How To Travel With a Carry-On Only and Keep Your Belongings From Taking a Trip to the Island of Lost Luggage

Photo: Getty Images/miniseries
In 2015, travel and sustainable fashion influencer Jessie Frances, then a college student, stepped off a plane in Milan, Italy, eager to participate in a study abroad program. But her excitement soon morphed into panic when she realized her checked bags hadn’t made the journey with her. “My luggage was lost for about two weeks,” says Frances. “I remember being so desperate because I barely had enough money to just sustain life while studying abroad.” While she waited for her bags, Frances cobbled together outfits using the linens in her rented apartment.

It was this experience that inspired Frances to learn how to travel with a carry-on only, no matter how far or long the trip. And that was well before the luggage meltdown that has plagued air travel in the wake of post-pandemic revenge travel and airport staffing shortages. Though the number of lost or delayed bags had been declining in the years since Frances’s 2015 mishap, thanks to new technologies (consider the advent of tracking capabilities on the mobile apps of airlines like Delta and American), that’s all changed since the pandemic threw travel for a loop.

Experts In This Article

In the couple years when travel came to a near standstill, airlines reduced expenditures on baggage handling systems—which are now being pushed beyond their capacities amid the travel boom. Case in point? The total failure of a baggage system at London Heathrow last year, causing the development of a “baggage mountain” and a slew of flight cancellations while workers sorted the mess.

The global baggage mishandling rate—defined as the number of checked bags that are lost, damaged, delivered late, or stolen—jumped from 4.35 bags per 1,000 passengers in 2021 to 7.6 in 2022, a nearly 75 percent increase.

Indeed, the global baggage mishandling rate—defined as the number of checked bags that are lost, damaged, delivered late, or stolen—jumped from 4.35 bags per 1,000 passengers in 2021 to 7.6 in 2022, a nearly 75 percent increase. (That number is eight times higher for international flights.) And in 2023, the checked luggage problem has shown few signs of recovery, with stories proliferating in the news of passengers using intel from trackers like Apple Airtags to find and even collect their own lost bags, rather than deal with overburdened airlines.

It’s no wonder that in a 2022 survey of nearly 2,000 travelers conducted by travel-planning service TripIt, 41 percent of respondents reported avoiding checking bags. Learning how to travel with a carry-on only means you can evade any risk of something going awry with your belongings, while also forgoing checked bag fees and potentially long waits at the luggage carousel.

When it makes sense to consider packing in a carry-on only

For shorter trips, packing in only a carry-on is a no-brainer. “I personally believe if you’re going away for 10 days or fewer, you really don’t need anything more than a carry-on,” says travel blogger Sam Opp.

But even on longer trips, you can get by with just a carry-on bag if you’re willing to do some laundry, re-wear clothing, and avoid packing many bulky items. Need proof (or inspiration)? When packing for a 17-day trip through Switzerland, Opp was able to fit everything she needed in a backpack and carry-on roller bag. To minimize the total number of pieces you need to pack, she recommends seeing whether you can rent certain bulkier items—like ski boots or swim gear, for example—in the destination you’re visiting for the time while you’re there.

Still, carry-on enthusiasts (Frances included) admit that sometimes checking a bag is unavoidable, particularly if you’re traveling with larger items or those that might be flagged by airport security. For instance, though travel blogger Hanna Ashcraft typically flies with just a carry-on, she will check a bag when she goes on backpacking trips and needs to bring gear like a camping stove, hiking poles, and pounds of freeze-dried food.

Comfort is another consideration when you’re deciding whether to go carry-on only. Perhaps you choose to check a bag if you’d just rather not tussle with a bigger carry-on roller bag during a layover, or you want more space at your seat. Or maybe trying to cram a carry-on into a potentially crowded overhead bin will cause you anxiety—in which case, it’s also best to check it. Just keep the essentials (like your passport and any medications or electronics) in your personal item that you take onboard.

How to avoid common mistakes while packing carry-on only

When you’re figuring out how to pack in a carry-on only for a trip, you don’t want to leave that packing to the last minute. Getting bags organized in advance lets you know if everything you want to bring will fit—and gives you time to reconfigure if it doesn’t, says Opp. To reduce stress, Ashcraft packs in stages, focusing on clothing and shoes one day and toiletries on another.

One common oversight? Not knowing your airline’s policy on both the size and weight of carry-on luggage. Before Opp boarded a recent flight from Lisbon, Portugal, to the U.S., airport agents weighed her carry-on bag and personal item, and determined they were too heavy. Even though the bags would have fit in the overhead compartment, Opp says, it didn’t matter; they exceeded the weight limit and had to be checked at a fee of $125 per bag, she says.

To avoid a similar fate, use a luggage scale to weigh your packed bags before you head to the airport, suggests Opp, so you can be sure they’re within your air carrier’s limits.

That’s especially important if you use space-saving bags (Opp’s favorites are these compression bags) to fit more in your carry-on, which can cause it to be heavier than it looks. “What I’ve noticed on some planes is that people make their carry-ons so heavy that they can no longer lift them,” says Ashcraft. Due to injury risk, flight attendants aren’t obligated to lift passengers’ carry-on luggage; some airlines like Delta specifically prohibit them from doing so. And relying on other passengers to help you lift a heavy or bulky bag isn’t a foolproof strategy.

Instead, err on the side of bringing a suitcase that’s too small versus too large, and be honest with yourself about your ability to heave it overhead, says Ashcraft.

4 tips for how to travel with a carry-on only

1. Minimize liquids

TSA’s carry-on guidelines allow for up to 3.4 ounces of liquid per container, provided all of your liquids fit in one quart-sized bag. But for products like serums that only require a few drops per day, you might not need to bring the full 3.4 ounces. Consider using 10-millileter glass dropper bottles to save space and lighten the load. “I’ve been using these tiny little droppers for so long that I just don’t even think about it,” says Ashcraft. You can also purchase body wash, shampoo, conditioner, and lotion in bar form to forgo the issue of liquids altogether.

2. Bring laundry detergent

Packing your own suds will ensure you have the option of washing a few items in the sink or tub of your hotel room or vacation rental. (If the place where you’re staying has a washing and/or drying machine, even better.) Ashcraft uses a multi-purpose wash that’s available in TSA-approved sizes. Just make sure that you’re staying at the accommodation where you choose to do laundry for longer than one night so that clothing has time to air-dry if need be.

While you’re considering clothing care, you might also toss a mini stain remover stick into your carry-on; being able to rid a shirt or pants of a small stain could make the difference between being able to wear it just once and getting multiple uses out of it on a trip.

3. Make your travel day outfit count

Always wear your bulkiest items on travel days—even if you look a bit overdressed. Frances once flew out of Washington Dulles International Airport wearing a faux fur coat and boots in the middle of July; she was headed to South Africa, where it was winter, and she wanted to bring her hefty warm-weather items without having to shove them into a carry-on or check a bag. “Everyone just looked at me like, ‘Who is this mad woman, and how did she make it through security?’” she says. “I looked so ridiculous in the airport, but it was so worth it.”

If you’re wearing a jacket, you can also use the pockets for smaller items such as hats and scarves. Need a bit more space? Opp suggests wearing a money waist belt under your clothing.

4. Pack what you usually wear

“There is often pressure to have this ‘vacation slay,’ where you just pull out all these clothes that have never been seen before, and you are just creating magic,” says Frances, “but that’s not realistic.” Her advice: Pack what you typically wear at home because you already know those clothes fit, and you feel good wearing them.

Another tip? Stay within one color scheme, so you don’t need a lot of extra pieces to create different looks, says Frances. She typically packs a few black dresses and one or two pairs of shoes that coordinate well with everything and add a pop of color.

As for those cute purple heels or the frilly dress that you’re thinking of bringing on a whim? If you’re packing just a carry-on bag, “you likely don’t have the luxury for that,” says Frances. “It’s best to stay away from the ‘just in case’ items that take up so much space.”

The Wellness Intel You Need—Without the BS You Don't
Sign up today to have the latest (and greatest) well-being news and expert-approved tips delivered straight to your inbox.
Our editors independently select these products. Making a purchase through our links may earn Well+Good a commission.

Loading More Posts...