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Page updated on 05/08/2021
People are always surprised when I tell them I don’t even own a bag that’s bigger than the standard 22″ rolling carry-on size. I rarely check a bag and typically that’s only when coming home with bottles of alcohol (hello, Scotland, I’m looking at you…). I almost always pack carry-on only.
Basically, the idea is to pack enough for a week to 10 days and then do laundry as needed. Like this, I can travel for a week, a month, or longer.
The packing featured in this post was for two weeks in northern Scotland in June. That meant I needed to be prepared for cold weather (highs are typically in the mid 60’s F.) and outdoor activity like hiking, walking tours, and exploring castles and ruins. I needed hiking boots and a down coat, not sandals and shorts, even though it was summer. This is essentially the same content as I brought for 8 days in Ireland less than a year later.
Table of Contents
How to Pack Carry-On Only
Why do this? Why not just check a bag?
I prefer to pack light because it makes moving around once you get to your destination so much easier. My rolling bag typically weighs between 20 and 23 lbs when packed and I can’t imagine traveling with anything larger and heavier. It’s just not necessary for me. My husband David packs the same way and his clothes are bigger and weigh more than mine. Also, I don’t have to worry about my bag getting lost. That said, even if I did have to check a bag (due to TSA restrictions for example), it would still be this size with the same contents.
Tips on selecting the right size bag for your airline
Check your airline’s carry-on restrictions. Some of the low-cost carriers will only let you bring on one bag (not one bag plus “personal” item) and some limit the bag’s weight to 7 kilos (about 15 lbs). The weight of your bag alone could take up half the allowance.
Most US and International airlines have size maximums (typically 9”x14″x22″) and sometimes weight limits.
Our flight on Virgin Atlantic allowed a carry on of that size with a weight limit of 22 lbs plus “personal item” (which was my backpack). American and United have the same size limit but no weight restriction.
It’s always a good idea to check the weight of your luggage before you head to the airport. If you’re at all concerned try a luggage scale.
What kind of luggage?
Luggage: I’ll admit I’m kind of obsessed with finding the perfect carry-on bags and I have several different rolling bags and smaller carry-on bags. Right now my favorite is a Travelpro bag I’ve had for a few years. I like it because it’s very lightweight and it has two wheels instead of four.
Spinner luggage is nifty, but you sacrifice interior space to get those four wheels. This Travelpro bag on Amazon is probably the same or close to what I have in this post. As for the backpack, my “personal item”, I like it because it’s small enough to hold what I want to have access to on the flight and fits under the seat. Having a backpack also allows me to be hands-free if we are taking public transportation to/from the airport and when boarding the plane.
TIP: Check the weight of your luggage when empty before you buy. Ultralight 22″ rolling bags weigh about 5 lbs but I’ve seen others weigh in at more than 10 lbs! That cuts into what you can carry if there are weight restrictions. My Travelpro weighs 6 lbs empty. I’m working on finding something lighter!
Using Packing Cubes
I’m a recent convert. I used to put all my clothes into ziplock bags but I gave packing cubes a try last summer and loved how organized I felt with them. They hold more than the plastic bags and don’t slide around inside the suitcase.
In the photo above, the red bags are the set I bought last summer and in the top photo, there are two new sets; small cubes (no longer available but these are similar) and the blue oblong cubes. I purchased the small cubes because I felt more organized with them.
For this trip, I used two small cubes, one oblong and one medium cube. Once I had enough dirty laundry, I move clean things out one of the cubes and into another and the empty bag becomes my “laundry bag”.
The small cubes are 11″ x 6.75″ x 3″, the oblong cubes are 13.8″ x 5.1″ x 3.54″, and the medium cubes are 13.75″ x 9.75″ x 3.75″. The large cubes in the bottom photo are 17.5″ x 12.75″ x 4″ but I find them a bit large (they take up almost the entire bottom of my suitcase).
So, what’s in the bag?
In the photo above are all the clothes I brought for two weeks of travel. Most of that, except what I wore on the plane, fit into my rolling suitcase. The color theme for this trip was black, white, grey and purple/blue. Most of the tops can be layered with the sweaters and just about everything can be mixed and matched with several items.
3 pairs of pants (lightweight hiking pants, jeans, and slim black shiny jeans that could look a little dressy for dinner)
1 dress and leggings
1 sleeveless dressy top (not shown here-I threw this in last minute but ended up wearing it several times out to dinner with the black jeans)
3 short sleeve quick dry t-shirts and 1 tank top
4 long sleeve t-shirts (2 are lightweight thermal)
2 sweaters, both cashmere (one pullover, one cardigan hoodie)
3 pairs of shoes; hiking boots (Anhu Montara), Sketchers slip-on sneakers, and tall back leather boots. Those Ahnu hiking boots are the most comfortable boots I’ve ever owned. Never a blister and I own two pairs.
3 scarves; 1 light silk, 1 heavier silk, 1 cashmere wrap (giant, like a blanket which I carried it on the plane)
Ultimately, I wore everything but the tank top and the bathing suit. Some things I wore more than once and several things were hand washed along the way.
How does all this get packed?
Above is what went into the bottom layer of the suitcase. The socks got stuffed into the boots and sneakers. The bras, underwear, and bathing suit are all in the teal colored oblong packing cube, and the packable raincoat fits into its own zippered pouch and weighs about 8 oz.
Above is what went into the top layer of the suitcase.
In the small green cube are the pajama bottoms, t-shirt, and 4 long sleeve shirts.
In the small yellow cube were the dressy top, short sleeve t-shirts, and a tank top.
In the medium red cube are the two sweaters, 2 scarves (I didn’t bring the red one) and the denim shirt. All of the packing cubes had room to spare.
How it fits: Into the bottom layer, I put the oblong cube in the center channel between the bag’s handles. Around the edges, I placed the shoes and the raincoat. On the next layer, I placed the full packing cubes on top and tightened them down with the suitcase’s compression straps.
Rolling vs Folding
Honestly, I don’t find it matters much. I used to swear by rolling my clothes, but now that I use the cubes, folding works just as well. I fold with the “Konmari Method”. But it doesn’t matter as long as it fits!
Below is the full bag, packed. My pants are folded in half and placed on the left side of the bag in the flat zippered compartment of the suitcase lid.
Extras: In the photo below; the purple Travelon purse on the top left (my day bag at destination), hat and gloves, were laid flat on top of the packing cubes. The smaller pouch purse (top right) was carried on with my money, passport, phone, etc inside. This bag is small enough to be stuffed in my backpack as necessary.
I didn’t want to carry on my coat so I put in in a space bag, squeezed out the air and slid it into the front flat pocket on the outside of my suitcase.
What do I wear on the plane?
Below is what I wear and carry on to the plane. The dress is loose fitting and comfortable when worn with leggings and boots. The cashmere wrap keeps me warm.
What about that laundry?
Yes, typically I have to wash out a few things. In cold destinations, this isn’t as much of an issue. In hot destinations, I might pay to have laundry done, like in Cambodia, but it’s so inexpensive (about $1 a kilo) that it’s worth it. Sometimes when we’ve stayed in one place for a week, like a vacation rental in Paris, we’re able to use a washer in the apartment.
Keep in mind that if you’re traveling from place to place, the only people who see you repeatedly are your traveling companions so if you wear the same thing twice, no one will notice! I’ve found that in cold destinations, like this trip to Scotland, most photos show me in a coat and you can’t even see what I’m wearing! On this trip, I only needed to hand wash some underthings as well as a few shirts.
TIP: use liquid soap or shampoo to wash out things in a hotel room sink. Rinse and squeeze as much water out of the clothes as possible. Then take a clean dry towel and lay out the clothes on it on the floor. Roll it up tight and squeeze. The towel will absorb more water out of the clothes and they will dry faster. Hang the clothes to dry.
What’s in my backpack?
The photo above shows everything that fits in my backpack which goes under the seat in front of me. Obviously, everyone brings different things, but for me, these are the most typical items:
Camera (Sony mirrorless DSLR) and extra batteries and charger.
electronics bag (power stick battery, multi USB charger, etc, charger cords for Surface, smartwatch, and phone)
zippered wallet with passport, credit cards, cash, etc.
liquids* in TSA size bag
makeup, brush, comb
Sunglasses and reading glasses
snacks and gum
antibacterial wet wipes* and kleenex
Ziplock bag with a t-shirt, underwear, bra, and socks (just in case I have to gate check the rolling bag and something happens to it).
* I have lots of little bottles and jars into which I put my favorite products. No need for full sized packaging. *Antibacterial wipes are a must for airplanes. As soon as I sit down I wipe down the armrests, tray table, etc.
That’s my process! I keep ongoing standard packing lists which I copy and update for every trip. This helps me to not forget anything and evolves for every trip.
What do you think? Do you pack carry-on only? Want to give it a try? Have questions? I’m happy to answer them, just leave a comment!