How to Travel with Carry-ons ONLY

Whether travelling for long periods, through several countries, or just going for a week; we only travel with carry-ons. My husband Rick and I travel consecutively for many months annually, visiting a number of countries, hence numerous flights. Regardless of the length of these travel-stints (our last one entailed 25 countries in 9 months) – we take only a carry-on each. Here’s how we travel with carry-ons only.

Irene and RIck Butler

Unencumbered into the wild blue yonder

Carry-on Low-down

Most airlines allow ONE carry-on piece of baggage, plus ONE personal bag (purse, computer case, camera bag, etc) per passenger. Each airline has it’s own weight and size restrictions for carry-on baggage. Yes, I know…some people still get away with hauling oversized pieces of luggage onto a plane, holding up the flow of passengers while they push and shove it into the overhead compartment – BUT, airlines are beginning to police their allowances for carry-on more stringently.

We stick to 17.5lbs (8kgs) each to comply with airlines with stricter weight restrictions and a size which is even less than the standard for most airlines. My pull-along non-expandable carry-on measures – 21.5in x 14.5in x 8in (55cm x 36cm x 20cm). Rick never has a problem with his duffle bag-type carry-on, which easily slips into the handy measuring slot at airport gates.

How does the weight/size of our carry-on fit in the realm of various airline allowances? Examples below (figures as of August 2015) are for carry-on weight/size, but most airlines also state specifics for the personal bag (not addressed in the examples, but which you will want to check as well). Particulars for each airline are easily accessible on their website.

Saintly Advice

Saintly Advice

– Air Canada – no problem for us with their carry-on maximum of 22lbs (10kgs), and dimensions of 21.5in x 15.5in x 9in (55cm x 40cm x 23cm). (With all airlines the dimensions can be of a different configuration in length/width/depth, as long as the total equals no more than the three dimensions for that airline, which with this example would be 46in (116cm).

– American Airlines – has no stated weight allowance, but the carry-on size is 22in x 14in x 9in (56cm x 36cm x 23cm) or a total maximum of 45in (115cm). Our carry-on fits the bill. United Airlines and Delta Airlines have similar size allowances, but depending on the destination Delta has a 7-10kg (15-22lb) limit.

Lufthansa – has a carry-on maximum weight of 17.5lbs (8kgs) – 22in x 16in x 9in (55cm x 40cm x 23cm) or total dimensions 47in (118cm). Yay, another good fit!

Qantas & Air New Zealand – their carry-on maximum weight is 15lbs (7kgs), with dimensions totaling 45in (115cm) and 46.5in (118cm) respectively. PROBLEM – 2lbs had to be removed from our carry-ons when we last flew with Air New Zealand. Time for a little ingenuity. We donned more shirts and our jackets before checking in.

There are “pros” and “cons” to most everything in this world and going with just carry-on is no exception.

Items carried in our personal bags

Items carried in our personal bags

Cons of Travelling with Carry-ons Only

Liquids/creams/gels – must be in containers of no more than 3.4fl-oz (100ml), and must be in a clear plastic bag – usually no more than 1 US quart (1 liter) in size. So, I can only take minimal amounts of my favorite face-creams, suntan lotion, etc….and forget about bringing along my preferred shampoo/conditioner (however, these or similar items, plus such things as vitamins, small sized toothpaste, shaving cream, hand-sanitizer can be purchased along the way).

Manicure scissors – airport security may confiscate them, even if they comply with TSA standards. To save any hassle, we fly sans-manicure scissors (but may buy a cheap pair while in a country, and leave them behind before the next flight).

Camera Equipment – photographer Rick’s biggest compromise was exchanging his SLR with multiple lenses for a more compact Cannon G1X with a teleconverter for those further away shots. Many high end digital compacts today have sensors rivalling those of DSLR’s with as many adjustments to capture sharp photos, and many models have small interchangeable lenses.

Oh lordy…the laundry: Going only carry-on means doing laundry every few days in the hotel shower/tub/sink (shampoo/liquid dish detergent works, quick-dry clothing reigns, yet almost anything dries overnight if after wringing-out, the clothing is pressed in a towel before hanging to dry). Occasionally we do use a laundry service or find a laundromat. But guaranteed – when we get back home I go straight to my laundry room and plant a kiss on my Maytags.

Why Travel with Carry-ons Only

Boarding passes can be pre-printed on-line for most airlines, and one can sail through security without stopping at the airline counter to check-in luggage, thus avoiding long line-ups and not having to be at the airport as early.

Cost savings – many airlines now charge for checked baggage. 

All your belongings are with you, so no lost luggage and no burst liquids.

By the time people wait at the airport carousal for their luggage, we get first dibs on taxis and are nestled in our hotel room sooner.

No hauling large pieces of luggage in/out of accommodations, or when catching taxies, buses, trains within each country or to the next country. In fact, not being encumbered with heavy luggage, you may well find you can walk to the nearest bus/train station, instead of relying on taxies.

Some general packing tips

First and foremost – the less your carry-on weighs empty, the more the stuff packed inside can weigh. My pull-along weighs 3.9lbs (1.8kgs). Rick’s duffle bag weighs a mere 1.6lbs (¾ kg).

Our rule of thumb is to pack what we “know” is needed, rather than what we “might” need. We don’t pack sweaters if chances of needing them are remote. Rather, for an unexpected cold spell we buy sweaters/fleeces at a thrift store, and if our next stop will definitely be warmer – we give them to a homeless shelter or a street person.

Okay – Here’s the Skinny on What WE Pack

pack in carry-ons for easy travel

What we pack in our carry-ons

Rick’s personal bag: – one 7” tablet (for e-books and internet/with Google phone App we can place calls to almost anywhere in the world, as long as we have WiFi); two flash drives for extra storage of photos; his camera equipment; alarm clock; compass; flashlight; and his bag of liquid/gels.

My personal bag: – one 11” laptop (also for e-books; passports/flight info/credit cards; my point & click camera for quick pics/videos; flashlight; sunglasses; and my bag of liquids/gels.

Our Carry-ons:

We always wear our heaviest clothes and trail shoes on the plane. I always wear my jeans (which I refuse to give up, although weighty) and Rick wears his heavier cargo pants.

IN ADDITION to the clothing we wear on the plane – the following items are what we pack.

Rick’s carry-on: cargo pants that zip off to shorts; three shirts; three pair of socks; three underwear; light-weight rain jacket; peaked cap; first aid kit; and notions (safety razors/nail clippers/etc); luggage scale to note exact weight of our carry-on before an upcoming flight; book to track costs; a roll of duct tape – handy for all manner of quick repairs (luggage, hemlines, and especially shoes as breaking in a new pair while on-the-go can be painful); and my excesses, Rick is quick to point out.

duct tape on hiking soes

Duct tape to the rescue!

My Carry-on: six tops (‘cause mine are smaller); one Capri pants; one cargo pants; a crush-resistant skirt; unmentionables; socks; make-up; fashion jewelry (leave expensive jewelry at home); flip-flops; light-weight rain jacket; and a mini-umbrella. I also include a journal; guidebook pages (if a guidebook has info for a dozen countries, I remove and bring only the countries and cities we plan to see, albeit we mostly rely on online info for sites/travel methods/accommodations); and a plastic bag with office supplies (small stapler/staples, scotch tape).

Being on the move, no one knows we’ve worn the same shirt so many times it’s like a second skin and what I like best is – if our clothing wears out, we shop for new items and discard the old….which requires a ONE-IN-ONE-OUT RULE in order to avoid running into space/weight problems at the next airport. Not that I ever have to worry about that with my husband’s policing, “Hey, nice new shirt! Which one are you leaving behind?” 

And much to Rick’s chagrin, I am always adjusting for the handcrafted jewelry I have been known to buy along our travel routes. Most end up being souvenirs for those back home. And if I would like to bring back even more souvenirs, I purchase them in the last country before heading home, and leave behind enough clothing to come in at the right weight for the airline.

In the packing department – That’s it! That’s all folks!

Although Rick would love to achieve travelling with only a passport/credit card/folding toothbrush, we have certainly come a long way since our days of packing shoes to match every outfit and enough changes for a fortnight. To us, the pros of going only carry-on far outweigh the compromises.

If you see a minimally-encumbered smiling couple at an airport, possibly with a slightly tattered look – stop and say “hi” – it may be us, or some of the many more that have caught onto going CARRY-ON ONLY.

For your Next Flight – Go Light

Written by Irene Butler and photos by Rick Butler for


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  1. Barbara Alberty says

    Terry – this was one of the most informative articles on travel I’ve ever read. A long time ago we traveled for almost three months using those old Rick Steve’s bags that were carry-on and could be carried as very large back packs. It worked so well. But when I got home I did give GoodWill many of the items I wore day after day after day!

    If we’re traveling for a week or less now we manager well with carry-on. Going to meetings entail a bit more variety with dress up stuff and shoes to match. But we’re now doing less and less of that.

    Thanks for this article!


  2. Pam H. says

    Great article – and very similar to our style of travel too. We have taken 3 week trips, each with an Eagle Creek 22″ carry-on which has a zip-on day pack. It does mean lots of laundry along the way, but how nice to be able to board a train without lugging huge suitcases!

  3. says

    Great article. We’re in our third week of a one month trip with only a carry-on and small daypack each (which is the home ‘office’ with laptop, camera etc). The other lovely benefit is being able to easily carry our bags up the inevitable steps to any apartment or hotel rooms. Most places haven’t had elevators and I am so grateful to not have to do any hauling of overstuffed baggage. Thanks for a great piece.

  4. says

    Thanks for your kind words and great comments Barbara, Pam, Cindy Jo and Colleen! Good to know we are not alone in our travel-light mode. And yes, Colleen, the “no elevator” situation is a breeze with “almost” light-as-air luggage.

    And thanks to you Terri for “airing” our article!

  5. David Haas says

    Great piece and we’re currently in Italy for 15 days traveling this way. The BEST way to truly enjoy traveling is to go light!

  6. Rozzy B says

    Well those are wonderful tips. If I were going light that would be the way! For us, we are mostly scuba divers and underwater & topside photographers. I would forgo the clothes but need to take my SLR with lightweight long lens. If not a GoPro would work best. You cannot always get the best photos with a point and shoot unless it is up close with no long shots. Plus the scuba equipment has to be checked. Even if you don’t take it all, if you rent most of your gear at the destination, it usually doesn’t fit like your own. Plus our cameras need chargers, batteries, underwater housings, underwater lights connected to trays, rods etc… Otherwise, that is great if you can travel light but depends on the country and activities you want to do while there. Maybe one of these days if it is not a Safari or diving, this would be the way to go!

  7. Irene Butler says

    Thanks Karoline and Rozzy!
    And Rozzy, I can understand scuba diving equipment not being carry-on friendly, but what great adventures you must have in the deep.

  8. Jim says

    Traveling light is one way to enjoy traveling. You don’t have to worry about lifting heavy bags, finding important things on your bag. Love your post Irene!

  9. Penny says

    Great article, Irene. Despite having spent a month in Europe in April with only carry-on luggage, you’ve inspired me to pack even lighter next time.

  10. Irene Butler says

    Thanks Penny! Glad to hear from yet another traveler who has found the joy of carry-on only! Safe and light traveling to you always.

  11. Tiffany Baldwin says

    It’s great that you shared the pros and cons of traveling just with a carry on bag. The people they can choose easily what suits them better. Thanks for sharing!!

  12. Irene Butler says

    Thanks so much for your compliment about my article Tiffany! We recently had a particularly difficult challenge flying to the tip of Argentina to embark on an Antarctic cruise….which meant packing heavier clothing – but carry-on only it was!

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