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Man walking down a glass hallway in an airport pulling along a rolling carry-on suitcase
Prostock-studio | Adobe Stock

How to Travel With Just a Carry-On

Traveling with just a carry-on bag has plenty of benefits. You’ll have less stuff to haul around, you’ll be able to switch flights more easily (in case yours is delayed or canceled), you won’t have to wait around at baggage claim—and most importantly, you don’t have to worry about your stuff getting lost.

Pick the Right Carry-On

Amazon, Roam Luggage, & L.L. Bean

The right carry-on is a matter of personal preference. Do you want something super lightweight, a hard-sided suitcase, or a backpack? SmarterTravel Editors use a diverse range of bags as our go-to carry-ons, but our favorites are Eagle Creek’s Gear Warrior 4-Wheel International Carry-On, Roam Luggage’s The Carry-On, and L.L. Bean’s Approach Travel Backpack.

Whichever bag you choose, be sure to check that it fits within the maximum size limit for the airline you’re flying. Be careful when comparing measurements—some carry-on bags list their measurements without the wheels, but airlines definitely count the wheels when deciding if they will let your bag in the cabin. 

Downsize Your Toiletries

Don’t forget that flying with just a carry-on means that your liquids will be subjected to the 3-1-1 rule. Decant your regular toiletries into travel-sized containers, or invest in miniature versions of products to save even more space.

Some of my favorite travel-size items include:

Roll and Fold Your Clothes

Clothes rolled up in a carry-on suitcase, which is open on an off-white background
Kris Black | Adobe Stock

Does rolling or folding your clothes take up less space? We put both packing methods to the test and found that we were able to fit more folded items in our suitcase. However, I believe the real winning method is a combination of both methods—you can fold the majority of your clothes and then fit rolled-up items in the crevices of the remaining space. Don’t forget to fill up your shoes too (I like to pack socks inside of them). 

Try Compression Bags

Compression bags can help you fit more clothing into your carry-on. However, if you’re using the type that requires a vacuum to suck out the air, just make sure you’ll have access to a vacuum at your destination (lest you can’t fit everything in for the return journey.)

Or, choose a compression bag that doesn’t require a vacuum like this one that comes with a free hand pump, one that rolls up, or compression packing cubes.

Pack By Day

Close up of hands packing a suitcase
eddows | Adobe Stock

Being methodical about what you pack is the most important part of fitting everything in a carry-on. Rather than throwing in random pieces of clothing that you like, think through your itinerary day by day and pack a specific outfit to wear for each day/activity. This will make sure you pack only what you need (and nothing extra).

Do Laundry

It’s not glamorous but doing laundry once or twice on vacation makes it easy to travel with just a carry-on. If you’re staying in a vacation rental with free laundry machines, check to see if detergent is included (if not, detergent sheets are easy to pack and spillproof). If you don’t have access to a washer/dryer and don’t want to waste time at a laundromat, it’s easy to wash out a few items in your hotel room’s sink as you need them. Just make sure you have enough time for your clothes to air dry before you have to pack up and check out!

Wear Your Bulkiest Items

Save space in your carry-on by wearing your bulkiest clothes and shoes on the plane. Boots may be a pain to take off at the TSA checkpoint, but wearing them will free up a significant amount of space in your suitcase. The same goes for jackets and other heavy layers—they will keep you warm on the plane (or you can always take them off once you board and use them as a pillow. If you need even more room, you can always stuff smaller items in your jacket pockets (just make sure that they are securely zipped so nothing falls out.) 

Maximize the Carry-On/Personal Item Combo

Close up of person walking down glass airport hallway pulling along a carry on suitcase and carrying a briefcase
metamorworks | Adobe Stock

You’re allowed to take a carry-on bag plus a personal item in the cabin with you when you fly. Size requirements vary by airline, but your personal item must be able to fit under the seat in front of you. I like to travel with a rolling suitcase as my carry-on, and then a large shoulder bag that slides over the suitcase handle for easy transportation. A backpack is another great choice for a personal item (especially if you’ll be hiking or want one to use as a daypack). I like to pack my toiletries, electronics/chargers, and other essentials in my personal item so that I have easy access to them during the flight (and more space in my rolling carry-on for clothes and shoes). 

Watch the Weight Limit

There isn’t a weight limit for carry-ons on most domestic flights in the US, but it is something you’ll likely encounter with international airlines (and is generally strictly enforced). Make sure to check the weight limit and weigh your bag before you fly. We’re not advocating skirting the rules, but if you check in online and can bypass the check-in desk, it’s likely that your carry-on won’t get weighed.

Separate the Essentials

Close up of person's arms as they pack a well-organized carry-on suitcase
Xavier Lorenzo | Adobe Stock

Unfortunately, traveling with just a carry-on bag doesn’t guarantee that you won’t have to check your luggage. On packed flights, overhead bin space is at a premium, and you may have to gate-check your bag if you’re in one of the last boarding groups. 

Make sure that any essential items (such as keys, medications, etc.) are kept in your personal item, just in case you do have to gate-check the carry-on. It’s less likely that a gate-checked bag will get lost, but it’s not impossible. 

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