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Best Guide to Traveling Only with a Carry-On (International & Domestic)

Updated March 18, 2024

I can’t count the number of times that people have been downright shocked that I only travel with carry-on luggage. I’m not sure if the surprise is because I’m a woman and how in the world I could possibly whittle my wardrobe down into one tiny case or if it’s people’s own disbelief that they don’t think they can successfully travel with less.

Well, whatever it is, I am here to tell you that it can be done, and once you’ve successfully kicked checked baggage to the curb, you’ll never go back! You won’t have to worry about standing in long luggage lines or dragging that thing all over town ever again.

You might be thinking, yea, but you’ve got a lot of practice. Yes, that’s true, but I didn’t always travel this way. There was a time when I thought that I had to pack 18 dresses, 10 pairs of pants, and 1,000 pairs of shoes for a week. But after ruining a bag (and my shoulder) after dragging it across cobblestone streets and almost not being able to get a bag in the luggage hold on a train, I decided that I needed to change my ways. 

My only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner. 

So, if you’re feeling like it’s time to shed some checked baggage weight, this guide is for you! I’ll have you traveling light as a bird with a carry-on only in no time (no matter if you’re traveling internationally or domestically). 

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How to Travel with Just Carry-On Luggage

#1 Make sure you have the right bag

When it comes to traveling light with just a carry-on, choosing the right bag is crucial. Look for a bag that meets the size requirements of the airline you’ll be flying with, as well as one that is durable and lightweight. The common carry-on luggage size for most major airlines is 22 inches (56 cm) long, 14 inches (36 cm) wide, and 9 inches (23 cm) deep, including the wheels, handles, and any external pockets.

It’s really important that you double-check with the airline before you go — some are more stringent with size rules than others. My carry-on bag is actually 24 inches long, and I haven’t had any problems with it, but I rarely travel budget airlines. That’s not to sound like a total fancy, schmancy snot, but budget airlines generally come with a whole host of restrictions and fine print. A cheap flight once ended up costing me over $1,000 to get home; after that, I’ve tried to avoid them like the plague. So, just keep in mind that they all won’t be as flexible with you if your bag is two inches too long. 

When you’re choosing a bag, look for one with multiple compartments and pockets to help you stay organized. Lastly, some people swear by hardtop bags; they generally aren’t my first choice as they aren’t as flexible. If the bag is a tight fit in an overhead compartment, it’s harder to smoosh a hardtop bag. I once had a conversation with an airline employee about the most problematic bags, and he shared that they find the hardtop bags are the ones that break at the zipper more frequently because of overpacking. The hard shell doesn’t have a lot of give, so it ends up putting a lot of stress on the zipper. Just something to think about if you’re going to try and force a lot in the bag. These three bags give you both options and are highly rated.

Overview
Size
Travelpro Maxlite 5
Lightweight
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Overview
Ultra lightweight & durable 21″ expandable four wheel spinner carry-on.
Size
23″ x 14.5″ x 9″ (includes wheels & handles), the body measures 21″
Samsonite Freeform
Sleek & Functional
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Overview
Lightweight, hard side, expandable 21″ four wheel spinner carry-on.
Size
21.25″ x 15.25″ x 10.0″ (includes wheels & handles), the body size is 19.5″
Travelpro Versapack
Easy Glide & Extra Storage
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Overview
Soft side, expandable 21″ four wheel spinner with external USB port and extra pockets and storage to help you stay organized.
Size
23″ x 15.5″ x 10″ (including the wheels and handle), the body measure 21″

#2 Maximize your personal item

In addition to the carry-on bag, you also get a personal item; hooray! A personal item is generally a small backpack, messenger bag, or briefcase-sized bag, and it must be able to fit under the seat in front of you. On average the bag should be around 18″ x 14″ x 8″, if it’s a little larger and not overfilled you shouldn’t have any problem getting it under the seat (my personal item is about 19″ long).

I have a medium size backpack that also acts as my laptop bag. I generally try to only stash an extra set of clothes and my toiletries in the backpack to keep it light. This way, the extra space gives me some room for dirty clothes or re-arranging items on the way home.  Just like with the carry-on bag, you need to always double-check the size restrictions with the airline. Some airlines will make you put the bag in a sizer before getting on the plane (again, this happens more with budget airlines than the big guys like Delta, United, Air France, etc.). If you’re looking for a chic personal item, check out these vegan leather travel bags.

Overview
size
Cotopaxi Allpa 28L
Best All Around
Latest Price
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Overview
Rugged backpack that is large enough for a long weekend. Can be carried as a suitcase or worn on your back. Features include:
– Rain cover
– Security anti-theft YKK zippers
– Two internal mesh compartments to stay organized
– Padded 15″ laptop & 10″ tablet sleeve
size
19″x12″x 9″
NOMATIC 14L Pack
Anti-Theft & RFID Storage
Latest Price
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Overview
Perfect for everyday use and weekend trips. Features include:
– Expansion zipper; expands from 14L to 21L
– Magnetic water bottle pockets
– RFID safe storage and anti-theft pockets
– 16” laptop sleeve 
– Luggage sleeve
– 22 compartments to stay organized
size
17.5″x11″x5.5″
BANGE 28L Travel Bag
Budget-Friendly
Latest Price
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Overview
Stay organized for a short trip on a budget! Features include:
– Clothing compartment that can fit can hold 5-8 pieces
– Small front pockets and a hidden back pocket
– Wet pocket
– USB charging port
– Separate 17” laptop compartment
size
18.5″×13″×7″ 

#3 Always confirm restrictions with the airline

I think it’s pretty clear from #1 and #2 that this is important, but it does bear repeating! In addition to size requirements, always check if there are weight requirements. I actually (knock on wood) have never had my carry-on bag weighed, but it can happen (if it’s overweight, move things to your personal item and double up on clothing).

If you’re oversize or weight, the worst that will happen is that they will make you check the bag. It will probably be a pretty expensive fee, but it won’t ruin your trip. 

#4 Have a packing heart-to-heart with yourself

Ok, now that you’ve got the bags figured out, you’ve got to fill them! But before you pull everything out of your closet, there are some important things you need to keep in mind when packing. Now I know this can be hard because you’re worried if you’ll have enough or you’ll have the right things, but I promise, it will always work out if you’re smart about it.  Here are a few packing rules to keep in mind:

Choose neutral colors

A stack of plain tees and a couple of pairs of jeans can get you far! Starting with a neutral deck will help you build a variety of outfits that you can dress up or down.  Darker clothing can also help hide stains if you happen to spill coffee or something and can’t get it washed right away. 

neutral clothing hanging on a rank in front of a blank wall

Pick clothes that can easily be worn in different ways

If it’s the summer, I will choose a couple of jersey dresses with pockets (they pack well), two pairs of pants, and a variety of tops that are generally cotton (again, they pack well). I try and choose things that can be really casual with sneakers or a little dressier with cute sandals or shoes. Also, pack accessories that can help you dress up an outfit if you’re concerned about having something fancy. 

Settle on two pairs of shoes (the ones you’ll wear & ones you’ll pack)

Yep, just two pairs of shoes, my friends! I always choose a pair of sneakers that are good for walking and possibly running if I have the time and one other pair of shoes. I try and be strategic with my walking/running shoes and choose a pair that are practical and cute so it doesn’t look like I just came from the gym (although there’s nothing wrong with that). 

When you’re choosing a carry-on bag, try and find one that has compartments for your shoes to make it easier to pack them. I don’t like just throwing my shoes on top of my clothes. Also, my backpack has a secret bottom compartment just for shoes — super handy!

#5 Roll, don’t fold

Folding your clothes in stacks is a space killer; rolling them helps maximize space and can even reduce wrinkles. Start by folding the item in half to create a long, narrow shape and then tightly roll it from the bottom. Pack all of the rolled items side by side, and if you have any sensitive fabrics, just lay them on top when you’re done. When you’re packing everything up, place jeans and heavier items at the bottom of your suitcase. 

clothes rolled tightly in a carry on suitcase to save space

#6 Consider compression bags

If you still need a little help maximizing space, try compression bags. There are a few different kinds of bags, some you place the clothes inside and roll them or use a special pump or vacuum to get all of the air out. I think these are most helpful if you have bulky winter clothes you’re trying to pack. I used one to pack my winter jacket to go to Iceland. Without the compression bag, my carry-on was a little too chubby for my liking, and I was concerned about zipping it. 

clothing inside of a compression bag to make it smaller

#7 Pack small items in your shoes

Get creative with your use of space! I always put socks in my shoes and other small items in the pockets of my clothing to make good use of space. When you roll clothing, you’ll probably also have a few small gaps that you can easily fill with underwear, socks, etc. 

#8 Utilize laundry services or hand wash

Many hotels have laundry options if you need to get things cleaned, or you can handwash items. I generally always opt for hand washing and just letting it air dry. Just make sure to time it correctly so you don’t have to try and pack wet clothing. These eco-friendly laundry soap sheets are also perfect for travel.

#9 Get rid of as many liquid beauty products as you can

Now that we’ve gone through your clothing, we’ve got to take a look at your beauty bag!

All of these products work wonderfully and travel easily in a carry-on, plus almost all of them are plastic-free — yay! A fabulous place to look for all of these options plus many more is Earth Hero — you can sort by vegan products, travel products, zero-waste, Black-owned brands, and more.

BONUS! Use Code VEGGIESABROAD to save 10% on your Earth Hero order!

liquid beauty products held up in peoples hands that you dont want to pack in your carry on

Shampoo & Conditioner Bars

I feel like either people are like, oh, tell me more about these magical bars, or are completely against the idea. To be honest, I really didn’t want to try them, but I am so glad that I finally gave in! Not only does it save a ton of space in my carry-on, but also a ton of plastic! I will say that shampoo and conditioner bars aren’t one size fits all or even most! You need to make sure you match your hair needs with the products. I’ve tried some that I hated, while most others are fabulous! 

A few companies to check out include Brixy and Ethique. I really like recommending Ethique because they have small sample boxes, so you can try multiple options, which is great when you’re just starting out with shampoo and conditioner bars but also ideal for travel! The little box easily slips into my makeup bag, and a tiny bar lasted me a month!

boxes of vegan shampoo bars created by the brand brixy next to a bar covered in suds on a pink tile background
Credit: Brixy

Face Wash & Scrub Bars

Whether you have oily skin (like me), combination, or sensitive skin, there’s a great bar product that you need to toss in your bag! For oily skin, check out Meow Meow Tweet’s charcoal facial bar. It’s also formulated with tea tree and eucalyptus, which can help banish blemishes!

If you have sensitive skin, check out their Pink Rose Clay bar. The combination of rose and pink clay help to gently exfoliate without irritating your skin.

If you need serious exfoliation, check out Ethique’s face scrub bar. These little bars are made with a natural mixture of sugars, volcanic rock, and ginger to give you a glow — Matt swears by them; they are the only ones he will use! 

Non-Aerosol Dry Shampoo

Extending the time between hair washes is essential every day but is really important when you’re traveling — who has time for hair washing? There are things to see! I’ve struggled with non-aerosol dry shampoo products, they just don’t seem to work quite as well as their aerosol counterparts, but I’ve found that Fat and The Moon’s dry shampoo and Trader Joe’s dry shampoo (Trader Joe’s is the best, isn’t it?) both get the job done when you’re on the road. Both are a powder that either you spritz on your hair (TJ’s) or gently shake (Fat and the Moon) over your hair. They can be a little messy if you’re not careful. 

black bottle of fat and the moon cocoa dry shampoo powder
Credit: Earth Hero

Solid Soap 

This is pretty straightforward, right? You don’t need a jug of body wash; just grab a bar! 

Toothpaste Tabs 

Toothpaste tubes are so passe! Kick the tube for eco-friendly and travel-friendly tabs! All you do is chew the little tab and start brushing; they work great. I’ve been using them for three years, and during that time, my dentist has said my teeth look great!

While we’re on the subject of teeth, is your floss vegan? After all these years, I didn’t realize ours was made with beeswax! Such a bummer, but no worries, there are bee-free options like The Humble Co., which works great. 

packet of unpaste toothpaste tabs with tablets coming out of the bag
Credit: Earth Hero

Sunscreen 

Don’t forget or skimp on this one — the sun’s ultraviolet light is not your friend! Whether it’s the dead of winter or a bright sunny day, you must protect your skin from the sun’s harmful rays. If you’re running out of room in your carry-on, this Bare Republic sunscreen stick is the perfect size to slide into your pocket and keep you covered until you can buy more in your destination.

If you have room, I also like their mineral sunscreen lotion — it’s oil-free, reef-safe, vegan, and cruelty-free. If you are going in the water, always check if the sunscreen is reef safe, or some will say that they are Hawaii Reef Compliant. There are chemicals in some sunscreens that are destructive to marine ecosystems. 

Moisturizing Balm 

If you’ve got dry skin, this moisturizing balm can help! It’s great to use on your hands, lips, elbows, etc. — especially helpful in the winter. Just rub it around to warm the balm, and you’re ready to go. What’s even better is that it comes in a compostable tube!

yellow tube of moisturizing balm from meow meow tweet
Credit: Earth Hero

Perfume 

Instead of liquid perfume, check out the wild world of solid options that can easily slide into even the smallest bag. My favorite one is Lush’s Karma perfume balm and there are a ton of handmade options on Etsy. I will also take my liquid perfume and spray my clothes inside of the carry-on before I zip it up to give it a nice boost before I go.

Don’t Forget to Save $$ On Your Carry-On Friendly Products!

Use code VEGGIESABROAD to save 10% on your next Earth Hero order! Aside from great beauty products, you’ll also find clothing, products for your home, and gifts!

Wrap Up Carry On Only Travel: More Tips

Now that you know how to effectively travel with just a carry on, you might need some other tips and tricks to plan the best adventure! Well, you’ve come to the right place. Check out these other guides and articles

Don’t Leave Home Without These Vegan Travel Tips
Must Book Vegan Travel and Tour Companies
Vegan-Friendly Caribbean: Resort & Island Guide
23 Vegan Travel Snacks to Pack for Your Next Trip
How to Spend One Day in San Francisco
TrustedHousesitters Review: The Pros and Cons from a Pet Sitter

About Author

Rebecca is the founder of the vegan travel company Veggies Abroad. In 2021, she bid her 15-year career goodbye and ventured into the world of ethical business with the launch of a vegan travel blog (the one you’re reading!). As the blog flourished, Rebecca expanded her vision to encompass personalized travel planning services and launched Veggies Abroad's inaugural vegan tour to Thailand, marking the beginning of many more eco-conscious, plant-powered adventures to come. Follow her adventures on Instagram or Facebook @veggiesabroad