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How to Travel Without a Carry-on

Young man traveling in an airport with only a backpack
Sergey Furtaev/Shutterstock.com

Packing everything for your trip into a carry-on used to be the pinnacle of packing challenges. But today, many airlines won’t even permit a carry-on unless you pay for it. Here’s how to pack even lighter and avoid the fees.

While some trips can’t be navigated without a lot of stuff, it’s often possible to pack lighter than you thought. We’re all about saving money—and those $20-50 carry-on fees add up—so we’ve put together our top tips for traveling when you can’t bring a carry-on. If you book a flight on a discount airline that has hidden charges for bags, make sure to keep this guide handy!

Which Trips Are Best with No Carry-on?

First, you’ll want to make sure this trip is manageable without a carry-on bag (or even a checked bag). Not all trips will work—sometimes, you have to suck it up and pay more to bring more stuff. After all, if you end up spending a bunch of money to purchase the things you didn’t pack, then you didn’t really save any money.

Traveling with just a personal item works best on trips like:

  • Casual travel
  • Short trips
  • Warm-weather vacations

You’ll need to pick a trip that doesn’t require much stuff, so longer trips or ones that require lots of specific attire are usually out. If you’re traveling for business, your work clothes might take up more space than you have. If you’re going to a cold destination or planning to spend weeks away, there’s likely no way the clothes you need will fit into a personal bag.

However, if you think you can get away with packing the bare minimum, follow these steps to make it happen.

Buy the Right Bag

Every airline is different, so start by checking the requirements for which bags count as personal items, and which count as carry-ons.

Most of the time, your personal item needs to fit under the seat in front of you. Soft-sided bags, like backpacks, tend to be easier to squish into the right size and shape to fit, but briefcases or laptop bags can also work. A tote bag can work too, although since totes are open at the top, you’ll need to take care that your stuff doesn’t fall out. Not sure where to start looking for the perfect under seat bag? Don’t worry, over at our sister-site Review Geek they’ve rounded up the best attaches and under seat bags for frequent fliers.

Samsonite Underseat Carry-On Spinner

This sturdy under seat bag is a great option.

In addition to having the right dimensions, look for a bag that has different pockets and compartments to help you stay organized. Traveling with one bag is much easier if essentials like your ID or airplane reading material are easy to find.

Try Packing Cubes

Once you have your bag, consider investing in some compression packing cubes that will help you make the most out of the small amount of space. These travel accessories let you squeeze excess air out so you can fit more stuff in. They can also serve to create extra pockets or compartments in a bag that has none. For more packing cube options, check out our favorites.

Gonex Compression Packing Cubes

Save space with these packing cubes.

Make a Packing List

Now, it’s time to fill your tiny bag with everything you’ll need for your trip. Making a list first will ensure you bring only the essentials, while not leaving anything important behind.

Be extra strategic about planning your outfits. Use your list to jot down everything you’ll need to dress for (swimming, hiking, a nice dinner). If you think in terms of activities, rather than separate outfits for each day, it’s easier to pack everything you’ll need without any excess. Don’t forget to note toiletries and other essentials, like your phone charger, too.

Pack Your Bag Carefully

A small travel bag sitting on a bed
Abeer Sadig/Shutterstock.com

With your list as a guide, you can start packing your bag. It’s best to begin with the absolutely-can’t-live-without items, like chargers and prescriptions, so you can see how much room you have left over for the rest. However, your clothing will probably take up the most space.

Take care to choose clothes that you can wear more than once. Women can save room by packing items that are an entire outfit in themselves, like dresses, rompers, and jumpsuits, instead of separate shirts and pants. Or, try packing things that do double duty, like a one-piece swimsuit that also works as a bodysuit with a skirt or pants.

Realer Canvas Weekender Bag

A weekender bag is another good option for avoiding a carry-on.

Make sure to use every available gap of space. For example, if you’re packing shoes, put small clothing items inside the shoes (you can protect them with a plastic bag) so that you’re not wasting any room. Also, be ruthless about leaving things you won’t need behind. Every little bit of space helps. Don’t pack your entire wallet—just take out the cards you’ll need and bring those.

Extra space often collects at the corners of the bag, so make sure to stuff corners with clothes or other soft items before filling in the middle. Roll your clothes instead of folding them, since rolling forces them into a smaller shape.

Look for Laundry Facilities

Are you going somewhere that will let you do a load or two of laundry on your trip? If so, you can easily cut back on how many clothes you bring. Many AirBNBs offer laundry facilities, but other lodgings may also have laundromats nearby. You could even plan to handwash some items in the sink or bathtub so you can wear them again.

Get Strategic with Toiletries

Consider packing sample sizes of toiletry items (samples are usually smaller than travel sizes) or forgoing things like shampoo and soap that your hotel will provide. You can also look for products with multiple purposes, like a body wash that’s also a shampoo, or a moisturizer that works on both hair and body.

Wear Layers On the Plane

Planes and airports tend to be cold anyway, so why not wear your heaviest layers while you’re in transit? This will keep you comfortable and free up room in your bag. You can even use your coat pockets to hold small essentials, like your phone charger.

Some trips just can’t be managed without a bigger bag, but it never hurts to try to fit everything into a personal item first. You can use the money you save to enjoy your trip to the fullest—plus, the liberating feeling of traveling with just one small bag is hard to beat.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a freelance and creative writer from the Pacific Northwest, and an MFA student at the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop. She specializes in lifestyle writing and creative nonfiction. Read Full Bio »
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