I travel carry on only whenever possible for a variety of reasons, like saving time at the airport, not risking lost baggage, and not paying baggage fees. Here is advice I’ve given to friends and I’m happy to pass on to you. The more you travel the more you’ll pick up your own intricacies for packing.
Relieve Pre-Travel Stress: Invest in A Travel Scale
Investing in a little travel scale for around $10 changed my life– now I pack and prepare at home without worrying about getting caught ‘overweight’. Just hang a suitcase or backpack from the strap, and it’ll give you the weight in pounds or kilograms (press a button to change to / from the metric system). I wish I’d bought it years ago, since it saves so much stress about baggage weight.
Do you want to learn how I find cheap international flights? Click here to read all about it.
Carry On Saves Money and Time
The best part of carry-on only is that I don’t wait at baggage claim to pick up luggage after a flight. I hate lines. I hate waiting. I hate everything about waiting for checked luggage. If I was rich I would pay for luggage delivery service.
Low-cost airlines are cheapest when you don’t check baggage. Except for Southwest Airlines in the USA, all USA-based airlines charge a fee for baggage for most flights. And, if you don’t plan ahead and have to pay for the checked luggage during airport check-in it can essentially double the cost of your flight (think: Ryan Air, WOW and Air Asia).
Reduce Carry On Weight Overall
I don’t mean you losing weight off your body. You don’t get a discount for going on a diet. (Yes, I’ve called an airline and asked if I can have a baggage fee discount since my overall weight will still be less than a person who weighs 200 pounds, even if they don’t check baggage. The answer was a firm “No”.)
So, here are a few steps:
Buy the lightest weight backpack or suitcase you can find. Don’t worry too much about the pockets, since we’ll fix that later. Fewer straps and buckles and cloth mean less weight. A low weight suitcase is 4 pounds or less. A low weight backpack is less than 3 pounds.
I am not a light packer, yet I fly carry-on for my trips even if they’re 4-6 weeks long. That includes all my work and photography gear.
Most airlines allow one bag of limited weight and a “personal item” of unlimited weight. Keep all your heavy things in the “personal item” bag, since it doesn’t get weighed.
Reduce Carry On Volume Overall
Your bag has to meet size restrictions, so carry your jacket separately, as this never gets weighed in my experience. Also, wear your heavy and bulkiest shoes and clothes on the flight, and whatever else you can think of to reduce the bulk of your main bag.
You can also invest in packing cubes. I love the Eagle Creek Spector Set because the material is ripstop nylon. This means it won’t tear even if you squish a lot of stuff inside. Also, they weigh practically nothing. I roll up my clothes and squish all my underwear into the small one. I put all my shirts and bigger things in the large one. Anything else goes into the medium cube. For this reason, I don’t feel a need to get the compression packing cubes– my stuff is already pretty small. If you travel infrequently, just get some gallon, quart, and other sized ziploc bags. Pack a couple extra in case they tear during your travels.
How to Keep Organized When Traveling (e.g. Don’t leave things behind at a hotel)
To prevent leaving things behind at my accommodation, I like to keep things organized in ditty bags (or, ditty sacks).
These small bags are great for all my cords and photo gear (or whatever you pack). I get to know what should be in each one, and where it goes in my backpack. This way, when packing to leave accommodation I know right away if something has been forgotten and to go find where it’s plugged in or left on a shelf. Plus, the bags are waterproof, so I keep my sunscreen in one when packing for a day of city wandering. That way if it leaks it doesn’t get the rest of the things in my bag mucky (yes, the cap opened once, so I’ve learned).
What Clothes to Pack for A Month (or 1 week or 6 weeks)
Here’s a list, including quantities, starting from top to bottom and then inside to outside. Try to pack your lighter-weight clothes. For example, select potential shirts to pack and then hold one in each hand and pick the lighter one. You may decide it’s worth investing in some travel-specific clothes, but for the most part you probably already own most of these items.
Drying times are assuming you’re handwashing and hanging the clothes to dry. In hot places clothes dry much faster than cold or humid places, so plan your wash days accordingly.
Men can remove or add items to this list as needed. Be sure to recognize the quantities you pack.
- Sun hat to protect my nose and ears. Be sure to get one with a drawstring if you’ll be riding a motorbike or in the wind.
- 3 Bras
- Long underwear. 1 pair top and bottom. The Uniqlo store has very lightweight nylon, which I’ve had for years and love. I tie each piece into a knot for maximum compression when packing. In mosquito places, bring these to wear under a sarong or shorts to prevent mosquito bites. Don’t bring shirt for warm weather destinations.
- 4 Underwear by Ice Breaker. These merino wool underwear dry fast, so I can wash in the sink and pack fewer.
- Socks. I always pack WrightSocks, because the double-layered socks prevent blisters. Also, they’re warm for cold nights. I pack 1-2 for summer travel and 4 for winter travel. Wash as needed, since they dry slowly in cold weather, unless you have a dryer.
- Shoes: I always pack 1 pair flip flops and 1 pair running shoes. The flip flops are for summer walking, hotel room walking since barefoot in a hotel room is sometimes gross. The running shoes are for city walking, hiking, cold weather days. On Southeast Asia trips I wear flipflops 95% of the time, just like the locals. Don’t pack hiking boots unless you’re planning on some really hardcore hiking. They’re just not necessary, and so many long-term travelers either abandon them or mail them home.
- Shirts: Layer all of these under your jacket on cold mornings. Remove a layer as the weather warms up during the day.
- 1 long-sleeved lightweight sun shirt. Also, use in the evening to prevent mosquito bites.
- 1 1/4 zip-neck warm top: add for winter weather or take this instead of a jacket for summer weather.
- 2-3 T-shirts. In many countries, you need to cover your shoulders, so this should replace tank tops.
- 1-2 tank tops. Doubles as pajamas or undershirt for layering.
- Pants: 1 pair of either jeans or hiking pants. Keep in mind that jeans take a long time to dry in cold weather.
- Shorts: 1-2 pairs. At least one pair should not be super short. Review the culture and weather of your destination. If it’s a cold morning and you’ll be city walking or hiking all day wear your long underwear underneath. This way, when it warms up you only have to carry your long underwear (smaller and lighter than jeans).
- Jacket: Depending on destination and weather I’ll pack at least a lightweight rain jacket. As above, if in a warm destination, replace this with a thermal fleece. If it’ll be cold I add a warmer jacket.
- Sarong or silk scarf: So useful! Use as a skirt, fold into halter top, use as a picnic blanket or towel or sunshade. If you don’t already have one, buy one as a souvenir in Southeast Asia or some African countries.
Other Items You Should Consider
Skip the bulky passport holder and RFID protective wallet. For RFID protection get these little sleeves for each of your cards. They come in passport size as well. Save money and space in your bag.
When packing toiletries, items add up fast in terms of both space and weight. Whatever waterproof bag you pack them in, be sure it’s very lightweight. A Ziploc bag is perfect. Also, you can easily buy shampoo and soap at every destination. The Dove brand and many shampoo brands are available worldwide.
For your first-aid items, assume that you’ll be able to buy bandaids, painkiller, and head cold medicine wherever your destination. You may want to take allergy and anti-diarrheal since those pills are small and you probably won’t want to be shopping when you need them. I love these tiny pill zip-loc baggies!
A guidebook for the destination you’ll be visiting. And, a phrasebook (just search the language of your destination and ‘phrasebook’ on Amazon or your library’s website). If you’d like to get into the culture, have plenty of honest information on hotels and much more all at your fingertips, this is totally key. Get the books in hardcopy or electronically. You can do tons of research online, but you’ll be trusting the opinion of someone who might not have even visited all the hotels they mention. Or, they might have been paid (sponsored) to recommend a hotel. All those websites are earning money, so take a travel bloggers recommendation with a grain of salt. Lonely Planet and Rough Guide are most popular for people on a lower budget. Fodor’s and Eyewitness are great for higher end budgets and photos. Rick Steve’s is very good for Europe.
If you like reading books, pack a Kindle (or download the Kindle app onto your phone) and either get books free from your public library using an app like Overdrive or Hoopla. Or, buy a subscription like Kindle Unlimited from Amazon.
If you have a smartphone, be sure to download maps, entertainment, and whatever else you might need. Click here to read my ongoing list of Best Travel Phone Apps. And, don’t forget a long phone charging cord, in case the electric plug is far from where you can sit.
Sea to Summit is a well-known backpacking brand for lightweight and comfortable items. I love my Aeros ultralight inflatable pillow. It doesn’t make noise when I move and it blows up in about 4 breaths. Also, it stays centered under my head because of the shape of it. Check it out here.
A lens for your phone’s camera. Lenses can fit in the palm of your hand and weigh far less than your phone. I love my 4-in-1 Olloclip, which gives me wide angle, fisheye, and 2 macro lenses. Moment is another high-end brand.
This list leaves you with plenty of room to pack additional items like a snorkel and mask, a drone for aerial photography, and photography gear.