I used to be the worst offender for overpacking whenever I travelled. I’d always come home with clothes and shoes I hadn’t worn, plus numerous items that I hadn’t used. Now I am a total convert when it comes to travelling carry on only. It’s easier than you might think and the benefits are huge:
- You can get through the airport faster; check in online and when you get to the airport you can go straight to security. When you land just get off the plane and go. Forget about standing in check in queues or hanging around waiting for luggage at the other end.
- No more anxiety about whether your possessions will be damaged by airport baggage manglers, or whether your bag will even arrive at your destination at all, something that really concerns me when I am travelling and a missing bag could ruin my whole trip.
- You have less weight to carry; there is nothing worse than the regret of overpacking when you are struggling around with an extra 5 kilos of things you haven’t used
- If you are travelling with a budget airline, you can save money on baggage fees
With smart packing, a 40 litre backpack should be enough to carry everything you need for any length trip; from a weekend away, to backpacking round the world for a year. Once you go over a week or two, the packing list remains pretty much the same.
Always check your airline’s specific allowances before flying, but as a general guide, a carry on bag sized 55cm x 35cm x 20 cm or less should work for most airlines. Some airlines impose a weight restriction and although I’ve never been challenged, it’s sensible to stay within a kilo or two of it just in case.
The key to packing carry on only is maximising space and weight:
Clothes and Shoes
My number one rule for clothes and shoes is that everything must go with everything; if a top only goes with one bottom, leave it behind. Take tops and bottoms that all match so you can make several outfits out of the same clothes. Denim shorts and jeans are especially versatile and can be dressed up or down as needed.
Shoes must match all outfits. At a maximum, take one pair of casual shoes/sandals/flip flops, one pair of comfortable shoes like trainers/running shoes, and one pair of smarter shoes/sandals/flip flops.
Only take things that you know you will wear. If you never wear something at home, the chances are that you won’t wear it when you’re away; leave it behind.
Take clothes that can do double duty, like shorts and a T-shirt that can be used as pyjamas, but also worn in the day if needed, or items of clothing that can be easily dressed up and down.
I absolutely swear by packing cubes for getting the most amount of clothes into the smallest amount of space. To pack the cubes, work from one end to the other, rolling each item of clothing tightly and placing it into the cube, zipping it up as you go. Put all the large items in first. When the cube is full, feel around for any pockets of space and bring the zips to that place. Open the zips just wide enough and push the smaller items in. Repeat this until every bit of space is full; you’d be amazed at how much more you can squeeze in versus packing clothes loose in your bag.
Using packing cubes, you should be able to pack enough clothes plus underwear for a week or two. If you are travelling for longer than this then you can either wash clothes in the sink as you go, or arrange to have laundry done when you need it. It is super common in Asia and much of South and Central America to have someone do your laundry and it is inexpensive.
If you will be travelling through more than one climate, take clothes that can be worn alone in hot climates but layered to create warm outfits in cold climates. Look out for warm jackets that pack down small, such as down jackets.
Wear or carry your bulkiest items on your flight. I always wear my trainers when I fly and carry my hoodie to save space in my bag. This is even more important if you are travelling to a cold destination and will be taking a coat and heavier clothes.
You can also buy clothes and underwear made out of special fabrics that are lighter, dry faster, and have antibacterial properties to prevent them from smelling bad. These are especially perfect if you will be travelling for an extended period of time.
Due to the restrictions on liquids in hand luggage, for many people, toiletries can pose one of the biggest challenges to travelling carry on only.
Current regulations state that liquids must be carried in a clear, plastic bag no bigger than 20cm x 20cm, each individual item must contain no more than 100mls, and the combined quantity of all liquids must not exceed 1000mls.
Fortunately, for many toiletries, there are non-liquid alternatives. The trick is to swap as many items as possible, allowing you to take what you really need to as liquids.
- Shampoo/Conditioner – Use bar shampoo/conditioner. I love Alphy & Becs Coconut & Lemon Verbena Conditioning Shampoo Bar, which works well on my hair even on surf trips, and smells divine.
- Body wash – Use soap and cut the bar to size to save space and weight
- Deodorant – Use stick versions
- Suncream – Use stick versions
- Laundry detergent – cut a small piece of stain remover bar like Vanish, then use locally bought laundry detergent or soap to clean your clothes on the road.
- Make up – Use powder foundation. Check whether your favourite brand makes a travel compact. I have a Dior travel pallet that contains miniature versions of mascara, eyeshadow, concealer, lip gloss, and pencils, which is great for saving space and weight versus taking my entire make up bag.
- Nail varnish remover – Use nail varnish remover wipes
- Make up remover – Use make up remover wipes
Once you are down to the items that you can’t live without in liquid form, decant them into smaller containers and only take as much as you need. You will be able to buy more of certain things when you arrive at your destination, and depending on where you stay, you may be able to get by on the toiletries that other travellers leave behind when they move on.
It is good to have a lightweight toiletry bag with several clear compartments, like the Boots hanging toiletry bag, to keep everything together and organised.
One last tip for the girls, if you don’t already use one, I would highly recommend getting a Mooncup. Not only will you save space by not carrying any sanitary products, but also you won’t have to worry about finding more when you run out. Tampons, for example, can be especially difficult to find in Asia and other developing world countries.
When packing as much as possible into a small space, keeping everything organised becomes even more important.
Packing cubes not only allow you to pack more in, but they also allow you to keep your clothes organised. You might like to use each one for certain types of clothes, or use them to separate clean and dirty clothes.
Clear zip lock bags are inexpensive and a great way of keeping smaller items together and organised.
General Space Saving Tips
It is well worth investing in a few products that are specifically aimed at travellers.
Using a microfibre towel can save a ton of space and weight over taking a regular towel, plus they dry much faster too which is great for when you’re moving about and don’t want to pack a heavy wet towel.
If you are travelling to more than one country during your trip, you may want to take a multi country adapter rather than separate adapters for each country.
Most airlines allow a personal item, usually a small bag, in addition to your hand luggage item. Use that to carry valuables, documents, flight essentials and anything else you can fit in. Always double check your airline’s allowances before you travel.
Lastly, think about what you really need versus what you can live without. Travelling with just your essentials can drastically reduce the amount you need to pack. Similarly, don’t pack ‘just in case’ items. Things do run out and break, but unless you are going somewhere completely remote, you will be able to pick up most items on the road.
How do you maximise space and weight for carry on?
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Happy travels 🙂
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