Tips for Packing Carry-on Only

posted by Sharon Odegaard 31 Comments
Paris Packing Carry-on

Are you on the fence about trying to pack carry-on only? I’m here to tell you that you can do it! I’m heading to Europe from the US for the seventh time next month, and I’ve made it just fine on every trip with a carry-on bag and a day bag. I believe packing light allows for more time and less distraction once you get to your destination. You can relax, as I am doing in the above photo (just sitting in the garden outside the Louvre!); you can explore more sights; and you can save your back by not lugging so much around.Packing carry-on

A few other reasons to forgo checked luggage:

  • A bag you keep on the plane with you cannot go astray to another city (or country).
  • You can hop on and off trains without wrangling a heavy bag.
  • You avoid standing at the luggage carousel when you’ve landed; get out of the airport and start exploring instead!
  • One trip with my first carry-on bag (a duffel) showed me that I can pack all I need, so why weigh myself down with more luggage?

My 21″ carry-on is a spinner, has a USB port, and is lightweight. I love it!

The packing list I use is below. It works for me, and I hope it will be helpful for you. But first, here are a few points to think about.

Your Travel Style

Most of the time, when I travel I’m focused on seeing the sights. I rarely go for luxury dinners or to the opera. The photo shows my “normal” type of outfit that allows me to move and bend for photos if needed. Notice that our fine tour guide in Belgium is wearing a Johnny Cash shirt. That is his style — he made a day of touring battlefields fun as well as sobering.Bastogne Belgium

Bastogne Belgium


My comfortable travel pants are made by Eddie Bauer. I love the fit and flexibility. My favorite travel shoes are Saucony lightweight running shoes. I have these in both black and gray and wear them often, both on the road and at home.

I’ve found that the most comfortable way to beat the heat is to wear a dress. It was HOT in Vienna, and this dress was perfect. I washed it out and wore it later on the same trip, when we got to Paris and was HOT again. Vienna


Packing Fails

One packing fail I had was taking this cute dress to visit Washington, DC. I walked miles in 95-degee heat with high humidity. This is a dry clean only dress. One day and it was done. I survived but it didn’t. Take washable clothes! On another trip I packed a dress I had just ordered, new with tags. I didn’t really like it, and I ended up returning it without wearing it when I got back home — after lugging it through Europe. Wear your clothes at home at least once before packing them! Washington, DC

Most packing articles advise ladies to take a pair of flats, and I most often do. These can be worn when you want something more dressy than walking shoes. We went to a concert in Schoenbrunn Palace and I needed to dress up a bit to feel good about sitting in the ballroom where Mozart had performed. However, if you set out for a day when you know you’ll be walking up a lot of stairs, flats are not the best idea. They fall off (at least mine do). Climbing the dome at St. Paul’s in London is a memorable experience, but I was trying not to trip the entire way up the winding stone stairs. Last year we climbed the many steps into the Eiffel Tower — and I was very comfortable in my lace-up shoes.

One more fail — and it concerns adapters / converters. I’m not mechanical or electronic, and the difference still confuses me. I checked all my electronics for dual voltage and thought I was fine with an adapter only. At the last minute, I bought a travel curling iron and didn’t check the voltage. It wouldn’t work without a converter. Check ALL your electronics and take a converter if something lacks dual voltage. It was really funny trying to act out what a converter is at the front desk of our hotel in Budapest when we didn’t speak each other’s language. They did eventually find one someone had left behind and gave it to me. At least my problem got us all laughing.

Packing Cubes

Once I found these, I never looked back. You can keep your tops in one, your bottoms in another, and your underwear in a third. They help me be organized, which does not come naturally to me. Once I settle in a hotel, my bag looks like it exploded. Packing cubes help me pack up and move on to the next adventure with a minimum of frustration. My husband is so neat, and even he uses packing cubes. Here’s a look at his hotel closet and my suitcase in the same hotel. We are not alike. Packing carry-onPacking carry-on




I’ve had my packing cubes a long time and I don’t remember where I got them, but here are similar sets.

Now to the packing list. Some of these items won’t be on your list, but this should provide a good start for you. For example, I wear contacts and don’t need solution because they are for daily wear. You may need to throw in a bottle of contact solution. Or maybe your eyes are just fine without contacts or glasses — lucky you! This list works for shoulder seasons (spring and fall). For winter, add a coat (I have a puffer jacket that folds into a pouch, perfect for travel) and boots.

One item I take that’s not on a lot of lists is a washcloth or travel towel. You rarely find a washcloth in European hotels, and I like them.

Some items are linked to for your convenience. You can download this list below, too.



spare glasses
prescription meds
over-the-counter meds (ibuprofen, immodium, vitamin C)
hand sanitizer

makeup, lip gloss, lipstick
toothbrush / toothpaste / dental floss
shampoo / conditioner
hotel-sized bar of soap
liquid soap
washcloth or travel towel

zip lock bags


coin purse, travel wallet
US dollars


Passport and copies of passport copies of credit cards
printouts of reservations
list of hotels
medical insurance cards


iPhone / charger / earphones
iPad / charger
camera / charger
portable charger
SD cards
SD card holder
adapters / converter


Tote bag with camera padding (this is the one I’m packing for my next trip)
smaller purse / crossbody purse
travel journal
large envelope for brochures / receipts
travel locks

For In-Flight

snacks — cashews, crackers, Kind bars, string cheese, fruit
gum / mints
eye mask
inflatable pillow
downloaded books, movies, podcasts


black walking shoes
black flats
flip flops (for pool, hotels)

socks (3 pair)
underwear (5 pair)
2 bras

rain jacket / windbreaker

2 pair pants (both black works well) (I like these from Eddie Bauer)

1 skirt

1 dress

6 to 7 tops, with at least 1 long-sleeved


2 cardigans (or a cardigan and a pullover)

bathing suit

It’s Never Too Late or Too Soon to Start Packing Light

We took our grandson Tyler to San Francisco last year, and I asked that he go carry-on only. He happily brought a backpack (only) with everything he needed. Start them young, right? Packing carry-on

How about you? Do you have tips for packing light? What’s worked for you? Packing carry-on

Download your free packing list and go exploring!

Packing List – Exploring Our World

This post contains affiliate links. Clicking on them may result in a commission being paid if you purchase afterwards. This is at no extra cost to you. All opinions are always my own.



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Packing Carry-On Only -

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Tamar A Strauss-Benjamin at

When I fly in the US I always go carry on! It helps most of my travels are to my sister’s house so I can leave large cosmetics there, but even on other small trips I manage. I’ve checked through for Bermuda just bc of sunblock, etc in larger sizes!

Mandy at

I hate packing for trips. I always try to go carry-on only but it can be so hard! And I feel like carry-on bags are getting smaller and smaller. But it is nice knowing that when I get to my destination, I don’t have to worry about whether or not my luggage made it. And walking through Europe and taking trains, etc is so much easier! This was a great idea for a post. I’ll have to consult it before I go on my next trip!

Junieper/jesh at

I never pack light, because my painting gear, and sometimes paintings for an exhibit are included, and presents/souvenirs for the people we are going to visit, and several types of clothes for several occasions! For me traveling is fun when part of it I share with people I love, and can do things I love to do – again – never light! Then when I go back to the USA, there is even more art stuff, I will pay here 2x or more as much for it, buy European clothes, and the presents my friends have given me – even heavier loaded:) Am the wrong person to ask! Sorry!

Sharon at

Jesh, of course you are an exception! You are an artist. And what a grand experience it would be to take your art supplies on a trip, set up shop, and use your skills at your destination. My only art outlet is photography, as I can’t even draw a decent stick figure. If I had your talent, I would do just as you do!

Margy at

We used to pack light but now the two major airlines we use let us take free bags. Alaska gives us one free bag each because of my credit card. Allegiant gives us three 40 lb bags each because my husband is retired military. That lets us move around the airport unencumbered which is also nice. – Margy

Eileen Wise at

Great post post and tips for the traveler. Enjoy your day, wishing you a happy new week!

Mother of 3 at

We’ve just started packing with carry-on only bags and there is a definite learning curve. I really need to learn to leave enough space for any souvenirs! I tend to pack until I just can not fit anything else in.

William Kendall at

Good suggestions!

Photo Cache at

Great tips. I’m getting better at traveling light, although I could get any lighter.

Worth a Thousand Words

Fun60 at

I get lighter with every tripI take. I make a note on my return of the clothes which worked best and those I could have done without.

Emese at

I love this post, Sharon! Traveling is so much easier if you only pack a carry-on. And, as you said, it is perfectly possible. For anyone. I don’t remember the last time I checked in a bag, and that includes multiple trips to Europe. Great tips, I totally agree with you.

Rhonda Albom at

I can’t agree with you more about packing light for travel. I think I have it nailed and I am able to travel for months with only carry-on (and that includes camera gear, computers, and electronics). It makes transportation and getting around easier and, of course, saves both our backs.

Claire at

Some great tips. Love the contrast between you and your husband!

Amanda at

Love this! I’ve never thought to use a packing cube for clothing – I always use those for toiletries, but I think I’m going to use your method the next time I travel abroad! It really is a struggle keeping your bag neat and organized and these sound like the perfect solution. I also tend to bring way too many pairs of shoes with me. It’s better to think realistically and bring whatever is comfy – and one pair of flats like you said if you plan on dressing up a bit!

Sharon at

Shoes are my downfall, too! If we go on a roadtrip (no flying), I throw many pairs in the car “just in case.”

Allison at

I try to go carry-on only when I’m traveling on my own. That being said, I haven’t traveled on my own in years and with three kids 6 and under, it’s impossible. I’m looking forward to the day when we don’t have to pack the whole house and then some when we travel. #feetdotravel

Ariana - World of Travels with Kids at

Very practical advice. I doubt we will travel carry on only in the near future with 3 kids, but your advice still works as to limiting what we take (eg, trying things on before you go!!! ) Practical and simple. #feetdotravel

Usha Sitaaraam at

Very practical list. I try and pack light, but I must confess most of the packing my husband does. I just lay out the items. I really understand what you say about contacts, and spare glasses. It is one the major items in our bags. I have never used packing cubes, should give it a try. Thank you so much for this posts. #feetdotravel

Jenn | By Land and Sea at

We too are carry-on only travelers. I actually get overwhelmed when it comes to packing a full size bag that I have to check. I think shoes are one of the hardest things and biggest sacrifices I’ve made so far when it comes to this packing style! Love the list you’ve provided!

Lisa | Handmade in Israel at

I struggle to pack light and always end up taking something that I don’t wear. In recent years we have started staying self-catering rather than hotels and that enables us to do some washing. The holidays where you have to pack for every eventuality are the worst… Love the photo of your case and your husbands closet 😉 My husband and I are rather like that, though I am the tidy one! #FeetDoTravel

Goblinette/Roaming Goblin Blog at

I do my best to pack light. Lately I check where to wash my clothes on destination in advance. For my kids, we can plan to wash and dry twice during a week trip.

Judee at

I recently returned from a month trip in Europe partially on a cruise and 2 weeks on our own. I really tried to pack only a carry on- couldn’t do it.. Its the shoes, and toiletries that put me over the edge.

Agnese at

Great tips! Aren’t packing cubes the traveler’s best friends?!

Catherine at

Thank you for this post! I am a bag checking, over-packing, momma. I’d love to go with only carry-ons, but I’m not sure how. This post has inspired me to give it a try! Great tips about not packing clothes that you haven’t worn and packing cubes, and thank you for the packing list!! If your grandson can go carry-on I can too!

Jay Artale at

We did our first carry-on trip last year, and I loved the freedom it gave us. We did a four city tour of Spain, traveled by train for nearly three weeks, and even though we only took carryon we still come home with a couple of items we didn’t wear. I’m a convert – for the right trip. Love it! We’re currently traveling around France for three months – so we needed a backpack, but I definitely packed lighter than I usually would, because of my carryon experience.

KatieGoes at

Haha, go Tyler!

Rae at

I struggle with the carry-on vs check dilemma all the time. The advice to really think through my travel style more is actually super helpful – I rarely ever find myself needing anything fancy on trips. Also love travel cubes – they are a real life saver (especially for someone who’s a chaotic packer like me). Thanks for sharing!

Chelsea at

Hahaha! I wish I had of seen you acting out what a converter was in Budapest
This once happened to me in Vietnam when I was trying to act out what tweezers were because I forgot to pack them and needed to pluck my eyebrows

Also I LOVE packing Cubes, they keep me sane!

Farrah at

I am all for carry-on only! That way I know my stuff won’t get lost and I won’t have to wait around for my luggage! Great tips and yay for packing light!

Monika Grover at

Great post-Sharon!! I am a big travel freak and this packing list is very useful for me. After reading this blog, I have made a checklist of the items you have mentioned. Keep sharing more posts like this. Loved it.

Anne Betts at

Go carry on!! I can appreciate that it’s impossible for people who have special requirements or need special equipment, but for most of us, it’s entirely possible. I appreciated your examples of packing fails as learning experiences. Very helpful.


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