How to Fly With Just a Carry-On

Passenger carry on luggagePassenger using carry on luggage as foot rest
Mykyta Starychenko/Dreamstime

Our tips will help you travel light.

In an era of airline cutbacks, overbooked flights, and delays, delays, delays, there’s a long list of reasons why traveling with only a carry-on is preferable to checking a bag: Your luggage stays in your sight, so there's less risk of loss or damage; you won’t have to jump through hoops to retrieve your belongings if you miss your connection and get stranded overnight; it’s less expensive (no checked-bag fees!); and you'll save the time otherwise spent at baggage claim. Of course, if you’re a food and beverage connoisseur, you may find yourself checking a bag full of goodies for your return leg, but whether you’re aiming to avoid overweight baggage charges or keep your gear close at hand in the overhead bin, our tips will have you zipping through those security scanners in no time.

1. Prepare to Rewear

First things first: Check the weather where you’re headed, count the number of days you’ll be away, and tally up how many outfits you’ll need. Will you be doing a lot of walking, hiking, or working out? Will you have to change into something nice for dinner? Does your hotel have a pool? Pack twice as many pairs of underwear and socks as you think you’ll need, and plan to mix and match a capsule collection of basics for everything else. Undergarments aside, you can rewear pretty much anything at least twice, especially if you manage to avoid spills and stains. (A travel-size laundry kit will help if you’re accident-prone.) Shoes and bulky top layers take up the most space, so pick a few items you absolutely have to have and work around them; some hotels will provide workout gear, including sneakers, for a nominal fee, so do your research before you leave. Wear the things that take up the most space on the plane, and always, always pack a swimsuit. You just never know.

2. Pick the Proper Personal Item

If you’re traveling in basic economy, you probably won't have the luxury of overhead-bin space, and your carry-on will have to fit under the seat in front of you. In that case, we recommend a slim backpack with a 24-liter capacity or less—Cotopaxi’s Nazca pack and Timbuk2’s Never Check Expandable pack are both good options. If you're a light packer, a sleek little underseater is all you need, and Delsey makes a nice one. If you’re in plain old economy class, though, you can stash your rollaboard overhead and use your personal item as another packing tool. Pro-tip: Stash toiletries at the top of your bag where you can easily pull them out for screening, and group food items together so you won’t have to repack completely if and when those organic materials trigger the scanner.

3. Don’t Sweat the Liquids Rule

Technically, the TSA’s 3-1-1 mandate—as many 3.4-ounce bottles as you can fit in a clear, plastic, quart-sized bag—is still in place, but you can usually get by with keeping your liquids in a regular Dopp kit or toiletries bag instead of a ziplock, as long as the bottles themselves aren’t larger than the prescribed 3.4-ounce volume. If you’re attached to your daily routine, decant large bottles of product into smaller travel-sized ones, or pick up what you need once you land; if you’re not, rely on your hotel or Airbnb to provide passable alternatives for the length of your stay. To streamline your kit even further, consider solid perfumes and facial bar soaps or wipes instead of liquid versions.

4. Shop Accordingly on the Ground

It’s hard to resist a good souvenir shop, and honestly, you shouldn’t have to—mementos are a great way to remind you of experiences and adventures past. We highly recommend bringing at least one reusable, packable bag for the treasures you pick up on the road, and/or traveling with enough room in your suitcase to accommodate potential purchases. (We know of at least one shopaholic who carries a mostly empty suitcase for just that reason). If space is at a premium and you can’t cram anything else into your carry-on, plenty of stores will ship purchases back for you; if you’re going big and your suitcase is exceptionally heavy, sending it home with a mailing service like Luggage Free instead of paying the airlines’ overweight baggage fees may make more sense. Just be sure to run the numbers before you buy out the store, as costs vary based on where you’re going and what carrier you’re flying with.

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