It’s been a while. Having to pack again recently inspired me to write this post. Whether you are packing for a 2-week or a 2-month trip, the principles are the same. Earlier this year, I had to pack for a 2.5 month trip across Asia for the 30+ degree celsius tropical climate of Thailand as well as the below-zero weather of South Korea. All I had with me was a carry-on suitcase as well as tiny backpack. Trust me. It’s possible. But first, why travel carry-on only?
- Save time – We were able to bypass so many long line-ups at the airport because we did not need to check in bags. Once you get off the plane, you are good to go. No need to wait around at the carousel for your bags.
- Save money – Most airlines charge for check in bags now. Sure, for long international flights, there may still be 1-2 free checked bags but this isn’t the case for most domestic flights and short-haul flights between nearby countries.
- Save you from missing your next flight – For those of you who are planning to explore many cities in one country or to choose a flight which has multiple transfers, travelling carry-on only will save you a lot of headache. Imagine having the added stress of waiting to pick up your bag to transfer onto a tight connecting flight. Or imagine losing your baggage in transit to Bangkok, when you’re leaving for Chiang Mai in 3 days. What if it doesn’t make it here on time?
If I’ve convinced you that this a good idea, please read on for my tips for travelling carry-on only.
- A trusty carry-on luggage
Those who have followed me on my Asia trip adventures might have remembered that my original suitcase was not too trusty. (See post here.) It actually ripped within the first 2 weeks of my trip. I managed to purchase a better one in Vietnam, which lasted me for the rest of the trip. Lesson learned. The suitcase should be sturdy enough to withstand a long journey with multiple stops but at the same time light enough for you to carry around. I considered using a backpack for my Asia trip but then I would need to carry two backpacks and my back would not be happy. If the luggage is light enough, then it should be easy to transport, even up and down stairs in subway stations and easily lifted into the overhead cabins. I find the clam-shelled ones to be more practical and helps with organization. I got a small hard-shelled one (similar to the one below) and Aaron had purchased a soft-shelled one from MEC (no longer sold) for quite a decent price right before we left.
Hard-shelled carry on suitcase
2. A trusty “personal item”
Check the different airlines you are flying with for the weight and size limits. Some of the more discount airlines have very strict limitations. The 9kg backpack you were allowed to carry on in Canada might be overweight for the smaller airline in Vietnam. I used a tiny little backpack for my travels but found it was very annoying to, for example, have to take out my medications, toiletries, and sunglasses, etc. to get to the headphones I needed at the bottom of the pack. If possible, get one that has many compartments so you can access your belongings easily. I really liked the MEC packpack that Aaron got for the trip. It looked really compact. You can even wear it on the side and say it’s a laptop bag. It has a lot of compartments, including a nicely padded section just for your laptop.
3. Pack for 1 week
It doesn’t matter how long your trip is. Just pack as if you’re going on a 1-week trip. I.e. only pack enough underwear, socks, outfits etc. for 7 days. You can always do laundry. You’re always on the go, so no one will know you’re repeating outfits (except for your travel companion, who should not be judging. And if they are, you need to find yourself someone else to travel with).
4. Pack versatile clothing
Don’t pack those trendy yellow jeans that only matches that one white top. Pack items you can mix and match. That racer back tank top is not only for the hiking in Chiang Mai. Layer on a cardigan for the breezy evenings in Hanoi, and add on a scarf and toque for the snowy days in Seoul.
One thing I wish I had brought on my trip was a sarong. Not only can you use it as a cover-up on the beach, you can use it for modesty at temples as well as a scarf in colder cities, or maybe even a towel or a blanket, if needed! It is a great alternative to having to wear jeans when it’s hot and humid. (Read about my struggles in my Wat Pho post.)
And don’t forget about the tourist pants. What’s that you say? I’m talking about those thin, loose-fitting harem pants you see many backpackers and other casual travellers wearing nowadays. I know… I know… before you start judging that these will only make me stand out as a tourist, I’m sure I already have other features which make it obvious that I’m not a local. For example, my language, my mannerisms and the fact that I constantly have a confused look on my face while starting at Google Maps on my phone. In all seriousness, these pants are great for modesty in temples, just roaming the streets or even as PJs. For example, I did not want cause myself to have a heat stroke hiking in long pants in the mountains of Chiang Mai but I knew we were going to make stops at temples along the way and wanted to be respectful. I kept my tourist pants in my backpack and threw it over my shorts once we got to the temple grounds. Keep in mind these are not the best quality since mine had a big hole in it by the end of my trip but no complaints given I got it for only a few Canadian dollars from a market in Bali!
5. Leave the bulky clothing at home
The best investment I made for this trip was probably my Columbia Women’s Mighty Lite Hooded Jacket. My biggest dilemma for this trip was how to stay warm in South Korea without having to lug around a huge winter jacket for the entire duration of my travels. My friend suggested I look into compressible jackets. (Thanks Vanessa!) It kept me warm and I was able to compress it down to the size of a thin sweater. It was amazing!
For those who are more risk-loving, you can purchase seasonal items en route so you don’t even have to carry it around with you. Aaron purchased this compressible winter jacket from Uniqlo while we were in Seoul.
6. Packing cubes and organizers
Organization is key when it comes to packing light. Packing cubes allowed me to create little dense packages of clothing. I rolled them up tightly and was surprised how much I can fit in each of these.
For bras, I put them in a little laundry bag and stuffed it with socks to keep the shape. This bag was handy to double as a laundry bag for delicates during the trip.
If you have some items which seem to take up a lot of space, try compression bags. These are also great for packing away dirty clothes. These ones we got don’t require a vacuum to release the air. Just put your clothing in, zip it up to leave a small hole, push all the air out and then zip it all the way. Alternatively, just get some heavy duty ziplock bags!
Try to avoid clothes that easily wrinkle. With all the rolling and compressing (see above), it’s best to bring clothing that is easy to care for. Leave that cute blouse at home. If you are presented with a few wrinkles, try to hang it in the bathroom while you shower. The steam can sometimes help to release some of the wrinkles.
8. Travel-size toiletries
If you are travelling carry-on only, you must adhere to the liquid rules. As such, it’s important to either shop at the travel size aisle for teeny tiny version of your favourite toiletries or just get some reusable toiletry bottles and fill them up with your products of choice! Be sure to test for leaking extensively though! Even if they spill or if you did not bring enough, that’s ok! Unless you are travelling to remote areas, chances are you can always just pick up some toiletries along the way (especially when travelling to countries known for their great skin care products – e.g. Korea and Japan).
9. E-travel books
I purchased only 2 travel books for my 4-country trip. For the other 2 countries, I found that electronic resources actually handled the job quite well. I mostly relied on Mark Wien’s travel guides as well as the Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet Guides. Please refer to my previous post for a more in-depth review of some travel apps.
So those were the lessons learned from my travels. I would love to hear about any other suggestions you may have. Happy travels!
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6 thoughts on “9 practical tips for travelling carry-on only”
Carry-on only for 2 mths of travel, now that’s impressive! I’m just doing short 4-day trip to see family over the break and knew carry-on is all that’s necessary… just means my gifts will come mostly in gift-card form. I do intend to bring to tins of cookies and hope they won’t take over my poor carry-on… or open and crumble all over my clothes.
Does mec carry compression bags ? – never heard of the non-vaccuum kind!
Hi Andy! Thanks! I don’t think MEC carries the compression bags. I only see compression sacks which you can stuff clothes and linens into. Amazon has a bunch though. If not then ziplock bags work for your tins of cookies as well as for clothes! Happy packing!