How to Travel with a Carry-On Only

While I have been fortunate enough to have never lost a suitcase, there are enough horror stories out there to make you want to just travel with a carry-on.

If you’re thinking the same thing due to the recent news of luggage loss and delays, you aren’t alone.

Plus, I’m too impatient to be inconvenienced by waiting for luggage after a flight. 😂

I always try to find the best flight deal possible which often includes a base fare with no included cargo luggage, so a few years ago I took to traveling with a carry-on, whether it’s 2 weeks in Europe or 5 days in Mexico – I make it happen – with a weight limit of 21 lbs.

I’m convinced that a travelling with a carry-on is the only way to go.

travel carry on only

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We often see people struggling with suitcases in places I wouldn’t want to be hauling 40+ lbs, like up the steep stairwells of Positano or the cobblestone streets in medieval England.

If I can do it, so can you! Here are my best carry-on travel tips!

If you absolutely have to check a suitcase, consider purchasing a tracking device for your suitcase, like the Apple AirTag or Samsung SmartTag. These Bluetooth devices will help track any lost or misplaced luggage.

Pick your items thoughtfully

Save on your baggage fees by REALLY taking a look at what you want to pack. I mean really look.

How many times have you gone away and not worn a few items of clothing? I say it every time that I over pack. Even on short trips!

Checked baggage can range from $25 – $60 a piece, not including anything that is overweight or multiple bags!

Save time at the airport

Wondering how you can save time at the airport? How many times have you waited for what seems like an eternity waiting for your bags? Or watching the conveyor belt anxiously hoping yours actually made it?

Avoid the long check-in lines at the airport and breeze through to security once you’ve obtained your boarding pass – even better if you check-in online and printed or downloaded your pass on your phone!

By just taking your carry-on you can breeze past the baggage claim and start your trip!

how to travel with only a carry on
Ready for 9 days in South Africa and 8 days in England!

Ease of Travel

Navigating busy city streets can be challenging at the best of times, so why complicate things by adding a big suitcase in the mix? We love our backpacks or light suitcases that can easily be picked up and put overhead into planes or trains and into the trunks of cars.

My latest favourite travel bag is the Osprey Fairview 20 – it’s carry-on size approved, converts to a backpack and comes with a carrying strap in case you don’t want to wear it. You can fit A LOT into it – making it my number one carry-on travel bag!

It also comes in mens – the Farpoint 20.

Remember – the best carry-on luggage is one you can comfortably carry OR wear and keeps your items neatly organized, so keep that in mind while packing or choosing one to buy.

Related: What to Pack for an All-Inclusive Vacation (Plus Free Printable!)

Top Carry-On Travel Tips

Plan ahead

  1. Know your airline’s luggage policy. Find out if they allow personal items (and what qualifies as one), weight limits, item restrictions, and more.
  2. Invest in a luggage scale. I find digital luggage scales work best.
  3. Wear your heavy, bulky items on the plane. Have a heavy sweater or jacket? Wear it onboard and throw it in the overhead compartment or use it as a blanket!
  4. If you plan on bringing back a lot of souvenirs (or if you go to Italy you will want to buy ALL the linen and ceramics!!) another idea is to pack a foldable duffle bag to use as your carry-on coming home, and check your carry-on suitcase with heavier items.
how to travel with just a carry on
How I used to pack.

Pack Strategically

  • Start with the basics. You know you’re going to need some essential items like your passport, any medications, toothbrush, hairbrush, underwear, etc. Once you have an idea of some critical items you will have a better idea of how much space is left.
  • Pack items that you wear regularly and are comfortable in – don’t wear that new pair of shoes that aren’t broken in if you know you’re going to be walking around all day, or maybe that new shirt that wrinkles uncontrollably.
  • Pack outfits, not pieces. Think of how your clothing items pair together and mix and match a few pieces to a few different outfits. Nothing’s worse than opening your suitcase to find clothes that don’t pair well together.
  • Find out in advance if your hotel/Airbnb has laundry – because that will make a huge difference! We also did some laundry in the sink at our hotel in Rome using some Tide sink travel packs – and don’t forget the Tide sticks! Looking to do your own laundry along the way? Here’s how to hand wash your clothes in a sink.
  • By far the best travel-purchase has been our packing cubes. You can get them from many sites, but I particularly like the Eagle Creek ones (the material holds up better, and there are various sizes and even a flat board for dress shirts, pants and dresses!). I’ve also bought inexpensive packing cubes which just as easily do the job! If you don’t already have them, GET THEM. They just make your life easier when it comes to packing and staying organized!
  • Roll your items, don’t fold them. It minimizes wrinkles and actually takes up less space!
  • Don’t bother bringing (most of) your own toiletries – that’s why you take advantage of the items provided by your hotel (you can easily see if your Airbnb provides these items too). Many people bring checked luggage because they don’t think they will be able to bring certain items on board. YES you can bring a shaving razor on the plane. YES you can bring an aerosol can (provided it’s less than 100 ml/100 gm/3.4 oz). For pertinent items, try to find mini versions, like small deodorants or toothpastes. See what else you can pack in your carry-on.

It may take you a few tries – and a lot of repacking (tetris anyone?), but I maintain it’s easier to travel this way, especially if you are moving from city to city in the country you’re visiting. Give it a shot – you won’t know until you try!

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24 Comments

  1. Barbara Wilson
    May 7, 2020 / 1:09 pm

    Hi Sarah! Congratulations on your In Search of Sarah Blog- I have been reading through it- so great to read about all your experiences and find it very informative…..love the carry on hints! When Doug & I went to London & Paris on our honeymoon we just packed our carry ons…it was a bus trip and lots of people had huge suitcases and there we were with our wee ones. The bus tour guide told everyone on the bus how great it was we could do with one bag each! LOL Love your take on Excellence too- your pics make me want to go back NOW! Thank you Sarah- I love to travel too especially to our friends in Scotland- I love it there. Have been 4 times so far. They were to come here at the end of May for the month of June but of course now are not. I am going to read your Safari blog next….Happy Anniversary to you & Dana also! Love, Barb & Doug XOXO

    • Sarah
      May 7, 2020 / 1:54 pm

      Thank you so much Barb!! I really appreciate your comments! I bet you were the envy of everyone by just having a carry-on, haha!! I sooo miss Excellence right now! I’ve only scraped the surface of Scotland so we definitely want to go back there – I may need to hear from you on what we should see!
      Hope you and Doug are well!

  2. May 14, 2020 / 1:07 pm

    I’m a big believer in just a carry-on for international trips. No worries about lost luggage, and you can zip around so much easier! Great tips, Sarah!

    • Sarah
      Author
      May 14, 2020 / 4:42 pm

      Thank you!!! I’m convinced people just need to try it once and they’ll never look back!

  3. July 22, 2020 / 2:12 pm

    I have only ever travelled with just a carry-on once and I loved it! I hate waiting around at the airport for my luggage and it was so nice to just be able to get off the plane and start my vacation. The packing cubes have also made it easier to fit more into the carry-on.

    • Sarah
      Author
      July 22, 2020 / 5:18 pm

      Yes! They’re the best!!! My husband got me started on carry-on travel and I was like…are you kidding me? Haha, but once you do it once you’ll never look back!

  4. July 22, 2020 / 5:56 pm

    Oh wow this is so awesome! I will definitely need to put these tips to use as I am such a heavy packer! You are a queen!

    • Sarah
      Author
      July 22, 2020 / 6:02 pm

      Thank you Holly!! 🙂

  5. July 23, 2020 / 5:32 am

    This is a great post, Sarah. I am a budget traveller so most of the times I choose just the carry-on because I do not want to spend additional money on luggage. I still have not tried the packing cubes as I manage to normally fit everything without them, but I might need to give them a try!

    • Sarah
      Author
      July 23, 2020 / 6:16 am

      Thank you so much Polly! That’s awesome you can fit everything without packing cubes! I like them because they help me stay organized too!

  6. July 23, 2020 / 1:17 pm

    This is exactly how I prefer to travel until I started travelling with my kids. Sometimes we can manage to travel with only a carry-on but other times when we are going on long haul holidays for an extended period of time, we can’t fit everything in a carry-on.

    • Sarah
      Author
      July 23, 2020 / 6:01 pm

      I imagine it’s quite difficult with children! I’d need a suitcase just to go across town, haha!!

  7. July 23, 2020 / 6:47 pm

    Speaking as an experienced traveler who has unfortunately lost my luggage many times, I will never again travel with more than a simple carry on. These tips and expert advice is exceptional! Thanks so much for sharing!

    • Sarah
      Author
      July 23, 2020 / 7:02 pm

      Thank you so much Michelle! I try to convince everyone to at least try it!

  8. July 23, 2020 / 8:49 pm

    I am a moderate packer – not light or don’t stuff things inside either! In the past, we have always travelled with only a carryon suitcase or a backpack. However, after having twins, our packing got doubled. And we can never imaging travelling with only carry ons! We carry so many essentials, toys, clothes for the kids – although we try to make sure there’s only one checkin luggage we have and not too many – ha ha!

    • Sarah
      Author
      July 24, 2020 / 7:21 am

      Oh my goodness, I can’t even imagine! I’d need a suitcase just to go to the grocery store haha! You’re doing well to only have one checked piece of luggage! 🙂

  9. July 24, 2020 / 12:09 pm

    I agree, it’s so much easier to travel with just a carry-on. I can’t stand waiting for checked luggage after a long flight! It’s so nice to not have to lug a giant bag around full of “options” that I never end up wearing 😀

    • Sarah
      Author
      July 24, 2020 / 8:03 pm

      Exactly! I used to ALWAYS overpack – and even now with a carry-on I find myself doing the same sometimes haha!

  10. July 24, 2020 / 1:11 pm

    I totally agree! It’s super easy to travel with a carry-on and a backpack. Have been doing so for a few years since my kids can check-in their own bags! 🙂

    • Sarah
      Author
      July 24, 2020 / 8:04 pm

      That’s awesome!! It’s a great learning experience for kids too!

  11. July 24, 2020 / 6:38 pm

    I did a 3 week trip of Spain, and it’s the first trip we’ve done with just carry on. And it was so freeing and I can’t wait to travel like that again. We traveled around by train, so it was great not having much luggage as it make us more mobile. My other half was aghast that we were going to travel like that because he thought we wouldn’t have enough to wear, but he loved it .. and to be honest, we both had clothes we ended up not wearing.. so we could have packed lighter.

    • Sarah
      Author
      July 24, 2020 / 8:08 pm

      That’s awesome to hear that! You’re right, it is soooo freeing to be able to get places without throwing out a shoulder trying to heave a big piece of luggage. I don’t think I’ll ever go back!

  12. July 24, 2020 / 10:22 pm

    Great tips! I also pack old clothes – socks, underwear, an old pair of sneakers as backup – then I can throw them away as we go along on the trip which makes room for souvenirs! I collect mugs, so that’s the equivalent of about 6 socks. 🙂

    • Sarah
      Author
      July 25, 2020 / 7:31 am

      Thank you! Yes that’s a fabulous idea – I’ve done that with flip flops haha. Love the comparison of space!

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