How to Travel Carry-On Only

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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!

It all started when I was planning a one week 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.

How to Travel Carry-On Only

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 out our chart listing carry-on restrictions for more than 150 airlines. The standard seems to be 22 inches x 14 inches x 9 inches (that’s roughly 55cm x 35.5cm x 23cm for those of you using metric), but certain airlines have bigger or smaller restrictions. If your bag measures an inch or two over on one side but is smaller on another side, it should be fine. Many airlines list a maximum allowed linear measurement to accommodate for this.

Also, if your flight is 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, although sometimes the airline will gate check your bag on 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. But always read the airline’s carry-on allowances carefully since some airlines do weigh your personal item.

On the Plane With Your Carry-on

how to travel carry-on only - big suitcase that is clearly not small enough
This is not carry-on size! Don’t even try to bring something that’s clearly over the limit.
If 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.

Looking for more packing tips? Check out this book about how to travel carry-on only. It’s written by another travel blogger, and I highly recommend the book.

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.

Carry-on luggage other Travel Made Simple readers have purchased:

carry-on chart luggage travelprocarry-on chart luggage briggs riley3-samsonite4-ospreyluggage scale6-gotoob


Read more about packing:

Carry-on only is a great way to travel. It can save money, you'll have less stuff to lug around, and no worries about lost luggage. Here's how to do it!