How to Travel the World with Carry-On Luggage Only

How to Travel the World with Carry-On Luggage Only

Take a look around your house real quick. Seriously, go look. Look at all your stuff. It’s okay, I’ll wait.

How does all your STUFF make you feel? Individual items might improve one’s life, but when you look at the collective whole of things that you own, does all that stuff make you feel happy? Enlightened?

Having STUFF is nice. I love stuff. But how necessary is it really? I used to have lots of stuff, but in recent years I’ve shed my layers and downsized. I’ve been traveling the world for five years and I’ve never, at one time, had enough stuff to fill more than two bags.

This means that in five years of travel, I have never had the need to check a bag.


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The key to traveling with carry-on luggage is to look at the collective whole of what you’re taking with you and getting rid of the unnecessary items. It’s nice to have some of that stuff, but if you don’t need it, get rid of it! It will be there waiting for you when you return home.

Without a bag to check, you can make the quickest of exits from planes and airports, bypassing everybody else who is stuck waiting for their luggage to appear. Without a big bag to lug around, you are also able to maneuver trains, buses, taxis, and other forms of transport with extreme ease.

You become more lightweight, more limber, more sexy.

To be honest, traveling carry-on only is one of the best decisions I ever made, and I didn’t even make it on purpose. It just…happened. As I continued to travel, I continued to downsize, leaving more and more of my items behind.

To be perfectly honest, traveling carry-on only is a lot easier than most people think.

Manto de la Novia Waterfall, Baños, Ecuador

With my daypack at Manto de la Novia Waterfall, Baños, Ecuador / Photo by Brendan van Son

How to Travel with Carry-On Luggage Only

The key to traveling carry-on only is to put soft items into a soft bag, which can then be easily molded to fit the right space. My main bag is the 40L Osprey Farpoint backpack (though the 55L version with detachable daypack would also work), and when compressed, it fits the approximate dimensions of a carry-on. This could work for a duffel, leather bag, etc, but probably not for a hard, wheeled suitcase.

Ultimately, you need to pick the right bag.

Then, if your airline allows, have a second bag that you carry on the front (your “personal item”) with your laptop, camera, and other valuables and essentials. This bag easily fits underneath the seat in front of you, while your main bag sits in the upper-head compartment.

Boom. Carry-on only.

PRO TIP: For most airlines, your carry-on bag should measure 22” x 14” x 9” and your personal item should measure 17” x 10” x 9”.

Traveling in the Antwerp Train Station

Traveling in the Antwerp Train Station

How to Pack Efficiently

You may have heard it before, but the key to saving space in your bag is rolling your clothes. This compresses your clothes, decreases their surface area, and makes them stackable. Even the military packs their bags this way.

To save even more space, use compression sacs to vacuum seal your clothes. Put all of your shirts into one, socks and underwear into another, and so on. When you need a shirt, pull out the bag that has shirts in it. Packing cubes are another really great alternative, though are generally better suited to suitcases.

Don’t underestimate the usefulness of these items—imagine having just three or four large items packed into your bag instead of 30 various pieces of clothing floating around and getting lost.


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And leave your parka at home. Get a travel friendly jacket like the Storm Logic from ExOfficio—it doesn’t take up much room in your bag, and it can roll up into a travel pillow so you don’t even have to pack it in your bag when you fly.

The jeans have to go, too. Though they’re the staple of any wardrobe, if you want to travel carry-on only, it’s almost impossible to travel with jeans. I have a dark pair of khakis that work as a substitute which are much more economical.

It’s about picking and choosing, and making some sacrifices. No, you can’t have everything you want, but you can have everything you need. That’s the underlying rule for picking which stuff to bring with you when you’re traveling carry-on only.

Hitchhiking in Albania with everything I own.

Hitchhiking in Albania with everything I own.

What I Pack in My Bags

What do I pack in my bags? Here’s a rundown of everything I carry in each of my two bags.

What’s in My Carry-On?

  • 6 t-shirts
  • 2 button-down shirts
  • 2 long-sleeve shirts
  • 3 tank tops/singlets
  • 6 pairs of underwear
  • 5 pairs of socks
  • 1 pair of long pants
  • 1 pair of shorts
  • Rain parka
  • Sneakers, hiking shoes, flip-flops
  • Dopp kit and toiletries

What’s in My Personal Item?

And that’s it. Simple. Effective. Lightweight. Sexy. Carry-on only, anywhere in the world.

Some Bags I Love

If you’re looking for some new bags, here are a few that I love. And by a few, I mean eight. Check it out in the interactive video below.

What do you think? Can you travel carry-on only for your next trip? I challenge you to try it, and tell us about it in the comments below!


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63 Responses to How to Travel the World with Carry-On Luggage Only

  1. Chewy August 4, 2015 at 9:31 am #

    I started rolling my clothes maybe a year or so ago and I don’t know why it isn’t how we do it from the beginning. I’ve even started to roll them when putting them in my drawers now too. It’s also easier to choose shirts from a row of rolled shirts in a drawer (lined up like a colorful piano keyboard haha), rather than digging through a pile of folded shirts.

    • Jeremy Scott Foster August 5, 2015 at 12:31 pm #

      I like having flat clothes if I’m living out of drawers, but when it comes to packing my bags, I only ever roll them.

  2. Rod August 4, 2015 at 12:18 pm #

    Great stuff and tracks with much of my own travel evolution. I’m typing this while sitting in Vancouver Airport with a tiny 10liter pack. Once you get into washing underwear/socks/shirt every night, I dropped even more gear. Indespensibles for me are baby wipes, an extra long phone charger, and a cell phone large and powerful enough, maybe with a Bluetooth keyboard, to substitute for a laptop. Arcteryx convertible pants do double duty as fairly dressy pants and shorts. Flip flops made from stiff insoles and paracord are super thin and light (although mostly only appropriate for showering or in room). Still.. I’m always surprised at how I seem to return from trips with stuff in my bag that I haven’t even used once!

  3. Allan Trinidad August 4, 2015 at 4:19 pm #

    How often do you wash your clothes? And do you wash it manually or in a laundry shop?

    • Jeremy Scott Foster August 5, 2015 at 12:35 pm #

      I usually wash my clothes once a week, either washing them by hand, in a laundry machine, or dropping them off somewhere. Different countries have different laundry options available.

  4. James August 4, 2015 at 4:39 pm #

    Never again will I travel without packing cubes. They save lives

  5. sabretoothed chickens August 5, 2015 at 3:56 am #

    Yes! Good tips. We too use soft packing cells and are addicted to them. We went on our last 2 week family trip with carry-on only. We are a family of 5 with 3 under 12! So it is possible.

    We admit for our gap year we had one carry on but the hardest thing was lugging around over 7kg of school books and supplies.

    Next time we do a long trip we want to achieve carry-on only. 🙂 Yes, it is freeing!

    • Jeremy Scott Foster August 5, 2015 at 12:35 pm #

      Yikes! Leave the books at home next time 😉

      • Sabretoothed chickens August 5, 2015 at 10:21 pm #

        Well the next year we insisted it was given to us all in digital formats ie 3 USB sticks but then you have the problems and expense of printing, digitally capturing and digital submission. Sadly the distance education school we were in would not accept digitally filled out work even for maths.
        So the obstacle can be that you may want a certain option or lifestyle but others do not want to accomodate.
        Still we managed and gained wisdom on what to change next time.
        Truth is I am not a fan of pure unschooling or world schooling – people can’t deny it is different from mainstream schooling and ultimately I do want my children to have the option to live in mainstream society.
        Surely you must plan to marry and have kids one day, Jeremy?

  6. Michelle August 5, 2015 at 3:22 pm #

    Definitely a great post showing people that it’s possible to travel with carry-on only (read: less junk and unnecessary stuff). Lightweight travel is the way to go if you’re constantly moving from place to place – especially if you’re travelling over a longer period of time 🙂

    However, like I said on the group post… it’s not all adventures that allows you to travel with carry-on only. At least I could not see myself bringing only carry-on if I went to the cold north to trek for several days while also bringing a lightweight tent and sleeping bag – not to forget I would need room in my bag for food supplies on such a trip. I would need a proper check-in backpack for an adventure like that. Of course there are other types of travelling that allows for carry-on only but it really depends on where you’re going and what you’re doing.

    • Jeremy Scott Foster August 14, 2015 at 10:25 pm #

      Since I travel for longer periods of time, I try to rent things like tents and sleeping bags as I need them. Since I also usually stick to one region of the world at a time, I can pack appropriately for a few months, then switch out my gear when I go to a different area. This means I never get bogged down with too much equipment.

      Of course, not everything works for everybody, but this is an inside look to how I do it 🙂

  7. crazy sexy fun traveler August 5, 2015 at 5:30 pm #

    I try to take just hand luggage too always when possible but it’s not so easy when I am traveling to cold destinations. BTW I roll my clothes, too!

  8. Kaley August 6, 2015 at 12:18 am #

    Recently went to Vietnam and Cambodia with just a carry-on and backpack. Best decision ever! It’s just so easy to have all of your stuff on you and not lugging it around! When traveling you really don’t need to bring a lot of stuff with you. You can easily buy things at your destination! The only issue I found with bringing carry-ons is that it is less space for souvenirs, but really a few small trinkets are all you should want to bring back anyway.

    • Jeremy Scott Foster August 14, 2015 at 10:26 pm #

      The only souvenirs I leave with are photos. I couldn’t imagine having a suitcase full of stuff, especially in Southeast Asia. The wardrobe is so simple there!

  9. Jaimi August 6, 2015 at 3:11 am #

    Great tips – love the cubes idea. Spent 3 weeks in Brazil/Ecuador on a family vacay last year and with 19 flights, tight connections and packed schedule, carry-on only made it work! As a woman, I have one black, long, light spaghetti strap dress as a staple in my packing: paired with a pashmina, works in every country in the world from Brunei to Bolivia!

  10. Suze The Luxury Columnist August 6, 2015 at 5:17 am #

    I’m quite keen on taking carry on bags only, funnily enough it’s my husband who likes to have spare space for a computer and shopping!

    • Jeremy Scott Foster August 14, 2015 at 10:28 pm #

      Ha! Carry on is great, but I guess sometimes you just need a little more.

  11. Chris August 9, 2015 at 12:21 am #

    I always travel carry on as well but unfortunately when travelling to a cold destination I haven’t manage to fit it all in.

    • Jeremy Scott Foster August 14, 2015 at 10:27 pm #

      It’s also about finding the right gear. If you buy the right brands and products, you can find warm stuff that rolls up into a small space.

  12. Gary Benton August 9, 2015 at 1:38 pm #

    I think that you could cut down by not taking 13 tops (6 t-shirts+2 button-down shirts+2 long-sleeve shirts+3 tank tops/singlets). I generally take 4 tops (2 Icebreaker v-necks which can be worn under the short sleeve or long sleeve shirt for layering. I often wear a pair of black jeans on the airplane with a full zip merino sweater, as I find that if your trip involves a lot of urban destinations black jeans can look dressy enough.

    Your personal item size would be rejected by many airlines – many only accept a maximum third dimension of 6″. To avoid fighting for overhead space I make sure that I only take enough to fit under the seat on the smallest planes. My preferred luggage for hiking/rural/wet destinations is a 19L bag (I put a 20L drybag inside it to keep my stuff dry); if I am predominantly visiting cities I can get everything in a briefcase that fits under the seat in front and that doesn’t look like luggage.

    I use an iPod Touch as my computer and camera, so I don’t need a second bag.

  13. Jeremy Scott Foster August 14, 2015 at 10:33 pm #

    Great insight and recommendations! I could definitely cut down on my shirts, but as I have been traveling so much and for so long, it’s nice to have some variation. I, too, only carry dark pants, but they’re khakis, not jeans.

    I’ve also had no issue with my carry-on on any flight, and it fits under the seat every time. Because I run this website, though, I have to have a laptop and camera gear, otherwise I could carry even less!

  14. Ryan Biddulph August 19, 2015 at 5:11 pm #

    Awesome Jeremy! My wife and I go bare bones but we can lose the big suitcases for the next trip maybe…..after reading your post. Thanks so much!

    Ryan

  15. Kelly August 24, 2015 at 9:01 am #

    This is the only way I travel! My checked luggage has been lost/delayed several times, and it is SO STRESSFUL each and every time. I feel much better being 100% in control of my stuff. The hardest thing for me is shoes…I always want to bring way more than what’s practical! But, I’m getting better 🙂

    • Jeremy Scott Foster August 24, 2015 at 10:50 pm #

      It is! I actually had a free checked bag on a flight recently, so I decided to use it, and what do you know–my bag came back with a whole bunch of my stuff missing!

  16. kerol November 4, 2015 at 6:29 am #

    Whoa, Osprey atmos 50 ag. Nice pack. I dont know it can compress as small for carry on.

  17. Stanley Chan January 4, 2016 at 1:23 am #

    Rolling your clothes can really save space on your bag. I believe on this because I’ve been done folding clothes for years when packing and pile it on my bag and when I tried doing the other method which is rolling your clothes, I found out the difference and it’s really better to have the rolling method for it compresses the clothing while also making it easier to stack and pack into a tiny section of your bag or suitcase.

  18. Yak January 5, 2016 at 9:08 pm #

    yah you could easily get by with about half the clothes. Preferences of course vary, in that department.

    • Jeremy Scott Foster January 6, 2016 at 1:59 pm #

      Get by, of course! But when you travel for so long, it’s nice to have a little more of a selection of clothes to choose from 🙂

  19. FabioRosado January 12, 2016 at 6:24 am #

    Yes! I totally agree with you!
    I rarely travel with any massive suitcases simply because I hate carrying them and hate waiting for them at the luggage belt – that feeling that all other bags are coming out but yours isn’t is quite scary!
    If I’m going away just for a weekend I don’t even carry any spare clothes other than underwear, washing a shirt and let it dry overnight it’s easy done in any room.

    Most people think they will need all of their stuff and then realise they don’t. That’s why I use a small backpack big enough to carry my Nikon D5100, a notebook and some spare clothes.

  20. Regina January 14, 2016 at 12:07 am #

    What brand day-pack is that in the pic of you hitching in Albania? thanks

  21. Ashley January 16, 2016 at 9:25 am #

    Great tips! I learned the hard way that traveling light is definitely the way to go. My heaviest items are my books! Never heard of packing cubes- interesting.

  22. Erin February 10, 2016 at 9:46 pm #

    I agree with many of these tips — I couldn’t live without packing cubes and always roll my clothes. I disagree that you can’t travel carry-on only with jeans, though. I’ve been carry-on only full-time for six years and have had jeans the whole time. The trick is to choose lighter weight summer jeans that aren’t too heavy or bulky. They may be slightly heavier than other trousers, but they are worth it for me for the comfort, familiarity, and blending in with locals. Ultimately, it comes down to choosing what’s important to you.

    • Jeremy Scott Foster February 22, 2016 at 7:24 am #

      Absolutely. And you may have to forego a t-shirt or two in its place, but as you said, it comes down to what’s important to you.

  23. anne February 11, 2016 at 12:08 am #

    YUUUUP. Only way to travel! Have you noticed it also helps you get rid of more STUFF when you come back home…? I find myself going through closets and drawers and storage at my parent’s place of stuff I just don’t need. And typically, you can just find what you need on the road anyways. If you’re on a budget, consider a trade or exchange with another traveler! 🙂 Check out my pack list for our year on the road! http://www.theyoganomads.com/travel/travel-essentials-women-packing-list/

    • Jeremy Scott Foster February 22, 2016 at 7:22 am #

      For sure! I love purging and throwing out lots of old stuff now. I used to hoard everything.

    • tel July 26, 2016 at 7:24 am #

      Absolutely. I keep reducing possessions all the time. Carry on all the way for me. Though haven’t tried a cold country yet.

  24. JessicaTam March 6, 2016 at 12:12 am #

    Travelling HLO certainly helps beat the queues at immigration. It also helps when there is a tight connection between trains/planes. I don’t know that I could go back to checked luggage.

    My last trip started with a flight on a low cost carrier so I was limited to 7kg (15lb) including my jacket (yes really). That was challenging but quite possible. Normally I have 10kg (22lb) to play with. Fortunately it was to Asia, so I didn’t need the ‘winter woolies’. Oh, that included about 1.5kg of laptop/tablet/phone equipment too. That was the first time I weighed my clothes piece by piece and selected the lightest.

    • Jeremy Scott Foster March 7, 2016 at 7:49 am #

      Kudos to you! That’s a feat not easily obtainable, though traveling to tropical places like Southeast Asia does make it a lot easier.

  25. Tom March 26, 2016 at 6:40 pm #

    We went carry on last trip three weeks in Europe with ultra light wheeled cases and 7kg limit. Cases were 1.5kg I think. We are going to Europe, sailing London to New York and then some US content totaling eight weeks and want to do carry on again. We won’t go to dinners or shows, won’t need heels and will stay in the downmarket ship restaurants rather than drag a tiara and tux with us. The aim of the ship portion is the “experience” and not the “tizzy”.

    I still felt very uncomfortable in trains through Italy because our bags still had to be left in the luggage rack at the ends. I’m wondering if we are better to buy carry on size backpacks rather than wheeled cases? I think they will still have to be left in the luggage racks though.

    We are visiting two cooler places for two days each and I want to avoid having to take a coat so maybe a light wind breaker would be best and layer our clothes under it rather than drag a heavier jacket for those colder side trips (base of Eiger and Niagara Falls).

    • Jeremy Scott Foster April 4, 2016 at 5:32 pm #

      Hey Tom! I always travel with one big bag and one small bag. That way I never have to separate myself from my valuables.

  26. Tom March 26, 2016 at 6:42 pm #

    Want to add it is less the waiting for the baggage carousel than being able to travel between cities without carrying big cases that appeals to us.

  27. Nicola April 16, 2016 at 12:56 pm #

    What about toiletries???!!! Love your blog. I did a 14 month trip and am heading on another. I’m thinking I should stick to warm places to keep the luggage down. my issue is sun cream, shampoo, toothpaste, etc.

    • Jeremy Scott Foster April 22, 2016 at 2:33 pm #

      I take a couple, but I usually just buy them in small bottles wherever I go.

    • tel July 26, 2016 at 7:26 am #

      Nicola I use sun cream as my general moisturiser in warm countries. Got the toiletries down to minimum I think.

  28. Juraj June 15, 2016 at 9:41 am #

    Hi Jeremy,

    Very interesting packing list but your setup is based on being able to bring two carry-on bags.

    What do you usually do if this is not possible and the airline only allows 1 carry on bag?

  29. Katrin July 5, 2016 at 4:12 pm #

    Beware that some airlines apply other size restrictions than the ones you’ve shared. My advice would be to always check with the airline you’re flying with, so you won’t risk having to check your bag.

    Very much like the idea with a substantial personal item though, where you can put all the stuff you need/want to have available during the flight ( and are expensive!).

    Humbly sharing my own packing tips 😉

    http://travelgeardepot.com/how-to-pack/

  30. Au July 22, 2016 at 9:41 pm #

    Your personal bag with your macbook and stuff do you carry that on you all the time or leave it in the room in the main Farpoint?

    • Jeremy Scott Foster July 26, 2016 at 6:30 am #

      I use that bag as my daypack, yes. But if I don’t want to take my laptop and everything else, I unpack it and lock it up in the room or in a locker and I know it’s safe 🙂

  31. Jigs Gaton August 23, 2016 at 10:57 pm #

    Great tips, and as an expat living in Nepal, I could not agree more with you and the commenters above. Osprey makes great bags, and I was lucky to find one here – I moved to Nepal in 2001, bringing with me just 30kg of stuff. Unfortunately, a decade later I’ve accumulated just about the same amount of stuff I originally left with. It’s a disease – what to do?

  32. Mark August 24, 2016 at 1:18 am #

    I struggle with this! I went from one of those silly big backpacks to a holdall, but I struggle with footwear. I have one pair of running shoes, flip flops, smarter shoes and hiking boots. I know I could probably combine the running shoes/hiking boots which may help and I could perhaps lose the smarter shoes; but I suppose I’m not yet ready to – good footwear is really worthwhile in my view.

    The actual travelling part of travelling is a real pain with extra luggage and i’m sure I will gradually get better at it (maybe just by not replacing things as they wear out). I take my hat off to all you super minimalists out there, but take comfort from the fact I only have a laptop bag and a holdall and not a house, garage, loft and a storage unit that I know many people have in their lives.

    • Jeremy Scott Foster August 28, 2016 at 2:58 pm #

      I know—the shoes—that’s my never ending struggle, as well. I love my footwear and have a hard time traveling with just a couple pairs. Ultimately, we all have to decide what’s important to us. Taking an extra pair of shoes may mean not taking something else, but if you’re happy with the tradeoff, then there’s nothing to worry about!

  33. Orlando September 17, 2016 at 2:09 am #

    What about nail clippers and scissors?

  34. Mary September 18, 2016 at 8:37 am #

    Great tips… I use clothing made of merio wool; for both summer and winter (undeclothing, socks, shirts, pants, skirts – base layering, top layer).I need to take a small carry on case becase I have back issues. Merino doesn’t stink and dries ovrnight and comes in different weights.Absolutely fabulous product.

  35. Ben September 18, 2016 at 2:38 pm #

    We travel carry on as well but WITH jeans 😀 Can’t go without those jeans man. We do however have less (t-)shirts than you do so maybe that is how we get the extra space.

  36. Danielle December 31, 2016 at 9:13 am #

    Wonderful tips! This is something I have always struggled with. I have never thought of rolling my clothes or using compression sacs; definitely a must try for the next trip. Shoes are my downfall. We tend to eat at nice restaurants from time to time when we travel, and I always have a pair of heels which do take up space. Also, if we go somewhere cold, those clothes get bulkier and harder to fit in a carry on. But perhaps compression sacs will help with that. And then there’s those good old toiletries – fitting everything I “need” in 3 oz. container in a tiny zip lock bag has been difficult. I And if we’re going somewhere for a longer period of time, I’ll just buy it when I get there. Thanks for the tips!

    • Jeremy Scott Foster January 8, 2017 at 6:20 pm #

      Do you NEED heels? What about a pair of flats? I know a lot of girls get away with a pair of nice flats for fancy outings.

      • Danielle January 9, 2017 at 8:56 am #

        LOL. I definitely do not need heels and should start considering leaving them behind. That would be the smart thing to do…

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