Traveling with only a backpack or carry-on may seem a bit daunting and even impossible for some of you (I’m looking at you, mother), but truly, it shouldn’t be. Ever since the husband and I went on our first trip to Laos sans luggage, we haven’t looked back.
You may think that backpack travel is only for 20-somethings crashing in hostels, and sure the majority of them travel that way, but I am sitting pretty on the verge of 31 and I hope to never have to travel with full-size luggage ever again. Here’s what’s in my backpack and how to do it.
1. Don’t be scared
Staring into the limited space of a backpack could possibly put someone into a cold sweat, but when you realize that this can be done, it’s not so bad. Don’t panic. It’s worth it.
2. Get an OK backpack
The husband and I do things on the cheap, but a cheapo backpack among them probably wasn’t the best idea. Once, we found a street market in Kuala Lumpur and happened across a backpack vendor. We were going to Europe for a month in just a few short days, so I decided to upgrade to a bigger bag. It seemed huge and sturdy and with a price tag of $35 (I’m pretty sure that should’ve been a red flag) I got it. Fast forward two weeks later, we are about eight days into our five week excursion and that bag, filled to the brim with all my belongings, snaps in the middle of the street in Paris. CURSE YOU CHEAP MALAYSIAN BACKPACK! I knew it.
Each airline is different when it comes to dimensions and weight for carry-on bags and how far you’re traveling. Most major carriers are pretty lenient while the low cost ones (WOW Air, Air Asia, Ryan Air, etc) are a bit more strict. If it’s too big, you may have to pay a fee to carry it on, but I also find it seems to be at the discretion of the counter agent/boarding agent. If they are having a bad day, look out, but some will let you through with five extra pounds in it. In my experience, it’s completely arbitrary. Research is key.
Backpacks don’t have to be ugly, strappy things, either. All of the below are decent size and not too shabby looking. Remember that a lot of airlines will allow a carry-on and personal item, so you can always bring a purse and throw stuff in there.
3. Consider the destination
Obviously you know the climate at your destination. Cold/chilly weather locales are a bit trickier because you need heavier items such as coats and sweaters, but the way to do this is with more versatile pieces. I packed for the trip to Europe and Iceland in early spring and looked exceptionally cute each and every day. Ponder the below:
I have put together two backpacks: Hot weather and cold weather. The hot weather is geared more towards a beach location, however you can still see that you can get several outfits, a week or more, out of each. The cold weather covers daytime sightseeing and nights out with the dress and skirt (and shirts that can be tucked in) and the warm weather has everything you need, including several swimsuits because, if you’re like me, you like to change your swimwear. Depending on the size of your bag, you should still have room for your makeup (if bringing any), toiletries (more on that later) and any extras like a beach towel or kind-of important things like your undies.
When packing, just keep to your more basic, diverse pieces and keep them few. A black tank with a few outer laying pieces like cardigans go a long way. I usually lay everything out on my bed that I want to take and then narrow, narrow, narrow down. A good rule of thumb is 5-6 tops, 3-4 bottoms, 1-2 outerwear, a few accessories like scarves or hats and 2-3 pairs of shoes.
4. Roll, Roll, Roll
I used to be a believer in folding. I refused to accept that rolling clothes actually makes more room. To me, it just didn’t make more sense than lying them flat…until I tried it. Tightly rolling your clothes works. If you are afraid of wrinkles, just hang them in the bathroom while you’re showering and the wrinkles will steam out.
Also keep in mind packing order. Put things you may need first closer to the top. There’s nothing worse than getting everything packed and realizing you need something at the very bottom.
5. Travel size everything
If you’ve flown, you know TSA limits sizes of liquids you can bring through checkpoints. When you check luggage, size doesn’t matter and you can pack your full-size expensive shampoo if you want. Carry-on only traveling doesn’t allow that. Those “travel” areas of Target and Walgreens will be your lifesaver. I buy the empty clear bottles (individually or in a set), fill them with my shampoo, conditioner, face wash, body wash and moisturizer and then sharpie on them what they are. (Also take a small square of saran wrap and put it over the top before you screw on the lid. It will prevent spills.) It’ll all fit in a ziploc bag then throw it in the top of your backpack. A lot of times, however, face products and makeup are under 3.4oz so you can just take them along, but double check. You don’t want TSA taking your expensive NARS toner all because you didn’t look on the back.
6. Airport bulk
One thing on which people can usually all agree with airports is that it’s cold in there. Cold in the terminal, cold in the plane. Typically, this isn’t ideal, however it can work in your favor as you should be wearing the bulky items you can’t pack on the plane. Your fattest sweater, poofiest coat and your heftiest boots will not only keep you warm on the flying Popsicle, but clear up space in your bag. In summer or if you’re traveling a bit closer to the equator, your bag will already be pretty light, but sweaters or a hoodie do take up space, so tie it around your waist and wear it once you’re inside the terminal. Luckily, the 90s are back so having something tied around your waist is, again, considered a fashion statement.
7. Hassle free
Most people check in and print their boarding passes at home now (or have it sent to their phone). When you don’t have baggage to check, you can walk into the airport and go straight to security. That means you can arrive at the airport much later than you’d usually have to since you don’t have to wait in the Disney World worthy line at the Delta counter.
Since you aren’t pulling anything behind you, you also have both hands. Just keep in mind the space behind you when going into airport shops as you can knock everything off shelves. I have definitely done that.
A lot of things can go wrong when you check bags. It can always be lost or delayed, seriously ruining your vacation. If you have a layover in a new country but are continuing on, you will have to collect and recheck them, which is a pain. You also lose major destination time by waiting on them to pop onto the baggage carousel. Yours could be the very last bag to come out.
Carry-on only traveling isn’t for everyone, but once you do decide to ditch the luggage, you will probably never look back. Narrow down the outfits, do the research on your airline requirements and enjoy walking straight out of the airport where your thrilling destination awaits!
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Hey! I know we have had this conversation before…but I can’t find it! Can you please recommend a backpack? I’m getting lost in the sea of options. I would like one that can pack around a week’s worth of clothes/items and just can’t tell what is a good size and quality. 🤗
Hey! I actually have a Samsonite and it’s lasted me for well over 5 years and still going strong. They don’t make it anymore or I’d link you to it. The main thing is size. Too big and they will make you check it! I’d go with one that’s not much bigger than regulation carryon size. I recently bought a carryon roll suitcase and I think I’m actually going to move towards those! I haven’t decided yet haha.
Such a cute and informative article. I really enjoy your writing. Usually, I just scan through these things and speed read for the info I need but I weirdly enjoyed reading this article.
Anyways which Samsonite would you recommend and will I be able to find it on sites like Amazon or http://www.bestbackpack.com?
HEY Ashley! That means so much, thank you!! And the samsonite i have is like 6 years old and they don’t make it anymore 😭 but it’s been sooooo durable and hardly any wear so I do highly recommend samsonite. I’m starting to get into carryon rollers now too! I have a camera backpack that i have to have with me so i needed a roller bag that could fit in overheads, but my husband still uses his samsonite to this day!