How to travel with only a carry on
Never check a bag again with these expert packing tips
Words— Kaitlyn McInnis
As a full time travel writer, I make a living packing my bags, hopping on a plane, and exploring new destinations — while this sounds like a lot of fun, it also comes with its own unique set of challenges... namely, living out of a suitcase efficiently. My cardinal rule? Never checking a full sized suitcase. Aside from the financial burden (it’s about $60 to check a bag one way!), cruising in and out of the airport, through customs, gate changes and delays, is a heck of a lot easier when all you have is one duffle bag or carry on spinner — and packing light really much more simple than it may seem.
I’ve survived three weeks in Japan, a whirlwind tour from South America to Europe, and endless other warm and cold climate transitions with just a carry on and a tote bag — and here’s how you can too.
Make a List
It can be easy to overpack if you don’t have a game plan. Avoid throwing in handfuls of random garments by loosely planning your outfits for each day or specific activity. If you know how many formal evenings, active mornings, beach days, etc, you may have on your trip, you’ll be able to pack exactly what you need for each occasion — nothing more, nothing less.
Wear Neutral Colours
The trick to packing light is being able to mix and match multiple pieces over the days, which is way, way easier if you’re only packing like colours. Personally, I only pack black clothing because I find it’s the easiest (and fastest) colour for putting together a super quick, re-wearable outfit, but this mix-and-match method will also worth with whites, beiges, and even neutral pops of colour like olive and navy.
Roll With It
Packing cubes and plastic bags are great, but the best method for packing light is definitely rolling rather than folding. Rolling your pants, shirts, and dresses or blazers takes up significantly less space in your suitcase or duffle bag. What’s more, this simple method also ensures your clothing gets less creases and wrinkles while in transit.
Choose footwear carefully
Although it’s easy to squish down and roll your clothes, squeezing multiple pairs of shoes into a carry on will always be a struggle — even for frequent flyers. If you’re flying to a warm destination, you can probably get away with a pair of sandals and a light pair of sneakers or espadrilles. If you’re travelling in the winter, wear your boots or clunkier shoes on the airplane and pack your more formal shoes. We recommend investing in a pair of espadrilles, which are casual enough to wear during the day but also transition quite seamlessly into evening wear.
Use all the free space
Sure, shoes take up a lot of space—but they’re also vessels. Roll your socks and underwear into balls and stuff your shoes with them. This will keep your shoes from getting squished while also basically creating free space in your carry on. This also goes for structured handbags or hats—anything that can be used as a vessel should be stuffed with clothes, charging cables, and other small items.
Always bring a canvas tote
I’ll be honest with you—sometimes only bringing a carry on can be nerve-wracking, especially if I spot something special abroad that I want to bring back home with me. That’s why I always tuck a canvas tote into the bottom of my suitcase, usually the same one I bring to the market or the beach. If I find that I just can’t fit everything back into my suitcase at the end of my trip, I roll as much of my clothes as I can into my tote bag as my carry on, and check my suitcase. This has only happened once, but it does act as a great peace of mind for worst-case packing scenarios.
Keep a pre-packed dopp kit
While having your day-to-day toothbrush and shampoo bottles may seem like a non-negotiable, keeping a pre-packed dopp kit with all of your go-to toiletries will save you time, planning, and a ton of space. You don’t have to continue buying mini bottles, either. We recommend picking up a set of reusable hard glass bottles that you can fill with your favourite products. This cuts down on the size of your toiletry bag without having to keep rebuying those wasteful mini bottles of shampoo and soap.
Bring half of what you packed
Here’s where we separate the packing novices from the next level packing wizards. Once you’ve carefully selected all the neutrals you’ll bring along with you, pull out about half of what you packed and tuck it back into your dresser drawers. You’d be surprised how many times you’ll be tempted to re-wear your most comfy jeans or your favourite sweater while abroad.