• How to Travel Carry-On Only

    by  • Packing • 21 Comments

    Traveling carry-on only might seem restrictive and difficult to do, but I believe NOT checking luggage provides me with more freedom. Whether you’re trying to avoid checked bag fees, you’re worried about the airlines losing your luggage, or you just want to travel lighter, packing carry-on only is something you can easily do too. I’ll show you how to do it in my How to Travel Carry-On Only series!

    It all started about four years ago when I was planning a trip to Greece. It was my first trip completely on my own, and I thought that if I only brought carry-on luggage, it would be one less thing to worry about. It turned into my preferred way to travel, and now I do whatever I can to avoid checking luggage.

    What exactly does carry-on mean? For most airlines it means a small suitcase or backpack that goes in the overhead compartment, plus a “personal item” which can be a purse, briefcase, or something else of that size. The personal item must fit completely under the seat in front of you. Just be aware that some low cost airlines only allow one carry-on item, so any smaller items like a purse would have to fit inside of your bigger bag.

    What Are the Airline’s Carry-on Restrictions?

    Check the airline’s website for their carry-on restrictions. The standard seems to be 22 inches x 14 inches x 9 inches (that’s roughly 56cm x 35.5cm x 23cm for those of you using metric), but certain airlines might vary this. If your bag measures an inch or two over on one side but is smaller on another side, it should be fine.

    Also, if your flight happens to be on a smaller plane, like a prop jet, the overhead compartments are much smaller as well, so you won’t be able to bring as much. I’ll admit, I usually end up checking luggage when I’m on one of these planes.

    carry-on only

    What is the Weight Limit for Carry-on?

    There is often a weight restriction on carry-on luggage too, so check with your airline for that as well. A simple and inexpensive luggage scale can help you avoid surprises at check-in if your bag is over the limit.

    If you are flying with an airline that allows a carry-on bag plus a personal item, try to put small but heavier things in your personal item because they usually don’t weigh the personal item.

    On the Plane With Your Carry-on

    carry-on onlyIf your bag is at the high end of the size limit, try to board as early in the boarding process as you can to make sure you have room for your bag. This might not always be possible, but it’s worth trying. But please don’t be that person whose carry-on bag is clearly over the size limit. It won’t fit in the overhead compartment no matter how much you want it to.

    Also check out the airplane’s seat plan ahead of time. Bulkhead seats, the ones that don’t have another row of seats directly in front of them, are usually great for extra leg room, but your carry-on bag and personal item must both go in the overhead compartment. Though usually this restriction is just during take-off and landing.

    Traveling carry-on only means you’ll avoid paying checked bag fees, you’ll have less to carry, you won’t have to waste time at the baggage carousel after your flight, and you won’t have to worry about the airline losing your bags. It might take a little discipline, but the freedom you will get in exchange will be well worth it.

    Stay tuned for more in my How to Travel Carry-On Only series, and I’ll show you how to skip checking luggage and travel lighter.

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    21 Responses to How to Travel Carry-On Only

    1. August 8, 2012 at 2:13 am

      My younger daughter and I are heading to Chicago tomorrow for 4 nights and for the first time ever we are going to try and travel with just a carry-on suitcase. I bought a new bag today and I haven’t started packing yet but hopefully everything we need will fit! And I’ve been obsessively re-measuring the bag because I’m afraid I’m going to get to the airport and be told that it’s too big for carry-on! Not sure that I could ever do it on a longer trip but hopefully this will go well and I’ll no longer need to check bags on shorter trips.

      • Ali Garland
        August 8, 2012 at 3:05 pm

        Lisa, that sounds awesome! If you’ve measured the bag and it’s within the airline’s limits, I’m sure you’ll be fine. I’m really looking forward to hearing how it goes after your trip!

    2. August 9, 2012 at 11:08 am

      Over the years I’ve come to travel carry on only for all trips shorter than two weeks long. It’s just so much faster and easier. I don’t have to wait around at baggage claim for my bag and more importantly, I don’t have to worry about lost bags. The funny thing is I’m such a hotly girl that no one believes I travel carry on only. One of these days I need to make of video of me packing.

      • Ali Garland
        August 11, 2012 at 8:47 pm

        People are always amazed that I manage to travel carry-on only. It’s all about deciding what’s essential and limiting what you allow yourself to bring. And I *love* not having to wait at baggage claim!

    3. Matt
      August 9, 2012 at 11:32 am

      Just because there are published rules does not mean the folks at checkin will abide by them. If you stay in the US, this is easy, but start spending more time flying around Europe and Asia and the bag you were planning to carry on may hve to go under. Always make sure at least one bag that you plan to carry on can if needed be checked. Its not often but it happens to me on maybe 1 in every 15 to 20 flights, most recently on a United flight from Amsterdam to DC, but I have had this on Singapore Air, Air New Zealand, and Qatar.

      • Ali Garland
        August 9, 2012 at 3:35 pm

        Wow, I’ve never had an airline employee make me check a bag that was clearly within the carry-on limits! It mostly happens to me when they have a low weight limit for carry-on bags and mine is over the limit. You’re right, it’s always good to make sure you have a bag you can put valuable things into in case you do have to check a bag you were hoping to take as carry-on. It’s not a perfect system, and unfortunately there are times when you’ll be forced to check.

    4. August 10, 2012 at 1:38 am

      Great tips. I always try to use just carry-on when I fly, not paying baggage fees means I can use that money to do something I really want. I have had to gate check the occasional bag on flights where I didn’t realize the overhead was too small for my bag. I have a hard suitcase, and a backpack would probably be easier to fit into those smaller overhead compartments.

      • Ali Garland
        August 10, 2012 at 5:20 pm

        Thanks Alouise! It’s hard to avoid checking 100% of the time, but attempting it gets me a really high success rate. If you have a flight on one of the regional airlines, they usually use prop jets which are smaller and have smaller overhead bins. When you’re booking a flight, it will usually tell you the type of plane, and if you’re not sure, check the flight number on seatguru.com.

    5. August 10, 2012 at 6:13 am

      That’s a great tip about putting smaller, heavier items in your personal bag! I never thought about the fact that the personal bag never gets weighed. I usually try to only take a carry-on, but I have tipped the weight limit a couple times. Luckily, though, I was with someone that had weight to spare.

      • Ali Garland
        August 10, 2012 at 5:22 pm

        Thanks Margaret! I usually carry a padlock in case I need to lock my bag up in a hostel, and I realized one time just how heavy that thing is, but it doesn’t take up much room. I think they just assume your purse or whatever can’t possibly weigh more than the limit, and I’ve never had that weighed. Although never say never!

    6. August 10, 2012 at 6:29 pm

      Packing only into carry-on also forces you to leave the unnecessary things at home, which makes travelling that much lighter and easier.

      • Ali Garland
        August 10, 2012 at 9:40 pm

        Exactly! I always find it easier to get around when I’m carrying less stuff. Thanks Jane!

    7. August 11, 2012 at 11:49 am

      That’s a good tip to check if there’s a weight limit for carry-on. Air Asia only allows 7 kg, and it turns out that my rolling carry-on weighs 3.5kg empty. I checked ahead of time and knew to switch to a duffel bag so that I could actually bring enough clothing.

      • Ali Garland
        August 11, 2012 at 12:47 pm

        Yikes, 3.5kg! Yeah, the weight of the bag empty is something people don’t often think about. I’m glad you checked ahead of time!

    8. August 13, 2012 at 1:35 pm

      We just travelled for 2 months with only carry on around Italy and Spain. So much easier than lugging huge suitcases. Great travel tips series!

      • Ali Garland
        August 13, 2012 at 3:56 pm

        I love how much easier it is to get around with less luggage! Thanks Cole!

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