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A Million Mile Flyer’s Tips for Carry-On Travel, Including For Business (Part 2)

Last time we talked about how to travel with maximum efficiency (including how to stay healthy and not bring home unwanted pests), and this week we’re covering part 2: what to pack on your super-efficient travel.

A huge key to traveling efficiently is never checking bags, and instead sticking to carry-on luggage only. This will save you time before and after every flight you take, it will allow you to stand by on another flight if you run into delays or hiccups (you can’t stand by with checked bags), it will make your load manageable when navigating public transportation (or even just when dealing with the rental car shuttle if you’re not the public transport type), it will ensure you never overfill the trunk of your Uber or Lyft and it will avoid you having to put your bags on an upholstered surface (bedbugs!) because you’ve run out of hard surfaces in the hotel room. You’ll rarely see business travelers check a bag because they know how much less efficient it is to travel that way. But what about when we’re traveling for fun?

early-retirement-card - Copy

You know you’ve traveled too much when this is the card your company gives you at your going away party. Also when you know that a bunch of the “expert” travel advice in Up In the Air is totally wrong. ;-)

To cover all the bases, today we’re talking about how to stick to carry-on luggage only even if you’re traveling for work and need to pack a suit, and even if you then tack personal travel on top of that work travel. Even if it’s winter and you need heavy clothes! Because whenever I talk about carry-on travel, someone always says, “Well, you’re not packing a suit.” Which is sort of like when people say, “Well, of course you retired early. You don’t have kids.” You know, because everyone without kids retires early and finds it super easy to do so. But unlike all that financial stuff, packing in carry-on luggage only actually IS easy, if you stick to some core principles.

Let’s talk about what they are.

P.S. I refer to a lot of specific products in this post, but none of the links are affiliate links. If you decide to buy something here and want to kick a few pennies toward the operating costs of the blog, feel free to click first on one of the books on my resources page, and then click on the other products you wish to check out. But I have no desire to push you to buy things you don’t need, and so want to be clear that I have no incentive in suggesting these products to you. These are the things that I use and love after rigorous testing of many, many trips, and if they’re helpful to you, great! If not, great! :-)

A million mile flyer's tips for carry-on only travel, including business travel // Our Next Life // early retirement, financial independence, adventure, happiness // packing list, RTW travel, what to pack, carry-on packing list

Early retirees have flexibility to travel for longer than most people can, and the biggest excuse I hear when I see people schlep multiple suitcases around with them is, “We are gone for three weeks!” But here are two secrets:

  1. You don’t need more things for three weeks than you do for one week (or, really, for three or four days), and
  2. You can do laundry anywhere in the world.

Accepting those two principles already puts you on the road to never checking a suitcase again, but let’s go even deeper.

See Yourself As a Carry-On-Only Traveler

As those pursuing early retirement or financial independence will understand, the most important step to achieve carry-on only travel is all mental. You need to see yourself as someone who travels light. Someone who never checks a bag. Someone who’d rather be out living life than arriving extra early for every flight to allow time to check your bag and sticking around late to wait for that bag to come out at baggage claim.

Just like when you pay yourself first, you’re creating a set of parameters to make things easier for yourself, in this case that you will stick within your allotted space of a carry-on bag and nothing else. Or if you’re the budgeting type, think of it that way. Your carry-on bag space is your budget, and it’s your job never to exceed that.

Resolve right here and now if you need to that you’re a carry-on only traveler. Say it loud, say it proud!

Contain Your Stuff

If you travel more than never, here’s something that will happen to you: the TSA will see something in your bag that it decides to investigate further. They’ll pull your bag, take it over to a table and proceed to rifle through it, always starting as far as possible from the object that aroused their suspicion. They’ll proceed to take everything out of your bag, find said object, swab it for explosives, give you the all clear and then say, “You want me to put this stuff back in?” Which, of course, you do not want.

If your stuff is not contained within your luggage, you now have a massive mess on your hands, and the big task of repacking in time to catch your flight. But, if your belongings are neatly corralled in some type of containment system, repacking will be a breeze. Nothing will need refolding or risk getting wrinkled in the repacking. That’s one reason why I will never go back to packing without cubes.

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The other reason, of course, is that cubes make it so easy to find what you’re looking for so you never waste time rummaging through your bags, and they make it easy to pack. If you assign each cube a purpose, you’ll always know if you forgot to pack something to sleep in, or something to wear outside of work meetings. In my case, each cube has a job:

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When I get to a new hotel, I open my bag, toss the PJs and eyemask cubes on the bed, maybe hang up a few things that require hanging, and that’s basically as unpacked as I ever need to be.

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You don’t have to use official cubes, and can use whatever bags you have handy, but having specific cubes helps with never unpacking, as we discussed in Part 1, and it means spending zero time looking for things, because you know exactly where everything is. If you decide to spring for cubes, don’t pay full price! Sierra Trading Post (the TJ Maxx of outdoor and travel stuff) virtually always has them at a steep discount, including my favorites which are made by Eagle Creek, and if you sign up for their emails, you can get a 25% coupon any day you need one. The cubes will make another appearance shortly…

You’ll also want a good toiletry bag that will contain anything that spills. I’ve had a number of close calls over the years with oil bottles that have exploded in my bag, but thanks to my Sea to Summit silicone hanging toiletry bag, the mess has never gotten onto anything except other toiletries.

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I’m also a big fan of bags that hang because you don’t always have much counter space in hotel bathrooms, and if you’re in a hostel or pension with a shared bathroom, you might have to bring your stuff back and forth every time. So nice if it’s contained and can easily hang up on a hook. (Your toiletry bag doesn’t need to devote a big portion of its space to pain patches and KT tape like mine does, of course! But it should contain dry shampoo, which is a modern miracle.)

A million mile flyer's tips for carry-on only travel, including business travel // Our Next Life // early retirement, financial independence, adventure, happiness // packing list, RTW travel, what to pack, carry-on packing list

Simultaneously packed and unpacked. Just zip it up and go.

Choose the Right Bags

The next choice is what to use to contain all those cubes, as well as your regular stuff. If you’re baller enough to fit everything into a solitary bag, as Mark usually does, you may not need both a full-size carry-on and a “small personal item,” but I assume most of us need both. If for no better reason than your main bag will be overhead, and it’s handy to have things you want on the flight accessible at your feet. Let’s talk main bag first.

You have two main choices: a structured rolling suitcase of some sort, or a non-rolling bag like a backpack or duffel. I used to be in camp rolling bag, and when I was on that team, I would have told you to make sure your rolling bag had spinner wheels so you can push it instead of always dragging it:

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Now, however, I’m firmly in camp backpack, for a whole bunch of reasons:

1. It sounds counterintuitive, but carrying a backpack has hurt my back far less than pushing/pulling a rolling bag, I suspect because it’s more symmetrical, and because taking it off my back and putting it into the overhead bin is less of a lift than picking it up off the ground to do so. Other travelers have told me this as well.

2. Backpacks fit more easily in overhead bins of small planes like regional jets, so you never need to cabin check the bag and get stuck waiting on the jet bridge on the other end. My backpack usually fits in the personal item bin, unless it is packed to the gills.

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3. Backpacks fit more easily in all bins, for that matter. So you’re more likely to be able to squish it in the bin somewhere instead of being forced to check it. You can’t squish a rolling bag.

4. Backpacks weigh less, so there’s less total weight to heave up and down.

5. Backpacks hold more. Way more. Don’t believe me? Read on.

As for which backpack you want, I’ve tried nearly all of the bags called “travel packs,” which are generally between 40 and 45 liters, and the Gregory Compass 40 is my favorite by far:

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I love that it’s tidy on the outside (nothing for pickpockets to get into), the laptop compartment is the easiest to get into when the bag is fully packed of any pack I’ve seen, the compression straps keep the load strapped down but aren’t too technical looking, and it has an expandable foot locker should you accidentally lug home more stuff than you meant to bring. You might not love this pack if you need a water bottle pocket on the main pack (I always have my water bottle in my personal item bag), if you need a hip belt (it has a sternum strap but isn’t built for hiking miles), or if you want tuckaway straps (I’ve had them and never actually tucked them away, so decided that’s a gimmicky feature for me anyway).

But more generally, here’s what you want in a travel backpack:

  • Suitcase-style opening, so it unzips fully
  • 40-45L size (any bigger and you’ll make it miserably heavy, and might be told it’s too big to carry on)
  • Max dimensions of 22″ x 14″ x 9″ (carrier rules differ, but you’re mostly safe with those, especially because a backpack can squish if need be, unlike a suitcase)
  • Good solutions for the things you might need to access on the plane (like water bottle pocket not behind compression straps, as it is on most Osprey packs, and the laptop sleeve not impossible to use when the bag is full, as it is in an alarming majority of “traveler-designed” packs, because apparently these travelers never need to use a laptop while in flight?!). I’m partial to laptop against the back instead of in a front pocket, for security and for load balance.

Next up is the question of a small personal item, and this is something in the size range of a purse, laptop bag or smaller backpack. I’ve used several over time, and my three favorites are:

convertible-bag

The one I used the longest and still love. Overland Equipment bag that can be a shoulder bag or backpack with tuckaway straps, and which has a laptop sleeve and two water bottle pockets and is grownup enough to be fine in a client meeting. Overland Equipment seems to have ceased production, but Sherpani makes similar bags now.

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Pacsafe purse with laptop sleeve, water bottle pockets and a whole lot of metal mesh and other safety features. Can be either a shoulder bag or crossbody. 

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Small Timbuk2 backpack that’s my current everyday carry bag. My shoulders finally got mad enough at me for the shoulder bag to convince me to switch, so though I still love the Overland Equipment bag, this is my full-time bag now. It’s not perfect — it doesn’t stand up on its own, for example — but it’s well built and I’m happy with it overall. (If you buy Timbuk2, don’t buy on Amazon, which voids the lifetime warranty. Consult their site for a list of authorized retailers.)

What you use for your small personal item is up to you, but make sure it fits your needs, and is at least big enough to carry a water bottle, your tech equipment, the comfy things you might need on the plane like a travel pillow or jacket and some snacks. Ideally it’s also something you’ll be comfortable carrying as a day bag on your travels so you won’t need another item. No unitaskers when it comes to travel! And bonus points if it lets you be hands-free when you’re walking around, by going across your body rather than needing a hand to stay on your shoulder.

Wear Your Bulkiest Shoes and Clothes on the Plane

A big thing to consider when deciding what to pack is also what you can avoid packing, namely by wearing it on the plane. So though I often bring hiking boots when Mark and I travel to nature-y places, those things are bulky and I have zero desire to make backpack space for them. So I don’t. Instead, I wear them on travel days. Same goes for bulky clothes like jeans or the rare instances when we bring hoodies. Yeah, it might be a pain to take the boots off at security when flying back home to the U.S. (because I can keep them on when flying out and on any domestic travel thanks to Global Entry and Precheck), but it’s worth it not to have to pack them. And lots of countries aren’t even making you take your shoes off anymore.

Pack the Right Clothes

The bulk of what most of us pack for travel is clothing, so this one warrants some detail. Here is my core belief for clothing: everything you pack should be wearable multiple times in different ways for different occasions.

If you stick to that core rule, you’ll always be able to pack less than someone else might for the same length trip. For me, that means packing only black, white, gray and black-and-white clothing (which is 90% of my home wardrobe anyway), so everything goes with everything else. And if you can’t live without color, consider adding it in space-efficient ways, like with scarves, ties, jewelry or other small details rather than with your big items.

Here are some guiding principles to use when choosing what clothing to pack:

  • Monochrome is your friend
  • Pack only clothes that fold up to a small size (Sorry, snuggly sweaters. You’re for home and road trips only.)
  • Pack only clothes that don’t wrinkle much and don’t need ironing
  • Reversible and convertible items are your friends
  • Pack as few clothes that require dry cleaning as possible
  • Pack clothes that dry quickly
  • Bonus points if your clothes have travel-friendly properties like fibers that resist odor and let you wear them multiple times between washings

Just as I don’t recommend you go out and buy a bunch of stuff to start car camping, I don’t recommend you buy a whole bunch of new clothes for travel. But also… travel-specific clothes are great, and if you find yourself traveling a lot, you may find it worthwhile to purchase a few pieces specifically for this purpose. I have quite a few pieces from Eddie Bauer’s Travex line which can go several wears without a wash (Eddie Bauer stuff goes on 50% off sale around all the big holidays), Mark and I both pack underwear from Ex Officio’s Give-N-Go line which is easy to wash in a sink and dries in like five seconds, and most of my non-travel-specific clothing has some stretch to it, both because that resists wrinkles better and because it’s more comfortable to wear on a plane or train.

And one more tip: in the U.S., we tend to dress more casually than people do elsewhere in the world. You will never go wrong dressing slightly more nicely than you would at home. I’m not talking prom nice. Just pants when you might have worn shorts, black jeans instead of blue denim, a button-down shirt or polo instead of a t-shirt — that sort of thing. Dressing a little nicer than you do at home reduces how much you need to pack because you then only need one type of clothing instead of nicer plus casual. So it’s all in the interest of max efficiency.

The biggest thing we focus on when packing is clothes that multitasks, and here are some of our favorites:

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A light flannel shirt that can serve as a warm layer, a long-sleeve black polo that works for casual or nicer outings and a reversible sweater that looks like two different shirts

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Four technical tops, two of which can be casual or could go under a cardigan or suit jacket and be work-appropriate, and a non-technical top that works for business or pleasure

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A tube dress/skirt and a gray dress that reverses to black

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I have a black and white dress or two on me every time I travel. They can be dressed up or down, are appropriate for work with a blazer thrown over, and never wrinkle.

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Pick at most two of these to go in the bag, and one to wear on the plane. Black jeans are one of the best things you can travel with because they can easily dress up or down and be comfortable no matter what. And work-passable yoga pants probably don’t actually belong at work, but they can be nice for around-town travel and on the plane.

Following from only packing things that fold up small, focus on layers instead of big jackets when traveling to cold places. If you have a flannel or cardigan, a light down jacket with a rain jacket worn over it will take care of you in all but the coldest weather.

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A lightweight down jacket also doubles as a great airplane pillow. Just make sure the rain shell fits over it so you can use them as layers. Or choose a waterproof insulating jacket like the Patagonia Nano Air that I got for 60% off on Steep and Cheap. (It’s my favorite jacket ever for backcountry skiing. And it’s great for travel, too.)

If you’re traveling in the winter and feel compelled to add other bulky clothing, think layers there, too. Silk-weight long underwear will work under the other pants and shirts you packed, it will significantly add to your warmth and it takes up almost no space in your bag. Tights or leggings serve a similar purpose and look cute. And lightweight ski socks are warm without taking up tons of room in your bag.

Pack the Right Shoes

Shoes are another big ticket item in terms of space in your bag, so it’s worth being intentional about them. Here’s the deal: there’s almost no scenario in which you need more than three total pairs of shoes, including the ones you wear on the plane. So strive to figure out combos of three or fewer pairs that will work for any place you might travel. And if you can find a pair of shoes that takes up almost no space, then you can have a bonus pair.

I always have my ballet flats with me, because they fold up to almost nothing and will make me look decently dressed up in any setting. They are my bonus pair. So then it’s a question of what other pair or two to bring along. (Always in bags. Because you do not want shoe dirtiness to get on all your other stuff. Think about how airplane lavatories smell. All that funk is on your shoes.)

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Here are some potential combos:

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Formal work shoes, nice-ish flats, minimal sneakers for workouts and sightseeing

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Formal work shoes, nice-ish flats, comfy sandals that work with a dress but can handle lots of walking

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Sandals, nice-ish flats and trail sneakers, for a casual trip

We’ll talk a little later about a worst case shoe scenario, but just like with clothing, think about multi-tasking. Any pair of shoes that causes even the tiniest bit of pain has no place in your bag, because you won’t wear them enough to make them earn their spot. Any pair that can’t be worn to multiple types of functions has no place. And if you need different colors — say, black and brown — then your actual problem is the clothing you’ve packed, and if you can streamline your color scheme, you can eliminate shoes and other accessories like multiple belts.

When You Need to Pack Work Clothes

So here’s the big “Yeah but” sticking point. Sometimes you need to pack work clothes, and work clothes are so big and bulky, right? They can be, but they don’t have to be. And just like you pack the other clothes on the basis of what packs smallest, it’s entirely possible to do the same thing with work clothes.

For men who need to wear suits, the biggest thing to remember is that no one can tell one neutral suit from another, and if they can, that person seriously needs to get a hobby. So just pack one neutral gray suit that goes with any tie and black shoes (to avoid also having to bring brown shoes), pack a white shirt and then toss in a few ties. You’re set for multiple days of meetings, so long as you have a few undershirts. Or toss in another shirt to mix it up, perhaps a striped one you can wear without a tie. All of this will easily fit in a garment folder and won’t take up your whole bag.

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You can wear this every day with a different tie. Or, worst case, a different shirt.

For women, it’s even easier, because we have a lot more options than a suit jacket or blazer. If it’s appropriate to your job, you might pack a stretch blazer or two that won’t wrinkle and can go with all your separates. (I usually wear this blazer on the plane if I’m packing it to avoid needing an extra warm piece.) Or you can pack a cardigan and blazer that will go with all of your other pieces so you aren’t bringing any whole outfits with you. Packing full outfits is how you end up needing to check a bag, but going modular works for business apparel, too.

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Stretch blazers for less formal work functions (or pretty much every FinCon presentation I ever give), either of which could go over any top I pack or over a black dress

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A short cardigan, long cardigan and suit, all of which would work with any top or dress I packed

As for pants for work, life is a lot easier now that stretch is in most things. The assortment of work-appropriate stretch slacks is enormous these days (I’ve picked up several pairs at TJ Maxx), which will spare you time spent ironing in your hotel room. The black slacks in the upper left corner of the pants image above are nice enough to wear in formal client meetings but are comfortable enough to wear sightseeing. Perfect multitaskers that earned their spot in my bag. And they can be washed in a hotel sink and dry fairly quickly, which is a nice bonus.

If you’re looking at pants that market themselves as “yoga pants you can wear to work,” beware that those are often magnets for every bit of fuzz and lint you encounter, and your best bet is a pair with a slight sheen to them. That tiny bit of shine will make them look more formal, and it generally makes them less clingy, which is good for repelling lint. (I like this line for flattering, economically priced pants and skirts with stretch.) I also do the “work appropriate yoga pants” for flying and sightseeing, but I don’t recommend them for actual work settings. And they can definitely sneak into a nice dinner if need be.

So let’s say I have a work trip plus personal trip that adds up to three weeks total, and I need to be dressed pretty formally for the work portion, but can then kick back for the remainder. What do I pack? It’s a pretty short list:

  • Black suit jacket
  • 2 black and white dresses
  • Long black cardigan
  • Long sleeve black top
  • Sleeveless black top
  • Black and white sleeveless top
  • Black jeans
  • Black and white striped shirt
  • 1 t-shirt for hiking
  • Black skort for hiking and sightseeing
  • Black heels
  • Ballet flats
  • Sandals that can get wet
  • T-shirt and shorts for sleeping and hotel gym workouts
  • 4 pairs of underwear
  • 2 pairs of socks
  • Sports bra

And then I’d wear on the plane: jeans, gray technical top, stretch blazer, bra that goes with everything, warm socks (planes are cold!) and sneakers or hiking boots.

That’s 23 pieces of apparel packed, and seven items I’m wearing. 30 total pieces that cover all my bases, and which can all, with the exception of the suit jacket, be washed anywhere. Maybe add a bathing suit if you’re going somewhere beachy, or silk-weight long underwear and a lightweight down jacket if you’re going somewhere cold, but regardless, it’s still a short list of things that will get you through all scenarios.

For Mark, the list would be even shorter because he’d pack a suit jacket and slacks, a few dress shirts and ties, a pair of shorts, a few long and short-sleeve polo shirts, a t-shirt or two, a pair of work shoes and a pair of flip flops, and then wear a pair of jeans, a flannel shirt and his sneakers on the plane along with his jacket if it’s a cold time of year.

Other Things to Pack

Aside from clothing, there are a lot of other things folks will tell you you should pack, only some of which you actually need.

For example, sleep is critical, so pack whatever you need to sleep well in strange places. An eye mask and earplugs are essential in my view, so they warrant their own mini cube. (Despite my general disdain for the pink tax, these pink earplugs actually work way better for me than the default men’s version.)

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Electronics are also crucial for most of us, so the key is to bring only what you truly need. I always have some combo of the items below with me, but I usually bring only earbuds and not the bigger can headphones (I only bring those if I’m editing podcasts while traveling), and only bring the Zoom audio recorder in the upper left if I know I’ll need it. Otherwise it’s just the laptop brick, the multi-pronged charging cord (because plugs are in short supply and you can charge all your handheld devices off one plug or USB that way), my laptop, my backup power source, my Kindle Fire and my earbuds. All of that is remarkably compact and light.

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Aside from electronics, most of my small backpack space is consumed by everyday carry items, what the cool kids call “EDC.” And let’s get a little voyeuristic on this one, because what’s the fun of talking about what’s in my bag and not actually showing what’s in there? While I’m fairly minimalist in what I pack in the big pack, I’m anything but when it comes to my everyday items. I love paper and pens, probably too much, and I carry multiple different forms. Most of the small stuff around the periphery I’d carry regardless of my paper love, but all the big items are thoroughly unnecessary. There’s the big paper planner. The separate notebook with a pen and pencil clipped to it, the case of three additional fountain pens and the bottle of fountain pen ink. Oh, plus the small purple notepad and pen below the wallet on the right side. You could subtract all of that and be fine, maybe minus a pen. But I always carry with me a set of bamboo cutlery so I can avoid disposables, a microfiber hand towel for the same reason (and because bathroom hand dryers are as gross as airplane water) and a small slew of personal items and snacks.

Everyday-Carry

Some of those little items are prescription sunglasses, lip balm, floss sticks, alka seltzer (aspirin plus antacid = miracle for most things), a hair clip, disposable toothbrushes for emergencies, a deodorant wipe, nail clippers, wet wipe, vitamin C packet, electrolyte packet (specific to my medical needs) and some snacks

For air travel, I add a few things, namely a pashmina (fake, obviously) which can be a pillow, blanket or wrap, an inflatable pillow that weighs next to nothing and also comes backpacking with me, and a second water bottle, because we’ve already talked about airplane water and a liter might not be enough for a long flight.

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For international travel, I lose the big planner and extra pens and swap out my usual wallet for an RFID-blocking passport wallet.

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And then depending on the trip, I might bring a few other odds and ends as well, like the small convertible purse that I often prefer over a big bag for non-travel days, the pointing picture book for countries where we have zero grasp of the language and need to be able to convey things like dietary needs, a headlamp and water purifier for backcountry travel (or just sketchy lodging, like one place in Taiwan), a folding backpack to use for hikes, bamboo odor absorbers to stick in shoes for more active trips, a money-hiding belt, an immersion water boiler, a sink sealer and clothesline for laundry, a multi-plug adapter, a voltage adapter (and maybe a grounding adapter, for countries like Japan with our two plugs but no bottom ground plug), an umbrella, a full-size travel towel for hostel travel (or when I don’t want to stain someone’s white towels red from my hair), shade sleeves for sunny hikes (lighter and cooler than carrying a long sleeve shirt), a paracord bracelet and a mini duct tape roll. There’s virtually no trip in which I’d bring all of this stuff, but a few items generally come with me on any given trip.

Possible-Addons

If you travel enough, you might find it worthwhile to have mini versions of key items you use for travel. You have to buy toothbrushes anyway, so buying a folding travel version is no big deal. A mini hairbrush is awfully nice to have given how bulky brushes can be. And that tiny soap box saves me from having to lug a full-size one but eliminates wasting all those bars of soap you use once or twice at a hotel and then toss.

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And, of course, if you take any medications, pack those and bring extra, preferably in your original prescription bottle. I generally pack at least three extra days, just in case, and by keeping it in the original bottle, you will have an easier time should security or customs questions arise, or should you need to get more at a foreign pharmacy.

Don’t Pack the Wrong Things

We’re 5000 words deep on what you should bring, but there are also some things that should absolutely stay at home. Including:

Clothes that need dry-cleaning. Suits don’t count because they can be worn many times, but you also should only bring a suit if you truly need it. Otherwise, lean heavily on clothes that can be laundered normally.

Big noise-canceling headphones. Are they nice to have? Sure. Are they expensive? Yep. Do they take up way too much space in your limited carry-on space to justify their existence? You bet. Expensive space hogs don’t deserve a spot in your bags. If you’re a business traveler doing mostly trips to a single destination, then bring them if you like them. But if you’re switching locations multiple times on your trip, you’ll be annoyed at having extra bulky stuff to lug.

Unitasking equipment. Sometimes it bears repeating, but hiking is walking. Unless you’re cramponing up a glacier, you can probably wear the same shoes and clothes to go for a hike as you’d wear to walk around a city. (I wear hiking boots because my feet are messed up and need more support, not because I think you need hiking boots for all hikes.) You also don’t need a technical backpack just because you step off pavement. And you don’t need to reserve work clothes for work only. Wear those work clothes for sightseeing and meals, and watch how much nicer your treatment is than if you were wearing shorts and a t-shirt.

More underwear than you can wear in a laundry cycle. If you bring enough clothing to get you through five or six days before having to do laundry, then there’s no point in bringing 10 pairs of underwear. Match your underwear to your laundry needs.

Anything a luxury magazine or travel site says “all savvy travelers need.” They’re just trying to sell you stuff. Ignore them. All travel pillows are crappy, suitcases that charge your devices are just suitcases with a $30 power brick attached that somehow makes the price double, and that magical face spray that Gwyneth swears by at the end of a long flight will get used once. You don’t need any of that stuff.

Anything you don’t use for two consecutive trips. If you bring something with you and consistently don’t use it, then toss it out of your bag. Decluttering is not only for your home, but also for your luggage.

Anything you can’t bear to lose. Though the world is generally safe, things happen. Don’t bring keepsake jewelry with you that you can’t bear to be without. Or a laptop that isn’t backed up anywhere. Everything that comes with you should be something you could replace or live without.

If you’re worried you might miss something, remind yourself: you can buy almost anything anywhere. Though it took half a day to find it, we even managed to procure deodorant in Taiwan. Better to travel light than to bring everything you might possibly need. Being without a few things forces us to be resourceful, which builds character and might also build some MacGyver skills. Pretty great side effect.

Plan for Food Fails

While you can buy food everywhere, you can also have a food fail everywhere, so be sure to plan accordingly. First, always have snacks on you. If I’m traveling domestically, I always carry at least one full meal’s worth of food, preferably non-sugary things that won’t just make me hungry again in five minutes. If I’m traveling long-haul, I bring two full meals’ worth. Because remember: even if you request a special meal on a long-haul flight, that’s no guarantee it will be there. I’ve been in first class on flights that promised breakfast only to have them say, “We don’t have catering at this airport.” Mistakes happen. Plan for the mistakes so you’re never hungry. Of course, if you’re hard to feed, as I can be, then bring extra. And pull it out of your bag before you go through security so they don’t rip your bag apart.

The Great Carry-On Luggage Experiment

For years I was skeptical that a backpack could possibly carry more than a suitcase, so I decided to put it to the test. Let’s settle this once and for all…

In our suitcase vs. backpack battle, we have the worst case scenario for packing: work and non-work clothes, a suit, four pairs of shoes, gear for hiking and international travel, a hair straightener because you gotta look fly for your meetings, and a big camera. That’s a lot of stuff! And we have two standard-sized carry-on bags that both just about max out the carry-on item sizer in their capacity.

A million mile flyer's tips for carry-on only travel, including business travel // Our Next Life // early retirement, financial independence, adventure, happiness // packing list, RTW travel, what to pack, carry-on packing list

In this worst case scenario, you just need a lot of shoes, because you’re going to formal work meetings, casual work meetings, the beach and the mountains. Totally likely, right?

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Waterproof EVA Birkenstocks, flats, formal heels, hiking shoes (to wear on the plane) and cute sandals for the beach

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Packed up they look like this

Let’s see how much the backpack holds.

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The backpack is big and heavy at this point, but it still closes and it will still fit in an overhead bin. Maybe not the overhead bin of a regional jet, but still a regular mainline aircraft bin.

Now let’s look at the suitcase.

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With the suitcase, we’re at capacity before the underwear, folding backpack, voltage adapter or camera have even made it in. That’s a lot of stuff we now have to find room for in our small personal item!

So now it’s clear: the backpack wins by a long shot. 

Of course, you won’t usually need to carry that much stuff, and with a more reasonable amount, your pack will be lighter and the rolling bag will work just fine.

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But if you’re in the market for a new travel bag, and you’re able to carry a pack, consider joining team backpack.

Your Turn!

Okay friends! Share your thoughts! What did I miss? What do you disagree about? What’s one thing you can’t live without while traveling that I didn’t mention here? Or a travel strategy I haven’t covered in this post or Part 1? Let’s dig into all of it in the comments!

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108 replies »

  1. Wow, monster post! The Eagle Creek bags are money, they also have other modular packing systems for more technical outdoor gear. Another brand you have that crosses over into the outdoor gear world is Sea To Summit, and I use their stuff sacks religiously when I go on climbing trips. Same principal, I have one for socks, one for waterproof gear, one for climbing slings etc.

    I guess I’m way more organized in my packing life than I am in my life in general ;)

  2. Hi Tanja,

    Thanks, this is great!! I’m wondering where you go your nice-looking tops that are also made with technical fabric? I seem to always have trouble finding that sort of thing (especially here in Europe, but that’s another issue…).

    I also noticed you didn’t show a small ziploc baggy with liquid items… is that not required anymore with TSA Precheck? If you do use one, do you move items back and forth between the ziploc and your normal toiletries, or do you keep them separate? I always seem to struggle to keep that aspect organized (e.g. if my toothbrush is in my toiletry kit but my toothpaste is in my ziploc, I usually end up moving the toothpaste back and forth during the trip).

    I already follow the three-shoe rule, although I never really explicitly thought about it that way, because it makes me so mad when shoes take up all the space in my luggage :P. So many good tips!

    • Hi Sarah! Most of my technical tops are Eddie Bauer, and I keep buying more, so that means I’m happy with them. :-) I’ve stopped doing the separate baggy for liquids because, at least in the U.S., they have upgraded the scanners and no longer freak out about liquids left in the bag, even though they still talk about pulling them out. And when we’ve traveled abroad, we’ve mostly found that other countries are fine with you leaving them in. Worst case, I just pull out my big toiletry bag and put it in a bin, and no one has ever challenged that. I do own this bag, and would put liquids back in there if they ever tighten back up on that rule: https://www.containerstore.com/s/bath-care-cases/d?productId=11002161. :-)

  3. Great tips! My packing has gradually gotten sloppy over time with regards of what to bring. I’ve gotten pretty tired of the work travel and much of my travel is now in driving distance, so it’s made it very easy to toss whatever I think I’ll need into a big orange suitcase and throw that into the car. So since that has become the habit, I’ve started taking a big suitcase with me and checking a bag so I don’t have to confront living in a Willie Nelson song until the last minute. This post is a good reminder to tighten everything back up. And I’m definitely looking into getting a backpack carry on because my current one stinks.

  4. I mostly agree this time except the headphones (I say
    Mid 2nd week of business trip in some non descriptive Marriot property in Rhode Island.

    The one thing I might say with bags. I alternate between rollerboard and duffel. It comes down to my airline boarding group. If I’m forced onto something with no status like this trip my stuffs in a duffel as there’s always space onboard for a duffel, rollerboard not so much. If I’m flying with status, last week for example, it’s rollerboard since I’m early boarded enough to guarentee some overhead space for the bag.

    I use cubes for vacation travel with kids. Business travel I go with the roll clothes method. That be down to a function of how light I usually pack on my own.

    • You’re allowed to disagree! ;-) I was thinking after the last post and your comment that I also might not like them because I have a bunch of piercings and that makes my ears get soar after wearing on-the-ear or over-the-ear headphones for too long. So obviously there’s a big role in all of this for personal preference!

      For a while I was toggling back and forth with bags, but eventually realized how annoyed I get when I have a rolling bag because I can’t run for a flight, I can’t get around everyone waiting on the escalator and it ends up hurting my back more to push the bag asymmetrically. But again, your choice!

  5. It makes me so happy that you also travel with your insulated Klean Kanteen. I bring mine with me everywhere I travel so I can make tea in the morning and keep it hot. (I thought I was a weirdo for doing this). I’ve also travelled with my own kettle before but that’s for rare occasions when tea facilities are not ideal where I’m going lol

    • Oh dude, I love that bottle! ;-) It comes everywhere with me. I once bought Mark one, and the very first trip we took, he left it at the airport. (Noooo!) But then — this is hilarious — a few months later, I found one at THAT SAME AIRPORT that someone else had left behind. I have personal experience with the lost and found there, or I would have turned it over to them, but since I know they just toss things (or take home what they like), I brought it home to Mark, and now he uses his every day too. Hahahahaha. (I know it was a different one because it has a mostly rubbed off corporate logo on it.)

  6. Wow. Tons of great tips here! It’s all about fast and light! I traveled for two weeks in Europe last year and got everything in a 35L carry on bag. Every time I saw people with huge suitcases and backpacks that weighed more than the people carrying them, I just smiled. Could have easily traveled for months with my set up.

  7. Epic post! I’ve never thought about bringing a microfiber towel for hand drying as I tend to use my shorts/shirt/pants since “my hands are now clean right?” :)

    I am checking a bag for Fincon but that’s mainly so I can bring local beer to the beer party and if I bring the banjo, well, that’s no carry-on. :) The rest of it makes me think I can pack strategically and get away with a carry-on though since it’s FL, and I shouldn’t need boots, jeans and that sort of thing. If I just use my running shoes as regular shoes for 3 days, well, now I’m just down to flip-flops and they don’t take up space.

    Oh and the first time I traveled overseas my bag NEVER showed up. I spent the whole 8 days in my one travel outfit (new underwear purchased of course) and my messenger bag. It was actually pretty freaking awesome!

  8. I’m a big fan of big 40L backpacks because I can fit everything I need for weekend trip into the one bag. And it’s far easier to navigate an airport with kids and your hands free, something that’s hard with a roller. Sometimes I feel a *little* bad when I use overhead bin space for what appears to be a backpack because it’s so full I can’t fit it underneath the seat in front of me.

    This is a great post by the way, extremely comprehensive, will there be a 3rd? :)

    • Team 40L Backpacks! Woot. And YES to hands-free. That’s worth re-stating. HANDS-FREE. And you should never feel bad for using the bin space that you paid for. If anything, you should feel less bad because your backpack takes up less space than other bags. ;-)

      And I’ve now written almost 10,000 words on travel, so I think I’ll put this subject away for a little while. Haha.

  9. Wow, what a fantastic post and very timely for me. Is your Sea to Summit hanging toiletry bag the small (9″x6″x3″) or large (10″x9″x4″) size? And do you find the hanger to be large enough to hang on a shower rod? I’ll be getting some shoe bags after reading this post too. I own and love the eBags Ultralight Packing Cubes. Usually they’re on sale. https://www.ebags.com/product/ebags/ultralight-packing-cubes-ultimate-packer-7pc-set/309407?productid=10408198

    I was a former backpack lover until developing neck and shoulder issues, so now I use the Osprey Ozone 22 carry on rolling bag. It’s super lightweight and easy for me to lift into the overhead bins. Just went to the site you mentioned and found it on sale! I’ve never seen it on sale anywhere before! https://www.steepandcheap.com/osprey-packs-ozone-22-carry-on-bag-2807cu-in-osp003p?skid=OSP003P-SUMBL-ONESIZ&ti=UExQIENhdDpMdWdnYWdlOjE6MTI6c2FjQ2F0MTAxMDAwMDQ=

    • I have the large Sea to Summit bag. And no, the hook will not fit on a shower rod, but it will fit on most towel rods, back-of-door hooks, etc. I’ve never been somewhere where I couldn’t hang it on something! ;-)

      For me, switching to the backpack helped my back and neck, but you have to listen to your own body! If the Ozone works well for you, then great! I was also swayed by the fact that no rolling bags fit in regional jet overhead bins, and now flying through a smaller airport I get stuck on those little RJs a lot. If you’re mostly on full-size planes, then there’s no issue. :-)

    • Another toiletry bag to check out is Thirty One’s Timeless Beauty Bag. I do not work for them! I got mine on clearance for $7! Instead of having a hanging hook, it has a strap that attaches to itself by snap. I’ve found it to be far more flexible for hanging from various things…I can hook it around the shower rod, door handles, light frames, chair backs, and more. It is also waterproof (what’s inside won’t get out). I’ve tried several kinds with hangers and find the strap-and-snap enclosure to be more flexible. :)

      • Thanks for this recommendation! I agree the snap strap design is more flexible. Looking at that model, the thing I’d be concerned about is that the individual panels don’t breathe, so you might get condensation or mildew building up there if you put things away wet. I appreciate that the Sea to Summit is waterproof as a whole package, but within it, the panels all breathe and water can evaporate. That’s just my preference, though, and it sounds like it’s not an issue for you!

  10. Many thanks for this very helpful post Tanja. I especially like that you have mentioned exact styles of items you use.
    We are going away to Europe for 6 weeks shortly and I’m going with carry on only. Will be a challenge for me. Especially as we are going to areas ranging from London to Barcelona. I’ve been doing a few practice runs of packing.

    I keep gravitating to the New Zealand travel clothing from Icebreaker which is very light weight merino wool. Luckily they have 30% off sale at the moment. I will do definitely be taking a roll on bag. My back couldn’t take lugging a back pack round. I’m also taking a money belt. Another thing I’m taking 4 pairs of shoes if I take some ballet flats, sandals, light weight walking shoes and red Allbirds shoes. I would also take a luggage scale with me.

    Thanks once again

  11. My husband and I travel internationally several times a year and we are complete converts to only traveling with backpacking backpacks (I have an Osprey 60L and he has a Gregory 70L). They fit in overhead bins and can be compressed and squeezed down with the various cords and pulls they come with, but they can also be expanded to fit souvenirs (like when we bought a queen-sized alpaca wool blanket in Ecuador this winter). They each have a top part that comes unbuckled and can be used as a daypack/personal item (which usually goes under the seat in front of us with overnight/long haul flight essentials). They’re super easy to carry and just the best luggage option for our needs.

  12. My spouse and I travelled Europe on 3 separate trips for 3 weeks each. We each had 1 very small carry on and a small backpack. Backpack was for 220 power converter, electronics – (iPad, cell phone, small earbud head phones), passports, healthy snack food, small book and limited liquids. I person could carry all baggage if necessary.

    Point is you really don’t need much when you travel….

  13. Great article! We converted to Osprey Port 46 backpacks a couple of years ago. Backpacks allow you to run to make that connection and never get asked if it fits in the required sized bin.

    Do you have any suggestions on how to find water on international trips? We bought Sawyer squeeze water filters so that we can use restroom facets to grab water when the country lacks fountains and spigots (I’m looking at you Europe!). I hate the cost and environmental cost of disposable water bottles.

    Have you or anyone else tried the Aviator brand travel jeans?

  14. I always love a nice gear post. I haven’t seen a luggage vs backpack photo comparison to prove that a backpack is better. Very nice! I’ve been trying to convince Mrs. Saturday to go backpack only since I think they’re easier for all the reasons you said, but she tries to convince me the other way to the luggage with the swivel wheels. Haha. Love the details though! Especially from travel pros like you guys. :)

  15. Really great articles that I will use for future reference.
    What about getting your toiletries bag (and ink!) through security? I pretty much ditched the toiletries bag when the requirement for only small toiletries in ziplocks began.

    • Great question! Most places in the world aren’t requiring separate baggies anymore, and with Global Entry or Precheck, you don’t have to pull that stuff out, so I’ve stopped doing the “3-1-1” ziploc. But, I also own the larger of these two bags and use it if I don’t have Precheck on a trip: https://www.containerstore.com/s/bath-care-cases/d?productId=11002161. (It fits a bit more than a ziploc, is much more durable, and has never been questioned as being too big.)

      There was a time when I made an effort to avoid all liquids, even buying solid shampoo and conditioner bars and experimenting with homemade lotion bars, but it’s just not necessary anymore if you have trusted traveler status. Even in the regular security lines, the scanners have gotten better and they don’t freak out about toiletries left in your bag. They’ll only flag your bag if you have a full water bottle or something. Hope that helps!

      • Totally helpful! I just got Global Entry and forgot this issue goes away. Also, in my Asian travels recently, I did notice that about liquids, but wasn’t sure about the consistency across countries.

        I had totally parked my brain in only plastic bags for toiletries, so this is very liberating (as one can only experience liberation in travel geekery).

        • Welcome to the other side! Global Entry will change your life, or at least your experience with airport security. ;-) Hilarious side note: in super high-tech Japan, I accidentally carried water through security in my water bottle, and their high tech test to see if it was okay was to… sniff it. With a human nose. Hahahaha. So yeah, other places spazz about this stuff way less than we do in the U.S. Absolute worst case, anyone who requires you to put your stuff in a plastic baggie will provide said baggie, and you can make the switch in the security line. This will happen so rarely that it will be worth doing in the interest of not dealing with ziplocs on a regular basis. :-)

  16. Okay I freaking LOVE that reversible dress! At the point I’m buying clothes again, I think I may need to search out one of those. And I want to reiterate the laundry point, which is why we most often travel via Airbnb and the like. We’ll have breakfast and/or dinner and the house and do laundry then. No extra time being “stuck” doing laundry, but it means we can pack a whole lot less! Especially important with a kid that can get covered in dirt from head to toe in two seconds flat 😉

  17. You have some super sensible and practical travel advice here – and kudos for not blatantly promoting your affiliate links! I’m an American expat living in El Salvador (with an eye to early retirement there as well) but I still have business in the States and I travel back and forth between the two countries monthly. A few comments from my perspective:

    Another benefit I’ve found to using pouches for your ‘stuff’ : It makes immigration and security inspections (particularly in a 3rd world country) go much more smoothly and they will respect your belongings as well. Instead of rooting through a pile of of stuff in your bag they unzip one pouch, look at whats in it, zip it back up and go to the next one etc.

    Most times I will just travel with what I can fit in my backpack – but if I have business travel I don’t use a backpack. The straps will ruin the padding on your sports coat or blazer and sartorially I just can’t handle the backpack straps scrunching up what should be a nicely fitting blazer. I have a nice duffel bag with handles that I much prefer.

    Looking forward to more of your posts!

    • Thanks! And great point about the pouches and cubes. There is no downside other than that you have to purchase them initially. But then they last forever and pay for themselves many times over.

      The easy way to get around the backpack straps issue is just not to wear your suit or blazer on the plane. ;-) But what matters is that you have a system that works for you, which it sounds like your duffel bag does. :-)

  18. You mentioned toiletries leaking and putting them in a leakproof bag but no mention of how you handle moving the the carryon liquids to a ziplock bag for tsa

    • Good question! The real answer is that I don’t move anything for TSA, because with Global Entry, I’m always in the Precheck line, and they don’t make you separate that stuff. And even when Precheck is closed, I’ve found that they no longer care much about liquids in small amounts being left in your bag, only large liquids like a full water bottle, and are much more focused on electronics coming out. The scanners are better than they used to be and can tell what’s what between liquids and gels. And other countries have generally not made us pull that stuff out or take our shoes off, so it’s more like Precheck for all. In the past, I had a reusable clear zipper bag I used for liquids (and also made a point of carrying fewer of them then) which I stashed in the top of my backpack, and then I’d join it up with the other toiletries when I arrived at my destination.

  19. Awesome post. Checking a bag doesn’t even live in my vocabulary and I’ve convinced my wife that it’s either carry on or she doesn’t get to tag along! I would bet that I could get all of your cubes in my Briggs & Riley compressible spinner ;). And I love my Tom Bihn backback with a HUGE kangaroo pouch. Curious how you manage with both the big backpack and smaller backpack. I could easily see one, but not both. For that I like the spinner. I’m slightly obsessed with the optimal setup, and there were several new tips here. Thx. I bet on some level that you miss the executricks of your past travel. Would there have been a magic number for you and Mark to have extended another year in the corporate jobs that you were both obviously good at? Another $1m each for another 12 months?

    • But could you get all the cubes and the shoes and the big camera? ;-) I tried hard and it just wasn’t happening. My big backpack is narrow enough that I can throw the small backpack over my shoulder, cool high school kid style, and still be mostly hands-free. Or if I need to run for a plane, then I strap the small one on the front, hostel traveler style. ;-) It’s not amazing, but my body is much happier using a backpack for everyday carry vs. a purse or shoulder bag. And yeah, I do miss traveling a bit. Not every week and not 6 AM flights, but I’d be happy traveling more than we do now. As for a magic number, we do you mean how much longer would we have had to work to travel more? Or… ?

      • On the magic number (which might be better described as an IQ test) ;). Would there have been a ridiculous offer from your network that would’ve kept you getting up at 6am and doing another year or two … mostly on your terms?

        • Oh oh oh! Got it. Nah, we didn’t really think about that because we knew we wouldn’t get offers like that. ;-) But theoretically, it would have required an assurance that I could fly first class for the rest of the time. Hahaha.

  20. Whoa, I’m gonna have to read this again to fully process. Thanks for the comprehensiveness. I joined Team Backpack last year for all of the reasons you mentioned. I love it – except that I haven’t figured out a good way to deal with my personal item, a small backpack that holds my laptop and wallet. Do you wear both your backpacks?

    I also love the window into your EDC. I carry my Moleskine notebook everywhere but also take notes on my phone. A portable Bluetooth keyboard has been my newest favorite gadget. Have you used one? I like that I can do emails and write on the plane without getting out my laptop. I also have one of those Swiss army type gadgets without a blade that gets used every trip. I’m sure I’ll be Amazon-stalking a new set of gear when I reread this post!

    • No lie — the double backpack situation is not ideal. But it’s worth it to have a real backpack for my daily outings. I throw one strap over a shoulder, or if I have to run for a plane, I strap the small backpack on the front, which looks dorky but lets me be hands-free. The shoulder bag or a crossbody was better for air travel, but I paid the price the rest of the time. And on EDC, I love people who always have notebooks on them. :-) I haven’t done the Bluetooth keyboard because my laptop is pretty tiny and is easy to slip out of the bag, but I can definitely see the utility of them! I have an old version of the Nite Ize Doohickey (https://www.amazon.com/Nite-Ize-DoohicKey-Stainless-Attachment/dp/B00N24X5MQ) that seems to get through security with no problem, but I’m hesitant to carry more than that because if it looks like a swiss army knife, they’re likely to pull my bag to verify there’s no blade, and I don’t like giving them a reason to hold me up. But if you’ve had no problem with it, that’s great!

  21. Yeah, the awkwardness of front and back carrying has not been experienced by me since the end of the babywearing days. I’ll be the one running through the airport lopsided and trying not to trip over my backpack straps. Mine has nice carry handles at least: https://www.amazon.com/Fjällräven-F24203-Fjallraven-Totepack-No-1/dp/B00G501H9M.

    I have an older version of this tool: https://www.amazon.com/Gerber-Dime-Multi-Tool-Black-30-000469/dp/B006M9NIDO. I get some weird looks but if I unfold it and extend all of the parts before putting it on the belt, it’s obvious that there’s no blade. No issues yet and it doesn’t take any longer than an extra glance from the TSA agent.

    • I’m glad that bag works for you. Those straps are even skimpier than the Overland Equipment bag I used for years (which also has a shoulder strap, so is very versatile), so my shoulders wouldn’t be happy with me. :-) Have you tried taking the Gerber tool overseas? That’s where I’ve had the most stuff confiscated, even if it was totally allowable. Nail clippers, tweezers, tiny scissors… completely normal stuff.

      • I’ve only traveled internationally to the UK with it, but it wouldn’t surprise me if other countries were stricter. There is variability within the US as well, but the worst I’ve gotten is a bit of side eye. One TSA agent asked where he could get one.

        • People forget that TSA agents have total discretion on this stuff, and they can take something away just because they feel like it. Same for security agents overseas. My favorite was right after 9/11 when a security agent in Germany took nail clippers from me (just normal nail clippers) and said, “Your president said I must do this.” I found it so hilarious I didn’t argue. But yeah, that explains my wariness!

  22. great post Tanja! I’m wondering where your ballet flats come from- they look both comfortable and “work appropriate” and I need to replace mine soon. Thanks!

    • Thanks! I haven’t found perfect ballet flats, but the Hush Puppies “Chaste” flats are what I’ve been wearing for at least 5 years at this point. (https://www.amazon.com/Hush-Puppies-Womens-Chaste-Ballet/dp/B009OXV0SU) They look more work-appropriate than some of the knit flats, and they pack up much smaller. They will still rub my little toes uncomfortably if I wear them all day, but otherwise they’re much more comfortable than anything else I’ve tried.

      • My dad is a pilot and has had nail clippers taken away while in uniform… he’s always like “You know I have an ax in the cockpit, right?”

      • I was going to ask the same flats question. I don’t travel often (maybe only annually), though my spouse travels for work a lot. The kids really don’t like traveling. However, we have plans for a European vacation (2 weeks!) next summer, so for sure I need to absorb this whole post by then.

        I have a friend with 3 grown kids who grew up traveling all over with them (her husband was a professor of marine biology – lots of trips!) and she NEVER checked a bag, and I am always amazed.

        • I’ve had those Hush Puppies for a loooong time and logged many miles on them, and while they aren’t perfect, I can at least speak to their durability. ;-) And your experience with your traveling friend is not unique! I don’t know anyone who travels regularly who carries a ton of stuff. After you’ve done it enough, you just realize what’s worth it and what isn’t, and lugging a bunch of bags never makes the cut. ;-)

  23. I’m really enjoying this travel series so far! Very informative and helpful. I’d never heard the tip on booking two seats with a gap in the middle. I have two questions:
    1) how do you handle the weight of the backpack? I sometimes get over eager with packing and cram too much stuff into my backpack, leading to really sore shoulders. Do you weigh your bag and know your personal limit?
    2) what do you do at the airport if your personal item is also a backpack? I’ve resorted to awkwardly slinging the smaller backpack on one shoulder over the heavier backpack, but I want to find a better solution.
    Thanks!

    • Hi Jess! The best way to handle the weight of the backpack is to: 1.) Choose a good backpack with good padding on the straps and ergonomic design, and 2.) Limit how much you pack. The second sounds tough, but it’s a good thing to pack less. It might be challenging to get in that habit, but once you develop that muscle, it becomes easy to pack light. As for the personal item, I now do this: the double backpack. I generally sling my small backpack over my shoulder, which works fine because my big backpack is slim in its profile, or if I really have to run for a flight, I strap the small backpack on the front. It looks dorky, but no one cares. ;-)

  24. Oh. My. God. This is a great post! I all-sorts of geek out over bags*. I am a reluctant roller-bagger. While I greatly prefer the backpack (as you say – efficient!), my daypack needs (laptop, sometimes DSLR) don’t work great for a messenger bag…meaning backpack part two. I’ve tried dual bags kangaroo-style (daypack on front) just as Fast Science, not ideal. I’ve also tried the Osprey Fairpoint 70 – seeming like it had the most functional of the detachable daypacks travel packs – and the daypack was too small for my needs. So the roller bag + daypack backpack lives on…for now. The Gregory pack, does look great!

    One add-on I’d offer to the thread: rental car kit. I have a 6″x6″x1″ pouch that’s easily accessed upon landing. Air vent-based/minimal smartphone mount, car charger, USB cable, 3.5 mm cable, napkins, and I-Pass for visits to family in Illinois. It’s convenience is massive, and it’s one less thing to assemble prior to a trip.

    *Two words: bag spreadsheets. Multiple.

    • Bag spreadsheets! Wow! ;-) I do the double backpack now, and honestly, it’s not bad at all. My main pack is narrow enough that slinging a small backpack over my shoulder in addition is no problem. One thing we’ve also done is but the big DSLR in the big pack, still used a small personal item like a shoulder bag or messenger, and then also carried a fold-up pack for the destination that will fit the camera, laptop, water bottle, etc. There are so many good options these days for collapsible daypacks, especially the Tortuga and REI options, but there are plenty of off-brand choices as well. So don’t feel like you MUST use a second backpack as your personal item if you can put that second backpack in your main bag and ditch the rolly. :-)

  25. All great tips. I’ve flown with 2 adults and two small kids (including with diapers/formula during the winter months in the northeast) without checking bags using many of the same tips. Black clothes, technical fabrics, packing cubes, wearing your bulkiest things are great tips. Also changing your mindset and realizing that nearly everything that “might come in handy” should be left behind if it isn’t too expensive and can easily be purchased at your destination if needed. You’ll most likely do fine without.

  26. Great post. I made the move to carry-on luggage a few years back. With part-time consulting travel becoming my post-FI side hustle, I’ve become a Tom Bihn loyalist, with an Aeronaut 30 for short domestic trips, an Aeronaut 45 for international trips, and a Western Flyer as a personal item/briefcase/overnight bag.

    On my last six day trip with the Aeronaut 45, including a suit jacket (folded inside out, tucked into a shoulder), I wound up only wearing about 2/3 of what I brought. I’m a big fan of merino wool (bought on sale); easy to wash out, dries quickly, can be worn for multiple days without getting stinky.

    Funny thing is, I never check when flying domestic, but I do check when flying business class to Asia. This makes no sense, as 1) I get an entire overhead bin on that plane, and 2) I always wind up waiting 25 minutes at JFK for the bag to appear. 3) My beautiful orange backpack looks horrible from the greasy baggage handling machinery.

    In other words, I appreciate your reminder to ALWAYS carry-on when flying solo. (This battle is not worth fighting with my wife when we fly to her native England for 10 day visits with family.)

    • If you can wear wool (I cannot), then I totally agree it’s a great option for travel! And yeah, stop checking a bag to Asia! You must also then get stuck at the back of the customs line because you had to wait for bags versus jumping right to the front of it. Reclaim that time! ;-)

      Also, I’m glad you found backpacks you like! That’s what matters. I’ve tried the Tom Bihn packs and have three main quibbles: 1. They are expensive for what you get, 2. The compartmentalization makes it hard to fit larger cubes. I personally prefer one big space which gives more options, but that’s obviously just my preference. 3. No dedicated laptop spot, so you have to put your laptop in a sleeve and then open up your whole bag to get it out. That’s likely not an issue for those who are always fine carrying a laptop bag of some sort, but if I can ditch the personal item, I do, and then I need my big pack to work well with a laptop, including allowing me to pull it out quickly when I get to my seat and have a bunch of harried travelers in the aisle behind me. :-) But I’m only saying all of that for folks reading this who are evaluating options, and not for you, because my opinion is irrelevant to you! If you love your bag setup, then awesome!

  27. Love the post! And I totally get the frustration with that Up in the Air movie – none of the “tips” in that movie are even close to real…!

    I’ve traveled a lot in the last few years, but luckily I have always gone to the same site. I was able to get my company to pay for a corporate apartment for most of the trips, which alleviated the packing concerns because I was able to keep all of the clothing & stuff at the apartment. The only thing that went back and forth with me is my laptop bag, in which I kept my phone chargers, spare meds, etc along with my laptop.

    Not sure that I 100% agree on the noise-cancelling headphones. I hear you, they are HUGE and take up a lot of space. But they are very comfortable and they do a really good job of drowning out the aircraft noise. I tried the smaller in-ear headphones, but I always felt like they get “sucked” into my ears a bit due to the pressure changes on the aircraft. Not sure if that’s what it was, but it just felt a lot different than how they fit normally. In my case, having the apartment made the “space” factor a non issue.

    The other lesson that may be helpful to some people is the need to stick with only 1 laptop on the trip. I have a company laptop, so initially I was bringing a second personal laptop to be able to check Facebook, certain early-retirement blogging websites, etc – and I just don’t like to do that kind of stuff with my work PC. But even with Pre-Check, you still need to take both of them out at the airport security! Easier to bring a tablet, which does like 95+% of the “personal” stuff I’d need to do on line but does not trigger the need to empty your bag at the security line.

    • I’m so curious what airport you’re dealing with that makes you take your laptop(s) out at Precheck! That’s definitely not the official policy. Official Precheck rules are that nothing comes out of your bag, shoes stay on and you just go through the metal detector unless selected for random additional screening. But yes, I completely agree on bringing as few devices as possible!

      And hey, if you love your noise-cancelling headphones, then use them with no shame! I know tons of business travelers love them, and if you have a setup in which their space and weight is not an issue, then awesome. But having lugged them for a while, I always got frustrated having to continue to make space for them as trips wore on, and eventually stopped carrying them. Plus, for most people, they’re just way too expensive to justify their existence. But all that matters for you is your situation. :-)

  28. Love these tips! I have a foot that acts up under extra weight, so I’m a reluctant Team Roller. My husband loves Team Backpack. Both is us are Team Pack Light and have done our hand washing in many (most?) European countries. Two tips of my own! 1 – 100% cotton takes SO long to line dry. Even just 5 or 10% of another fabric type will dry faster. Yes, socks can be challenging. We wash at night and by morning, there’s usually at least one thing dry for each of us to wear. 2 – I heartily endorse using stuff sacks for dirty clothes. It not only keeps them a bit separated but at the end of the trip, you just squeeze as many of your clothes into one as you can…which trees up a little space for that practical-yet-memory-serving shirt or book or spices that you bought while on vacation. Easier to compress things in a stuff sack vs the cubes, so I always toss one for each of us into our bags.

    Love the travel series!! I’m attempting to deploy one of your tips from the first one when we travel at the end of next month. Will report back on my success. ;)

    • No shame in needing the roller bags! There are days when I curse myself for being pro-backpack, but I also know pushing or pulling a roller bag would hurt me in a different way. So do what works best for you! Totally agree with not packing pure cotton and using a stuff sack for dirty clothes. The little cotton bag I carry came with some shoes I bought at some point, but I can stuff a TON of dirty laundry in there. ;-) Please do report back!

  29. I gotta disagree on the noise-canceling headphones. They were the greatest gift that my parents have ever given me, and I’m including the gift of life on that list. Before I had them, people would constantly talk to me and want me to entertain them (old men have WOKEN ME FROM NAPS to entertain them before), and I am an introvert who would prefer that society at large pretend that each other doesn’t exist when traveling (planes, trains, ubers, etc.) unless we need to pass something or allow each other to use the bathroom, so having the big “don’t talk to me, I’m not interested” headphones has been a complete godsend.

  30. Tanja, this is the first time I’ve commented on your blog – but THANK YOU for all these details. I’ve been trying to optimize my packing in recent months and this is super helpful to see it all laid out. I’m wondering if you can provide a model name for the Sherpani bag you showed next to your old Overland favorite… I took a look at their site but couldn’t find one that looked exactly like your picture. Finding a great purse/carryall/carryon bag has been my white whale of travel.

    • Hi Cindy — Thanks for commenting! :-) I didn’t show a Sherpani in the post, only both the front and back of my Overland bag, so it makes sense you wouldn’t have found one that matches. ;-) And I’m SO with you on the ideal purse/carry-on being the white whale. I have been borderline obsessed with this for years, and the Overland worked very well, but I always wished it also had a cross-body strap so I could go fully hands-free. As for Sherpani, the Camden is the closest to my bag, but with the cross-body strap: https://www.amazon.com/Sherpani-Camden-Convertible-Backpack-Size/dp/B01328D0QW. (I can’t vouch for it personally!) The Soleil is a very similar bag but with a quilted look that you may or may not like: https://www.amazon.com/Sherpani-Soleil-Le-Laptop-Backpack/dp/B0756DFCZ6. (Again, can’t vouch.) If I hadn’t recently switched to the backpack full-time as my day bag and I needed a new carry-on, I’d definitely be trying out the Camden. Keep me posted on what you find and how it goes!

  31. Ah, thanks for those links! For what it’s worth, I’ve had good times with a Mandarina Duck crossbody bag, but I have to edit my stuff down severely to make it all fit and my current one won’t fit a laptop. Something like this: http://www.mandarinaduck.com/en-US/md20-cross-body-bag-p2595?s=S&c=234 The key thing is just that it has the shiny black fabric that’s easy to rinse out when I inevitably let a Clif Bar melt in the bottom or leave a water bottle cap loose… which reminds me of one more thing I’m partial to: a Platypus softbottle water bottle, so it folds up to nothing when I don’t need it. Like this: https://www.rei.com/product/849826/platypus-softbottle-water-bottle-34-fl-oz. Thanks for letting me dork out on this topic. :)

  32. I did 3 months around the world with a roller bag last year, and was so sick of dragging that blasted thing around, but I always thought I needed that much stuff. So this year, I did a month in Ecuador with only a very small backpack (29L) and I LOVED it! There was a lot I didn’t bring, and I did a lot of hand laundry, but it worked, despite the wide variation in weather. Layers were my friend. Thanks for this comprehensive list. It’s helpful!

  33. Team Travel Light! My biggest problem is absolutely shoes, because I have no found any ballet flats that don’t tear up my feet. I have shoes I love that look great and I can walk in forever, but they are definitely much bulkier. The longest I’ve traveled, outside of studying abroad, was 9 days though. Perhaps this a conundrum that I may look forward to in my freedom years.

  34. Totally helpful! I’d also add that for MOST people, simply committing to carry-on only is enough to significantly improve their travel. And, to support that, pick a single color pallet for shoes/accessories, and remember that less is more for everything (clothes, electronics, toiletries, etc.)

    The rest of it is unnecessary for my type of work travel (usually 1 per month to a single location for the whole week). I prefer a roller bag and a carry on bag that can attach to the handle for this type of trip. If you are traveling weekly and move around during the week, more optimization is worth it!

    For fun travel or combo travel where we don’t stay in a single location the whole time, I agree a backpack is more optimal. Yet, I often take my expandable roller bag, depending on the specifics. I don’t want to invest in a new pack and packing cubes that make a backpack easier to live out of. My backpack was purchased years ago for wilderness backpacking. It can be used for normal travel, but isn’t well designed for it (no laptop place, not good access from the front, etc.). I do these types of trips about 1-2x a year, and it doesn’t seem worth buying extra gear for it.

  35. What about leaving rooms for souvenirs? We had just about convinced ourselves to try traveling with just carry-ons this time, but as we thought about stops we’d make in South Africa, I realized that it would be nice to bring home things like local jams, wines, lotions, etc. In other words, liquids that TSA won’t like. is there any way to get around this other than checking a bag?

    • No way to get around checking a bag if you’re going to bring liquids and gels home. We mostly don’t bring home souvenirs, or if we do they’re very small, so it’s worth knowing your style and planning accordingly. Another option, though, might be to ask the airline to ship a package for you rather than check a bag. It’s a slight difference, but might actually be cheaper, and then you’re not considered paired with your bag for flying standby and such. Though you also might not get your bag when you land, so best not to do this if you need things in a timely manner. ;-)

  36. Love it! I am a scuba diver and underwater photographer though, so I generally have to check a bag if I’m going for that kind of trip but still manage only one bag.

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