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  • Writer's pictureDanae Bianco

How to Travel with Only a Carry-On

Updated: May 19

A complete and objective guide to packing light


Many people are amazed when I mention that I spent three weeks in Southeast Asia with just a carry-on bag or that our family of four stayed a month in Japan with only three carry-on bags. Yes, those carry-on bags with a weight limit of up to 10kg that you take with you into the airplane cabin.


I've always been a fan of traveling light, but, as with everything in life, over time we gain experience and evolve.


So, let's get to it. Here, I've gathered some objective and quick tips to help you learn how to travel with only a carry-on, traveling light and bidding farewell to all the hassles associated with giant, heavy, expensive, and potentially lost luggage.




How to travel with only a carry-on?


1 - Research the destination


The first thing to do is research the destination: climate and temperature during your visit.


Is it cold? Hot? Rainy? Dry? Windy? How much cold and how much heat?


Consider the activities you'll be doing: urban excursions, upscale restaurants, hiking, beach, mountains, theme parks, museums, sports, skiing... Will you spend a lot of time outdoors? Are you attending a social event (wedding, party, etc.)?


Research if there's any specific dress code at the destination. For example, in Southeast Asian temples, it's necessary to wear clothes that cover shoulders and knees, that are not tight or transparent; in various Islamic countries, wearing a veil (hijab) is required, and so on.


In short, do your research!


This will give you an idea of the type of clothing you need to bring.


2 - Make a list of everything you need to take


Knowing what type of clothing you need to bring, it's time to make a LIST of items.


List all the items and their quantities based on the trip's duration and planned activities, then create a packing list.


I usually bring enough clothes for 8 days of travel and wash them during the trip.



Washing clothes during the trip?


Yes, washing clothes during the trip is not a chore; it's the solution!


Nowadays, with very few exceptions, it's easy, fast, and inexpensive to have your clothes clean and fresh anywhere in the world. Research and gather information before you depart.


I plan to be in accommodation with a washing machine and dryer available to guests at least one day each week. In Airbnb listings, washer-dryer combos are becoming increasingly common (add it to your filters when searching), and many hotels (especially in the US, Canada, and Japan) have 'coin laundry' in common areas - laundromats with various self-service machines that operate with coins and cost a little, around $1-3 per cycle. I've stayed in hotels in Japan that had a washing machine in the room!


Booking and Airbnb offer filters that allow you to narrow down your search to accommodations with laundry facilities. Check them out:



Here's the list of what I took on 3 trips to completely different destinations, with varying durations and temperatures. There's a winter list, an urban summer trip list, and a summer beach trip list.



So, before packing everything, make a list of what you really need on the trip.

3 - Choose a color palette and versatile clothes


The most important part: define a color palette and choose pieces that go well together! Versatile items that you like and can be mixed and matched.


All tops should match all bottoms. Jackets/coats should match all combinations of tops and bottoms. If necessary, cold-weather tops and jackets should be compatible to be worn together, layered, one over the other.


To make it easier, the ideal is to have a color scheme - 2 base colors and 1 or 2 colorful ones - and choose pieces within those colors, so there won't be any mistakes in mixing and matching.


For example, I usually stick to black + white/off-white (base colors) + jeans + one bolder color. My color palette looks something like this


Example of a color palette for creating travel outfits.


Bonus Tip:


Choose easy-to-wash pieces that can be dried in the dryer, don't need ironing, and, if possible, are not bulky (especially for cold destinations!)


And, always, wear the bulkiest pieces!



4 - Limit the footwear


3 pairs.


Exactly: 3 pairs, including flip-flops. The largest one goes on your feet.


If chosen wisely, during vacation travels, you'll hardly need more than three pairs of shoes. Shoes tend to be the bulkiest item in the suitcase, so in this department, every space you can save is highly rewarded ;-)


Always wear shoes you are already accustomed to - if necessary, wear them for a few days before traveling to avoid surprises, blisters, and discomfort.


roupas separadas para uma viagem de férias no inverno

5- Hygiene & Skin Care Items


For a long time, this was my Achilles' heel when it came to packing. I remember checking in luggage just because of toiletry items.


But there comes a time when necessity aligns with experience, and you become an expert on the subject 🤣 🤣 🤣


Jokes aside, this part of luggage can undermine your intention to travel with just a carry-on. So pay close attention: in the department of creams, liquids, and the like, what I can say is


REDUCE


Reduce volumes

Reduce quantities

Reduce needs


  • put everything in 100ml containers (the maximum limit allowed for any single container in carry-ons). Shampoo, conditioner, leave-in conditioner, moisturizer, sunscreen, repellent, everything! If you can't find the product in 100ml packaging, transfer from larger bottles to smaller containers. Whenever I come across something in a smaller than 100ml packaging, after using it up, I clean the container and have it ready for the next trip (which is great for both your wallet and the environment), but if needed, it's easy to buy these 100ml containers at knick-knack stores or online.

  • If something runs out during the trip, it's easy to replace. There are supermarkets and convenience stores everywhere in the world. Even if the price is a bit higher than in your hometown, this "surcharge" will certainly be cheap considering the peace of mind that traveling light provides. Normally, buying this type of item at the destination is usually an insignificant cost of the trip, believe me.

  • Ask your dermatologist (or search online) for minimalist skin care alternatives to use during the trip. If at home I use 4 or 5 different products, during travels it's only 2. The most important thing is sunscreen, which is available everywhere in the world.

  • Hairdryer, straightener, curling iron, and the like: needless to say, leave them all at home and make do with what you find at the accommodations.




6 - Medications


Nobody likes to get sick during a trip - I don't even need to mention the importance of travel insurance, right?


But as small discomforts and accidents happen, I usually always carry a small toiletry bag with simple medications:


  • pain relievers and antipyretics (I used to bring a thermometer when the kids were little, but not anymore)

  • upset stomach kit

  • insect bites

  • scratches and bruises

  • other specific needs, depending on the destination and each traveler's special situation


The idea here is to bring the bare minimum, enough for about 3-4 days of inconvenience. If the item is used during the trip, there's time to look for a replacement at the destination. The fact is that, over the various trips over the years, we've never needed to replenish this type of item during the trip.


Additionally, we bring daily use medications for every day of the trip. Typically, we separate them into more compact packaging, leaving the bulky blister packs at home (probably not highly recommended by doctors and pharmacists, but I do it anyway lol)


The organization of medications in the suitcase is important: in one toiletry bag go the daily use medications (ALWAYS in the carry-on, to avoid loss), and in another toiletry bag go the emergency use medications - this toiletry bag, if all goes well, enters and exits the suitcase untouched.




7- Choose wisely the luggage


As important as thinking about what goes inside the suitcase is considering which suitcase will accommodate all of it.


You might be used to always using a backpack, or a wheeled suitcase, or a duffel bag, and that is a factor to be taken into consideration, but it's important to think before making this choice.


Will there be hiking and camping? Rustic inns in hard-to-reach places? Charming inns in the old town of historic towns (hello European villages!)? Many stairs to go up and down? Going in and out of the metro and buses every day with the suitcase in tow? In any of these situations, opt for the backpack.


Road trip? Urban travel with little movement with luggage? A duffel bag can be great; wheeled suitcases too.


Are you going to be staying in various hotels, taking trains, metros, planes, but always walking on civilized sidewalks, escalators, and elevators? Wheeled suitcase!


There's no right or wrong, but think about what best suits the destination and what will make you more comfortable.


On airplanes, the maximum size for carry-on luggage is 55cm x 35cm x 25cm, including wheels, handles, external pockets, and everything else. These measurements apply to any type of luggage: wheeled suitcase, backpack, duffel bag.


This is the size usually accepted by airlines, but before packing, make sure: there are situations where sizes are smaller, especially on low-cost airlines and regional flights on small aircraft. Always check the carry-on size specified on your ticket.



8 - Attention to the weight


If the size of carry-on luggage is standardized, the weight varies considerably: 10kg is usually common, but many airlines adopt smaller limits, like 7kg or 8kg per piece.


Often, within the same airline, some flights have one limit and others have a different limit - this can vary according to the aircraft model as well.


The important thing is to check your ticket and, in doubt, contact the airline to confirm.



9 - Organizing Everything Inside the Carry-on


After you've made the list and separated ALL the pieces, it's time to organize them in the suitcase.


Don't start putting things in the suitcase while still thinking about what to take and separating the pieces. Have everything separated, clean, and folded BEFORE starting to pack. This way, it will be much easier to organize everything and keep everything easily accessible during the trip.


Packing cubes can be allies at this moment. I like to use them when traveling with a backpack or when more than one person shares the same suitcase.


I put the items in the suitcase separated by categories, as it's easier to locate the pieces. Pants in one corner, shorts in another, shirts there, underwear in a bag, socks in another, and so on.


itens que vão na mochila de mão
what goes inside my handbag

10 - Handbag


In addition to the carry-on suitcase, on air travels, you can take a smaller "personal item" that goes under the seat or on your lap. Think of it as your handbag or school-type backpack.


I usually carry a backpack, a regular-sized one (20 liters), with:

  • cellphone

  • wallet and documents

  • sunglasses

  • laptop

  • power adapters

  • cellphone charger

  • camera

  • headphones

  • sleep mask (essential for overnight flights)

  • for long flights, a toiletry bag with hygiene items needed during the flight: toothbrush, hairbrush, moisturizer, headache medicine, etc.

  • makeup kit

  • reusable water bottle (yes, it can go through the X-ray with the bottle empty)

  • books and a pen



trator leva reboque com malas de mão por praia na maré alta
Our carry-ons riding a tractor at a Thailand beach



Enjoy the Trip


Now it's just about enjoying the trip, light and easy.


Packing is an art that we refine over time. Through trial and error, incorporating some tips here and there, we discover what works for us, which is different from what works for other people.


There's no magic recipe, no predefined formula.


Some of the strategies I use might be interesting, others you might think are a bit crazy (haha), but if you've made it this far in reading, I think you must have been interested, even a little, and if you've applied or adapted anything I've said, let me know, I'd love to hear about it!


These tips apply to any type of trip, whether by air, car, train, ship, bus, or tuk-tuk. Because traveling light is more than avoiding hassle at the airport and paying less for airfare; it's a way of living and traveling, light and ready to appreciate the novelties that adventure brings!


What would you add? Tell me in the comments, here or on our Instagram; I'd love to learn!


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