Carry-on bags

How to Pack For Carry-On Only – Easy Guide

Do you aspire to a carry-on only life? Not everyone does! For me, it’s my preferred way to travel.

Carry-on-only travel is not everyone’s preferred way to travel, and there are no gold stars for carrying the least amount of gear. It’s not practical for every trip, but if you aspire to minimize your load, this packing list will get you started.

Carry-on fail
This was a fail. Not enough support and too much stuff. It hurt my back.

What are the pros of carry-on only?

  • For domestic flights, you can get to the airport later. If you have downloaded your boarding passes to your phone and don’t have to check a bag, you just need to leave enough time for TSA, which means more sleep. I always like more sleep. 
  • When you arrive at your destination, there is no waiting in baggage claim. I hate waiting.
  • If you have your bags on the plane with you, they’re less likely to go missing.
  • You’ll pack less, which means lighter bags.

These are the things I consider when deciding whether I’m checking a bag or doing carry-on:

  • How convenient will it be to move around a large suitcase?
  • Will I be taking public transportation, like the subway/buses? A big suitcase carried up two flights of subway steps is miserable. 
  • Does my accommodation have an elevator, or will I walk up several flights?
  • Am I staying in one place or moving around frequently?
  • How much wine am I trying to bring back?

Just kidding. Kind of. 

Please note that every airline has different carry-on rules. For example, many new basic economy flights and deep discount airlines only allow you to carry on a small personal item. When purchasing your ticket, make sure you know how many bags are included with your ticket. 

The key to packing for carry-on travel is wearing the same clothes several times throughout the trip and wearing your heaviest clothes on the plane, regardless of the weather. I’ve used this same packing list for a 12-day solo trip to Ireland, a nine-day trip to Portugal, and a three-day trip to Mexico. I will leave the jackets behind or swap them out for a lighter jacket, depending on the trip. I do end up washing my clothes in the sink, and I pack detergent sheets that take up almost no space in my bag. If you want to know what clothes I generally travel with, please refer to Packing Clothes for Travel.

I currently use a 21-inch wheeled carry-on suitcase and a 26-liter backpack from The North Face for most trips. I also pack several bags depending on the type of trip I’m taking.

Osprey Backpack for carry on only
Overpacked. It was far too heavy. I’m a work in progress.

Let’s get into the details

Typically when flying carry-on only, you get one carry-on size bag and one personal item. This can vary by airline, so be sure to check the requirements. Check every airline you will be flying throughout your trip.

See my notes below on liquids. Any item with an asterisk * may need to go in a liquids bag. For those traveling in the U.S., make sure you are following TSA guidelines for liquids.

Purse

I bring a small leather purse to carry my essentials. It’s not very big: 9 x 8 x 3. It’s the Portland Leather Festival Bag, and I love that I can slip it into my backpack for flights but pull it out quickly when I land and have all my essentials in it. I also use it when I go out at night for dinner and don’t need to carry much with me. Here is what I have in it.

  • Passport/ID/ — Note: I do not carry my passport around after I arrive; it stays in my accommodations, and I only take it when traveling out of the U.S.
  • Wallet — It’s a small coin purse, and I carry my two credit cards, driver’s license and health insurance card.
  • Phone — I carry my Real ID and main credit card in my phone case.
  • Magic Face Balm by Folk Potions — I use this around my eyes, on my face and my hands; it’s great anywhere! On flights, it’s nice to have one cream I can use for my hands and face.
  • Hand sanitizer *
  • Sanitizing wipes – Handy for wiping down dirty restaurant tables
  • Small battery pack – This one is tried and true~
  • Pen 
  • Lipstick
  • Hair tie
  • Ibuprofen 
  • Flash drive with copies of all of my documents 

I always wear my bulkiest shoes and my heaviest jacket on flights. I have a nice midweight jacket (Levi’s bomber jacket) and layer it over a zip hoodie so I can adjust my temperature no matter how cold or warm the flight is.

Northface Recon Backpack

It took me a long time to figure out what the best bags were for my trips, but this backpack has been with me for years and is my tried and true.

I have a 26-liter backpack from The North Face that I use as my personal item, and I pack it pretty tight. On some flights, I’ve had to gate-check my carry-on (small planes), so anything I want to access during all of my flights is in my backpack. Also, on the outside chance that my carry-on went missing, I’d have my basics. This backpack, because it is my personal item, must go under the seat in front of me. This does limit my legroom. If the flight is not full, sometimes I can put it in the overhead, but by agreeing that this is my personal item, I am agreeing to suffer the lack of legroom.

Electronics Bag: I have recently upgraded to this double-layer bag to accommodate my Kindle and battery packs.

  • Wireless earbuds for navigating when I’m on my destination
  • External battery packs (2)
  • Two wall plugs for electronics
  • Extra phone-charging cable
  • Cords for charging batteries and cameras
  • Kindle Paper White — I swore I’d never give up paper books. I’m a convert, and I LOVE IT.

Liquids Bag: If you are planning on flying carry-on only you will need to have all of your liquids in a quart-sized Ziplock bag (or similar). You are limited to 3.4 oz of each liquid, and they all have to fit in this quart-sized bag. If you have TSA PreCheck, you will not need to pull them out, but if you are flying internationally, you most likely will need to remove them from your bag when you go through security on your flight home or in customs when you transfer flights. Check the TSA site for the most recent information if you have questions about what is considered a liquid.

  • A small bottle of contact solution
  • Folk Potions Magic Face Oil — I have a small dropper bottle (¾ tall), and that little bottle will last me two weeks
  • Small travel-size bottle of conditioner — I use Pureology so a little goes a long way
  • Sunblock
  • Liquid foundation (cream or liquid both count as a liquid)
  • Toothpaste
  • Mascara
  • Any other cream or liquid you carry.

Cosmetics bag (6 x 4 x 1 inches): Remember, this is my personal item, not my carry-on bag. These are just things I might want on my flight; depending on if it’s a long flight or short flight, I might move things to my carry-on bag.

  • Lume Deodorant — I squeeze some into a little container. You use so little that a tiny pot of it will last two weeks or more.
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste or tooth tabs — I will absolutely brush my teeth in the airport bathroom as soon as I land.
  • Contact case, glasses and spare contacts

Medications bag (4 x 5 x 1 inches)

  • Ibuprofen and/or acetaminophen
  • Powdered vitamin C (like Emergen-C)
  • A couple of tablets of Pepto Bismol and/or Imodium — enough to get you by if you are traveling solo and get a bad tummy and can’t get out to a pharmacy
  • Band-Aids
  • Antibacterial cream
  • Condoms (you never know!)
  • Cranberry tablets — see above
  • Tweezers
  • Nail clippers
  • Prescription medication should be in the container it was dispensed in, or have good records and photos in case you are questioned

The rest of the things:

  • Reusable water bottle — I love my Mira brand 24-oz. bottle.
  • Large lightweight scarf — It can be used as a scarf, a blanket on a cold flight, a head covering, a pillow.
  • Sharpie and pen
  • Small notepad
  • Lipstick/gloss*
  • Flashlight — I carry a small LED flashlight and use this also as a personal safety item; I always have this on me when walking at night. It has enough heft and pointy parts around the lens that, in a pinch, it could be used as a defensive weapon
  • Small combination lock
  • Two carabiners — These are handy for clipping items to your backpack.
  • Copy of all my travel documents — insurance card, travel insurance information, ID, passport
  • Masks — I will probably always fly with a mask now. I’ve not been sick after a flight since 2020, and I used to get sick all the time after flying.
  • Laptop and charger
  • Fuji camera and lens in a camera bag
  • Insta360 Camera (depending on the trip)
  • Sunglasses

Suitcase

Clothes: Every trip is different, but check out Packing Clothes for Travel.

Personal items:

  • Mini curling iron/straightener — This is 11 inches and does an OK job of taming my locks. It’s considerably smaller than a full-size appliance. This one is also dual voltage, so with my adapter, I can use it in other countries, and it doesn’t flip a breaker or die. I embarrassingly did both on my first trip to Ireland
  • Small brush — I just got this one by Wet brand, and I love it!
  • Microfiber hair wrap — My hair is constantly bleeding hair dye in bright colors, so I carry my own wrap. Also, you might not have a second towel depending on where you are staying. 
  • Travel hair dryer — I got tired of hair dryers that don’t work well. This one is dual voltage, which again means I can plug it directly into an adapter.
  • Adapter for outlet with converter — When traveling outside of the U.S., this not only allows you to plug into the outlet (adapter), but the converter allows you to plug in your hair appliances without frying them. ** Please note this has worked for me many times; I cannot guarantee every situation. I use dual-voltage appliances to be safe.

Small makeup bag:

  • BB cream*
  • Two pallets of eyeshadow
  • Cream blush
  • Mascara*

Bags: This depends a lot on what I’m planning on doing. When I spent 12 days in Ireland, I used all of these. I can pack a little lighter if I’m not planning on using my Fuji camera, which requires a larger day bag. I have a lot of favorite travel bags, check out my favorites:

  • Waterproof/theft-proof backpack purse — I love this for during the day when I’m out exploring. It holds my camera, lenses, water bottle, jacket and other little items. Because the main compartment opens to your back, your important stuff can’t be pickpocketed. I also like the fact that it packs flat so it doesn’t take up too much space in my suitcase. The one drawback is because it is on your back, it’s not convenient for quickly stashing items like your phone.
  • Hip pack — I use this in my everyday life. I wear it as a crossbody. It’s big enough to hold my 24 oz water bottle, phone, and some odds and ends.
  • Eddie Bower Stowaway backpack — Folds up nice and small. This bag is great if I’m planning on hiking or biking — more comfortable than the backpack purse for outdoor activities; also great for running to the grocery for supplies.

Shoes:

I pack three pairs of shoes every trip. I wear my bulkiest shoes on the flight and pack the other two in my carry-on suitcase.

If you want to know what cosmetics I like to travel with that support my carry-on-only travel style (and the Spinster Sisters bar shampoo, conditioner, body butter and face serum that Julianne packs when she flies carry-on only), check out Travel Gear We Love — Cosmetics Edition.

I love the ease and convenience of carry-on travel. I like to travel light and be able to run up and down subway stairs or up three flights to my little hotel room. It takes some practice and playing around, but I get a little better each trip! 


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