More Luggage, More Problems: How I Travel with Only a Carry-On

I hate lugging around a huge suitcase when I travel.  European cobblestone streets, five floor walk-up apartments, and public transport with no escalators/lifts are all common enemies encountered on my travels.  Still, I had to learn the hard way that a battle between me and my over-packed luggage ALWAYS results in a win for the luggage (and an exhausted, grumpy me).

Over the past few years though, I have gotten really good at packing for trips using only carry-on luggage.  It’s lighter, easier, and it means you don’t waste money on checked baggage fees that you could otherwise spend on enjoying your time in your destination.  I have used a carry-on for trips lasting anywhere from a weekend to two weeks, and had everything I need.


My trusty carry-on suitcase

So how is this possible? The following is my tried and true method.  Note: The clothes in this post are aimed at a spring/summer holiday, but I have done this in winter as well.  The trick is to wear your boots and heavy coats on the plane, and to pack layers instead of all those bulky sweaters and jackets.

At the bottom of the post is an exhaustive list of everything that I fit into my suitcase for a 4-5 day trip.

Start with an open space on the floor. Lay out everything you think you will need on the trip.  Then put at least 1/3 of that pile back.  You can live without that tie-dye glitter-encrusted tank top for one week, I promise!

Once you have culled your mountain of clothes and items to something resembling this, you can begin to pack:


There are a multitude of methods out there on the internet about how best to use the space in a suitcase, but I have found that a combination of rolling and folding works the best.

Start by squishing all of your socks and underwear inside your shoes. This prevents your shoes from losing their shape inside your suitcase.  Then line your shoes around the edge of the suitcase:


The next step is to pack your bulky items of clothing.  Start with your long jeans.  Fold them in half, and then roll them as tightly as you can.  Place the roll in the bottom of your suitcase.  Do the same thing with your shorts:


Now move on to your shirts.  Lay all of your shirts out (unfolded) and stack on top of each other.  Next, fold the shirts lengthwise in half.  Place in your suitcase next to the bundles of jeans and shorts.  All of this should take up only about half of the bottom part of your suitcase!


Leave this half alone for now, and move on to the other side of the suitcase.  Take any last pieces of clothing (skirts, dresses, leggings, etc.) and bundle them in the same way as before. Place those bundles in the bottom of the suitcase.  Next, fold your scarf in half and place any small or fragile loose items in it.  Roll the items in the scarf.  This will prevent the items from moving around in your suitcase:


Begin packing your makeup bag and other toiletries in the space between your clothes and scarf bundles.  Think of it as a puzzle!  Do not pack things you need to access on the plane yet, or your 1-quart bag of liquids, as this half of the suitcase is more difficult to get to in a hurry.



Zip up this side of the suitcase.  Fill in the final of your suitcase (the space you had leftover in the first side of your suitcase).  Pack your 1-quart bag of liquids last, on top of your clothes or in a zip pocket on the outside of your suitcase (my suitcase is hard-sided so it doesn’t have an outside pocket), where you have easy access to it when you get to security.  The same goes for any books/electronics you plan to use on the plane. This is particularly useful if you plan to fly on budget airlines like Ryanair, as they do not allow more than one item to be carried-on.  If you have everything you want to use on the plane near the top zipper, you can quickly reach in and take it out as soon as you board.


Almost done!!

Put any last small items in a pocket inside your bag. This is a good place to put things like cell phone, earplugs, eye mask, and important documents/passport.  These are all things that I would normally carry in my purse, but when traveling on Ryanair they all have to be packed away (at least until you get through the boarding gate and on the plane itself).  My bag looked like this:



This may seem like a lot of work to pack for a few days away, but the beauty of the method is that you can fit everything you need in a single, small suitcase.  When your suitcase zips shut with ease, and you come back from vacation without a backache in sight, you will thank yourself.

Here is the list of things that made it into my standard carry-on sized suitcase:


  • 4 pairs socks
  • 4 pairs underwear
  • 1 pair shorts
  • 2 pairs jeans (1 pair dark blue jeans, 1 pair white jeans)
  • 2 skirts (1 long maxi skirt, 1 mini skirt)
  • 1 blazer (for dressing up an outfit in the evening; also doubles as light jacket if it gets chilly)
  • 1 pair leggings (to go under skirts/jeans if it gets cold)
  • 1 tank top and 1 pair athletic shorts for pajamas
  • 3 pairs shoes (1 pair of nice flats, 1 pair of sandals/flip-flops, and 1 pair comfortable walking shoes, to be worn on the plane)
  • 1 swimsuit
  • 1 belt
  • 1 sweater
  • 1 sundress (can double as swimsuit cover-up)
  • 2 nice blouses
  • 5 normal shirts
  • 1 pashmina scarf (to dress up an outfit/to use as a wrap if it gets chilly/to ball up and use as a pillow on the plane/to use as a towel or swimsuit cover-up in a pinch…this gets the award for versatility)


  • Passport
  • Important documents, tickets, confirmations, etc.
  • Guidebook for my destination
  • Book to read on the plane
  • Empty water bottle (to be filled up past security)
  • 1 empty tote bag to use on arrival if necessary
  • Sunglasses
  • Packet of tissues (can also be used as toilet paper in an emergency)
  • Hairbrush
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste
  • Shampoo and conditioner
  • Body wash
  • Deodorant
  • Essential medicine (allergy medicine/ibuprofen/pepto-bismol, etc.)
  • Makeup bag
  • Small bottle of wrinkle releaser (in case your clothes get wrinkled on the road)
  • 1 packet laundry detergent sink packets (if you need to wash something in a pinch)
  • 1 travel-size stain remover pen (these things are AMAZING)
  • Small notebook and pen- always useful
  • Earplugs and sleep mask for the plane- also a lifesaver if staying in a loud hostel or hotel
  • Camera (plus charger)
  • Cellphone (plus charger)

9 thoughts on “More Luggage, More Problems: How I Travel with Only a Carry-On

  1. As I read this I am packing for an extended trip. Although this time I must check a bag, I use the same techniques to pack it. My carry-on this trip will just be a daypack with devices, lunch, 3-1-1 bag, wallet, keys and airplane kit. One thing I also do after I have rolled bundles I either put them in stuff sacks or just put a fat rubber band at each end. This keeps the roll very tight and makes a little more room for the heftier stuff. Excellent post. Thanks!

  2. Great post and some advice worth heeding, especially for someone who will be traveling to Europe for 3 weeks this summer. I plan to do some walking between train stations and hotels, so less luggage will be better. From Rick Steves I learned about packing light, washing clothes while there rather than carrying more, and other great tips. Your packing tips will help as well!

  3. Your list is remarkably similar to mine (given, of course, the gender difference). I’ll be traveling at least a year, however, but after a certain point, the length of the stay really doesn’t make much difference.

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