Travel The World With A Single Carry-On

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Shorter Version

Est. Reading Time: 1 Minute

Being an international traveler doesn’t mean having to carry a bulky backpack wherever you go. With proper planning and foresight, you can know how to pack to reduce the size of your luggage to a single carry-on, without sacrificing comfort or practicality.

Is it really essential?

To pack a single carry-on, start by removing all inessential items. Keep your travel luggage down to the clothing and toiletries you know you’ll need on your trip. Anything you can find inexpensively abroad should be left at home. Ensure you have space for your tablet or laptop and other personal items by shrinking your clothes in packing cubes. These essential space-saving items allow you to pack your belongings in a bag as small as 35 liters.

Save the money

Packing light reduces the cost of your travels and saves you the hassle of dealing with oversized luggage. More importantly, traveling is meant to be freeing – don’t burden yourself by carrying too much.

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Longer Version

Est. Reading Time: 6 Minutes

When you take your first long-term trip abroad, you may be tempted to bring virtually everything you own that fits in your luggage. Even after you remove your favorite snack foods and off-season clothes, you’re probably still overpacking, no matter how long your trip lasts.

Whether you’re going for a week, a month, or even a year, the general rule applies: keep it to one bag. At first, you may feel odd traveling so light, but there are several good reasons to ditch the duffle and stick to a carry-on.

Here are some great reasons to pack a single carry-on

When you reduce the size and weight of your travel luggage, you gain a degree of freedom someone with multiple bags can’t enjoy. Before you buy an enormous duffle or an 85-liter backpack, consider how much better off you’d be with less.

No fees

No checked bag means no extra fees at the airport. You can save $60 or more on roundtrip flights by avoiding this penalty. What’s more, you can often skip the check-in counter and get your ticket at a computer kiosk instead. And you won’t have to wait around at the carousel when you get off the plane.

Move easier

A big backpack gets heavy, and a rolling bag is a pain to drag around the street. You’ll walk more slowly and rather awkward down crowded sidewalks and narrow alleyways, wondering why you packed so much. Things aren’t easier on public transit or shared rides.

Less re-packing

The more often you move accommodations, the more you’ll be unpacking and repacking your bag. You could just leave your clothing and other items in the bag on the floor, but this brings an untidy feeling you’ll want to avoid. Also, the more you pack, the more you end up accidentally leaving behind.


A smaller backpack does double-duty. On day-trips, hikes, and other outdoor activities, you can leave your clothing and valuables at the hostel or hotel (in a safe, preferably) and use your bag for what you need that day. No packing an extra day-bag in your larger luggage.

So what do you really need?

Reducing your travel load to a manageable size in a single carry-on requires planning. It’s tempting to open up the largest bag you have and throw in all your favorite items. This usually leads to regret once you’ve arrived – sometimes sooner, like when you’re stuck in the airport ticket line.

Start by assessing what you need to bring.

Take the essentials

Not what you think you might need, and certainly not just the things you want. If you have leftover room in your single carry-on, you can pick some inessentials, but for now, make sure you have the following:

  • At least five basic tops and two pairs of pants, shorts, or skirts.
  • Socks and underwear for every day of the week.
  • A rain jacket. You can wear this on the plane and layer it with other items to add warmth when needed.
  • Comfortable shoes meant for frequent walking. If you bring an extra pair, consider the destination and type of trip. Hot and humid? Sandals. Going hiking? Wear your bulkier hiking shoes on the plane and bring a pair of sneakers that fit at the bottom of your bag.
  • A sweater or fleece jacket. If you’re traveling in warmer climates like North Africa or Southeast Asia, you can forego the sweater for additional lighter clothes. Think about how the locals dress in whichever region you’re visiting, then pack your bag to suit the weather.
  • Your toiletries. You can find most of what you need worldwide, but if there’s a particular item you consider essential – a brand of contacts, for example, or a type of tampon – then make sure you pack it in your toiletry case. Avoid bringing liquids. They’re an unneeded hassle and can be found cheap or even free at your accommodation.
  • A bathing suit. Even if you don’t plan on swimming, you’ll regret not having one at some point.
  • Your personal items. For most people, this is the laptop, smartphone, headphones, and documents related to travel.
  • Don’t forget the most important item of all – your passport!

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Then comes the inessentials…

Accessories come after you’ve made sure you made room for the most important items. Scarves, towels, jewelry and the like are good to have, but shouldn’t come at the cost of something you need.

Weigh your bag when you’re done packing.

Budget airlines typically cap cabin luggage at 10 kg (22 lb), which is about as much as you’ll want to carry anyway. Air Asia is even stricter with only 7 kg (15 lb). Plan accordingly.

What’s the right suitcase?

Shop for a backpack with a capacity between 35 and 45 liters. Anything larger won’t fit in an overhead bin.

Start your search on Amazon to find the best backpack for you. “45 liter backpack” brings back dozens of results. From there, it’s a matter of style, price, and reviews. Be wary of backpacks that look like they expand out or have a hard frame. These can be unsuitable for overhead bins, even if they technically fit the carry-on guidelines.

When in doubt, visit a luggage or camping store to try out the bags yourself. If you buy online, read the reviews – you don’t want a backpack that will fall apart in a month.

Here’s the secret to packing light

You’ve got your essentials, you’ve bought the backpack, you’re ready to start packing your single carry-on and… it doesn’t fit. No matter how much you push and shove, you just can’t get that extra pair of pants inside.

The solution? Packing cubes.

Packing cubes are the game-changer in traveling light and a true sign of the seasoned traveler. They allow you to compartmentalize your belongings and reduce the space each group of items takes up in your bag. You’ll be able to unpack and repack your bag in half the time it takes without them. The space you save, however, is the real benefit.

Where are they?

Amazon sells packing cubes in a variety of colors and sizes. Be sure to check eBags’ selection as well – they have frequent sales on popular sets. Use them on one trip instead of checking a bag and they’ve already paid for themselves.

Buy a set with at least six cubes.

More cubes mean more options for organization. You may want to use a large packing cube for your clothes and one or two smaller ones for other items. Alternatively, use a variety of small cubes and leave the largest one collapsed in your backpack. Whatever works – so long as you can fit what you need.

With packing cubes and the full use of your backpack, you’ll have a light, easy-to-manage travel bag that can serve you for months on end. Don’t be afraid to rearrange your belongings later, selling or donating clothing you no longer need in exchange for new items you’ll buy on the road.

Actionable Steps


Figure out what you need

That nice dress shirt? You won’t wear it at a hostel. Those bulky shoes? You don’t want to walk all day in them. Bring only what you need to travel with and leave the rest at home, or with a friend or relative.


Find a favorite backpack to be your single carry-on

35 to 45 liters, in the style and color you prefer. You may want a distinct outdoor backpack with a rain cover (recommended) and multiple compartments. Alternatively, a higher-end anti-theft backpack with a sleek design can fit just as much. Spend some time browsing the selection at your favorite store and make sure the bag suits your travel style.


Get packing cubes

Place an order on eBay or Amazon and see how they work. Even if your next trip is weeks or months away, knowing how to pack quickly and efficiently reduces headaches later. With your packing cubes and backpack together, you’ll be set to travel wherever and whenever you need.


Don’t worry

With the exception of the true essentials, like your passport and your expensive gadgets, most of the stuff you own is nice, but easy to replace. Don’t worry if you end up needing more shirts at your destination. People wear clothes everywhere you go; you can replace items or add more as needed, often for a lower price than you’d get at home.

About the Author

Michael Power

Michael Power

World-Traveling Expatriate

Since 2012, Michael has been living abroad full-time as a world-traveling expatriate. He spent his early 20s as an international high school teacher in South Korea. After visiting over 20 countries he’s excited to share what he’s learned with other aspiring nomads. You can currently find him in South America, probably at the nearest salsa club.
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