s ok to need multiple pairs of shoes on a trip, but those are trips for checked bags.

Two Space Savers

The two big luggage space savers are hotel laundry and throwaways. On most trips longer than a week, I like to schedule two consecutive nights in a hotel that has laundry service. Yes, it’s more expensive than your local dry cleaners, but it will keep you in clean clothes, with less baggage and no time spent doing laundry during your travels—it ultimately ends up being valuable. It’s also a great way to be immersed in local nuance—I can still smell the distinctive flowery aroma of new-to-me Tahitian laundry detergent from the first time I sent my laundry out on my first trip to French Polynesia.

Another space-saving adage is to pack worn-out clothing (underwear and old t-shirts are typical targets here), wear it through the trip, and then toss it to make room for purchases on your return journey. Use this one sparingly, though—some remote destinations already have more visitor-generated trash than they can deal with, so if you’re on a remote island or in an ecologically sensitive area, plan on packing out what you pack in.

It’s often more manageable to take a carry-on, especially when dealing with the baggage chaos of this summer, but there’s no shame in checking. What’s best for each traveler depends on their needs. If you don’t need much, packing light might save you a lot of stress.

Related: You’ll Never Want to Check Your Bags Again After Reading These Recent Lost Luggage Stories

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TreasureAK September 10, 2022

Yeah that bag is crazy expensive.  I'd spend my whole trip worried about it getting stolen. Treats for the flight crew?  I guarantee you they throw those out unless they know you.  The rest of the article is okay but I was hoping for more specifics of how to pack lightly. 

DrVicki September 7, 2022

So between the article and the comment on how to avoid checking a bag, it appears either spend a lot of money to get an extremely expensive duffel ($2000), have clothes you can just toss and spend a lot on cleaning services OR spend your vacation doing laundry.  I think I will just check a bag if I am going anywhere longer than a few days!

frankie2100 September 7, 2022

I should say these trips are usually about 75 days or so, across many countries.

frankie2100 September 7, 2022

My husband and I have done numerous trips WITH NO CHECKED BAGS.  In other words, are only luggage is hand carries.  Here are our tips:

On extended trips, pack for 10 days of clothes. Every tenth day book a AirBnB or VRBO with a washing machine.

I pack as I dress/undress.  AS I brush my teeth, I pack my toothbrush. As I put on socks, I pack my socks, etc. The chances of leaving something essential are slim with this approach.  Resist the urge to pack for the "outlyers"--the single 5 star dinner requiring formal attire and high heels.

Think about your shoes (esp ladies).  They are bulky! For sandals, stick to flip flops.  I can usually make it with flip flops, casual flats, and boots/tennis shoes.  Since I am wearing one pair, and flip flops are flat, that leaves you down to a single pair of shoes to pack.

Do not take any valuable items at all.  (I question the idea of Louis Vuitton lugguage!)  Instead strip down to the minimum (maybe just your wedding ring); then include one or two cheap versatile costume jewelry,a scarf or two.

As far as items:  I take 4 blouses, 2 t-shirts, 3 pairs of jeans/slacks, 2 bras, 1 sports bra, 1 yoga pants, fleece, down vest, 10 underpants, 5 pr socks (white and black mixed), a couple of sleeveless colored undershirts/t shirts. Stick to darks, neutrals.

You can do it!!