I always used to see social media posts about people who just seemed to have mastered the art of travelling by managing to go on a long trip with only one small carry-on bag. They seemed to be on a different level, how can someone take so little things with them for such a long trip? To me, it almost seemed impossible and I'm the furthest thing from an over-packer. I used to be almost envious as I dragged my suitcase around Africa (never again did I take a suitcase on a travel trip), before finally upgrading to a big rucksack for the rest of my travels. However, carrying a 20kg bag on my back in 40 degree heat was also not the most ideal situation. Not to mention, having to rummage through my huge bag to find the one thing I was looking for and spending ages repacking it every couple of days. I knew there must be a better way to travel and that one small carry-on bag seemed to be it. Well just like everything it has its advantages and disadvantages!

15 tips for travelling with only one carry-on bag

With just taking a carry-on bag, it still involves a lot of planning. You really need to decide what you have space to take and what you don't.

1. Choose the right carry-on bag

It's so important to choose the right carry-on bag as this will either make your trip a lot easier or more difficult. I took a Fjällräven Kånken Classic Backpack and I really would advise against taking this bag for a travel trip. It's very rigid in structure, and it's really difficult to access the things at the bottom of the bag when it's fully packed. Also, I don't find the pockets hold that much and are difficult to get into.

I would always recommend a backpack rather than a suitcase, as I've just found it to be so much easier for travelling. This is espcially true for countries where you would have to be dragging your case through sand/snow. However, it does come down to personal preference! I'd also suggest picking a bag that's relatively light as there will probably be a weight restriction on your carry-on luggage. I would also recommend that you make sure your bag can fully open. This will allow you to easily gain access to the bottom of your bag. You'll also need to consider whether you want a soft or hard bag. A soft bag means you can pack it full to the brim and there's some give in it, however bear-in-mind this could cause the bag to expand outwith the airline size restrictions. A hard bag means that you can ensure that you are sticking to the airline size restrictions as there's little give, and it's more sturdy.

2. Make sure you are meeting the size restrictions (for connecting flights too)

You NEED to check the carry-on bag restrictions, otherwise you'll be hit with a big fine when you get to the airport. Some airlines have actually restricted their carry-on sizes even further. For example, Ryanair now only allows one personal item of 40cm x 25cm x 20cm. You need to make sure your carry-on bag fits within the requirements and that you only take one bag (unless otherwise stated by the airline).

If you're getting a connecting flight, especially if it's with a different airline, you'll need to make sure you are meeting their size restrictions too.

3. Pack only the essentials (keep your destination in mind)

You don't have the luxury of having lots of space with just a carry-on bag. So, you probably won't be able to pack a month's worth of outfits and multiple different pairs of shoes. You also probably won't be able to pack for every weather. So, when it comes to packing, keep your destination in mind. If it's a hot country you are travelling too then you won't need loads of cold weather items and vice versa.

Firstly, pack the essentials (lots of underwear) and then, try and take light airy clothes/outfits that don't take up a lot of room. If possible, pack outfits for a week.

4. Limit gadgets

Don't make the same mistake that I did and take lots of gadgets. I took my laptop, kindle and go pro (with all it's accessories) on my 3-week trip. My laptop took up sooooo much valuable space in my carry-on bag and I didn't even use it once when I was travelling. I also packed my go pro and accessories in a hard case at the bottom of my bag and I only used it a handful of times, it took up a lot of space and really wasn't worth taking.

Best advice is to have a proper think before you pack a gadget whether you will actually use it or not. If there is any doubt in your mind, do not pack it. Space is very valuable and there's no point lugging around stuff that you just aren't going to be using. If you're packing gadgets, don't include bulky cases (if you can) as these take up so much room.

5. Wear your bulky and heavy items on the plane

If you are taking any bulky or heavy items, like jackets and jumpers, wear them on the plane. These take up so much room in your carry-on bag, that you will hardly be able to fit anything else in. I had an airplane outfit, which was a big comfy jumper, t-shirt, leggings and my only pair of shoes that I took for the whole trip. By wearing all this, it allowed me to be able to free up some much needed space. Plus airplanes usually get quite cold anyway, so it's probably a good decision to wear a couple of layers.

6. Roll instead of fold

Ooooh, this is a controversial one! Are you a roller or a folder? There's good and bad points for both. I've been a roller since I started travelling. In my opinion, rolling clothes takes up less space and allows you to fit in more. Plus, it somehow makes your clothes wrinkle-free. Saying this, there are some items I wouldn't roll like jeans, denim shorts and thick jumpers.

I would suggest rolling all your clothes. However, if it makes an item bulkier by rolling it, then fold it instead.

7. Use packing cubes (if space allows)

Packing cubes are a godsend for a trip! Move over Marie Kondo. They allow you to organise everything in your bag into it's own separate compartments e.g. underwear, makeup, toiletries, tops, shorts etc. This honestly makes it so much easier to find exactly what you're looking for, instead of having to empty your whole bag trying to find something.

However, packing cubes do take up quite a bit of space and as we already know that's quite limited in a carry-on bag so you might not have room for these! If you don't have room, then you need to get them for when you are travelling with larger luggage in the future.

8. Take an foldable bag to carry necessities

Do you know how annoying it is to have EVERYTHING in the one bag... your money, your passport, your travel documents. And why is it that when you need something, it's always in the most inconvient place in your bag. This happened to me so many times when I travelled with just a carry-on. The amount of times I was asked to take out my passport or liquids or boarding passes, and they were at the bottom of my bag or all the way to the back. I had to empty my bag through security and then, try to cram everything back in 5 minutes later. Very stressful!

Take a foldable bag or money belt to carry all your necessities. If you've already checked in online, then you can carry an additional bag with your necessities to the airport and then, before you board the plane, empty it and put it back into your carry-on bag to avoid getting charged by the airline for having two bags. It'll make your life so much easier having everything to hand.

9. Transfer your liquids into small reusable plastic bottles

Shampoo, conditioner, body wash bottles etc can take up quite a lot of valuable space. I would suggest that you buy small space-saving reusable 100ml plastic bottles in which you can transfer the liquids into. I did this and managed to find a pack of 4 small 100ml bottles for £1 from Savers.

If you are staying in hotels or hostels, there is usually free shampoo/conditioner and body wash. So, by having reusable bottles means you can top them up with the free liquids available at your accommodation too.

10. Sort your liquids into plastic bags (20cmx20cm) before you get to the airport

Sort your liquids out into a plastic bag (usually 20cm x 20cm for security) in advance of getting to the airport. I made this mistake and ended up taking farrr too many liquids with me, when I got to the airport and sorted them into plastic bags, they actually took up 3 bags!! You are only allowed one bag of liquids so you need to make sure all your liquids fit in the one bag. I ended up having to put 2 of my bags of liquids in the bin. So, save yourself from this stress of having to empty your carry-on bag before security and then, repack it after security. Once you have got your bag of liquids sorted before the airport, place it in an easily accessible part of your bag.

11. Buy your additional toiletries over in the country you are travelling too

Remember that if there is something you can't fit, then you can purchase it in the country you are travelling too. This may be easier to do in some countries rather than others. I would suggest that you take the essentials like toothpaste, deodrant, shampoo and also, sunscreen and after-sun (if space allows) with you as these can be very expensive to buy in other countries. Whereas if you can wait a couple of days until you arrive in your destination, then you could pick up the extra things you might want like conditioner, mouthwash or makeup remover. If you are only able to take clothes for a day or two, try not to worry about it and just spend a day going round the markets or shops in your destination to pick up some of the things you forgot or didn't have space for.

12. Keep everything you'll need at the airport to the front of your carry-on

I can't stress this point enough, keep everything that you need in an easily accessible part of your carry-on. I'd suggest either to the front of your carry-on or in a side pocket. Having to empty your bag to find your passport or money is just a hassle!

13. Book accommodation where you can wash your clothes or has a washing service

With just a carry-on bag, it means that you'll probably have to do your washing a bit more frequent that if you were travelling with a big rucksack. Make sure you book accommodation that has a washing/laundry service or is close to somewhere you can get your washing done.

14. Try and leave a bit of room in your carry-on

If possible, try and leave some room in your carry-on bag. This will make your life so much easier. It means that you won't be struggling to close your bag, you'll be able to find things easier, without having to empty your whole bag and also means, that you have room to pick up some bits and pieces in your destination like those toiletries you maybe forgot to pack or some souvenirs.

15. Try and not let your bag situation deter from your incredible trip

If you haven't got enough toiletries or clothes, who cares! Just have the time of your life, go on those adventures and just enjoy yourself. At the end of the day, it's just a bag - try not let it stress you out! You won't even remember in a year the things you didn't have space for but you will remember all those incredible memories you made!

Traveler's delight
Photo by Charlotte Noelle / Unsplash

Does taking just a carry-on bag make travelling easier?

In my opinion, it most definitely does NOT make travelling easier. But, let me explain why...

There's so many advantages of just taking a carry-on. Firstly, if you are travelling with a budget airline, you will save a fortune on extra baggage fees. Secondly, it's much lighter that a huge backpack and thirdly, it should be easy to pack up and go... or so you think. It all sounds amazing right? Yes, I would absolutely agree a carry-on bag is an amazing idea for a city break or a week maximum. However, I'm unfortunately going to have to burst your bubble when it comes to long trips because travelling with one small carry-on bag for a long trip is a total and utter pain in the a**e, especially when you are moving location every couple of days. This might be an unpopular opinion but I absolutely hated it!

I've only got one experience of using just a carry-on bag for a long trip and it was when I booked a one-way ticket to Jordan flying with Ryanair with a stop-over in Warsaw, I was going to be away for 3 weeks in total. Now Ryanair has limited their carry-on baggage even further and it is now only one 40cm x 25cm x 20cm bag. This meant that I could only take my Fjällräven Kånken Classic Backpack, which is only 16L and just fits within the baggage restrictions.

Here's why I absolutely hated just taking one small carry-on bag:

  • Only having one bag meant that absolutely everything was in it; my passport, my tickets, my money etc. This made it such a hassle trying to things in and out without everything coming out with it (especially at airports, usually going through security was the WORST).
  • With such a small backpack you can only take a couple of clothes. I took one pair of shoes for the full 3-weeks, 2 or 3 tops, 1 or 2 pairs of shorts/skirts and 1 dress. Essentially, this was not enough clothes at all. Within the first couple of days, I'd sweated through all my clothes as I was in 40 degree+ heat and everything needed washed. Also, when I put my dirty clothes in a seperate bag then, into my small backpack, I felt like everything just didn't smell good.
  • I ended up having to buy more clothes because I just didn't have enough with me. I then, had to carry all these additional bags around with me as I didn't have space in my carry-on.
  • With my big rucksack, I usually use packing cubes so I can seperate everything in their own compartments. This makes it much easier as I know where everything is and I can quickly grab what I need. However, with a small carry-on bag, I found packing cubes took up far too much valuable space.
  • Unless you are just taking 1 outfit and your toothbrush, you are going to most likely have to sit on your bag and do everything humanly possible to close the thing. It's very, very annoying especially when you are changing location every couple of days.
  • Finally, your backpack comes everywhere with you. I used mines as a daypack for the first week as I didn't have room to pack a second bag. So, I ended up having to empty it at every hostel I stayed at, then pack it with the things I needed for the day. I eventually gave in and bought a daypack. However, bear-in-mind this can sometimes not be very possible in some destinations you travel too.

Ahhh reminiscing about this baggage situation is making me stressed just thinking about it! Travelling with a small bag does not make travelling easier, actually in my opinion it actually made it more difficult. However, I completely understand that baggage charges can be insane at times. This would be the only reason I travel with just a carry-on in the future to avoid these charges.

With my one tiny carry-on bag and the additional bags I had to have to carry the rest of my stuff!

Please let me know in the comments below... what's your opinion - do you think travelling with a just carry-on bag makes it easier? If so, how do you make it work - whats your tips?!

Thanks for taking the time to read my blog post.

Kirsty x