Carry on Only Packing List: Must Haves and What to Leave Behind

You’re heading on a trip and start thinking about all those checked bag fees, time spent at the airport waiting on bags, having to carry around something bulky and wonder – could I pack carry on only?! Absolutely, you can! Here’s your carry on only packing list. 

I’m a seasoned carry on only girly. I have done 10 days in Italy carry on only, a week in El Salvador with a carry on, and my most recent trip this winter for 12 days around Europe to Denmark, Austria, and Germany. So how do you do it? Let’s get into some tips and a carry on only packing list that will work no matter where you’re headed.

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Table of Contents

Tips for Packing Carry On Only

  1. Choose pieces that can mix and match. It’s much easier to pack fewer items. If you can wear pieces a few times with different outfits or avoid needing a whole new outfit in the evening perfect. I often do this with t-shirts and dresses or tops and skirts/jeans. A top/t-shirt can look completely different with a different bottom!
  2. Layout outfits before a trip. If you haven’t worn something together before or want to get a visual of how much you are actually bringing, lay them out before your trip. This also prevents you from bringing something new, putting it on for the first time, hating it, and never using it. We’re minimizing the overpacking!
  3. Stay organized—organize your outfits using a vacation outfit planner (also available for free download when subscribing) and make sure they stay organized in your bag, too! I recommend packing cubes and a jewelry organizer to keep things tidy and easy to find. More on this below in the organization packing tools!
  4. Choose clothes that are a mix of at least two of these functional, comfortable, or cute. I love abiding by this rule because it helps me keep from overpacking and feeling blah on a trip. If it’s not functional and cute or comfortable and functional, why am I bringing it?
  5. Shoes take up a ton of space. How many sneakers do you really need? Will you actually wear heels enough times to justify packing them? Flats or sandals often take up way less space and can provide multiple functions. Dress them up or down. Really, all you need, no matter the time of year, is one pair of sneakers, sandals/flats (or maybe snow boots in winter, which I’d recommend you wear on the plane to save space), and flip-flops for most trips.
  6. Before packing, check and count it all up using the vacation outfit planner... Are you sure you need that much, or are you overpacking? Put things back that you really don’t need. This is really helpful when thinking about accessories and little extras you may just be throwing in. Will you really need three pairs of heels, or will the one pair work with all three outfits?

Photo by American Green Travel on Unsplash

Best Bags and Organization Items for a Carry On Only Trip

As mentioned, when putting together a carry on only packing list, it’s really important to have the right organizational tools and carry on to make things easy on yourself. 

I’ll also note another way to easily save space in these bags is to use the rolling method. Roll up your clothes before putting them into your packing cubes. This really does save a lot of space and I have a whole packing playlist on TikTok showing how much space it’s really saved me!

Organization Packing Items

  1. Hanging Toiletries Bag: Many parts of the world (including cruise ships on the high seas) will not come with tons of storage space or large countertops.
  2. TSA Approved Travel bottles: perfect so you don’t have to throw out your favorite self-care products at the security check.
  3. Toiletry Bag: Easy to pack and water-resistant, this is a great toiletry bag. Comes in several colors.
  4. Packing CubesPacking cubes are a great way to organize your bag and make the most of the space in a larger bag.
  5. Travel Compression BagsUse these bags to save space in your bag when traveling.
  6. Pill organizer: Great option for a travel first aid kit if you don’t want to buy the travel size of each medicine you’d like to bring or have prescriptions you take.
  7. Jewelry organizer: Great for keeping all your little pieces easy to get to and organized on a trip. This is something I held off on buying for a long time but now love having on trips!

Carry On Options

  1. North Face BackpackPlenty of pockets and room as an under-the-seat carry-on. Great for weekend trip or as a personal item.
  2. Black Hole® Duffel Bag 55L: My personal favorite and current carry-on bag. This is a great option if you want to bring just one carry-on.
  3. Travel Vest: If you bring the duffle, a great alternative to a second bag is this travel vest.
  4. Small Duffle Bag: This bag will fit under the seat while you’re traveling and hold your essentials. You can easily put it on top of the hard case luggage linked below for easy carrying.
  5. Hard case roller bag: Durable and easy to clean, hard case luggage is another great option.

In Your Carry On

This is where the majority of your things will go. If it is a longer trip, remember to choose multifunctional pieces that can be worn a few times. Roll all your clothes and use compression packing cubes. I’ll give some examples below.

Clothes

Multi-use clothes examples: jeans, plain tops that match dresses/skirts and can be layered on top, skirt that matches multiple shirts

  • 3 pairs of shoes (comfortable walking shoes, sandals/flats, and flip flops, if it’s winter wear your boots on the plane)
  •  Weather-appropriate clothing (1 outfit per day): Consider the climate of your destination. One outfit per day unless doing a hike or outdoor activity. Then an extra outdoor outfit for that day. If it’s winter, one plain hat, scarf, and pair of gloves that will match your coat. Wear your coat on the plane, they make great pillows.
  • Underwear and socks: One pair for each day
  • Pajamas: recommend one for every two to three days

Toiletries

Make sure you get the travel size for all of these items! You’re allowed a max of 3 oz of each liquid and 1 quart size bag total for liquids. I link to only travel size things below!
 
  1. Toothbrush and toothpaste
  2. Shampoo and conditioner (in travel bottles)
  3. Soap or body wash
  4. Deodorant
  5. Razor
  6. Hairbrush/comb
  7. Straightener Curler Combo
  8. Sunscreen
  9. Lip balm with SPF
  10. Personal hygiene items
  11. Prescription glasses or contact lenses

Photo by Oliur on Unsplash

In Your Personal Item

  1. Phone and charger
  2. Laptop/tablet and charger
  3. Portable Charger with Fast Charging Technology
  4. Camera for photos
  5. Adapter (if traveling internationally)
  6. Noise-canceling headphones
  7. Phone
  8. Foldable Backpack (for day trips)
  9.  Wallet and small purse that fit inside the personal item

Photo by Nifty Leather on Unsplash

What Not to Pack

  • A bulky pillow: a packable neck pillow can be great, but bringing a big one, especially if you’re moving from place to place… I have done this and regretted it. Ended up leaving it after my third train at my hotel on my last carry on only trip as it was just taking up too much space.
  • Heels you can’t walk in: If you can’t walk in them, how many times will you actually wear them? Unless you’re traveling for a wedding or special occasion, I’d leave heels at home altogether.
  • Excessive skin care and toiletries: skin care is important whether at home or on a trip, but how many steps will you realistically do on a trip? Are all the bottles TSA approved? Nothing is worse than TSA taking an expensive bottle of skin care. Trust me, I’ve made this mistake.
  • A completely new outfit for each day: We covered this a little bit before, but you don’t need a full new wardrobe for each day. Pack pieces that mix and match you can wear a few times. Especially when it comes to accessories. I only ever pack one purse that can fit in my personal item and a small ziplock of jewelry. You’re not going to need a bunch.
  • More than two devices: Do you really need a laptop, iPad, phone, and Kindle? Either you find yourself constantly distracted by your tech gear, or you end up not using most of what you packed. 
Master the art of carry on only packing with this essential packing list. Travel light and stress-free with these tips and recommendations.

I hope this post helps you get ready to go on your carry on only adventure! This carry on only packing list is one I use all the time and hope it can help you too.

Meghan

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