Traveling with only a carry-on bag can be an incredibly liberating experience. No waiting for checked bags, no worrying about lost items, and no extra fees. You can move through airports with ease and freedom. What could be better?
However, if you’re not careful, you can end up making some common mistakes that can turn your carry-on only trip into a stressful experience.
In this blog post, I’ll be discussing the most common mistakes people make when traveling with only a carry-on, and how to avoid them. Years of efficient lightly-packed travels have taught me well… So, let’s get started!
Mistake #1: Not packing efficiently.
When you think about traveling with carry-on only, you’re probably thinking about how easy it will be to zip around the airport and your destination with your minimal baggage.
But I’ve seen so many people make the mistake of assuming just because something can fit into their small bag, it should be included.
To put it simply, don’t forget about the weight of your bag in addition to its size!
Most airlines aren’t going to be weighing your carry-on bags (unless something about them looks suspiciously heavy), but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep the weight in mind.
Not only will an overly heavy bag be difficult (and possibly dangerous) to lift into the overhead bin, but you’ll work up a sweat much faster lugging it on and off transit and, heaven forbid, up several flights of stairs.
It’s important to maximize the space you have and pack items that can be rolled up and packed in a small space, but don’t fall into the trap of overpacking even in a small space.
Mistake #2: Forgetting to bring liquids in a clear bag.
I’ve traveled so much over the past few decades that I completely forgot that this might not be something that everyone knows… but when I was helping a friend of mine pack for his first solo trip, I discovered that the whole process of packing liquids and gels was a mystery to him!
When you’re traveling carry-on only, you don’t have a checked bag to stow all the little things that the TSA doesn’t let you bring through security. So you need to make space for your cosmetics and shampoos in your carry-on bag.
Start by getting a 1 litre clear bag; these are usually available for forgetful folks at the entrance to airport security, but you can also use a zip-lock or purchase a reusable clear bag made of vinyl or silicon.
Next, check that all of the liquids, gels, or anything else runny you want to bring is under 100 ml or 3.4 oz.
If you find something is too large, you can either purchase a travel-sized version of it, or get a pack of small fillable bottles and containers that you can decant your products into.
Finally, you need to fit all those small bottles into that 1 litre bag and seal it. Then you’re done!
If you need even more tips on packing light for your trip, check out my other post with tips and tricks to help!
Mistake #3: Not bringing a personal item.
If you’re too focused on fitting everything into your carry-on suitcase, you might forget that you can also stow a second item under the seat in front of you – and this one is included in your ticket price for free!
People who carry purses or backpacks routinely are usually more aware of this, but anyone who isn’t used to carrying a bag on the daily might forget that they can bring something small to keep at their feet.
You can keep things you need for your trip in this space, of course, but if your clothes and personal care items all fit in your overhead bag, then this is a great place to store your snacks and entertainment for the flight.
If you don’t like the idea of carrying two bags when you’re off the flight, then consider bringing a tote bag or other flat-packing bag that you can put into your main carry-on whenever you’re not using it.
That way you can pull out your flight essentials ahead of settling into your seat, and you won’t need to bother anyone by awkwardly fishing out things from your overhead luggage mid-flight.
Mistake #4: Not carrying a hard copy of important documents.
It can be really tempting to be super efficient by keeping everything you need for your flight, including tickets, itineraries, and identification, on your phone.
But if your phone battery runs out (or something else happens to it), you’re going to be out of luck – especially if you’re going to have to pass through customs at your destination!
Before you head out on your trip, take the time to print out copies of your itinerary, hotel or AirBnB address, and any other important information you might need at customs or beyond.
It can also be helpful if you’re dealing with a language barrier to have key information written down on paper that you can show somebody helping you. It’s a little more secure and clear than showing a stranger your phone, which you might be hesitant to hand over.
Mistake #5: Not wearing slip-on shoes.
Nothing will amp up your airport stress like trying to lace up complicated boots in the security line when you’re running late for a flight!
Save yourself (and the people around you) the hassle and make sure you are traveling in footwear that is easy to slip on and off.
When you’re traveling light, you probably aren’t going to be bringing multiple pairs of shoes with you, so sometimes you have no choice but to wear those hiking boots on the plane.
But aside from the convenience factor, that’s also rarely the most comfortable option, especially when you have a long or overnight flight ahead of you.
Also, be courteous when deciding if you will take off your shoes on the flight… as any kind of foot odor will quickly travel around you and definitely irritate your fellow passengers.
Play it safe and make sure that your shoes are easy, convenient, and comfortable for you to wear from the start of your flight to the finish.
Mistake #5: Not bringing a power bank.
There aren’t many electronic gizmos that I consider to be essential for travel, but a power bank is one that I never leave my city without.
This is especially helpful if you’re traveling in inclement weather, and flight delays cause you to drain your phone battery faster than normal.
It’s also helpful in case you realize your destination country uses a different power outlet than your home country. A power bank can buy you time to locate an adaptor (and not one of the super-expensive airport ones; try a convenience store for a USB connector!)
Luckily, the price of power banks has come down a lot in recent years. They are also a lot smaller than they used to be, and won’t take up much space or weight in your bag or even your pocket or purse.
While most airplanes have a USB port in them now for charging at your seat, sometimes they aren’t working or your cable doesn’t seem compatible (this has happened to me!) In this case too, your power bank will be your best friend.
Traveling with only carry-on luggage can be liberating, and also a whole lot of fun. But it requires a different mindset than traveling with a full set of luggage, and sometimes only experience can really teach you how to navigate the experience.
I hope that this article has been helpful and that you can benefit from some of my own experience on this topic! If you enjoyed these tips, check out my other blog posts on the topics of travel efficiency and packing minimalism.