Traveling carry-on only will change your life. Why?
1. You don’t have to wait in the unbearably long and sluggish check-in lines at the airport, or at the baggage carousel after your flight.
2. You save a lot of money over time on hefty checked bag fees (that can then be spent on fun experiences and excursions at your destination!).
3. If you don’t check a bag, there’s no chance that the airline will lose it. When you’re digital nomad, you’re carrying ALL of the things you need to live day-to-day with you in your luggage, so losing it is a lot more impactful than it would be on a standard vacation or weekend getaway.
Some items may not be easily replaced in foreign countries and working with airlines where there may be a language barrier can complicate the logistics of getting your things back.
Will you be able to get by? Yes, of course! (That’s where solid travel insurance and the credit cards with travel benefits like the Chase Sapphire Preferred come in). But why risk it?
4. You simply don’t need as much as you think you do. All of that stuff will start to feel more like a burden than an asset, and you will quite literally feel weighed down by it.
It’s much easier to say YES to opportunities for unexpected adventures when you don’t have a ton of stuff that needs to be lugged around with you.
So you get it… traveling carry-on only is the way to go… but how?
Without further ado, here are my top travel ninja hacks for how to fit your entire life into one teensy bag.
Too many people forget to consider weight when selecting their carry-on bag but this is SUPER important.
If you’re flying on a budget airline, odds are the carry-on weight limit is (almost impossibly) small, so you want to save as many of those precious pounds as possible for your actual belongings.
Also, ensure that your bag is well within the dimension limits for most airlines.
More on this later, but if your bag meets the size requirements without question, you can typically push the weight limits without getting called out, which is way more important.
I personally use the Samsonite Winfield Hardside Spinner.
Take advantage of items like packing cubes (I love these ones) and compression bags that not only help you stay organized, but also maximize every square inch of space in your bag by keeping your items compressed.
Your personal item is the key to making this carry-on lifestyle work.
You want to opt for something that:
1) can hold a large quantity of items
2) can bear a large amount of weight in a non-obvious way.
It’s also helpful if the bag can be worn on your back because it draws less attention from check-in staff and flight attendants.
My go-to travel companion is my PacSafe Metrosafe backpack.
It’s durable, can hold a surprisingly large amount, and is equipped with a ton of extra security features so that your valuables are as safe as possible.
For example, my base color for my wardrobe is black, and the only other colors I wear are white, gray, navy, maroon and olive with the occasional exception for items that are complete outfits by themselves like dresses or rompers.
The trick is to pack clothing that can easily be mixed and matched so that you are maximizing the number of potential outfit combinations you have, while limiting the actual number of clothing items.
Nothing is worse than showing up to a new location, excited to hit the streets in your carefully curated wardrobe only to realize that half of the stuff you brought screams, “HEY, LOOK AT ME! I’M A TOURIST!”
Do some investigating prior to your arrival to learn about local fashion. Is your destination a more conservative? Do people dress to impress or is it okay to be more casual?
First impressions matter, especially when traveling solo, and what you wear plays a big role in that. You don’t want to make yourself a target and you also don’t want to disrespect locals whose help you will likely need at one point or another.
If you will be traveling in a variety of weather conditions, try to pack items that can be layered rather than clothes that are stictly for warm or cold weather.
For example, packing 1 leather jacket or cardigan that matches all of your tops as opposed to 5 sweaters.
Dressing in layers is a good idea anyway because, in most places, the availability of AC and central heat means that whatever the weather is outside, it’ll probably be the polar opposite inside, so you may need to add or subtract a layer.
If you don’t wear it at home, chances are you probably won’t wear it abroad (a lesson I’ve learned the hard way).
Don’t bring anything that you aren’t 100% comfortable wearing right now, in this moment. There’s no additional space for aspirational clothing here!
If you’re traveling long-term, you should be able to go one full week without needing to do laundry. This is a good rule of thumb for knowing how much clothing is “enough”.
You may also want to think about what types of activities you anticipate doing and how frequently.
This way you can also plan your outfits by context(i.e. outfits for fitness and outdoor activities, normal day-to-day activities and site-seeing, an outfit for going out or nicer occasions, etc.).
Another lesson I’ve learned the hard way – There may be clothes that you L-O-V-E at home, but are more of a hassle than they’re worth while abroad.
For example, anything that requires special washing instructions, beyond tossing it in a laundry bag.
In my case, I quit packing anything white because I’ve learned that I WILL find a way to stain it, which is no big deal when I’m at home and have my arsenal of laundry tools, but not ideal on the road where access to supplies (and heck, sometimes even washing machines) can be limited.
Before deciding what you want to wear, think about what you want to wash.
This is one of my favorite ways to make my limited wardrobe more versatile.
Throw a statement necklace or a scarf over a plain tank and BOOM, you’ve got a whole new look.
Adding accessories is an easy way to make the same clothes work from the gym to dinner out.
While there’s an ongoing debate around if rolling your clothes actually saves more space than flat-folding, there are a few things that are for certain:
For a tutorial on how to roll your clothes when packing, check out this quick tutorial video.
*One exception is heavier items like sweaters. I find that these are often better off flat-folded than rolled.
Shoes are probably the most awkward item to pack efficiently. I always wear my bulkiest shoes to the airport to avoid having to pack them altogether.
HOWEVER, when you have to pack shoes like sneakers, athletic trainers or boots in your carry-on bag, make sure to use the space inside them as well!
You can stuff socks, jewelry, or smaller items in bags into your shoes to further maximize your limited space.
When you travel carry-on only, you’re limited to one quart size bag of liquids no larger than 3.4oz each. Rather than using up this precious space on common toiletries like shampoo, conditioner and body wash which can be easily purchased at your destination, I reserve this space for my staple MUST-HAVE products that may be hard to find abroad.
Another travel hack is to pack versions of these products that don’t count towards your liquid allowance such as shampoo bars.
For those items that you just “can’t live without” (helloooo Urban Decay setting spray), transfer them to smaller, travel-friendly containers. You can buy these inexpensively online and in most drugstores.
Also, hit up Sephora – they’ll give you a free sample of just about anything, so ask for your favorite products the next time you stop in and start building up a reserve of travel-size versions of your holy grail beauty products.
When I was setting out on my first trip as a digital nomad, I scoured the web for every packing list I could get my hands on. I wanted to be totally prepared for any and everything.
Stupid idea. That rain jacket I bought? Trash. First Aid Kit? Trash (although I do recommend keeping a few baandaids on hand!). Sony Action Cam? Sold on Ebay.
One exception (for me) is an umbrella. Though I rarely need to use it, I’m always so thankful to have it in those times that I do!
Odds are, when you get to your destination, you might want to do some shopping! But if your bag is stuffed to the max before you even get there, you’re not going to have the space to add any newfound treasures.
Clothes abroad can be really cheap and super cute (Case in point – 3 of my favorite rompers came from a market in Thailand for ~ $6 each… not too shabby!)
Even if you’re traveling somewhere more expensive like Europe, most countries have an H&M (or something similar) where you can inexpensively fill any gaps in your wardrobe.
Be sure to double-check your airline’s carry-on baggage allowance (both side and weight).
Once again, it’s critical that your bag is within the size limits. You don’t even want your bag to look close to being too big.
This allows you to push the always-too-small weight limit.
As long as your bag doesn’t look too big, airlines will rarely stop you to actually weigh it.
The key is to make sure you don’t look like you’re struggling, even if you’re D-Y-I-N-G from lugging your backpack around.
However, MAKE SURE you have the strength to life your carry-on bag above your head and into the overhead compartment.
Your back will hate you, but your wallet will love you.
*(Unless you DO get called out, that is, because overweight baggage fees at the gate are no joke. In my experience, taking the chance has always been worth it but push the limits at your own risk).
Becauses this bag is smaller, it’s much less likely that airline workers will think twice about weighing it and since it goes under your seat on the flight, you don’t have to worry about being able to lift it.
If you’re tight on space, it’s always a good idea to wear your biggest, bulkiest, most awkward items until you’re checked in and safely cleared to board.
For me, this usually means my tennis shoes, a scarf and a jacket. Don’t forget that you can also put items in your jacket pockets without it counting towards your luggage allowance!
And there you have it! My top tips for traveling carry-on only for long-term travel.
What are your favorite travel packing hacks? What travel items can you not live without? I want to know! Share them with us in the comments below.