You are currently viewing Travel with carry-on only – Checklist and tips

It’s much too often that we hear stories about checked-in baggage finding its way back to its owner only weeks later or never again, or suitcases getting mishandled and damaged. For this reason, I’ve always been reluctant to travel with one when flying. Also, it is just so much easier to travel with carry-on only.

However, it might be difficult to figure out how to pack for a trip with only a carry-on bag or two. That’s why I’m here to give you some useful tips to help you with that.

After backpacking around half of Ireland for a week and spending 10 days in Japan with carry-on baggage only, I can safely say that the tips you’ll read in this article work and will come in handy for you too.

If you tend to overpack or you always forget to pack something important, this guide is for you. You’ll also find a useful checklist you can use as a base the next time you travel somewhere. Make sure to check it out.

Travel with carry-on only: pros and cons

Before we jump to the packing list and tips, there are some things to consider to see if you can manage with carry-on only. Traveling without checked-in baggage is awesome, but it’s definitely not for everyone. Different things are needed for solo travelers or families, and the type of trip can make a difference too.

For us (my husband and me), for instance, traveling with the bare minimum of baggage is much more advantageous than lugging around heavy suitcases. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any drawbacks to traveling like that of course. Let’s see what I mean.

Pros

  • When you have fewer things, the chances of losing something will be smaller too. It’s much easier to keep an eye on 1 or 2 bags than a pile of them.
  • If you often change locations, it’s much easier to pack up quickly and get going. It’s also a breeze to move around.
  • it’s cheaper because
    • you don’t need to buy a huge suitcase which can be very pricey.
    • if you travel by a budget airline, checked-in luggage can be an extra expense depending on your ticket type.
    • there’s no need for a taxi to transport you and your baggage to your accommodation.
  • You don’t have to spend time checking in and waiting for your baggage when you arrive. After landing and getting through passport control, you can just walk out freely.
  • The airline won’t lose your stuff or damage your suitcases.
  • You can use public transportation with much more ease. It’s more budget-friendly too.

Cons

  • Obviously, the type and amount of things you can take on board is much more limited than what you can put in your checked-in baggage. I’m talking of liquids, sprays, and sharp objects for example.
  • Because of the aforementioned limitation, you’ll have to think twice before buying any souvenirs. You’ll want to make sure it fits in your bag and also doesn’t go against the regulations.
  • There might be things you’ll need to buy and then leave behind. E.g. in Japan, we needed to buy a waterproof shoe spray because it was constantly raining for days, but we couldn’t take it home with us, even though it was still almost full. What a waste. 🙁
  • You won’t have many outfits, fancy clothes, and shoes to choose from while you’re there. Functionality comes first. And you’ll probably need to do laundry too.
  • If you have any bulky items like your skiing equipment, for instance, traveling with carry-on only is just not an option for you.
flying to Ireland. plane wing and clouds under the blue sky

List of essentials to put in your carry-on

If you weigh up the pros and cons and decide you’ll travel with a carry-on only, the next step is to make a list of the things you’ll need to pack.

I wrote my list in the Notes app on my phone a couple of years ago, so when I’m packing, I can check the boxes as I go. It’s also great to have your list on you when you’re packing up before going back home. This way you can easily make sure you won’t leave anything behind.

Of course, everyone lives their lives differently and uses different things, so I’m sure there’s no list that could cover everyone’s needs perfectly, but let me share my list with you. You can use it as a guide to compile your own list and tweak it before every journey you go on in the future.

Baggage

The amount of baggage we take on our trips depends on the destination and the plans we have for the stay. The lighter the better.

The maximum you can probably take on board is a small suitcase and a backpack as a personal item. Check your airline’s restrictions on weight, number of bags allowed, and dimensions.

In our case, for example, we went to Ireland with a backpack each because we stayed at different places almost every day and moved around with public transportation a lot. On the way home we had an additional tote bag with some snacks and souvenirs too.

In Japan, our carry-on luggage consisted of one small suitcase we shared and a backpack per person. On the way home we, again, had an extra tote bag with some snacks and souvenirs. I guess you can discover a certain pattern here. 😀

I recommend having one bag at your feet with items you might need (e.g. medicine, snacks, documents, toothbrush), so you can reach it more easily. Also, you’ll probably need to take out your liquids bag for inspection, so put that in your backpack too, not in the suitcase.

Clothes and footwear

checklist for clothes and footwear to put in your carry-on

The amount of clothes you’ll need to take will depend on a couple of things. Firstly, your destination. Visiting a tropical country will require a completely different set of clothes than traveling to a cold climate, obviously. Winter clothes are bulky, so less will fit in your suitcase.

The other factor is the length of your journey. If it’s just a couple of days, you’ll easily fit enough pieces of clothing to last without having to do laundry. If it’s a longer one, more than a week, you can’t avoid washing your clothes at one point.

The third point is exactly about that. Laundry. If your accommodation has a laundry service or a washing machine, easy-peasy. If you’re staying in a city, probably you’ll be able to do laundry somewhere too.

But if you’re heading to the middle of nowhere, you might have a harder time. Check beforehand whether you’ll have somewhere to do laundry or not, and plan accordingly. If all else fails, you can wash some items in the sink.

My recommendations:

  • 2 pairs of pants (one on you, one in the bag) or shorts / skirts
  • T-shirts and/or long-sleeve shirts (depending on the weather), at least 5-6 pieces
  • 1-3 hoodies / sweaters / cardigans
  • 7 pairs of underwear
  • 3 bras
  • 7 pairs of socks
  • pajamas
  • light raincoat or waterproof jacket that’s easy to fold up
  • thicker waterproof jacket with a hood for cold weather.
    Or you can combine the two. My husband’s jacket is 3 in 1, it has 2 layers that you can zip together, and both layers work as standalone jackets too.
  • 1 pair of sneakers
    Waterproof if you have one, or you can buy reusable, waterproof shoe covers online. I bought mine on AliExpress back in 2019. They are ugly and not so comfortable to walk around, but they get the job done and take up virtually no space.
  • 1 pair of rubber slippers for indoors or to use if you have a shared bathroom
  • swimwear if needed
  • gloves, scarf, hat if needed

Toiletries

checklist for toiletries to put in your carry-on
  • deodorant
  • travel-sized face wash
  • soap or travel-sized body wash
  • travel-sized shampoo
  • travel-sized lotion
  • travel-sized sunscreen, at least SPF 50
  • chapstick
  • toothpaste, toothbrush and floss
  • a couple of cotton swabs and pads
  • period products
  • small manicure set (scissors, nail clipper, nail file, tweezers)
  • safety razor
  • 1-2 packets of tissues
  • hair ties
  • folding hairbrush with mirror
  • I don’t wear them anymore, but if you do, contact lenses and travel-sized contact lens solution
  • lens wipes for glasses and/or sunglasses
  • glasses case
  • hand sanitizer wipes
  • makeup (only the most necessary) and makeup remover if you need it.
    I use my face wash and wear minimal or no makeup when traveling.

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Medicine and first aid

checklist for medicine and first aid kit to put in your carry-on
  • medication you take regularly
  • vitamins you take regularly
  • something for fever and headache (e.g. ibuprofen, paracetamol)
  • motion sickness pills
  • something for diarrhea and/or constipation
  • eyedrops
  • nasal decongestant spray
  • band-aid
  • antiseptic cream
  • contraception
  • earplugs

Miscellaneous

checklist for miscellaneous items to put in your carry-on
  • local currency
    Cards are not always accepted everywhere.
  • memory foam neck pillow
  • earphones or earbuds
  • a 1 liter Ziploc bag for your liquids
  • travel toiletry containers
  • other waterproof items:
    • folding umbrella
    • backpack cover (protects against theft too)
  • foldable hairdryer
  • 1 travel towel
  • devices and chargers
  • plug adapter might be necessary
    Either buy it beforehand if you know what type you need or buy one when you arrive at your destination.
  • power bank
  • an empty canvas tote bag or a drawstring bag
  • chewing gum
  • snacks
  • SIM card ejector tool (not necessary, only if you plan to use a new SIM at your destination)
    I know this one’s very specific, but we used it in Japan to insert a Mobal SIM card to have internet access. I planned ahead and brought it, so I don’t know if they had one to lend to us in case we hadn’t had one.
  • face mask if required
  • travel-sized disinfecting wipes (for places with questionable hygiene)
  • maybe a smallish book if it fits or an ebook reader

Documents (printed and digital)

checklist for important documents to put in your carry-on
  • ID card
  • passport
  • travel insurance (printed and saved on the phone)
  • vaccination certificate if needed
  • pre-bought tickets
  • itinerary (printed and on the phone)
  • important local phone numbers for emergencies (printed and saved on the phone)

My 11 tips to be well-prepared for your trip if you’re traveling with only a carry-on

11 tips to travel easily with carry-on luggage only

Here’s a list of 11 tips in no particular order to make your preparations for your next trip easier.

  • Always check your airline’s regulations, as they might not allow some of the items I’ve listed. We haven’t had any problems so far, but we haven’t been to that many places either. Nail files, small scissors, nail clippers, tweezers, and safety razors are generally allowed but check the guidelines beforehand.
  • Check the validity of your documents and when they expire.
  • You might need to carry a prescription or a doctor’s note for certain medicines you take. You also need to check how much of it is allowed. Some countries for example allow a 30-day supply only.
  • Not all power banks are allowed on board. Check the capacity restrictions. Usually, a power bank of less than 100 Wh is allowed, but make sure to check with your airline for any restrictions.
  • Before you pack up your clothes, check the weather forecast of your destination. If you have a layover and plan to leave the airport, take the local weather conditions into consideration too.
  • You’ll probably go home with more stuff than you left with, so allow for some room. We usually spare a bag or at least half of it for the newly acquired goodies.
  • When packing your toiletries, try to opt for dry versions or wipes if you can. Soap bars, shampoo bars, and wipes are not liquids, but anything spreadable like mascara and lipstick is. Also, if you know you’ll have basic toiletries at your destination, use those if you can.
  • If you travel with someone, you can save space by sharing things like toothpaste, shampoo, and other toiletry items and whatever else you can.
  • Dress in layers and wear your bulkiest clothes on the plane. You can also shove small items in your jacket pockets.
  • When you’ve finished packing, weigh your bags. You might want to reconsider this and that. Pay attention to overall weight and weight distribution too. We tried packing both of our clothes into one suitcase and the rest of the stuff into the backpacks, but the suitcase got too heavy so we had to repack everything.
  • Use separate bags for clean and dirty clothes because you’ll need to carry them around.

Conclusion

To wrap up, you can see that there are quite a lot of things you need to consider when preparing for your journey if you travel with carry-on luggage only. The packing list I’ve given to you is quite long, but many of the items are tiny. Also, you might not need all of these things, or you might want to take others not mentioned on the list.

The most important thing is to check your airline’s regulations beforehand. Also, think about what kind of activities you’re planning to do at your destination and what equipment and clothes you’ll need for them. I was fine with only one pair of sneakers, but you might not be.

I hope you found this article useful. Stay safe and have fun on your next trip!


How do you prepare for flights? Do you have any tips you’d like to share? Let’s meet in the comments.

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