Saturday, September 20, 2014

Carry On Only!

My husband and travel partner, Rob, introduced me to the joys of carry on luggage on our first trip together in 1999.  Like many other travelers in those pre-9/11 years when bags were checked free of charge, I was used to lugging around a big, fat, heavy suitcase stuffed with outfits for any and every contingency, four to six pairs of shoes (heels, hiking, sandals, slippers, rainy weather), coat, sweater, raincoat, hairdryer, set of hot rollers, make-up and toiletries, laptop, books to read during the flight.  I was certainly ready for anything...but at the end of the flight, I had to elbow through the big mob at the baggage claim carousel, hoping that my bag was joining me at the end of the flight.  Most of the time, it did.  Twice it did not.  The first time, it just meant sitting in the airport for an extra two hours waiting for the next flight to arrive.  The second time, my suitcase went to the land of lost luggage for a little week-long vacation, while I got spent my first days of vacation shopping for a replacement wardrobe.

So when Rob told me that he would be traveling with only a carry on bag and small backpack on our three-week-long trip to Paris, I was interested, but skeptical.  How could I possible carry everything I needed in such a small space?  I pulled out every item I would normally have packed and started sorting.  This first attempt took several hours of planning, rearranging, tossing out, negotiating with myself...but by the time we left for France, I had successfully packed a 22" x 14" x 9" suitcase and the backpack with a complete travel wardrobe.

After fifteen years of traveling with our carry on bags, I can't imagine ever going back.  We never have the worry of lost luggage.  There is no more waiting in long lines at baggage claim.  Best of all, walking through the cobblestone streets of Europe and tramping up and down the many steps of the charming older hotels that we prefer is so much easier with a small suitcase.

With the new baggage check costs imposed by many airlines in the past few years, Rob and I have been joined by many other travelers who rely on carry on.  In fact, our biggest luggage challenge now is finding enough space in the overhead bins on the airplane.  Yet I still have many friends who insist that they could never fit their travel wardrobe into a such a small suitcase.  To them, I say, "Yes, you can!"  In fact, on my last two trips, I found that I had over-packed!  Here are some photos of the wardrobe I packed for a trip to Maine this month.  When I unpacked, I discovered that there were two blouses I had never even worn.

Tip #1:  Wear your heaviest items and your bulkiest shoes on the plane.  The airplane tends to be chilly, so an extra sweater or your jacket may be a blessing while you travel.
Tip #2:  Mix and match!  (I focused on black, brown, and blue on this trip.)  Every piece of clothing should go with at least two other pieces.  Stick with a neutral color palette and use scarves to accessorize.  Use skirts instead of dresses.  Layer thinner items rather than relying on thick, bulky clothing.  And remember, if you travel from place to place, no one you see except your traveling companion knows that you have worn the same item four times on the trip.
Tip#3:  Minimize the amount of underwear you take.  Invest in some quick-dry underwear and simply wash it out every few days.
Tip #4:  Reduce the number of shoes you take.  Unless you are traveling "upscale," you don't need fancy shoes.  In fact, one pair of good walking shoes can get you through almost any situation.  In the summer, a couple of pairs of comfortable sandals can serve for both casual and dress.
Ziplock baggies are essential!
Tip #5:  Ziplock baggies are essential for carrying the liquid items that must be visible to the NSA staff in the security lines, but they are also handy for organizing many other items.  I use one bag for all of the cords needed to recharge my phone and iPad, as well as the little camera accessories.
A daily pillbox and a small cosmetics bag takes care of most of the other small items you will need.

These were all the items in my small backpack.

Tip #6:  A tablet or iPad replaces a myriad of other items.  It serves as a notebook and journal.  It stores your travel documents and photos of your passport.  It carries your music library, your downloaded movies, and dozens of books.
Tip #6:  Experiment with the packing method that suits you best.  Some people swear by rolling clothes, but I find that I can pack more by laying items flat.

All packed and ready to go!
If you are already a master of the carry on bag, give us your tips on packing light!  If you have not yet taken the plunge, let us know your questions and concerns.


  1. We go with carry-on luggage and a backpack, too. Our backpacks may be a bit larger than yours. But, we can manage comfortably and just as you found, have come home having over packed.

    Some great travel tips, Joan! Thank you. I just attended a "Pack Light" seminar in Coos Bay, and the presenter said many of the same things you did in your post, especially the part about the zip-lock bags. One thing she recommended was a 3'x5' microfiber towel. In addition to being a towel, it becomes a scarf, an evening bolero jacket, a sarong, a blanket, and a swimsuit cover-up.
    Thank you! xoA

  2. Thanks for breaking that into numbered action items. That always helps me absorb information. And you had so much good information to offer.

    I've never gotten good at light packing. Mostly because I'm sure I'll need my whole library wherever I go.

    But I'll be back to your page next time I'm pretending to pack lighter. Thanks, Joan. :)

  3. Ack! I did carry-on only once and only once...never again. I frazzled myself trying to get everything in and zipped going...and it was twice as bad coming home....from a long weekend. Yes, I'm pathetic. ;-)

  4. We just traveled to Utah for a quick family reunion with five kids in tow. We ALL did carry-on only. That last thing I wanted was to be waiting in the airport for our luggage with overtired children. I'm all for carry-on and zero checked luggage (even when I'm flying back and forth to the East coast).

  5. Joan, Great travel tips. My husband and I don't fly, but these ideas are great for conserving suitcase space in the car when we travel. I find we usually come back with several unworn items, as I tend to overestimate what I need. I love this sentence: " one you see except your traveling companion knows that you have worn the same item four times on the trip." So true.

  6. Very good tips! Long flights can be dreadful, even when the destination is as beautiful as the city of Paris. It's good that Rob gave you a heads up on what he wanted you to bring along, because baggage check can cost an awful lot on trips. I completely agree that downloading eBooks on your iPad is a great alternative to bringing actual books too. Kudos to you! :)

    Lillian Walker @ TaylorWorks