Tips&Tricks: How to pack your carry-on (when you don’t check a bag)

My luggage for 2 full weeks away (March 2012)

My luggage for 2 full weeks away (March 2012)

I am going to brag. I have checked a bag only once and I regretted doing so. I have won those tickets and figured I could check a bag and we can just take the carry-ons with us and not worry about the clothes. WRONG! Lugging a checked bag (although weighing in at below 10 kg) to Bucharest via train, then to London, then within London and then back home was horror. Never again.

With the lesson learned in March 2011 – which was the first time we flew together -, my packing skills have changed from rookie to master by our 3 year together.

By year 6 I’m traveling like this:

Backpack and day pay for 10 days in Greece (May 2017)

I’m quite passionate about the subject of packing light, so I have previously written the following articles on packing:

>> Tips: What to pack for a beach vacation (or if you have access to a swimming pool)
>> What kind of packer are you?
>> Packing list for a not-so-girly-girl
>> How To: Packing Light for Ladies

But this article is about packing a carry-on when you do not check a bag. And it is going to be a long article. So bare with me, if you are interested in the subject.

>>Looking for a backpack for carry-on only travel? You may want to to buy a Cabin Zero bag , which is ideal for carry-on only travel!

And here is a short video I did when packing for a trip we did in August 2016

Before we start…

When preparing to write this article, I went by the following assumptions:

  • I travel with my husband, so two large cabin bags or one large cabin bag and one small one are enough for us, for 2-3 weeks of travel
  • We typically visit European cities, which means there aren’t many things we cannot find in the location if I have forgotten to pack them (exception: birth control pills and prescription drugs).
  • any hostel / hotel / camping / apartment offers at least a sink in which you can wash clothes if needed. Many hostels offer washing machine and most hotels offer the service
  • I wear the heaviest and bulkiest clothes when I fly
  • the smallest carry-on is the one holding all electronics and the “liquids” (tooth paste, shower gel, deodorant within the legal requirements)

What do we wear on the plane?

Simply put, the heaviest and bulkiest clothes we have. I am only talking about Europe when I say that unless you have some metal in the shoes, you do not need to remove them. So sneakers or any type of sport shoes are a great choice. I also wear the jacket (or take it with me in the plane, as I am allowed to). Then I wear the jeans and a t-shirt. If it’s cold, I wear layers (long sleeve t-shirt, short sleeve t-shirt, fleece, then jacket).

What do we pack when we travel carry-on only?

It obviously depends on what time of the year we travel and on the destination. Also, you may need to pack for two climates in the same bag. Hint: layers, my friend!

General tip: Never fold and always roll your clothes. You’ll save a lot of space.

Spring & Autumn

I love the shoulder season. It’s cheaper to travel than during the high season and you can even have the luck to enjoy decent weather. I prefer Spring & Autumn to fly to Mediterranean countries (i.e. Italy and Greece) and Central Europe is also a nice place to enjoy.

However , the weather during the shoulder season is…well, moody. It can be hot, it can be cold, it can be rainy. Or you can have perfect weather. Layers are the best option in this case. And for God’s sake, do not pack an umbrella. A lightweight waterproof jacket is more than enough.

The lingerie is the only “item” I “over-pack”. Panties, socks, and bras don’t take a lot of space and they are not bulky either. Tip for ladies: the socks can stay in the bra’s cups. Saves space and the bra won’t be “damaged”.

Don’t pack a towel unless the hostel you are staying at doesn’t offer one (for free). Most places do offer even if it’s not written in the reservation. Just ask.

Three t-shirts are generally enough for 2 weeks but only if you do shower often. So, no , I am not telling you to stink. Just use the good old soap & water and it’s fine. Plus, you can wash two of them while you wear the third, anyway. And please don’t pack white t-shirts or other colors which get dirty easily. One or two long sleeve t-shirts are also enough. Gray or black are great options.

Don’t pack another pair of jeans. You may pack a light weight pair of trousers or a dress and tights.

Ideally, don’t pack another pair of shoes, but I may do that, especially during summer. Generally a not-so-bulky one. And yes, always pack the shoes you use at home. Don’t attempt to break new ones while you travel. You’ll hate yourself pretty fast and your travel companions will hate you even more.

I always carry a bandana because it can be used for a lot of things.

For the hotel / hostel I always pack:

  • shorts and t-shirt to sleep in
  • flip flops to use in the room and in the common aras
  • light weight sports trousers for the common areas

It is easier for my husband to pack because 3 t-shirts or 2 long sleeve t-shirts usually do the trick. A shirt would generally be packed for the “romantic escapes”.


Summer outfit

Summer outfit

Starting from the tips for spring & autumn, here’s how to tweak the carry on for summer:

  • summer dresses are a God sent; plus you can skip the tights
  • if I choose to skip the jacket, a light cardigan can be an option. Just bring something as summer nights can be deceiving
  • flat sandals are the way to go. Leave those high heels at home, please, unless you pack them for dancing (say, you want to attend a Milonga party)
  • for romantic nights, a paero is great to put on your shoulders
  • if you go to the beach, either pack sun lotion (within the legal restrictions) or just buy from the destination

For men it’s much easier. Shorts in the carry-on, jeans on the plane, and 3-4 t-shirts. Plus a shirt for the romantic getaways.

Needless to say, I still pack the same things for the hostel / hotel.


I.hate.cold. I pack tights to wear UNDER my jeans. I pack long sleeve t-shirts, the warmest t-shirts, the fleece, and I bring my warmest jacket. By wearing the bulkiest items, I can save space to add a warmer blouse but never a pullover.

I have had the unfortunate luck to literally put on me every single t-shirt I had under the jacket because I was sooooooo cold. And I also swore off traveling during winter (unless I can go to a warmer destination, of course).

What about the medication?

You do need to remember to pack the prescription drugs and that includes the birth control pills. Do bring the prescription with you. Technically you have to have it with you all the time. Practically, I’ve never been asked about it. But, nevertheless, it’s in the wallet all the time.

Stuff like cold medicine, imodium, or ibuprofen can be bought from anywhere and they do not require prescriptions. In other words they are “over the counter”. Same goes for motion sickness pills but I really advise you to pack plenty of those from home.

In the camping, you’d often see either a dedicated service to get medicine for free or an ambulance providing the medicine if needed.

I always carry band-aids, wet wipes, and a chopstick with me. I have flown with hand-sanitizer in Europe (I completely forgot about it in an outside pocket of the backpack).

Girly Stuff

I NEVER pack: makeup, lipstick, nail polish, wax strips.

I DO pack: nail file (didn’t have it confiscated yet) , face cream (within the legal regulations) and travel hair brush.

Other things to consider when to pack for carry-on travel

Layers. Visiting Budapest Transport Museum in December (jacket at the wardrobe)

Layers. Visiting Budapest Transport Museum in December (jacket at the wardrobe)

When I pack it’s easy to just “drop” the things I don’t need. I make a list considering the destination and time of the year. Then, if the bag is too bulky, I just drop things in order of “less important stays home”. I.e. If I chose 2 t-shirts and 2 short sleeve blouses, I would probably drop one of the blouses. Oh and that list is good to check if you haven’t forgotten anything in the hostel/ hotel. Currently, I have a “standard” list on my smartphone (hello, EverNote) and use it all the time.

When I travel by train, I almost always over-pack. That means, aside from the two carry-ons I would always have my handbag or daypack. I’ve recently started to make sure I can bring that in planes too (which means I pay for priority boarding when required)

You may get away with “wearing” the camera when you board. Some airlines won’t say anything, some would make you stow it in the bag.

WizzAir, Ryanair, and EasyJet have size and weight limitation for the bags. They do tend to change them from time to time, so it’s best to check with the airline at the time of booking.

Note: article written and published in August 2014; updated with video in Sep 2016; updated and republished in Oct 2017.
This article contains affiliate links.

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