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Your Five-Step Plan to Packing for Your Trip in Just a Carry-On!

There are lots of people in my life who are astounded by the way I travel. And the part of my travel lifestyle that consistently shocks the most people is how lightly I’m able to pack. Friends or family picking me up at airports invariably end up looking around for the additional luggage they expect me to have, but which I am absolutely not carrying.

Anytime I travel, especially if I’m traveling by air, I travel with a backpack and a purse. That’s it. I’ve gone all over the country like this. I’ve flown out to hiking destinations like this. I’ve gone to Europe like this. It saves time at the airport, makes transfers to hotels infinitely easier, and makes me look like less of a tourist.

Want in? Here’s your Five Step Plan to pack everything you need for your trip into just the bags you carry with you on the plane.

Attention: this post contains affiliate links. If you purchase items from this page, I receive a small commission at no additional cost to you.

Step 1: Start with the Right Bags

Packing with only carry-on luggage lives and dies by having the right gear.

A fully packed carry on backpack and personal item

Unless you’ve booked an astoundingly cheap ticket, odds are your flight allows you to bring both a carry-on and a personal item onto the plane with you. Every airline has slightly different definitions of what these items can be and their acceptable dimensions, but it’s not hard to find pieces that fit the general bill.

As a femme traveler, my carry-on item is usually my purse. I max out my packing space by bringing the biggest purse I own, so I can stuff it with small essentials. It’s fairly common for me to tuck my TSA liquids pouch into my purse next to my wallet for easy access at security. If you don’t carry a purse, opt for a roomy tote. We love a good roomy tote bag, especially if you bought it on a previous vacation!

For your carry on, I am a firm believer in making that item a backpack. It makes my traveler life much easier when my carry-on goes over my shoulder instead of being dragged around behind me on mangled sidewalks. What you’re looking for in a carry-on backpack, especially if it’s your main luggage piece, is something sturdy with a lot of flexible space. My current favorite is linked below! (Unfortunately the trusty version in my image here has been discontinued!)

But if you need your wheelie bag, I've linked a good one of those here too. Think about me when it gets stuck on the cobblestones.

Step 2: Invest in some Packing Cubes

Friends, I used to be such a packing cube skeptic. I was already so good at packing light. I’d been doing it for years. So you should believe me when I tell you that these things are a game changer.

What a packing cube does, even for the experienced packer, is it holds everything together. You still have to pack economically and roll your T-shirts and sweaters, but once everything is tucked in and sorted, it goes in this cute little zippered pouch that slides right into your backpack. This makes it about eight times easier to slip other things into your pack with your clothes. Never again will you be forcing that book into the top of your pack. It’ll slide neatly into the space between your packing cubes and the sides of your backpack. Magical.

Step 3: Build a Capsule Wardrobe for your Trip

Think about your day-to-day life. How many days in a row will you wear your favorite pair of jeans? Good news friend! That’s probably the length of your trip! You don’t need to pack a second pair! And you can wear them on the plane so they won’t take up space in your bag! (More on that later!)

How many times can you wear that sweater or sweatshirt? Probably lots. Just pack one and bring different light layers to wear underneath. Find your “base” pieces and plan the rest of your travel wardrobe around those.

And while you’re building, pick a color scheme and stick to it. When I travel, I usually commit to a black and white palette or a navy blue and brown palette. Then as I’m packing tops and accessories (and choosing my pops of color!) I only bring items that work with my chosen color palette. Going black and white? The brown cardigan stays at home. Went with navy this time? The black scarf is right out. It’s astounding how versatile your closet can be if you take the time to think it through like this.

Need help narrowing down your closet into a traveling capsule wardrobe for your trip? My Packing Light List helps you do just that! Link at the bottom of the page!

Step 4: Flex Your Tech

You don’t need your laptop. Unless you're traveling for work, you really don’t. Everything you’d be doing on your computer on a vacation, you can do from your phone nowadays. And if you desperately need a mouse and a keyboard to accomplish a task that comes up, your hotel probably has a business center. Or you can find a public library! Stick with your phone. It’s really all you need.

Additionally, as a self-proclaimed book lover with a huge library of hardcovers and paperbacks, I hate how much I love my e-reader tablet. I like being able to bring several books on a trip, just in case I happen to spend half a day in the same Parisian café or candlelit whisky bar reading most of my book in one sitting. Having an e-reader means all the books I could possibly want to bring fit right in my purse next to my wallet.

This tablet doesn’t need to be anything fancy. I have the cheapest possible Barnes and Noble model and it’s been going strong for six years. Pair that with a library app (I use Libby and the Chicago Public Library), and you’ll have everything you could possibly read in a package slimmer than most paperbacks. Embrace the moment when your tech is there to help you and you can lovingly feel up your paperbacks when you get home from your trip.

Step 5: Layer Up on the Plane

But Aaaaaandi! How on earth am I going to fit all of this into a backpack?

It's easy, friend! You’re going to wear all your bulkiest layers on the plane.

Your jeans? Wear ‘em. Those boots you need? Wear ‘em. That hoodie you want for the cold evenings? Wear it. Packing winter gear? Wear all of it out the door and stuff things in your pockets or under your seat once you’re already settled on the plane. Any item that you can put on your body is an item that you don’t have to fit into your bag.

an airplane wing over a mountain view

Does this mean getting through security takes a little longer? Yeah, probably. Sure, you’d get through that line quicker if you wore slip on shoes and didn’t have to take off that coat and sweatshirt. But it all depends on what your goal is. Personally, I’d much rather take a few extra minutes going through the TSA scanners if the trade off is that I don’t have to wait at a baggage carousel at my destination. You do you.

Are you ready? Can you feel it? Get ready for your checked-baggage-free life!

You're Fully Prepared for Packing Your Perfect Carry On!

Need a packing list to help you curb your overpacking impulses? I've created a Packing Light List to help you with just that! You're just one link away your very own Packing Light List! Subscribe to my weekly email list and receive the list for free!

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