Carry-On Only Travel

Some lessons learned after 6 months

So I’ve been travelling for the better part of 6 months now with carry-on only luggage, and LOVING IT! Needless to say, however, it brings with it some tricky challenges and obstacles to overcome. Selecting what you are going to bring with you, and determining what will be essential for the duration of your trip is key, and will vary drastically depending on who’s travelling.

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carry-on only - my backpack before the challenge
This is an image from before my days of Carry-On Only… look familiar?

In the beginning

My first couple attempts at carry-on only travelling barely fit the bill in terms of qualifying as “carry-on ONLY”. I was stopped regularly for trying to squeeze my tripod bag on with my Lowepro CompuDaypack through the x-ray. I had countless wires for every electronic device under the sun protruding from my little bag. Mixed in were clothes, toiletries, countless electrical adapters, a medical kit, some more random things (complete list here), on top, of course, of having my laptop and DSLR! My poor little bag was not built for such conditions. Needless to say, the challenge was there, and I prevailed. The victory brought with it some valuable teachings, mind you.

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Carry-On Only at Wat Arun
Me and my Carry-on Only CompuDaypack at Wat Arun, Thailand

Why Travel with Carry-On Only?

This could be a blog post in itself, really. The abbreviated list would consist of some top reasons like:

Choosing what to pack

This is the tricky part that is on everyone’s mind. At the end of the day, it’s going to be entirely up to you meeting your needs. One thing to keep in mind, is that you need to separate your needs from your wants. Wants in this game are truly secondary. Being a ‘digital nomad’ such as myself, two of my needs are having a laptop, and camera, so I can continue brining you regular updates from the road. This is why I’ve chosen to travel with the  Lowepro CompuDaypackIt accommodates those two primary needs, in a size which is accepted by most airlines as carry-on only friendly. I still need a few extras of course. Clothes, toiletries, rechargers/adapters/etc.


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Carry-On Only packing
This is just about the lump sum of what I would bring for 1 month or less!

Clothing will really be climate dependant. If you’re planning a trip to the polar regions, I doubt this challenge will really be for you, unless you plan on wearing all your layers for the whole trip (which might not be a bad idea). If your trip involves multiple climates ie hot/cold/wet/dry – this again may be quite difficult (though not impossible). Always check seasonality too – if you’re travelling in a rainy season, for example, having so few clothes may mean you’ll be wearing a lot of wet stuff!

Keeping my clothing limited to 3 shirts + the one I’m wearing, 2 pairs of undies + 1 on me, 1 pair of shorts, 1 bathing suit, and 1 pair of versatile shoes (I’ve chosen the toe-shoes by Vibram – check out my review on them HERE). I would always suggest at least one set of warmer clothes, often to be warn while in transit. Air Con in SE Asia for instance seems to set all time records for trying to out-cold each other! Airports often have their A/C cranked as well. Even if your climate doesn’t call for cooler temps, it’s really better safe than sorry.

Toiletries don’t have to be too complicated. A lot can be picked up along the way, and if your trip is for a month or less, you can often get travel sized gear to get you through (and restock when needed, while on the road). Toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, cotton swabs, some bug/sun spray (small bottles) and I’m good to go. I’ve also dropped the med-kit as a necessary, if my trip doesn’t involve being in the wilderness for extended periods of time. A few bandaids should suffice when you’re in the cities. Remember – this is all about bare-essentials. I’ve only got about 7 litres to work with after my laptop and DSLR gear are in my carry-on only bag.

near-universal power cord - great for Carry-On Only travellers

I recently learned a pretty cool trick. The figure-8 AC power cord that is used by so many camera’s recharger packs, actually fits perfectly into an Apple’s charger pack as well! So long proprietary cables! I now bring 1 cable to accommodate all my chargers! This greatly reduces unnecessary cable space. Universal power adapters are also key. I found one which transforms into almost every power outlet – all in one! This is way more ideal than having 6 or 7 different adapters floating in your bag!

If you would like some ideas on what to bring in your backpack for your next adventure, check out his post by Nomad is Beautiful for their tips on choosing what to pack for Thailand!

Reality Check

This isn’t for everyone, and I realize that. I would love to see the world travelling with carry-on only! If not for environmental reasons alone, then just for witnessing the sheer joy in discovering a world free from stock-piling possessions. My suggestion for first timers is not to plan your first time doing this as a big trip (like my 4 weeks to Borneo). Try a weekend away to start. I’ve known people who go away for 3 days and it looks like they’re moving houses. If a weekend goes well, then try a week. the most important thing to remember is the separation of what you will NEED from what you just WANT to have with you. Will your trip be a disaster if you don’t have a different pair of shoes for every night out? If so, this may not be for you.

Have you had any experiences with travelling with Carry-On Only luggage? If so, what did you learn from doing it? Do you still travel with Carry-on only, or do you pick and choose when to do this? Please share your stories in the comment section below!

30 Responses

  1. Oh wow! I have backpacked but I am not sure if I could squeeze all my stuff in a carry on bag! In any case, well done! 😉

    1. Thanks MadAboutTravel 🙂 It’s not easy, that’s for sure.. that’s why it’s best to try it out on short weekend trips.. then challenge yourself for longer. You’ll be amazed at how little you really need – the same can be said about life! If you try it, and need some tips – never hesitate to ask… Cheers!

    1. If you have the space, you will tend to fill it. It’s a psychological thing, really. So how to overcome that? Make the space smaller 😉 WTM was a bit of a challenge though, as the UK was getting a wee bit chilly. Did you notice I wore the same fleecy every day? It was the warmest thing I had with me!! lol

  2. As I read this, I’m surrounded by a mess of chargers/clothes/bits and pieces that I’m hoping to pack into 2 small bags for an extended SE Asia motorcycle trip. I have NO IDEA how I’m going to make that happen, but I’m off to test your Apple charger theory right now.

    1. Torre – that’s AWESOME news! When are you heading this way? If you’d like to chat in further detail about anything, please feel free to get ahold of me through the contact us page on my site 🙂 Looking forward to hearing about your moto-trip!! Maybe even crossing paths?!

  3. Ian, Great article and wow! I was wondering if you could post the power cord and adapter that you like. We travel with so many cords and I would love to throw them all away. Thanks!

    1. Hey Paz! I’ve got two photos up there with the power cable (one of them being at the very bottom) – it’s a standard cable that comes with a lot of camera battery chargers now! I use a Canon T2i (550) – if you’re familiar with the charger, it’s the same cable, and plugs right into the macbook pro power adapter. My plug adapter is shown (in small) as the little white box in front of my backpack. They’re becoming readily available at many outdoor/travel gear stores, and even at some airports! SUPER handy! One adapter for the whole world! Glad you liked it, happy flash-packing 🙂

  4. Great article Ian. I’ve always traveled with carry-on only. It’s the way airline employees almost always travel since we never know if we will make a flight or not.

    Most of the stuff travelers take with them they never use at all, but they have them just in case; silly really.

    I’ll have to write a post about what I carry and link back to you.

    Also, people tend to forget that they can always wash stuff, plus clothes are really cheaper in some other countries, so if you need something you can just buy it. There are also goodwill shops all over the world where you can get stuff on the cheap.

    The stuff that makes my bag the heaviest are my electronics; but I’ve minimized that by not taking my DSLR instead just using my Samsung Galaxy SII which although not good zoom, gives me 8MP photos and I can share them immediately.

    I really love your story :-D. Thanks for sharing and welcome to my life…

    1. I’d love to see what you pack, especially after so many years experience. Thanks for sharing a little insight into what’s in your bag! Looking forward to reading your post for the more detailed inside scoop.

      I agree that 90% of what I used to lug around (literally, my bag almost weighed more than me!) was never used. Some stuff, after 15 years of backpacking, is still in it’s original packaging. Like seriously… who needs a solar blanket?

      If we could get even half the people travelling to travel with less, just imagine the immediate impact not only on their lives, but on the reduced petrol use – thus preserving this world in which we travel that much longer! 🙂

  5. Great article! Well done. I’ve gone carry on only for many a trip and surprised many a host. It wasn’t always this way, but it IS the best way to travel.
    I’m very impressed with how you let go of so many material things Ian. What a way to literally lighten things up. Congrats!

    1. Thanks Tony! It really is amazing just how much stuff we let ourselves hang on to! There’s so much ‘junk’ in the world – living in SE Asia only emphasizes that. I walk down street after street of stall upon stall upon stall, all selling the same disposable knick-knacks… just contributing the the stacks of junk that accumulate in our houses, and in our lives! Letting go, and breaking free of that mentality, or of that lifestyle even, was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I’ve got enough belongings to fill a backpack, and even still that feels like too much sometimes! 🙂

    1. You betcha, 30Traveler!! It’s unbelievable really! And the best part is… running past all those ‘suckers’ waiting for their bags to arrive on the carousel!! haha.. have I become jaded? perhaps..

  6. I love carry-on only and I travel that way whenever possible. I took a 5 month round the world trip last year with carry-on only. I did have to check my bigger backpack a few times because of strict weight restrictions, but size-wise it worked well. I love not having to wait at the luggage carousels after a flight, it’s so freeing to not have so much stuff to lug around, and it really does help to only have the essentials. If you’re traveling for awhile, you have to do laundry anyway, so why not limit the amount of clothes you bring to keep it at carry-on size? Love it!

    1. Hey Ali! 5 months solid RTW with (almost) carry-on only? That’s awesome! I’ve heard 30 Litres in the magic number, but there is the occasional weight restrictions. SO funny how it doesn’t matter that you have the same amount of weight, it just matters where they store it. Oh well. Inspiring tales! Thanks for sharing 🙂 I’d say “see you at the luggage carousel”.. but we’ve got better things to be doing 😉

  7. I loved reading this article!
    I totally agree with the vision you have. And I also do pay attention to the fact that it is related to the too much possessive behaviour we tend to have toward material stuff.
    I had one of these Carry On Only adventures in Laos last summer. And I loved it! I traveled there for 2 weeks and it actually felt good not to have too much stuff to pack and un-pack. (Well, I still had my big backpack in CM, but whatever!)
    Thanks for the tips, I’m gonna think about getting a “Digital-Nomad” bag like yours 😉

    1. Hey Marion! So glad you’ve had a good experience flash-packing! It’s such a great way of travel – not only for the personal benefits, but also the environmental impacts! I look forward to hearing about future carry-on only experiences you may have! 🙂

  8. I’ve just been doing carry-on for my year-long journey throughout Asia. No regrets whatsoever. Makes life so much easier for me (and lighter!). Probably couldn’t do this in a cold climate, but when all I really have are hippie pants and tank tops, it’s all good 🙂

    1. I agree – colder climate would be challenging, at best. I image, though, for flashpackers that do, you’d have the same clothes in your backpack, and just wearing the warm ones all the time (sweaters, long pants, etc). Also a need for socks (ick!). But I think it’s possible – either way, it’s changed my life and I think it will be hard to go back! Glad you’re loving it too!!! 😀

  9. I just returned from a fourth-month overland trip from Armenia to Germany and was also very concerned about traveling lightly. There are two considerations for me: 1. Will I be camping on this trip? 2. Do I want a computer/good camera on this trip? In order to travel carry-on only (which for me is less important than simply traveling lightly), I can only answer yes to one of those two questions.

    I used a 42L backpack which carried all my camping equipment (tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, cooking equipment) and the normal travel stuff as well (clothes, books, toiletries, etc). I could have squeezed on a netbook or a camera, but it was already so full and I had made to decision to not bring these with me.

    There are, of course, huge benefits to having your own computer and camera along your trip as can been seen from your blog, and I think they will be included on my next one. But for this trip, I decided that ‘lightweight’ and ‘flexible’ were to determine what I packed. There was minimal blogging and no real photography going on. So for my purposes, an iPod touch was perfect. Small and light, it acted as my MP3 player, camera (2 megapixels, but Instagram makes all the photos look great), computer, and phone. I could check my emails, Facebook, send couch requests (Couchsurfing) and surf the web wherever I found wifi, and could call the US for free (Magicjack) and other countries cheaply (Skype). Of course, nothing is as fast or high quality when compared to the laptop and camera, but you can get an amazing amount of things done with just the iPod (or iPhone).

    Another note: after living in a village for two years and bathing at infrequent intervals, my body adjusted, and my need for certain toiletries decreased. I shower at most every other day because I just don’t feel dirty and don’t need deodorant. Over course, as you mentioned, most of these things can be bought anywhere and don’t really need to be packed. And you might have to live in a village without a shower for two years to get to this point! Anyway, nice to not have to worry about that stuff.

    Keep up the good work!

    1. Hey Joel! A wonderful response! Thank you for sharing your experiences! I think, of course, each person has their own ‘needs’ or wants. The part I found most rewarding about this challenge is that it really pushes you to figure out what IS important in life and in travel.

      I’ve lived in a village (though only for 3 months), long enough to realize some of the very basic pleasures and luxuries, but also how to adapt without those things. I think that was a good stepping stone for me as well venturing off on this challenge.

      Thanks again for sharing your stories! Best of luck with your future carry-on travels!

  10. Love your post! Like you said, I think it is possible to travel with a lot less than most people assume. In two weeks I’m leaving for Northern Sweden, carry on only!

    1. Thanks Grace – an old post, but actually I’ve still managed to travel carry on for nearly the past 2.5 years now. It really depends on climate and purpose of the trip however. In the tropics it’s easy. Less really is more… but on a trip to somewhere cooler, carry on doesn’t really cut it with socks, sweaters, etc. I’ve compromised and just have to be more strategic now depending on where I’ll be going 🙂

  11. Pingback: 6 travel bloggers share their most essential tips for packing light

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