If you’ve been following us right from the start, you’ll know that I always said I’d never travel with carry on only. I even wrote a post about why we’d never travel light. We just had too much stuff as long-term travellers and the children were too small for their own, decent sized, packs. Well that was then, this is now and lately we’ve turned to carry on only travel and become quite proficient as our circumstances have changed.
These days we’re more like you, we’re taking shorter trips and we have our home base in beautiful Romania to stash the toys and school books along with the all-weather travel gear. We no longer need to carry everything, everywhere and that’s a relief as carry on only travel is actually not a headache. As I’m seeing more and more incidents of lost and destroyed baggage, carry on travel is our new favourite way to go.
Carry On Only Travel
Why Carry On Travel is Easier
- The fewer bags you have, the less likely you are to lose one or have one stolen
- Dodge budget airline fees for checked baggage
- No waiting to check bags in
- No waiting at airport carousels for bags to appear
- No chance of the airline losing your bag
- Easier onward travel by bus, taxi or train
- Packing and unpacking are less of a drama
- Fewer clothes makes for a simpler life. Minimalism reduces stress
- Lighter bags are easier on your body
- You have everything at hand on the plane – super useful on freezing budget flights where no blanket is provided
There certainly are disadvantages too. Toiletries become a headache on some airlines but these days carrying liquids is becoming easier and there are more and more solid, plastic-free, products on the market.
It’s nice sometimes to have a big pack or suitcase that you can dump in the airport or at your accommodation, leaving you with less to carry every day. I actually enjoy carrying a full-sized backpack and the convenience of having everything we need. So for big trips, we still take the big packs but theft or loss is a worry.
Being based in Europe these days, we fly budget airlines frequently and carry on luggage saves us a lot of money on these short-hop flights making this sort of travel convenient but still for long-term travel…no way!
We need our laptops, camera gear, toys, multi weather and sports gear along with the school books, also laundry every other day is a real bind and ties you down. That said, the kids have never checked a bag. We grown ups carried their school books, toiletries and electronics, so all they carried was a small bag of clothes until they were old enough for adult sized carry on luggage.
Items You Can’t Take in Carry On Luggage
You must check your airline’s regulations as rules change almost daily. Generally it’s not possible to carry sharp objects when you travel carry on only, so items that were essential to us when we were on the road full-time now have to stay at home. These include
- Pen knives, with cork screw, for wine-opening emergencies.
- Nail scissors, for nails, hair, every scissor-requiring situation.
- Tweezers – but on the last 7 flights I had tweezers in my bag and nobody noticed.
- My tripod – because it has spikes on the end of the legs, most do.
- Marmite (unless you know how to smuggle it )
- Regular sized bottles of shampoo, sunblock, etc are banned. All liquids need to be under 100ml in volume and be stashed in a clear plastic zip-lock bag. Yes, toothpaste counts as liquid, so does Marmite, as my husband discovered last week. We used to find the idea of buying on arrival or dumping before departure terribly wasteful and unnecessarily expensive, but now, with a home base, we can decant into mini travel-sized bottles or easily stock up on perfect carry on toiletries.
Items We Need For Long Term Family Travel That We Don’t Need for Carry On Travel
Shorter trips are normally focused on one climate, one destination, so multi-climate gear isn’t needed, neither is multi-activity gear.
Shorter trips are much easier to pack for. These days we know before we leave if we’ll need to take our mosquito nets, sheet sleeping bag liners and down jackets, the necessity for big bags is diminished.
School books, notebooks, pens and pencils , on short trips we don’t carry them. It’s easier to juggle old-school education with education-as-travel now we have a home base. If you want to learn more about worldschooling and travel on the road, including what resources we normally use, click-through.
Likewise, Lego, Harry Potter Wands, Bakugan and 25 cuddly animals don’t need to travel with us full-time any more. My kids do not take toys, other than 2 essential bears, on short trips ( by that I mean up to a couple of months).
Carry On Only Hacks
Carry on only travel brings with it issues of weight allowance. We aim to stay under 7 Kg with just one piece of luggage, our carry-on backpacks, because this is the minimum allowance we face. Staying under 7Kg actually isn’t all that hard even with the amount of electric equipment we carry as professional travel bloggers. Here’s a hack for you!
You are pretty unlikely to have your backpack weighed, airlines seem to target hard luggage and wheely bags far more than soft luggage, but, should the worst happen, be ready.
Items on your body are not part of your weight allowance so have a coat, hoody or cargo pants with plenty of pockets. Either turn up at the airport with pockets stuffed with your heaviest items or have your jacket ( zip up pockets are best) pre-loaded with battery packs, chargers and any heavy item in your pack. I even have a pocket that will take the drone. Then if the lady tells you your bags are overweight just pop your jacket on, too easy!
What Bag to Choose for Carry On Luggage
We have 2 main carry on backpacks. One is a Mountain Warehouse 45L trekking pack ( no longer available) that we used on our Himalayan trek, the other is the rather splendid Osprey Farpoint, below. The adult size works for me and my son has used one from 1o years old. Osprey have a lifetime guarantee on their bags.
We’ve invested in the Rolls Royce of carry on backpacks, the Osprey Farpoint 40 ( the Fairpoint is the women’s version). It’s a great bag and comes with a lifetime guarantee but it is slightly, only slightly, too big for Air Asia size regulations. Because it’s a soft pack and squishy, you should be able to easily squash it into the right dimensions if asked. We’ve taken the Farpoint 40 on MANY AirAsia and Air Malaysia flights now and never had a problem.
Advantages of the Farpoint as Carry on Luggage:
- superb quality
- a good, comfortable harness with hip strap
- harness zips away when needed
- multiple internal pockets and compartments
- brightly coloured inside, so much easier to find things
- good compression straps for load stability and to make it look smaller at airports.
- compartments can be padlocked
- laptop pocket
- lifetime guarantee
- perfect EU carry on size
Personally I prefer a back pack, I find them more convenient, others prefer the wheely bags, carry on sized hard luggage on wheels. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, it’s really up to you. We have a post on the choice of backpack, travel pack or suitcase.
Packing List and Tips for Carry On Only
Carry On Only Travel Toiletries
I LOVE this shampoo! It makes my hair fabulous, smells amazing and works for carry on.
We’re having great success with solid alternatives to traditional liquid toiletries for carry on only travel. We now always carry solid shampoo bars and solid deodorants. We swear by LUSH but other solid toiletries products are available including tooth powders.
- Solid shampoo. ( I ADORE the smell of Karma and what it does for my hair) We can use this as soap or to hand wash clothes too. You’ll also need the smart, functional travel tin.
- Miniature ( acquired from hotels) or travel-sized conditioner
- Solid deodorant . It really works and is less health-impacting than chemical sprays, I bought it for my 11 year old, now we all use it.
- Toothbrush. We often buy toothpaste on arrival or I just squeeze some toothpaste into a tiny pot. You’d be surprised how long it lasts. Tooth powder will be my next purchase.
- Antibacterial hand gel, depending on destination.
- Small pack of sensitive wet wipes or baby wipes, for cleaning faces.
- Disposable razor.
- Travel sized hair brush
- Occasionally, for cold city travel, I pack my travel hair dryer . Since having my hair cut short I don’t take it at all ( this also means no conditioner needed). If you’re looking for the best travel hair dryer, check out this guide.
- Sanitary Protection
- Mosquito Repellent Wipes or wrist bands work for travelling carry on only, but you will have to buy liquids on arrival
- I’ve not found a satisfactory way of carrying sun block, you will need more than 100ml, buy on arrival.
Medical Kit for Carry On Travel
For short trips, you won’t need to carry a cure for everything. We find, after 3 years of practice, that it’s best to carry a small stock of the things you may need. People rarely get sick or injure themselves near the shop you want. This list is obviously highly individual but my essentials would be paracetamol, iodine and a couple of band aids.
We always carry
- Plasters ( band aids)
- Paracetamol. Chewable paracetamol for the kids
- Travel sickness tablets and wrist bands , child friendly ( these are also antihistamines)
- Small bandage and dressings
- Iodine in a tiny bottle
- A few indigestion tablets
- Various supplements and vitamins
For longer term or more adventurous travel, I’m never without my travel-sized ear thermometer . With kids it’s better to be safe than sorry and I need to know exactly how bad that fever is. Sometimes I take it when we travel carry on only, sometimes I don’t, I do a mommy risk assessment.
Carry On Only Travel Clothes
The old rule is one to wear, one to wash, one for spare. 3 of everything does indeed work well and my advice to you would be 3 of everything. if you can pack it in. One full change of clothes each is all that we’ve found we really need, at a pinch.
Usually we carry 2 pairs of trousers, we wear one, pack one. Depending on climate we’ll also pack leggings or running tights to use as pajamas or an extra layer. Sports wear is great for travel, easy to wash and dry and light to pack, most of my travel items these days come from shops such as Lorna Jane, Sweaty Betty and Lulu Lemon.
We may carry more tops to allow us to layer in colder weather. This list is per person, we may throw in a few extra T shirts for the kids if there is room. We like to leave with less-full bags so that we have room to buy clothes and souvenirs at our destination.
- 2-3 pairs of trousers each. I prefer jeans but most normal people buy “travel” trousers that are small and light to pack, crease resistant and easy to wash and dry. Trousers that zip off to make shorts are another popular option.
- Leggings, thermal. For kids] and for adults.
- Swimwear and UV resistant rashies as needed
- Travel towel ( my favourite thing!) We’ve tried a few to find the best on the market, click through.
- 2 vest t shirts or tops, sleep wear and a base layer.
- A long sleeved shirt to throw over the top
- 2 long sleeved T shirt or thermal shirt ( my husband and kids have 1 thermal each, I have Primark)
- 2 bras
- 2 socks ( more for cold climates or trekking)
- 5 knickers ( people swear by travel knickers for easy washing and drying, I pefer M&S)
- flip flops or thongs for showers, as sandals, to wear on skanky floors. Make a shoe bag to pack these, I used old T shirts.
- hiking or trekking shoes or whatever comfortable shoe you prefer. Wear your heavy boots on travel days.
- hat ( does for sun and cold)
- large cotton scarf ( so many uses!)
- rain coat if needed
- Sun Glasses
- reading glasses
I think that’s it. Did I miss anything?
Carry On Only Travel Electronics
Our major inhibitor with travelling light lies in electronics. We carry camera gear, video gear, laptops, kindles, drone and so on. The kids’ small electronic items, are no trouble. When we’re carrying 4 laptops, carry on only just ain’t happening.
This is what we carry for our family of 4, 2 kids. On long term travel we carry 4 laptops and all the camera gear, for shorter trips we cut it right back. The 3DS, music players etc are for the kids.
- Camera and charger (1) I’ve just upgraded to a small DSLR after 12 months of struggling with a broken mirrorless. I’m thrilled! I’m going all ” photographer “
- Laptop and charger (1)
- Plug Adaptors (2)
- Kindles ( 1 each) and charger lead (1)
- Phones and chargers (2)
- Headset or ear plugs to use with the phone
- Rechargable Power Packs (2) HIGHLY recommended for power-less emergencies, particularly with kids, we’ve tested a few and our favourite is a solar charged version, see our findings by clicking through. If you’re relying on apps you certainly need one and they’re small enough to fit in a pocket to avoid the weight restrictions.
- 3DS ( belong to elder child, camera, video, limited games, music)
- Ear plugs (2)
- Mini music players, similar to ipods, but ultra cheap. (2)
- gimbal for video recording
- mini microphone for video recording
Essential Travel Document Check List
Paper free is better and these days it’s rare to have to print your travel documents. Many airlines allow online check in or check in via machine at the airport, it’s super easy and cuts queues and paper wastage. You must get the airline’s app on your phone and be sure your phone is charged and has a local sim or free airport wi-fi. It’s a simple was to be a more eco-friendly traveller, cut the paper. All of our phones are unlocked and dual sim because we travel we know we’ll change sims often.
- Printed Flight Booking or Airline App with Electronic Flight Booking
- Printed Online Check-in Papers or App
- Printed Hotel Reservation or App
- Printed Car Hire Papers or App
- Insurance Papers or App
- Small stash of home country cash – we get local cash on arrival. Check which currency your visa needs to be paid in.
- Driving license
If There’s Still Room in Your Carry On Luggage
- A Lonely Planet Guide Book
- A card game to keep everyone amused at airports, we like UNO or Monopoly Deal.
- Use a travel organiser travel organiser ( this is the one I use) for documents, small items, phone, leads, etc.
We made this for you, for Pinterest, thanks for helping us!
More Sneaky Tips For Travel With Carry On Only
- Knowing the regulation weight and size of carry on bag should go without saying
- Wear all your heaviest gear to fly and if you’re over weight, wear more! ( we’ve done it!)
- Act like your carry on bag is as light as a feather, casually sling it over one shoulder.
- Airline staff are often far more forgiving of backpacks than hard wheely bags
- If your carry on bag will fit under the seat in front ( soft bags are best) they’ll love you more
- Don’t fold, roll!
- Toothbrushes and dry toiletries can we wrapped in a wash cloth or zip lock bag, ditch the bulky wash bags.
- Keep your small liquids together in a zip lock in an outer pocket, ready for customs. Outer mesh pockets on the Osprey bag above are great for this.
- To breeze through those X ray machines, don’t wear a belt, don’t wear jewellery, don’t wear an underwired bra, leave your shoes loosely laced to slip off and on and dont take your laptop. On a recent trip I took 7 flights and never had to take a single item out of my bag because I wasn’t carrying a laptop. The whole thing, including drone, just went straight through the machines.
So that’s it, just about everything we’re learnt about flying carry on only travel, as a family, with children, or solo, we do it all these days. Did we miss anything? Is there anything we should add? Let us know in the comments.