How to travel the world in a carry-on
If you haven’t yet seen our 9 Reasons to Never Check Luggage Again, check it out. It lays out our most compelling reasons to ditch the big luggage and travel light. It all boils down to three main themes: saving time, maintaining control, and retaining flexibility. In this article, we’ll share some of our best tips and techniques to help you get the most out of your carry-on. Then you can enjoy the same freedom and flexibility that we do when traveling the globe in carry-ons only.
Make a Packing List
As frequent travelers, both domestic and international, we live by packing lists. These lists are constantly evolving with little tweaks depending on the activities we’ve planned or new environments we expect to encounter. The lists flex and grow as our gear changes too. That’s the great thing about lists, they are yours to adjust as you need them to.
We have 3 basic lists for trips: one for warm weather vacations, one for cold weather vacations, one for business trips. Each trip gets its own list, but it starts from one of these as a template. We won’t bore you with the details, but the basics are: clothing, footwear, toiletries, gear, and miscellaneous items. Also included on the list are any trip-related To Do’s that need to happen before we depart.
Choose Your Vessel
Your choice of carry-on is fundamental to your success in being a carry-on only traveler. There are a variety of factors to consider since you’re going to be living out of this bag for days/weeks at a time. In order of importance: size, construction, ease-of-use, features, aesthetics, and price are things you should consider.
Size is a critical and often non-negotiable constraint when it come to air travel. Some airlines are more restrictive than others, but as of this writing, 45 linear inches (22 x 14 x 9 in) or 115 centimeters (56 x 36 x 23 cm) including handles and wheels seems to be the norm. As you’re shopping, be aware of any extensions or protuberances that may push your bag beyond the size restrictions of your chosen airline.
Your carry-on is more than a box with wheels. Whether you choose a hard-sided version or a soft-sided one, your carry-on must be light, strong, durable, and easy to maneuver. While it may be tempting to grab the cheapest thing at your local box store, a little attention spent on quality will serve you well in the long run.
There are a number of great brands out there, but there are a few features we’ve found to be key. It really comes down to the parts that move and that are stressed the most — look for these features:
- Strong zippers
- Solid connections at the handles that penetrate the body of the case
- Handles at the top and sides
- Durable and smooth-rolling wheels
- A handle that extends to a height that is comfortable for you
- Heavy stitching in soft-sided versions
- Decent ground clearance between the bottom of the case and the ground
- A few compartments for separating various items
- Hardshell if there is a strong likelihood that your carry-on will be exposed to weather
We’d recommend avoiding carry-ons with integrated battery packs. They seem gimmicky at best, and most security lines will require you to remove them at some point for inspection. Due to the occasional instances of lithium-ion batteries overheating or igniting mid flight, airlines are still trying to find a consistent policy regarding their use. Suffice to say, these features often create more hassle than they solve.
Fold, Roll, or Cube?
Over the years, we’ve tried it all and found fervent devotees of each method. Folding seems to require the least interaction with each article of clothing, so it might be faster to pack and unpack, especially if space is not of great concern.
Packing cubes are often touted as near-magical devices, but they’re really just smaller bags. If they helps you organize, go for it. We have yet to find a packing methodology using packing cubes that really saves us time, effort or space. We’re still looking though.
We’ve found rolling to be the best balance between handling and space utilization. With rolling, you are able to maximize the number of clothing pieces in a bag while minimizing the wrinkles. (There are still wrinkles, though. There will always be wrinkles.) Our advice is to try all three and see which works best for you.
What About Shoes?
Perpetually necessary, yet definitely bulky. Our advice is to take as few pairs as possible and use the space inside to pack socks or fragile items. Also, pack them in their own dedicated plastic/nylon bags so as to keep the dirt and germs off of your other clothing (shower caps also do the trick). If possible, wear your bulkiest pair on the plane to save space in your bag. You can also utilize space in your 2nd bag/personal item to bring an extra pair or two.
As your trip progresses, your dirty laundry will start to rear its smelly head. Stay on top of this by re-rolling your used clothing and depositing them into a plastic or nylon bag. When you get home simply dump out the bag, sort, and wash. You can also wash, rinse, and air-dry things in your hotel’s bathroom. We like Dr. Bronner’s and Woolite for this because they are gentle and come in TSA-sized bottles. Synthetic fabrics and merino wool are ideal for travel because you can get a couple wears out of them and they dry quickly in a bathroom or on a balcony. Check out Ex Officio and Uniqlo’s Airism* line for some of our travel-tested favorites.
* We have no affiliation or partnership with these brands. We’ve just tried them on our own and liked them.
For longer journeys, consider having your laundry done on location. Your hotel may offer laundry services for a premium, but your best bet is to find a laundry service in-town. Please note that we’re not proposing that you spend your vacation sitting in a coin-operated laundromat. Rather, locate a service where you can drop off your dirty laundry and pick it up later clean and folded. TripAdvisor, Yelp and Google Reviews are a great source for finding these services in your destination.
Your Personal Item (2nd Bag)
Your second bag can be an extension of your carry-on, potentially doubling your packing space. It can be overflow space, dedicated solely to shoes and toiletries, or be the secure repository of your expensive electronics. Regardless of how you choose to leverage your second bag, here are some qualities to look for:
Hands-free operation – backpacks, messenger bags, or anything you can throw over your shoulder. You don’t want to sacrifice a free hand to carry this bag.
Ease of access – You will be in and out of this bag a lot — looking for passports, lip balm, or your headphones. Make sure your bag has compartments that you can access easily, without having to fumble with clips or buttons.
Leverage Your Travel Companions
Your travel companions will be bringing carry-on bags too. We’re thinking about kids primarily, but insert a willing partner or light-packing friend here also. Our kids were pulling their own bags by age 4 and because they are smaller, they tend to require less luggage space for clothing, shoes, and accessories. We’ve had great success in portioning off a third of their bag space to handle overflow from our bags, bulky items (like shoes or snorkeling masks), or souvenirs for the trip home. So, remember to think beyond your bag when packing, you may have more space than you realize!
These are just a few tips that have helped us travel the world lighter and easier. What are some of your favorite travel light tips? Let us know in the comments below!
Safe travels! – A&K