The Art of Packing Light: How to Travel Carry-On Only for Digital Nomads
Traveling carry-on only will change your life.
1. Well, for one thing you don't have to wait in the unbearably long and sluggish check-in lines at the airport, or at the baggage carousel after your flight.
2. You save a ton of money over time on hefty checked bag fees.
3. If you don't check a bag, there's no chance that the airline will lose it. If you're from the U.S. like me, you're so used to the "the customer is always right" mentality, that you don't realize, some airlines simply don't give a fuck about your lost luggage and how quickly you need it or that you're alone with nothing in a new strange land (and that's where solid travel insurance and the Chase Sapphire Preferred card come in).
4. You simply don't need as much as you think you do. All of that stuff will start to feel like more of a burden than an asset, and you will quite literally feel weighed down by it.
It's much easier to say YES to opportunities for unexpected adventures when you don't have a ton of stuff that needs to be lugged around with you. Plus, without a checked bag, you'll often qualify for the lowest airfare which means you can literally get flights to other countries for less than $20. SCORE!
So.. you get it... traveling carry-on only is the way to go... but how?
Here are my travel ninja hacks for how to fit your entire life into one teensy bag.
It all starts with the travel gear...
- Choose a bag that weighs as little as possible - Now you don't want to go and buy a crap bag just because it's light as a feather (and about as durable) but you do want to take weight into consideration when purchasing your carry-on bag. If you're flying on a budget airline, odds are the carry-on weight allowance is pretty tiny, so you want to save as many of those precious pounds as possible for your actual belongings.
Also, make sure that the bag you select is well within the dimension limits for most airlines. More on this later, but if you're bag meets the size requirements without question, you can typically push the weight limits without getting called out, which is much more important.
I personally use (and love) the Samonsite Winfield Hardside Spinner.
- Organizational tools are your BFFs - Use items like packing cubes (I love these ones) and compression bags that not only help you stay organized, but that also help you maximize every square inch of space in your bag and that assist in keeping all of your belongings compressed.
- Choose your personal item with care. - Don't default to your handbag or a flimsy tote bag. Your personal item is the key to making this carry-on lifestyle work.
You want to opt for something that: 1) can hold a large quantity of items and 2) can bear a large quantity of weight in a non-obvious way. It's also helpful if the bag can be worn on your back, because it draws less attention to its existence from check-in staff and flight attendants.
My go-to travel companion is my PacSafe Metrosafe backpack. It can hold a surprisingly large amount of stuff, holds up well over time, and is equipped with a ton of extra security features so that your valuables are as safe as possible.
decisions, decisions... how to choose and pack your travel wardrobe
- Choose a color scheme that works for you and roll with it. For example, my base color for my wardrobe is black, and the only other colors that I wear are gray, navy, maroon, and olive with the occasional exception for a dress or romper. The trick is to pack clothing that can easily be mixed and matched so that you are maximizing the number of potential outfits you have with you, but limiting the actual number of items.
- Do some research on the place where you're headed before deciding what to bring. And no, I don't mean just checking the weather.
Nothing is worse than showing up to a new location excited to hit the streets rocking your carefully curated wardrobe only to realize that half of the stuff you brought will scream, "HEY, LOOK AT ME! I'M A TOURIST!"
Do some investigating into local fashion. Is it a more conservative country? Do people dress to impress or is it okay to be more casual?
You may be thinking, "I'm a queen, I'll wear what I damn want to", and you go girl! Own your power! Buuuut.... things are a little different when you're traveling, especially solo.
First impressions matter, and what you wear plays a big role in that. You don't want to make yourself a target and you also don't want to earn the disrespect of locals whose help you will very likely need at some point.
- Dress in layers. If you will be traveling in a variety of weather conditions, try to pack items that can be layered rather than clothes that are strictly for warm weather or strictly for cold weather.
For example, packing 1 leather jacket or a cardigan that matches all of your tops as opposed to 5 sweaters.
Dressing in layers is a good idea anyway because, in most places, the availability of AC and central heat means whatever the weather is outside, it'll probably be the polar opposite inside and so you may need to add or subtract a layer.
- Only bring items that you KNOW you love and have worn many times previously. If you don't wear it at home, you probably won't wear it abroad (a lesson I've learned all too well).
Don't bring anything that you aren't 100% comfortable wearing right now in this moment (i.e. "I'm going to Bali to find myself and become a health goddess, therefore I'm going to bring this bikini that's 2 sizes too small.")
Try on anything you are thinking of bringing beforehand and make sure that it meshes well with the rest of your travel wardrobe.
- Cut what you want to take in half... and then half it again. I only travel carry-on only and I still have felt like I have too much with me every single time (it's a learning process to get it down to a science).
This is a good general rule if you are packing for your first trip or are just a serial overpacker (as I was in a former life).
- Pack enough for one week. This is a good rule of thumb for knowing how much is "enough". Download this outfit planner to create a hypothetical week-long "clothing itinerary" for yourself and use that as a base to start determining what to bring with you.
You also may want to plan by context, meaning plan an outfit for outdoor trekking adventures, a temple outfit, a going out outfit, a workout outfit (and you better believe I've got a worksheet for that too! Grab it here >> )
- Leave the high maintenance clothes at home - Another lesson I've learned the hard way. There may be clothes that you L-O-V-E at home, but are more of a hassle than they're worth while abroad. For example, anything that requires special washing instructions, beyond tossing it in a laundry bag.
In my case, I quit packing anything white, because I’ve learned that I WILL find a way to stain it, which is all jolly good when I’m at home and have my arsenal of laundry tools, but not so good on the road where supplies (and heck, even washing machines) can be limited.
Before you decide what you want to wear, think about what you want to wash.
- Use accessories to add more variety to your look. This is one of my favorite ways to make my limited wardrobe more versatile. Throw a statement necklace or a scarf over a plain tank and BOOM you've got a whole new look. Adding accessories is an easy way to make the same clothes work from the gym to dinner out.
- Roll your clothes - While there's ongoing debate around if rolling clothes actually saves more space than flat-folding, there are a few things that are for certain:
- It helps you make sure that every inch of available space is maximized.
- It makes it super easy to find what you're looking for at a glance since items tend to be beside each other rather than at the bottom of a stack. and
- It helps clothes stay wrinkle and crease free.
- *One exception is heavier items like sweaters. I find that these are better off flat-folded than rolled.
- It helps you make sure that every inch of available space is maximized.
- Stuff your shoes and any other open spaces - Stuff smaller items inside of any open space that you can find, whether its's in your shoes or ______.
as for all of the other stuff...
- Buy toiletries after you get there. When you travel carry-on only you’re already limited to one quart size bag of containers no larger than 3.4oz.
But in general, there’s no need to pack any common toiletries besides those that you’d like to have with you in transit to your destination (i.e. toothpaste, deodorant).
You can always buy shampoo, conditioner, and body wash whenever you get where you’re going.
- Transfer your favorite beauty products to smaller containers. That being said we all have our "can't live without" products (helloooo Urban Decay Setting Spray). Transfer these products into smaller travel-friendly bottles to bring along with you. I save old bottles from products I've used up, but you can also buy them super cheaply on Amazon or most drugstores.
Also hit up Sephora - they'll give you a free sample of just about anything, so ask for your favorite products the next time you stop in and start building up an arsenal of travel size cosmetics.
- Say no to most "just in case" items.
When I was setting out on my first trip as a digital nomad I scoured the web and YouTube for every packing list I could get my hands on. I wanted to be totally prepared for any and everything.
Stupid idea. That rain jacket I bought? Trash. First Aid kit? Trash. (although I do recommend keeping a few bandaids on hand!). Sony Action Cam? Sold on ebay.
One exception (for me) is an umbrella. Though I rarely need to use it, I’m always so thankful it exists in those times that I do.
- Save space to buy clothes on the road - Odds are, when you get wherever you’re going, you might wanna do some shopping. But if you bag is packed to the gills before you even get there, you’re not going to have the space to add any newfound treasures to your wardrobe.
Clothes abroad (especially in Southeast Asia can be really cheap and super cute - 3 of my favorite rompers came from a market in Thailand for ~$6 each… not too shabby!). Even if you’re traveling somewhere more expensive like Europe, most countries have an H&M where you can cheaply fill in any gaps in your wardrobe.
Moral of the story: Never worry about packing to little clothing. Instead worry about packing too much.
At the airport
- Think light thoughts (and don't skip your shoulder presses) - Be sure to double check your airline's carry-on baggage allowance (both size and weight), and once again, it's critical that your bag is within the size limits. You don't even want your bag to look close to being too big.
This allows you to push the always-too-small weight limit.
As long as your bag doesn’t look too big, airlines will rarely stop you to actually weigh it.
The key is to make sure you don't look like you're struggling. Even if you're D-Y-I-N-G from lugging your backpack around, try and make it look light as a feather, and MAKE SURE that you have the strength to lift your carry-on bag above your head and into the overhead compartment.
Your back will hate you, but your wallet will love you.
*(unless, you do get called out, that is, because overweight baggage fees at the gate are no joke. In my experience, taking the chance has always been worth it but push the limits at your own risk! )
- Put heavier items in your personal bag as opposed to your carry-on. Because this bag is smaller, it's much less likely that airline workers will think twice about weighing it, and since it goes under your seat on the flight, you don't have to worry about being able to lift it.
- Wear as much as you can on your body - If you're tight on space, it's always a good idea to wear your biggest, bulkiest, most awkward items until you're checked in and safely cleared to board. For me this usually means my tennis shoes, a scarf, and a jacket.
You can also manage to get more on the plane by wearing a jacket or pants with big pockets or sporting a fanny pack (yes seriously, don't knock it 'til you try it).
And there you have it! My tips for traveling carry-on only for long term travel.
What are your favorite travel hacks for making more fit in less space? I'm always on the lookout for new tricks. Let me know in the comments below!