Why and How to Travel Carry-On Only

“Namaste madam Sarah. Where is your luggage?”

Packing for my previous backpacking trip I thought I had this whole thing figured out. Then my backpack was spotted by a Finnish traveler in Laos, and he described my oversized and empty backpack as a coffin. A couple days later I invested about $40 into some fake North Face traveler accessories on Khao San Road.

You won’t meet a backpacker who complains about bringing too little clothes. You will meet backpackers who complain about bringing too many clothes, expensive or new clothes, and clothes they’ll never wear.

Why pack only Carry On?

Unless you’re going to the freezing cold temperatures Antarctica, or an almost equivalent Russian Winter, you will be able to manage an indefinite time away with purely carry on. Most airlines will allow you to have two pieces of carry on. Usually this is a limit of 7 kilos to one piece, and a size limit of around a mini fridge. In backpack terms, a 40L bag will suffice, 50L if you’re lucky.

1. One obvious advantage in carry-on only is the money you will save by not purchasing check in baggage. On long international flights your baggage is usually included, however, it will cost extra when you’re jet setting on multiple 20 Euro flights within Europe. But you may not be money conscious and you’re lucky enough to be traveling through Australia purchasing domestic flights. If this is you, then word of advice – this whole blog post isn’t for you.

2. Without your checked baggage airport waiting times can be much faster. No waiting for your luggage on the carousel. The plane has just hit the tarmac. You were the first impatient person standing when the seatbelt lights still on. You barged through immigration and got your 30-day visa approved before duty-free staff gives you a wave. You’re the first person to the luggage pick up, standing with your feet on the yellow line peering down the baggage arrival tunnel. Your bag is still the last one out, and you’re now one of the few people who aren’t in a family with three kids under 5. The young and intelligent backpacker with nothing more than a 5-kilo pack on his back has already skipped past you to grab the only taxi with a meter. You should have stuck to carry on.

3. Once abroad you will avoid buying pointless shit. You are literally forced to withhold your shopping because you have nowhere to put it. Okay, this doesn’t sound great because every Westerner loves buying useless crap. FYI, people will never appreciate an overseas present for how much effort you put into buying it. If you do really want to buy your entire extended family harem pants and bowls made from coconuts and shiny shells, then you can always ship things back home. Shipping is also super useful for changing climates. Plan a colder climate first so you’re not carrying around thermals under the European sun.

How to pack only Carry On?

1. The first rule of thumb for purchasing any backpack: do not buy a top loader. Purchase a pack with a front zip which will allow you to rummage through your bag without removing everything from it. A secondary, lower storage compartment will be a lifesaver for separating your dirty thongs (yes footwear and underwear). 

2. Brush up on your legal requirements of carrying on. How many mls can you take? Can you take aerosol cans? Is your pocket knife really necessary? Purchase a clear toiletries case for your liquids – this will suffice as a clear bag through customs. Just try to avoid Asian staff seeing your tampons – these are a big no-no in Asia. Make sure you keep your tablet/laptop separate for easy clearance. You want to avoid playing Tetris with your baggage at the customs scanners. 

3. Solo Backpacking Packing Guide suggests storage bags for easy and efficient packing. I stand by this with the usage of packing cubes, rolling space bags and zip lock bags. Not only are you able to reduce the space used within your backpack, but you can also organise and remove items without destroying all your prior packing efforts.


4. Other methods to reduce your packing relies heavily on electronics and toiletries. I initially packed a PowerPoint bank to charge multiple items overnight using one international adapter. This was extremely useful however costly in storage. Invest in a dual USB port, alongside one international adapter. Your investment into a power bank to recharge items without electricity isn’t needed unless you intend on traveling on 20 hour bus trips, or time traveling back to the Stone ages where there is no electricity. It is more common than not that your overnight trains and buses will have power points. The two-day slow boat from Thailand to Laos even has electricity – that sometimes works.

You are all packed and ready to go!

You haven’t compromised on your safety locks, first aid kit, medications and essential copy documentation. Make sure your iCloud has storage, your Go Pro app is updated and your Spotify playlists are downloaded. Check your few pairs of socks and undies doesn’t have holes. You have joined the few other backpackers traveling without check in luggage, and you have become the envy of every middle age person who insists they simply cannot travel without buying cheap Christmas presents for their nieces and nephews.

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