Skip the Checked Bag: How to Pack Only a Carry On Anywhere
By Franki Hanke
Even long trips can fit inside a carry-on bag when done right.
There’s something luxurious about overpacking a huge suitcase, but for some trips, a bulky suitcase is expensive and annoying to manage. Instead, packing only a carry-on allows you maximum flexibility when traveling and saves some cash at the airport.
After a two-week trip through four countries in Europe with only my carry-on suitcase and a personal item, here are the travel packing tips and tricks that made it possible.
Create a packing list.
If you’re an over-planner like me, you probably always do this anyway, but the more you limit what you’re packing, the more important this preparation is. If you’re traveling to multiple destinations, you’ll need to consider these questions for each spot.
How long is the trip?
Consider the length of your trip, and figure out if there’s an opportunity to clean clothes within the itinerary. When visiting Germany, my friend and I stayed overnight with a friend, so we were able to run a load of our heavily worn items like underwear, pajamas, and base layers.
If you’re not staying with family or friends willing to share their machine, pack some laundry detergent to wash items in a sink or bathtub. This requires a two to three-day stay in one spot, depending on the time it takes to air-dry your items. If your trip includes this, it’s great to refresh your most worn items to clean anything that was unexpectedly dirtied.
The SinkSuds travel pack comes with a six-pack of single-use detergent pouches and a sink stopper to create your washbasin. Use on-site hangars to hang-dry or drape items over a shower bar or bed frame.
What kind of clothes will you need?
Consider both activities and weather. Don’t forget to check the weather for all your destinations both for temperature and chance of rain.
→ Will you need any formal clothing for a nice dinner or event?
→ Do you plan to work out?
→ Will you need a swimsuit?
→ Do you plan on any specialized activities that require certain clothes?
Add items to your packing plans based on your needs. When creating your capsule wardrobe, you’ll use this prep to pack only the items you need.
Invest in multi-functional shoes.
Multiple pairs of shoes take up the most space in a suitcase. By cutting down to a single pair, you save that space for clothes (which you can’t re-wear as much as shoes).
Find a pair of shoes that fits the bill for all your planned activities, if possible. If you’re planning an extremely active trip that demands sneakers or specialized hiking boots, you likely won’t be able to get away with a single pair.
However, if you’re planning a trip with some tourism (aka lots of walking), leisure, and dining, you can opt for a pair of multi-functional shoes like ankle, height boots. My favorites are Aqua College’s Lori boots which come in a few different colors in waterproof suede. The simple shape, but slight heels make them fitting for your dinners, but the supportive sole and waterproof suede are walking shoe material. While the Lori boots often go out of stock, there’s two other similar styles: Liya which has a larger heel and Loretta which has a more subtle heel.
In Greece, we walked over sixteen miles one day, and my feet were barely sore. I still rely on these boots, now in two colors, for long shopping days or trips where I don’t want sneakers to bring my outfit down a notch.
Choose the right bags.
While an open-top tote is a convenient choice for a personal item when you have a big checked bag, it doesn’t always optimize space well when you’re trying to pack light.
→ Check carry-on sizes carefully for all the airlines you’ll fly. They can sometimes differ.
→ Opt for a hard-sided suitcase if you’re prone to overpacking. It will provide a harder limit.
→ While a roller suitcase is easier to roll on flat ground, depending on your destination, a duffel might be easier to carry. Europe is full of cobblestone streets that didn’t agree with my roller bag.
→ Opt for a backpack as a personal item for easier carrying and more space.
A backpack, while sometimes less stylish, has exterior pockets for quick access to chargers, earplugs, and hand sanitizer. Plus, the zipper makes it easier to compact the items inside by shutting it. You can’t overpack a tote without a mess.
Create a capsule wardrobe.
This is the real must-do. None of my other tips will help you if you overpack clothes. A capsule wardrobe will maximize your space without overpacking.
What is a capsule wardrobe?
A capsule wardrobe is a term coined in the 1970s by boutique-owner, Susie Faux. The idea was to create a wardrobe of limited essentials that can be worn for multiple seasons. With high-quality basics, multiple items could be worn interchangeably and wouldn’t have to be replaced as frequently.
For those of us who struggle with the concept of limiting our wardrobe, travel is the perfect time to rely on a capsule wardrobe.
How to create one for your trip
To create a capsule wardrobe for your trip, you’ll want to choose a color palette so that you can easily add color on top of black and white without anything clashing.
1. Survey your closet.
A capsule wardrobe is built on interchangeability. So, first, consider what items you’ll need or most want to bring. A pair of pants is a good place to build around since you can wear them over and over again.
You’ll also want to pull out and see the items you need to bring based on your packing list.
→ If there’s potential for rain, pack a fold-down raincoat. This Cole Haan rain jacket has traveled with me for four years. It’s light-weight but adds protection against light rain and winds without ruining an outfit. It comes in a variety of colors to match your capsule wardrobe.
→ If you need a formal outfit, figure out what dress code you need to fit. Pull options out that fit this dress code that might be re-wearable or pair with basics for day-to-day outfits, too. For example, a satin blouse could elevate your daily pants enough for dinner, but comfortable enough to wear all day.
→ If the weather will be varying, pull out some simple layering pieces: a long-line cardigan, shacket, or other lightweight jacket is ideal.
→ If you plan to workout, consider if there are any items you can wear first for day-to-day before working out in comfortably, since you won’t want to re-wear items after sweating profusely in them. Simple t-shirts and opaque leggings can work for a travel day before becoming your workout outfit for extra wear.
2. Build from there.
Based on what you pulled out first, build on top of it. Find base-layer shirts that work alone (with your chosen pants) and layered under all your top-layer items. This allows you to adapt to changing temperatures and keep your look different throughout. Keep your base-layers thin and add warmth with your layered options. While a variety of thick blouses or sweaters is comfy, it will eat up all your space fast.
If you’re going on a longer trip or want more variety, add in additional bottom options after finding things that match with your core pair of pants. When I traveled, I opted to bring a single skirt that matched with all the same tops so I had two dramatically different looks with each item.
3. Add universal accessories.
Once you’ve picked clothes, it might be helpful to try on each outfit option. In each one, consider what accessory you’d reach for normally. Then, pack sparing accessories you can use with multiple outfits.
For example, packing a pair of simple, statement earrings like large hoops and a simple scarf can accessorize multiple outfits (and add warmth). Keep all your jewelry in matching metal tones (plus, match your belt and shoes) so nothing clashes.
4. Pack them up.
From there, you’re set to go. When you’re packing, organize your clothes by function since items aren’t each for one outfit. Rolling items inside your packing cubes can keep them wrinkle-free.
If you do need to bring any bulkier items due to cold weather, consider using vacuumed Ziploc bags. These are a big of a pain, but by removing the air in the bag they compact big items down flat.
Switch to non-liquid alternatives.
The Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, as we know them, allows for liquids in small sizes fit inside a single plastic bag for carry-on luggage. You’ve likely heard the 3-1-1 rule. That is, travelers may bring 3.4 ounce or 100 millimeter liquids in one quart sized plastic bag. This is limiting and annoying because all your toiletries are in one toiletry bag, but your conditioner is in that quart-size plastic bag.
Instead, swap everything you can to a non-liquid alternative. It gives you more freedom with your limited liquids and you don’t have to worry about having enough of each product.
What to swap
Swap items that aren’t integral to your skin and hair care routine. There are likely products that you won’t want to swap out like your absolute favorite skin treatment, but swapping your less-important items makes space for those core options.
Ethique, available on Amazon, specializes in plastic-free items perfect for this packing hack. They offer specialized products for your specific hair and skin type, but if you’re overwhelmed opt for their starter pack. With their Pinkalicious Solid Shampoo, Wonderbar Solid Conditioner, Bliss Bar Face Cleanser, and Sweet Orange & Vanilla Butter Block in one set, they replace four of your typical liquids. Upgrade the packaging situation with self-draining storage containers.
For your body products, start with their body sampler which has two body wash bars, two body scrub, a body butter bar, and a deodorant.
Pro-tip: bring an extra Ziplock bag to store your wet items in if they dry out in time for packing up.
Depending on your trip length and skincare routine, you might need a larger solid soap and lotion than the sampler sizes from Ethique. Upgrade to one of their full-sizes, if needed.
For sunscreen, use Neutrogena’s Ultra Sheer stick for SPF 70 protection in a handy stick. If you’ll be scuba diving or swimming in the ocean, opt for a reef-safe option like Waxhead’s Zinc Oxide stick.
For first-time use, proceed carefully. A little goes a long way.
While it’s probably unnecessary with how much space you’re already saving, there are solid alternatives to toothpaste and mouthwash, too. Try toothpaste tablets. You chew them and then use your toothbrush like normal.
There’s a plethora of makeup and skin-care products with solid, stick alternatives.
For face sunscreen, use Supergoop! Glow Stick which combines a hydrating oil with SPF 50.
For foundation, use Lancome’s Teint Idole Ultra Wear Foundation Stick for a full-coverage, all-day wear in a compact stick form. On a budget? Maybelline’s Fit Me Stick Foundation performs great but has a smaller shade range.
For moisture, use the Olay Face Serum stick as a moisturizer. It combines three different combinations into a convenient shape fit for travel. But, if you have a skincare routine that your skin responds well to, you might not want to change it too much.
Make sure your travel routine includes lots of moisture because travel is often very drying. I travel with Neutrogena’s Hydroboost sheet masks for adding moisture on international flights or when hanging in the hotel room. For a more subtle treatment (for wearing on the plane) or your morning routine, bring a few of the Skyn Cooling Eye Gels. These single-use items take up less space than potted treatments and are conveniently leak-free.
For the same reason, don’t forget your lip balm!
Minimize Everything Else
For all your other products, re-package them into smaller containers, get free trial sizes with reward points (like you can at Sephora), or even purchase mini versions. For many products, the mini version is even a better deal.
Use packing cubes.
The hype for packing cubes is real. They condense your items tighter while keeping your bag organized. When you’re packing light, this is especially important because you likely won’t have the extra space to keep things organized otherwise.
Opt for an e-reader.
Long flights are the perfect time to read, but when you’re packing light, a few small items add up quickly, especially with heavy books. Instead, use an e-reader or tablet for your reading. The Paperwhite is slim with subtle lighting so you don’t disrupt anyone else on the red-eye flight.
What’s your favorite of our travel packing tips and tricks?
Now, enjoy skipping the line-up at baggage claim and put those saved baggage fees towards an extra treat during your getaway. If you have other secrets to save space, share them in the comments below. The best travel packing tips and tricks come from experience!
The above content may contain affiliate links. Finer Things earns from qualifying purchases. When you click and shop, we receive a small commission to support our writers.