How I Travel with Nothing But Carry-On Luggage

How I Travel with Nothing But Carry-On Luggage

This morning, I’m boarding my first flight of the year and going on vacation! Considering I’ve spent most of the last four years bouncing around from place-to-place, it feels weird to think I’ve been in Victoria and Squamish for the past eight months. It’s actually been really nice to stay closer to home and settle in somewhere new. But after submitting the second draft of The Year of Less in May, I knew I wanted to go on a trip. And after everything that’s happened in my personal life, it could not have come at a better time.

My goal for this trip – and any trip where I have to board a plane – was to fit everything I would need into two pieces of carry-on luggage. I don’t pack this way because I’m a minimalist. I like to travel with carry-on luggage because it makes everything easier. For starters, you don’t have to pay a fee to check any baggage, which helps your budget. You don’t have to wait for your baggage to be offloaded, or risk having the airline lose it altogether. It’s easier to carry/drag around on your trip. And the best part: you are forced to only bring what you need.

Considering how much the weather changes between the cities and the mountains, packing for this trip could have been a daunting task. Then tack on the fact that we are going to a conference in the middle of it. But as you might remember, this is just like a mini version of the road trip I went on last year (conference included!). I didn’t show you my exact packing list then, but I thought you might like to see how I am travelling for three weeks with nothing but carry-on luggage right now.

What I’m Packing in My Carry-On Suitcase

I should first explain that the way I pack is pretty strategic. Whenever I’m flying somewhere, I always bring two bags: a suitcase and a backpack. (In the past, I travelled with a suitcase and a big purse, but I don’t own any purses now. I’ll save that conversation for another post.)

Each bag serves a purpose. The suitcase is filled with clothes and shoes, and anything else that fits but which does not need to be pulled out at security. That’s the goal for this piece of carry-on luggage: to just put it on the conveyor belt and be done with it.

How I Travel with Nothing But Carry-On Luggage

I have to be honest and say packing clothes is easy for me, because I barely own any as it is. What you’re looking at here is about two-thirds of my entire wardrobe. Most of what I am leaving behind is only appropriate for winter. So I guess you could say this is my spring/summer/fall wardrobe!?

  • 3 tank tops
  • 3 t-shirts
  • 3 long-sleeve shirts
  • 1 pair of shorts
  • 2 pairs of leggings
  • 1 pair of khakis
  • 1 dress
  • 1 fleece
  • 1 jean jacket
  • 1 rain jacket

How I Travel with Nothing But Carry-On Luggage

  • 1 hat
  • 1 toque (beanie)
  • 1 pair of sandals
  • 1 pair of running shoes
  • 1 pair of boots

How I Travel with Nothing But Carry-On Luggage

Altogether, I’ve packed 17 items of clothing (not including underwear/bras/socks/bathing suit), 3 pairs of shoes and 2 hats; that’s 22 items total – or 11 items less than your typical capsule wardrobe! And honestly, I still feel like there’s a good chance I won’t wear everything.

Not pictured:

  • my outfit for the plane (but the number of items is included in the totals)
  • 12 pairs of underwear
  • 6 pairs of socks
  • 2 bras
  • 1 bathing suit
  • 1 quick-drying towel

What I’m Bringing in My Backpack

Since my carry-on suitcase is packed with things that don’t need to be pulled out for security, can you guess what goes into my backpack? Yep, the things that do. :) Since I have a NEXUS card, I’m actually not supposed to have to bring out my laptop or bag of liquids, but most airports still ask you to and that’s ok. To save time in the security line, though, I like to keep both of them in the same compartment of my backpack. That way I’m not stuck trying to unpack/repack things, which makes both me and the people behind me happier.

How I Travel with Nothing But Carry-On Luggage

  • 1 laptop
  • 2 journals
  • 1 pen
  • 3 books (this is the one thing I usually overpack)
  • 1 wallet (containing passport, NEXUS card, other IDs, cash, credit, etc.)
  • 1 water bottle

Not pictured:

  • laptop charger
  • phone + phone charger
  • the backpack itself (it’s the size of a regular school bag, nothing fancy)

How I Travel with Nothing But Carry-On Luggage

As for toiletries, you’re looking at everything I use on a daily basis here. While I use shampoo, conditioner and body lotion made by 100% Pure when I’m at home, I’m trying to use up the last of any travel-size products I have on this trip (hence the Garnier and Aveeno stuff).

  • shampoo/conditioner/razor
  • moisturizer/concealer/mascara (this is my 1-minute makeup routine, all made by 100% Pure)
  • lotion (my skin gets extra dry while travelling)
  • deodorant
  • stuff to keep my teeth clean :)
  • allergy pills + Magnesium with melatonin (helps me sleep)
  • eyedrops (see: allergies lol)
  • sunscreen with SPF 60/lip balm with SPF 30
  • hairbrush with a few hair elastics
  • Tide to Go pen

…and that’s it!

I’ve done this enough times and know myself well enough that I can tell I’m still probably slightly overpacked for this trip. My guess is I’ll only wear two-thirds of the clothes, read one book, and barely use the concealer or lip balm. But even if I had packed less, I still would’ve brought the same two pieces of carry-on luggage with me, so I don’t mind carrying around the extra pound or two this time.

I have no idea what the next three weeks will hold, and have zero expectations for this trip as a whole. I’m just excited to spend time with friends, see a little more of the United States, and get hours and hours of cuddle time with their dogs. Dog therapy is the best therapy. <3

Was this helpful at all? Or do you have any pro-packing tips to share with us? :)

  • Earlier this year, I had quite a bit of travel for work and I quickly learned to hone down my packing to essentials! Its amazing how many things I used to pack “just in case” but would never touch. I was quite proud when I got my packing down to the bare bones!

    Also- Great choice on the Birkenstocks and Asics. I think I have the same pairs of shoes in both cases ;)

  • You packed running shoes, so you MUST go for a jog around Lake Calhoun. It’s one of the nicest lakes in Minneapolis and has a beautiful back drop of the city in the distance. Otherwise, if you’re closer to downtown, you can take a nice run in the area of Stone Arch Bridge (mill district). Highly recommend both! Have a fantastic trip and please share more about PNW :) It’s on my list to visit soon, too!

    • I’ve done Lake Calhoun before! And I live in the PNW, so share pics of it all the time on Instagram :)

  • I love this packing list. I’m always an over packer when it comes to my backpack. I seem to think that I’ll get on a plane and suddenly become a productive machine. So I bring a bunch of books and projects I’m working on, and then I don’t touch them at all because I sleep approximately 94% of the flight. I need to remember that for next time.

    Also, I love how realistic your toiletry items are. For some reason, I tend to think the version of myself that’s on the trip will wear way more makeup than the everyday version of myself, so I bring EVERY LAST PRODUCT.

    • I think that’s actually the most important thing to remember: we don’t become different people when we travel. Just pack what you use every day!

  • I love this! When I started traveling for work a few years ago, I adopted the “carry on only” policy. Now that I have a child, I have to carry things for 2 people, so it’s even more important to carry on as little as possible. We’re actually about to go on vacation, so I’m inspired by your packing list, and can hopefully downsize my luggage even more!

  • My wife has made me believe in the roll method of clothes packing where tightly rolling your clothes allows for more space but no wrinkles. In general unless we go with kids it’s strictly carry-on here.

    • The Marie Kondo method of folding clothes is good, too. I’ve stopped rolling my clothes and now I do her method even at home. If saves space, prevents wrinkles, and you can tell exactly what you have at a glance.

  • This was super helpful! I love seeing how other minimalist and non-minimalist people pack for travel. I pack the same way as you and for the same reason- travelling by plane stresses me out so much that simplifying my luggage is non-negotiable. It gives me anxiety to even see other people’s enormous suitcases at the airport! I’m super impressed you fit two pairs of shoes in your carry-on!! It would be neat to see if you do end up using all the stuff you packed or not. I know I never do, even when I pack minimally.

  • When I go for business travels I only do carry on. I refuse to check in my luggage. Earlier this year I did a 16 day 4 countries trip to Asia with a carry-on suit case. That’s with multiple dress shirts and dress pants for business meetings. I can’t be happier with this decision.

  • I am going to be traveling to Portugal for a bus tour holiday in September. I am already trying to figure out if I can travel as light as you are! I am confident for the journey there, but I suspect a few “gift” purchases for friends and family might necessitate an extra bag on the return flight. It is my first overseas trip and I am both excited and a little scared (as a single 45 year old woman) hence the bus tour.
    And now I’m going off topic…
    I have to tell you I carry on a fairly frugal lifestyle and am saving a lot since I found myself on my own 6 years ago. Although I was married to a spender, frugality is my preference, but I also give some of the credit to you. I have found your blogging inspiring. You have shown me that there is a community of like-minded people out there, even though it is not always obvious where I live in northern Alberta oil country. My ultimate goal is to move back to south central BC but right now I am making hay as the sun is shining on my life financially.
    I have been a long time reader.. it is time for me to say thanks. If I ever get the opportunity it would be an honour and a privilege to buy you a cup of coffee and have a chat.

    • Well, please let me know if you are ever in my part of BC, Vicki! I’m always up for coffee :) and I can’t thank you enough for the kind words. Have a safe and fabulous trip!

  • Honestly most of my friends didn’t believe that I am that kind of girl trat travel light…. Untol they saw with their eyes…. However I learn in the years to declutter(thanks summer camps) and if I need to take a plane I have only hand bagggage+personal bag because I am afraid to lose baggage…
    I hope you’ll have great time with your friends… Enjoy the holiday

  • If I’m staying where soap, shampoo, toothpaste, and body lotion are available I don’t pack it. I also try to use products that can do double duty such as lipstick as blush, eyeshadow as eyeliner and brow powder, and body lotion as a leave-in conditioner. I used to think people will notice if I wear items several times, but they don’t. I pack what can easily be rinsed out in a sink and hung to dry overnight. Simple, easy to layer, classic style clothing and jewelry works best for all occasions one might encounter. I always take a large shawl that rolls up easily and can fit in my purse in case it gets chilly, (I’m the kind who gets cold when it’s 71 degrees out!) I used to take too many pairs of shoes but now I stick to two pairs and one is usually what I’m wearing on the trip. Never take shoes you haven’t worn-in yet, if they are uncomfortable you will be cranky!

  • Love this post and your blog! I recently did a 30 day trip through Asia with just a carry-on suitcase and small backpack. It was tricky because I was in South Korea and Japan where it was cold and then in India where it was warm. One hack was to bring little bottles of laundry detergent — I washed some t-shirts and underwear in the sink so I didn’t have to bring more than a week’s worth. I’m also a big proponent of the roll method! Have a great trip!

    • I should mention I added a tiny amount of laundry detergent to my packing list! I’m not entirely sure I’ll need it, but I will certainly be glad I have it if I do :) thanks, Laura!

  • Packing it all into carry-on is a great skill. My wife and I have been doing that for years for the same reasons you say: No fees and no waiting for baggage after you get off the flight. We even pack everything into two suitcases and two backpacks for a seven-day cruise. I should probably dig into that topic myself, one day, because there are some great tricks for fitting everything in with that much stuff. Love the post!

  • This is really helpful thank you. I’m a pretty light packer but this takes it to a new level! I’m in my 40s and wear a little more makeup but would like to do with less. Have you always worn almost no makeup or was that something you have reduced over time? If so, did you find it hard?

    • I have not always been this way, no! I’ve never been someone who wore a lot of makeup, but I did wear eyeliner, eye shadow and some powder foundation every day. I actually noticed myself naturally starting to wear less and less makeup during the shopping ban. Now, I only wear mascara (and mostly just because I have blonde eyelashes lol). Maybe I should write a post about that…

  • I just started taking magnesium too and I think it’s a game changer for me!! Better sleep and better….bathroom time hahaha.
    I got it in the powdered form and drink it with a bit of water at night.
    These tips were helpful, I’m going to San Fran with carryon luggage on Saturday!

  • The only way this packing list could get more Canadian is if you’d included Gravol for the road trip. ;)

    Love your style! And I totally agree, packing is so simple when you don’t have that many clothes! People sometimes ask me if I’ve packed for a big trip in advance, and usually my answer is: I actually couldn’t, because then I’d have nothing to wear in the meantime!

  • I used to be strictly carry-on but now that I fly Southwest (does give free checked bags) and we fly with our son, we started checking bags because of the hassle of taking a kid flying (plus the need to already check a car seat). Since we’re only flying domestic, it works. I also never check anything valuable. But when we went to Italy before I had the kid, my husband and I both just took carry-ons because I heard about crazy waits for luggage at Rome’s airport during peak season and I just didn’t want to waste any time on the never-long-enough vacation!

    My poor brother just went to China to see his wife’s mother and he got sucked into bringing stuff so he had to check two giant suitcases (that of course came back home empty!) Had he not had to bring things people bought, he would’ve just taken a carry-on and a backpack like you. It’s so much easier that way!

    When our son gets older and we don’t have to bring a carseat with us, we’ll go back to carry-on only.

    • Hi Tara – as soon as you can use a booster, you should check out the Bubble Bum – it’s inflatable but meets all of the regs. Huge space saver!

  • I’d love to travel Carry-on only on my trip to Italy next week, but in Europe you’re only allowed ONE piece of carry-on luggage plus a small purse. A small suitcase plus a backpack is not an option. So I will check my suitcase and take the backpack on board. But checked luggage is mostly included over here.

  • Carry-on for the win!! I love your ratio of underwear to socks and to bras – so funny! It looks like you plan to do laundry at least once, which always helps a lot.

    Since your wardrobe is minimalist you didn’t state one of my rules: all things must be mix-and-match-able! I also got a Kindle specifically because of the issue of carrying too many books on flights – I get a bunch from the library, don’t read them, and they vanish three weeks later, but at least I don’t have to heft them around the whole time.

    • I was on the fence about e-readers, but going on a trip and not needing to carry a bag just for my books made a convert out of me.

  • Have a fabulous trip! The best part of traveling in cities instead of backpacking in the woods is that it isn’t a disaster if you forget something. All the essentials can usually be bought or borrowed.
    I also overpack books on trips. It isn’t that I don’t love reading, it’s that I love good conversations even more so the books can wait until I’m alone.

  • I just bought tickets to Copenhagen with a friend, and in order to take advantage of the best deal, we bought tickets that don’t include a checked bag. I’m up for the challenge, but the one catch is that our carry on can’t weight more than 10kg. We’re mulling the idea of sharing a checked bag due to the weight limitation but the idea of foregoing it is exciting in a strange way!

    • If it was fall/winter, I would be the same! I don’t touch my jeans in the spring/summer.

  • I’m in Victoria now and thinking of you as one of your readers/podcast listeners. Have a wonderful trip!

  • I just came back from a 2 week trip myself and have managed to pack everything in my carry-on. I always do :)

    I travel a lot and, to be honest, I don’t see the point in paying for a suitcase. I bought a laptop-backpack and pack my laptop + very few clothes (wherever I go, there will always be a functioning washing machine at hand) + various items (like toothbrush, phone charger, etc.)

    And during winter, when warm clothes take over more space than t-shirts, I just use one of those space-saving vacuum bags to store everything.

  • Traveling with carry-ons is the BEST, for all the reasons you stated. It must help a lot that you already have so few clothing items. For me, I really have to watch for “aspirational packing.” The gorgeous funky shirt that I never actually feel comfortable wearing does NOT belong in my suitcase. (In fact, it probably doesn’t belong in my closet, either, which is something I need to work on.) I find that when I pack clothes I know I’m comfortable in, I don’t worry so much about not having enough to wear.

  • When we went with a tour group, so we would be seeing the same people day after day, I packed several scarves. You don’t need as many outfits when you can easily change their looks. For that trip I packed three each solid-color silky t-shirts, button front shirt/jackets, and slacks that I could mix and match plus one print blazer that had each of the t-shirt colors in it. The guy who met us at the airport in London couldn’t believe we didn’t need to go to baggage claim even though we would be traveling for two weeks. Yes, we did laundry during that trip but with quick-dry clothes that doesn’t take much. I find this system works for week long conventions, too.

    Tide To Go pens are a must for us! Glad to see that on your list although I didn’t see it in the picture.

  • I always travel with just a carry-on and a medium-sixed purse (fits the ipad mini). People seem astounded but it’s really not that hard. Have done it for 3 weeks in Australia, 8 weeks in Mexico, European river cruise etc. It makes travel so much easier, especially when using public transportation.

    Have a fab trip. Hope you come and enjoy Oregon. We are in Western Oregon. Bring lots of allergy meds though — grass seed capitol of the world. :-)

  • I am taking my first flight in ten years in ten days. This was the perfect article to read. What a great reminder. Thanks Cait!

  • Love your blog! I’ve never traveled for longer than 4-5 days but I do use just a small duffle and a cross body bag/tote as carryons. I love the way yuo sort your items between your bags and will do that next time. I hope you do write a post on why you no longer carry a purse and how you manage wallet, phone, etc. Thanks for the great content, Cait!

  • Years ago I went to only taking a small Jansport backpack with me for travel, regardless of the destination or length of stay. I makes it so easy to get on and off transportation and keep track of my stuff. It also fits easily under and airline seat, so I don’t have to worry about finding space in an overhead bin. I only pack two outfits in addition to what I’m wearing, plus a swimsuit and a small ziplock of toiletries. I just wash out what I’m wearing at night and hang it to dry. I bring things that dry quickly, so they are dry by the next day. I no longer bring a laptop with me, as I can do most of what I need with my phone. If I’m going to need a jacket, I wear it.

  • Ahhhhh… packing.
    We are taking a 10 days trip to BC soon and I am trying to convince hubby to leave with only carry-ons. (us and 2 kids). It’s a no-go for him….
    I’m still thinking only a carry-on myself. Traveling with kids makes it more complicated, as they need more “stuff”.

  • BEND!!! I hope you love it just as much as we do :-)
    We’re currently trying to plan a trip back there….but it’s a pretty involved process when you’re gonna be lugging bikes all the way from New Zealand!

  • Hi Cait, I’ve been following you for about 3 years but have never commented. I love, love love your blog. I excitedly await the next one, read every word & every comment. I feel like I know you & many of the regular commenters. This is such a friendly & supportive community. Thank you so much! I know you put a lot of time & hard work into this. I have learned so much from you & it has made my life so much easier.

    I have to ask. Are you, by chance, going to be visiting Shannon Ables (Living the Simply Luxurious Life) in Bend? I think the two of you would have so much to talk about. Her pictures & stories of Bend on Instagram & on her blog make me really want to experience it for myself.

  • This is so helpful, not just for major travel but just general packing. Plus it really helps keep all my “stuff” under control at home. It makes the idea of going on a trip much less onerous and adds a bit of spontaneity to life – Grab and go:)

  • I have a few books on my iPad, like the entire Harry Potter collection, so although I prefer paper books in real life, I just bring one or at most two print book on planes in case we aren’t allowed to use electronics at some point, Where I fall down is yarn– I’m a knitter, and I always imagine that I’m going to finish three sweaters in a week or something (not likely.). :)

  • We’re in your neck of the woods now, Cait: Vancouver! Our family of 4 packed for a 2 week trip in 2 carry-ons and 2 backpacks. We have about a week’s worth of clothes and plan to do laundry halfway through as we’re staying with friends. It was nice once we arrived at the airport, going straight to the car rental instead of waiting for our luggage.

  • I’d be up for carry on only from a size point of view, but I must carry a swiss army knife. I have a horrid habit of finger/cuticle picking which I’ve moved to trimming with scissors in the above. So… yeah, I often check it. And I ALWAYS get my luggage. Yeah, stuff gets lost, I know, but so far, never with me! Sometimes, in some jurisdictions, the knife is sufficiently small to be in carry on. But it’s too risky with international connections and I can’t have it confiscated, so I check the bag. I pre pay. It’s worth it for me. And for airport toliet visits too!

    I also set a ‘use it or lose it’ rule with packed items. Helps me rationalise when packing, but not carry stuff home I never needed!

  • This is also the way I pack. My most recent trip, I was down to one carry on total. That was possible because I keep toiletries at my girlfriend’s new place. I just needed some clothes and my kindle + chargers.

  • Packing lightly makes travelling so much easier! Mrs. Hammocker and I recently traveled to Italy. We only took our Osprey hiking daypacks. It was the best decision we made. We didn’t have to worry about rolling a suitcase all over the cobbled streets. Travelers pack as if they will be somewhere for two months. The Asics are great shoes too. This is our preferred choice. Thanks for the great article.

  • Great ideas, Cate! I travel regularly by plane (min. once a month) and only travel with a single a single bag. For business travel, I use a Tom Bihn Tri Star (33l). The laptop bag fits in the middle compartment. The bag fits under the seat of even the small commuter planes. I try to follow the rule of 3 – no more than 3 of any item (tops, bottoms, etc.). For work travel, I usually pack dresses and cardigans as they can pack small and look professional. I am not afraid of sink laundry and may bring a laundry bar (Linda bar cut into small size) or hotel shampoo. For personal travel I have 28l backpack. Everything must coordinate and always looking for “hacks” to further reduce pack size. Favourite hack: repackage liquids into smallest container. I use contact lens cases for face cream. Never going back to checked luggage.

  • Hi Cait! I got packing cubes for Christmas last year and I LOVE them! Keeps everything organized in my suitcase, and also compacts them a bit. That being said I always over pack!
    Love the blog :)

  • Before I traveled semi-frequently for work, I had a real hard time figuring out what to bring with me when traveling. My family rarely if ever traveled when I was younger, and if we went anywhere it was camping, so I was woefully ill-equipped for adult travel.

    I remember my first big trip of over a week to San Francisco I FILLED UP a large suitcase and barely had space to bring anything home. By the time I went to London a few years later, I learned better. Now I can pack on the fly for a week long work trip extremely easily, weather permitting of course, and wear almost everything I bring, and prioritize things I can handwash easily if necessary (I spill things… a lot.)

    HOWEVER. I over-pack my makeup ALL THE TIME. And often, I use almost all of it. Trying to figure out travel makeup is literally on my to-do list. If anybody here in the comment section has ideas for doing full-face while traveling PLEASE HELP ME.

  • This is a great guide and very inspirational. I love traveling and mostly do it by car because the airport experience is so terrible. But with your tips this can make that experience much easier. I also wasn’t sure if I really could do just one carry on for an extended trip, but you have shown the way. The more we work to become minimalists the easier it is for us to do the things we want to, but sometimes feel overwhelmed by.

  • Love this post and your podcast, so helpful!

    I have put a pair of elastic sided boots on my approved shopping list, as my current ones now have a hole in them. What brand are your boots, and how are you finding them quality-wise, as I am also trying to invest in quality pieces, rather than cheap things that will only last a year if not a season?

  • Can you please write that blog post about why you don’t use purses? I find them cumbersome and I’d love to know your feelings behind the change and how you transitioned away from using them. I love your blog, thanks for writing and sharing!

  • Thanks for this post. I love to see what other people pack for trips. I also just use a carry-on, but I always find myself slightly dissatisfied with my choices, especially because I tend to pack too many shoes. It’s great to see exactly what you’re taking, especially toiletries. And the Tide to Go pen. Great idea. I absolutely loved Tsh’s book “At Home in the World.” Such a perfect declaration of my own conflicting feelings about travel versus community.

  • Those photos are so dreamy… so organized! There’s nothing more fulfilling than a) fitting everything into a carry-on, b) not paying any extra fees, and c) wearing everything you pack. I have always tried to pack light, but shoes are my biggest vice. Now, I just pack light in every area (i.e., one pair of jeans, one black dress, one cardigan, a couple tops) and leave myself room for the inevitable shoe dilemma. Not ideal, but it’s a slow-moving work in progress :)

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