How to Travel Carry-On Only in Style

Let this be your guide to traveling carry-on only with a fly wardrobe, including detailed packing tips, and road-tested travel hacks that really work! Originally published August 2019. Last updated June 2022.

Most of us can do a weekend getaway in an overnight bag with no problem. But what about a week-long trip? I’ve traveled to several tropical destinations with just a carry-on and my beach bag as the personal item. Getting this dramatic hat into an already full spinner was the crowning achievement of packing for a couple of them. How about packing a carry on for a cold destination, though? Been there and done that, too.

Today, I’m breaking down why and how to travel carry-on only, as well as dropping some major gems that will have you breezing through the airport on your next trip. And every other trip until further notice. Can you travel with just a carry-on bag? Yes, you can! Start scrolling, sis.

Looking for more travel tips for women? Check out these posts next.

Table of Contents

What are the benefits of not checking a bag?

Packing everything into hand luggage saves me time at the airport and money on checked baggage fees. Honestly, I still try to avoid checking a bag even when the cost is included or otherwise covered (like with business travel or through loyalty rewards) because I simply don’t like the hassle. My time is valuable to me and waiting around at the baggage claim carousel or in line at luggage drop is not how I want to spend it, when I can avoid that.

Without checking a bag, I can head straight to airport security then to boarding. And, once I land, I can get started on whatever adventures I have planned. Another benefit of traveling carry-on only is that it helps you avoid lost or damaged luggage. You don’t have to worry about your belongings being mishandled or worse, stolen. No lost bags and everything you packed makes it to your destination at the same time you do–just the way you packed it! Of course, there’s always the chance you’ll have to gate check a bag but that is minimized with these packing tips and tricks.

Watch these tips in a Video!

Products You Need to Travel Carry-On Only

These are a few tools I’ve picked up that make it easier to avoid checking a bag and still get all my essential travel items to my destination.

  • Carry-On Bag – Of course, you need a carry-on bag. I have two that I rotate between depending on the airline and length of the trip. This hard-sided spinner holds a lot but is smaller and, therefore, size-compliant with most airlines. This soft-sided spinner is slightly larger and I’ve taken it on many trips but is just a smidge outside carry-on size for airlines like United and American. I’ve only had to gate check it once, though. 🙂
  • Personal Item – The phrase “carry-on only” is slightly inaccurate because I almost always take a personal item, as well. Any backpack, purse, or tote that fits under the airplane seat, has compartments to keep things easily in-reach, and zips completely closed (very important) makes for a good personal item. This backpack is my current go-to personal item and can be packed (empty) inside your carry-on in case you want to bring back souvenirs. It is size-compliant with a variety of airlines–even Spirit! I also like a good personalized tote.
  • Compression cubes force the air out of clothing items packed inside them with a dual zipper system and drastically reduce the amount of space needed in your carry-on bag. I first used my compression packing cubes for a week-long trip to Oahu and they were critical to fitting a ton of island outfits in just a carry-on and personal item. I highly recommend them if you tend to overpack or just enjoy serving lots of looks when you travel.
  • Card Case – A card case for your cards and cash holds the essentials and takes up less space than the full wallet you likely use on a regular basis. The one I use is just $10 and comes in any color you could want.
  • Travel-Size Toiletries and Cosmetics – Make or purchase travel sizes of the items you use regularly. I use a travel-size containers and pouch set for items I need to take that I can’t find in travel sizes. For those travel-size items you can find in stores, just buy them once then refill them from your full size as time goes on!
  • Shoe Bags – These will keep the grime that is inevitably on the bottoms of your shoes off everything else in your suitcase and helps protect your shoes while they’re packed. I also find that shoes are easier to pack in shoe bags. Some suitcases have a built-in shoe bag and many designers provide them with your purchase but if you need to buy any separately, Amazon is your best bet.

Before you Pack your Bag

Packing can be a particularly stressful part of travel if you don’t have a plan of attack. Take the pressure off yourself by starting in advance rather than at the last minute. Here is the process I typically follow to plan, pick, and pack a bunch of fly outfits in a small carry-on bag.

Review your trip plans/itinerary and plan outfits by activity. Anything you’re wearing that isn’t a tried-and-true outfit you’ve worn before should be tried on, including shoes and accessories, so you’re 100% sure about it. That way, you’re only packing outfits you actually want to and will wear. Anything else is just taking up space. This also allows you to visualize which pieces can make more than one appearance. I typically throw in two extra outfits that I like but don’t necessarily have a solid plan to wear just in case something gets dirty or our plans change.

Need outfit inspiration?

I plan outfits for nearly every kind of trip I take, from business to leisure, and all kinds of destinations and adventures. It’s easier than you think to stay stylish out of a carry on bag. Here are style guides to help you do the same!

Tips on Outfit Planning

  • Pick versatile pieces that mix and match with each other so that you can get more use from them. More use means fewer pieces to pack.
  • Stick to just a few pairs of shoes to wear multiple times throughout the trip. Shoes are usually the bulkiest and heaviest items in your suitcase and it’s not practical to wear a different pair each day if you’re trying to avoid checking a bag. I typically go with two to three neutral pairs (a sandal and a heel) and one colorful pair (usually sneakers).
  • Similar to the shoe tip, keep accessories simple. Take sunglasses, hats, and handbags that will work with multiple outfits. Jewelry doesn’t take up much space so you have more room for variety here.
  • Lay out every item you’re taking, along with the bags (makeup bag, compression cube, etc.) you’ll put them in. Group like things together then get to work.

Time to Pack

  • Roll your clothes rather than folding them. Here’s a video on how to do that. Rolled clothing is easier to pack, easier to compress in compression bags, and tends to take up less space than clothing folded flat. You can also easily squeeze rolled items into any small gaps that remain once your compression bags, shoes, etc. are in the suitcase. Rolling each item of clothing and using compression bags is what allows me to technically overpack.
  • Try to wear your biggest/heaviest items on the plane instead of packing them. That goes for tennis shoes, jackets, and hats. I also typically wear a scarf to the airport as well as a fanny pack or bum bag. The scarf wouldn’t take up too much space in my suitcase but doubles as a blanket on the plane and the fanny pack provides more space to store things if I wear it whereas it would be taking up space if packed in my bag.
  • Bulkier items that you cannot wear on the plane will benefit most from being in compression bags. Pack those first. Slinkier items are easier to squeeze in here and there.

What to Pack in Carry-On vs Personal Item

I put anything I might want to access during the flight or absolutely wouldn’t want to check (in case I have to gate check my carry-on) in my personal item, which includes:

  • Anything confidential or of high monetary value
  • Books or magazines
  • Electronics like laptop, tablet, phones
  • Jewelry
  • One outfit
  • Money
  • Passport
  • Power bank and headphones
  • Select toiletries like hand lotion and this lavender mist
  • Sleep mask and neck pillow
  • Snacks

Helpful Tips for Carry-On Only Travel

  • Keep in mind that carry-on guidelines differ between airlines. I recommend checking with the airline you fly most often when selecting your carry-on bag. I have two smaller suitcases of different sizes and two personal items I rotate between depending on my needs for each trip
  • It’s also worthwhile to note that the later you board, the more likely it is you’ll have to check your bag at the gate. So being on time, checking in to your flight in advance, and pre-selecting your seat will all work in your favor.
  • When possible, plan to buy some things at your destination. For example, I typically purchase full-size sunscreen when I land because I almost always use all of it and travel-size sunscreen won’t last me long enough. It also ensures I’m using a product that adheres to local environmental guidelines.

Obviously, carry-on on travel isn’t perfect for every single scenario but you’d be surprised by how often you can travel with just a carry-on. Hopefully, these tips help you travel light and slay heavy. And sharing is caring so be sure to pin this packing light guide and follow me over on Pinterest. Thanks for reading!

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