How to Travel for a Week (or Two) With Only a Carry-on Bag

Tips to Travel with Just One Bag

How to travel with just a carry-on bag
Traveling with a carryon bag. Photo / Elizabeth Larkin

I didn’t always recognize the beauty of traveling light. But since I figured out how to pack for one or two weeks away with just a carry-on, I hope to never have to drag a suitcase bigger than myself through a train station or wait at an airport carousel again. The following will help you choose what to pack for a trip, and fit it all into a bag you can actually lift, so you know how to travel with only a carry-on on bag.

Decide What to Bring

Before you can pack your carry-on, you have to figure out what to put in it. I’m obsessed enough about this topic that I wrote a blog post about it, even though my blog is not at all about clothes or packing.

Equipment Before Clothing

Before you even get to clothes, I suggest listing all of your non-clothing essentials (such as a laptop for a work trip or a camera for vacation.) If for some reason you need to bring lots of space-hogging equipment, that will mean even fewer pairs of pants and shoes.

Now list all the activities you will be doing.

Obviously, some trips cannot be made without checked luggage, for example, if you’re attending meetings requiring multiple suits as well as multiple formal events with a different dress and shoes for each. But those trips are the exceptions. Most lists will involve things like walking around a city and going to the beach or holding a few meetings and eating dinners out.

For each event or activity, imagine an outfit. Use your itinerary to do this. The goal here is to combine as many elements as possible. A black cotton dress could work for a business lunch when paired with a cardigan and pumps, and a stroll around the city with flats and a scarf. A tunic could be a cover-up at the pool and a semi-dressy top over pants.

Pack by Outfit

Finally, go to your closet and “shop” for your imagined outfits. Refer to your travel itinerary. Every piece doesn’t have to go with every other piece, but try to come as close to that as you can. Having a color scheme like “neutrals” or “blues and greens” will help consolidate your travel wardrobe. Hopefully, you can find everything you need in your closet, but if you have to buy something, chances are that’s a hole in your travel wardrobe that needed to be filled anyway and will be used again.

Choose Your Bags Wisely

Yes, you’re taking one bag, but what that almost always really means is one suitcase (or large backpack or duffel bag) and one purse or tote. You can also include a smaller bag that packs flat. This is useful if your plans include activities where you won’t want to carry your handbag or messenger bag.

Any bags you take should be light and comfortable to lift. Outside pockets are a definite plus, bordering on necessity. Your smaller bag (what airlines call a “personal item”) should be large enough to fit magazines, books, snacks, a sweater, or anything you might need to carry during the day. A roughly square or rectangular shaped bag will probably be more practical, and easier to find things in. You’ll regret taking any bag with a zipper that scrapes your hand or anything that causes pain when it’s carried or bumped against your body.

And of course, check the allowed dimensions of your airline or train or bus company.

Start Packing

Wrap shoes in plastic bags and place them at the sides or corners of the bottom of your bag to help it hold its shape. Stash extra plastic bags too. They take up no space and are perfect for laundry or anything that gets wet. (Here’s a guide to packing light)

If you’re bringing any magazines, notebooks, or anything else large and somewhat flat, pack these vertically on top of or just beside your shoes. This will create stiffer sides in a soft bag.

Now fold or roll your clothes as neatly and compactly as you can and place them in the center of your bag. If you need to prevent wrinkles, tissue paper can help a lot. Socks can go in little empty spaces inside your bag.

Anything that’s left, like a hairbrush or toiletry bag, can go on the top of your clothes or into any remaining opening.