Last Updated: June 28, 2021
What do you pack into a carry-on when you will be traveling for close to 3 weeks and visiting 4 destinations with different weather conditions? It is not the first time we have been challenged with “Heavy Thoughts on Packing Light” and it will not be the last! In this post, we share tips and tricks we have learned throughout the years to pack and travel with only carry-on luggage.
We have been ardently embracing a minimalist lifestyle for as long as we can remember and it has extended into our travels. On our longest trip ever, we travelled with only carry-on for close to 3 months as we visited 10 countries, flew on 21 flights over 31,458 miles and stayed in 24 hotels.
Can you imagine how inconvenient it would have been to not only lug around a large bag around on public transit, check it and wait for it after every flight, worry if it would be lost or damaged along the way but also to unpack and re-pack it? It was not easy to figure out what to put in our MEC Shuttle Pack II ~ 25 liter backpack but where there is a will, there is a way and in the end, it was the right decision and quite life changing.
Here are some of the reasons why we do not check bags:
Even if we qualify for free checked bags on many airlines, we do not check any very often.
- “Dude, where’s my bag?”: The thought of arriving somewhere and not having our bag is an inconvenience we don’t want to deal with. It does not happen that often on the greater scheme of things but still something we would rather avoid. There is also the complications of having to make claims when your bag is damaged which takes time and is quite frustrating. In addition, we would actually have to spend $ to buy a bag to check, which is not something we want to invest in either.
- “Does it spark joy?”: Sorry to go Marie Kondo on you but for us, packing more stuff into a large back to check, having to arrive earlier to the airport to check it, and then waiting for it to be offloaded does not spark joy because we consider it a waste of time. We estimate you lose 30 minutes each time you check a bag, even with priority status. We would rather take the time to pack efficiently in a carry-on bag because it gives us flexibility and minimizes the burden of feeling weighed down; that sparks joy for us. It also gives us flexibility to make last minute flight changes that can end up saving our trips. Had we had a bag to check, we would have lost about 2 days of our Christmas in Hawaii trip this year and that would have been devastating.
Traveling with carry-on is not for everyone and in some cases, it is impossible. We realize the limitations it poses and do not judge anyone who checks bags (unless they are traveling with us of course!).
- Medical Equipment: If you have a medical issue and need to travel with medications and equipment like a CPAP machine, it might be difficult to pack everything into a carry-on.
- Limited Mobility: If you have mobility issues, having to carry a backpack or wheel around a suitcase could be challenging, especially up and down stairs.
- Require Assistance: It is also bad etiquette to ask flight crew or other passengers to lift your bag for you and place it in the overhead bin; if you can’t lift it, don’t travel with it.
- Traveling with Children: Traveling with children poses even more challenges than checking a bag and probably why we do not know anyone who travels with children and does not check a bag.
Occasionally, we have made exceptions to the rule and checked a bag to bring liquids over 100 ml and tend to only do so when we are flying non-stop, with no connections.
It is much easier to check a bag when you are traveling from point a to point b instead of YVR-SEA-SFO-HND-NRT-CGK-DPS-IST-RAK-LIS-OPO-LIS-EWR-YVR, as we did this past November. That being said, it was a little heart wrenching to not be able to buy things in Marrakesh’s souk and Porto’s markets.
How to travel with carry-on:
If you are unsure about traveling lighter and with only carry-on, here are some tips and considerations to help you make the leap.
1. Choose the Right Bag
We each have 3 identical carry-on bags based on the type of trip:
- MEC Shutttle Pack 2 backpacks (now discontinued): We use this bag for short 1 night to longer 3 night trips based on the destination. It fits under most seats and all overhead bins. There has been conflicting information online but this bag has no more than 30 liters capacity.
- Eddie Bauer Travex (now discontinued): We use this bag for shorter 3 night trips and up to 3 weeks. It fits under most seats and most overhead bins. This bag has about 35 liter of capacity.
- Thule Crossover: We use this bag for trips of 7 nights or more or some weekend trips if we will be taking public transit and plan to shop. It fits under some seats and some overhead bins. This bag has a 38 liter capacity based on the manufacturer.
For our most recent trip, we would be gone for close to 3 weeks and decided to use our Thule crossover bags because they offer the flexibility of a rolling carry-on and backpack.
The Thule bag fits in most overheard bins, including the small Q400 bins on Alaska Airlines and Air Canada but it does not fit on the Air Canada Rouge 767. On this trip, it fit in every overheard bin, even the TAP Portugal Embraer 175 bin. It did take the help of a determined FA to jam it in, but he encouraged us to make it fit and gave it the extra judo chop so that we did not have to push them under the seat.
We also found it easy to travel with the bags on the subway in Tokyo and it fit in the seat with us on the Tokyo Narita Express. So many people travel with large suitcases in Tokyo and they do struggle with carrying them up stairs.
We also love this bag because of the wheels; it is so easy to drag compared to bags with smaller wheels. The wheels on this bag made it easy to walk up and down hills in Porto on their cobblestone streets.
Overall, we felt that the Thule was the right choice of carry-on bag for this trip but we could have used the TraveEx bags, no problem. The Thule bag is unique and looks good; we get many compliments about it and we are quite happy we chose it over the popular Rimowa bags.
2. What to pack:
Figuring out what to pack and allocate in limited space is not easy and even if you have a large bag that you will check, you will have to prioritize what to pack. You also have to be aware about how what you pack affects overall space and weight.
Shoes: Shoes are one of the most important things you pack because you need them and they should be suitable for the activities you are planning. Shoes are also one of the most difficult things to pack because they tend to take up a lot of space and weight. People with bigger feet are also at disadvantage because their shoes are larger and weigh more (sorry to state the obvious).
Here are a few tips about packing shoes:
- Buy shoes that are neutral color because they will go with more clothing items to pack less pairs.
- Buy shoes that are lighter in weight; we both have Roots Leather slip-on shoes for this reason and Max had a pair of Asics running shoes that ultra-light. Shoes with a thick sole and heels often add extra weight and cannot be made more compact to fit in your bag as easily.
- Packing shoes that you are getting rid of to leave behind and free up space in your bag for the return.
On the last trip, here is what we packed:
- 1 pair of black Roots Leather slip-ons to walk around in Tokyo, Marrakesh, and Porto. These were also worn in-flight for comfort and safety (these shoes are useful too when you need to run to catch a flight…been there done that too many times!).
- 1 pair of running shoes worn in Tokyo at the gym, in Bali to workout ad ride the motorbike, and Porto to walk.
- 1 pair of black Roots Leather casual sandals to walk in Bali and Marrakesh. The sandals are casual enough to wear with pants, jeans, and shorts and dressier to wear with dresses and skirts.
- 1 paid of cheap flip-flops for the beach and the pool
- 1 pair of brown Roots Leather slip-ons to walk around in Tokyo, Marrakesh, and Porto. These were also worn in-flight for comfort and safety. (these shoes are useful too when you need to run to catch a flight…been there done that too many times!).
- 1 pair of sandals worn in Bali.
Overall, we felt the pairs of shoes we brought were sufficient for the trip. Maxine used her running shoes about 6 times which made it worth packing them.
Toiletries and Accessories:
This category is the easiest for us; we are more than happy to use the toiletries provided by hotel and don’t wear jewelry so we don’t have to worry about packing these items.
That being said, if you pack toiletries in your carry-on, they need to adhere to the 100 ml rule. We also recommend being mindful of expensive jewelry that not only adds weight but also draws attention to you and might make you more of a target to petty crime. When in doubt “No dar papaya”!
There are things that we always make space for though:
- Sunscreen: We buy aerosol and paste sunscreen that’s 100 mls or less. It is not always possible to find sunscreen that is 100 mls or less abroad and sunscreen in general can be quite expensive too. We were astounded in Bali that most bottles were about $20CAD.
- Shaving: We buy and bring our own razors because they can be expensive abroad and unless you like single blade Bics, that is all you might find.
- Medication: Ibuprofen is actually difficult to buy and is not widely available as we learned in Sri Lanka. Pepto Bismal tablets come in handy too as you cannot buy them in Singapore and Thailand (in Thailand Pepto Bismal only comes in large bottles). Antihistamine pills and bug spray in the wipe format and small spray bottle are essentials too.
- Other: We also each have travel size deodorants, pack Bandaids, Lysol wipes, a money belt, Vitamin C electrolyte packets, and floss sticks as they can be difficult to find in some places.
For this trip, we did well and did not encounter any issues and we were quite relieved we had enough sunscreen to avoid buying some in Bali. Due to being so efficient, we also had space for some of the amenities given to us on our flights, like the Shisheido skin care kits, pajamas and model airplane on JAL, the eye mask and skin toner on Turkish Airlines, and the socks and kit on TAP Portugal.
The key to being successful here is being able to mix and match as many items as possible for different outfit combinations and it works best when your style is more simple and casual. We also make sure to choose clothing that looks nice without appearing fancy and expensive to blend in easier.
On this trip, it would be a challenge to coordinate clothes for climate in our 4 destinations:
- In Tokyo, it would be between 7 Celsius and 13 Celsius with possibility of rain and strong winds.
- In Bali, it would be between 25 Celsius and 32 Celsius with about 70% humidity.
- In Marrakesh, it would be between 11 Celsius and 22 Celsius but would feel cooler due to being in the desert in the morning and evenings.
- In Porto, it would be between 10 Celsius and 17 Celsius with high probability of rain and wind.
Bali was the outlier since it would be the warmest and it was very unlikely we would be able to wear anything we packed for this leg anywhere else. If you’ve been to Bali, you know how hot it is and that you will go through all your clothes very fast because of how much you sweat, which is why we decided to have our laundry done on the our 2nd to last day here. We also packed clothing we wanted to get rid of with the intention to leave it in the trash on departure. We often get our laundry done because it is also not fun to have a suitcase full of dirty clothes when you are travelling whether or not you’re traveling with carry-on or a checked bag.
Here are some tips about choosing clothes to pack:
- Pack a good jacket: If there is one item we both needed to pack, it was a jacket that was suitable for wind, rain, and warmth. We both packed our MEC jackets that we wear here in Vancouver and can wear warmer layers underneath depending on the weather. Of all the things we own, these jackets have gotten the most wear here in Vancouver and abroad.
- Choose the low maintenance materials: We avoid packing things that are dry clean only and that are not easy to wash in case we end up doing laundry. For women, polyester for tops is actually a good material because it is lighter, does not wrinkle easy, is easy to wash and dry, and packs well. We also choose materials that are easy to wash for when we do our laundry or use a service.
- Be mindful of weight and bulk: Like shoes, it is best to choose clothing that weigh less and are less bulky if you are short on space. For example, Maxine packed a dress that had lighter material than another one that was heavier and bulky and took more space in the suitcase. You should also wear your heaviest and bulkiest clothing onboard if possible.
- Clothing for the flight: We always choose what we will wear on the flight in advance and stick to one outfit that is casual and comfortable.
Overall, we felt that we did well on this trip but could have used warmer clothing in Porto because the dampness made it feel even cooler. Max is always cold, ended up buying a wool sweater, some gloves, and contemplated even getting a toque. We both ended up wearing everything we packed at least once which is always the goal.
Other Tips and Consideration:
- Electronics: We pack as little as possible because electronics take up space and weight as well. We each bring a phone with a charger, and that is about it. It is not the easiest to read of your phone but it is practical and saves you from having to pack an e-Reader. We also do not usually pack a converter because most modern hotels have USB charging and if the room has a TV, often you can charge using a USB cord too.
- Packing cubes: We do not use packing cubes but if it helps, use packing cubes to organize yourself. We find packing cubes sometimes make it more difficult to put things in all the nooks and crannies of our bags. We also believe that packing cubes add extra weight and take up more space so the return on investment is low for us.
- Books: We both prefer hard copies boos over e-books but we do not bring books unless they’re short trips and we have extra space in our bags. We also do not really find Lonely Planet guides that useful and depend on Google Maps and spreadsheets that summarize our research saved on Google Drive and downloaded to our phones.
- Eye Masks and Earplugs: This are an essential for travel and where you will be staying and take up very little weight and space.
- Snacks: It is always good to travel with healthy and easy to digest snacks but make sure they do not have any meat products in them or else they may not be permitted to enter some countries. There is nothing worse than being stuck at an airport late at night when the only food option is Subway; snacks come in handy in these situations! We always have Larabars, RX Bars, dried plain oatmeal, almond butter packets, protein powder packets, cashews, and sometimes Epic sriracha chicken bars or beef jerky depending on the destination. It has also gotten easier to purchase snacks at most destinations if you are willing to look around a little. Also remember than any granular powders you have may be subject to 350 ml limits in some countries.
- Feminine Products: It is always good to bring some as a backup and for your cycle because the options are not always good depending on where you are and tampons are also not sold in some countries. Maxine has been asked to promote traveling with a Diva Cup and declined, FYI.
Overall, we felt we had enough of everything mentioned above to not go hungry or suffer from boredom on this trip. Since we were flying in business class for most of the flights and had access to airline lounges and complimentary breakfast at most hotels, we did not have to pack as many snacks. Maxine also used to have a peanut and almond allergy that has since gone away which makes things much easier.
Overall, our collective experience and Maxine’s experience as the manager of work/study abroad opportunities for a renowned Canadian university have come in handy in not only becoming savvier travelers and better at planning and packing for travel.
Like some people cannot imagine traveling with only carry on, we cannot imagine traveling any other way. Packing as little as possible is exhilarating; we feel lighter and more relaxed when we are not weighed down by stuff. It has even helped us to further progress into a minimalist lifestyle where we purchase even less things.
It is difficult to move from the mindset of “…maybe I will pack this in case I need it…” to meticulously make the commitment to pack only what you know you will use. We have more often than not found ourselves saying we over packed instead of under packed and we feel disappointed if we packed something we did not end up using at least once! There are truly some negative to travelling with carry-on only for sure but with some planning and open mind, it can be done and make a difference in how you travel.
Overall, we feel that our packing strategies for our around the word trip worked out well; we were comfortable and well equipped to explore the 4 unique destinations we visited!
Do you travel with carry-on or do you check a bag? What is the one thing you need to pack even if it is impractical?
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