Keep calm and carry-on: Travelling without checking bags

Tackling Europe on an 18-day, multi-country trip with my carry-on.

After hearing that I travelled to Europe on 2-week+ trips with carry-on only, many of my friends and followers have asked me how I managed to do it, as they didn’t think they ever could. To be honest, before I did it, I didn't think I could either! Now that I've done it successfully a couple of times, I thought I’d share my packing secrets with all of you.

First: Why I switched
Pre-COVID, I always checked my bag when travelling, even when my trip was less than a week. I have a credit card that gives me two free checked bags, and I took full advantage of the benefit. But it all changed after the pandemic when airlines and airports became (and still are) hopelessly short-staffed, and things started to go awry in the checked luggage department.

I checked a bag on a five-day trip last year. I had upgraded to business class, so the bag was dropped off at the business class counter plenty ahead of the cut-off time, and was tagged with a neon orange “Priority” sticker. It was a nonstop flight to my destination, but my bag didn’t arrive. It came the next day, with no explanation as to why it never made it on my flight when I did everything right. On the way home at Canada’s largest airport, it took fifty (50) minutes before the luggage carousel began to dispense checked bags. Luckily, mine appeared. But fifty minutes? Insane.

Then on another trip a few months later, I checked a bag but missed my connection home and had to overnight at a hotel. I asked the airline whether I could pick up my bag for the night, and the answer was No. My bag would have been one of thousands in the luggage holding area, and the airline simply didn’t have the personnel to search for it. After flying all day, I had no change of clothes or toiletries (thank goodness the hotel came to the rescue with the latter). After those two incidents, I stopped checking bags.

Travelling with carry-on only means less time in lineups, more time in the lounge!

The benefits of flying with carry-on
Having done it twice, I love the experience of flying with carry-on only. I can arrive at the airport later and head straight to security, bypassing the check-in and bag-drop lines. At the other end, I walk off the aircraft and straight out the door. I have access to my bag at all times, and if I misconnect and have to stay overnight (which has happened, again), I have my clothes and all my toiletries. And of course, the biggest benefit - no more lost or delayed bags!

So, what does travelling with a carry-on entail? I’ll start with a reality check:

You can’t be a clotheshorse
When everything for your trip must fit into your carry-on bag, you can’t bring ten pairs of shoes and every pair of pants and shirt you own. And no “just-in-case” or “maybe I’ll wear it” items. Everything you take must be qualified and serve a purpose. I know the clotheshorse in you will say it’s impossible. But, let me assure you, with proper planning, you can travel light and look fashionable at the same time.

You’ll need to do laundry
I know this sounds like a chore when you’re on vacation, but it only takes a few extra minutes to wash clothes in the bathroom sink or while in the shower. I wring them out as well as I can, then place them on a towel, roll that up, and give it another good wring to get rid of any excess dampness, then hang to dry overnight.  For heavier items, I use the hotel’s hairdryer to dry them out a bit. Most everything dries by the next morning or the day after. Regardless of the duration of my trip, I only take four sets of undergarments, which gives me a couple of days’ grace if I don’t feel like doing laundry every night.

Be smart about liquids and gels
I no longer bring shampoo, conditioner, body wash, or lotion. Instead, I use what’s supplied by the hotel. But I’m also not product-fussy, so this may not work for everyone. If you have must-bring items, use travel-sized containers. Instead of liquid make-up remover and a roll-on or gel deodorant, switch to make-up wipes and a stick deodorant. Because those are solids, they can be packed away in your bag. Liquids that you need a lot of - such as mouthwash, hand sanitizer, and sunscreen - are best bought after arriving at your destination. Either use them up before you return home or leave them behind.

Toiletries: take only what you need in travel-sized containers. Switch to stick deodorant and make-up wipes as those don't need to go into your liquids bag.

Possible Bonus: If your travelling companion doesn’t use a lot of toiletries (read: most men), they can always take your extra liquids and gels through security for you in a separate clear bag.

Now, onto my packing routine.

I pre-plan and co-ordinate every outfit in advance
Every trip begins with planning what I will wear each day during my trip. Once I have my outfits figured out, I write them down in my calendar. I know it sounds anal, but it works, and it also makes getting dressed super-fast during my trip.

Since more than 90 percent of my trips involve a cruise or some form of work function, I have to pack a combination of casual and dressy outfits and shoes. If your travel is strictly leisure, it will be even easier! But no matter what type of trip, don’t skip the crucial planning step, as it will help you get organized and pack successfully. And please, dedicate some time to organizing your stuff. I start planning a couple of weeks before my trip. Don’t wait until the day before you leave, or you may end up rushing and just throwing everything into the bag and having to check it.

Every piece of clothing must do double-duty
Unless it’s a short trip and I have space in my bag, I never bring something that I only wear once. My go-to’s are separates that mix and match with each other. For example: three tops and three bottoms can create nine different outfits. Dresses work too - wear it once by itself, then add a top/blouse over it and you’ll have a different look. So let’s do the math: 1 dress + 3 tops + 3 bottoms = 13 outfits. If you repeat a couple of outfits, that’s more than enough for a two-week trip, and these seven items will fit nicely in your bag, with room to spare!

 This is how I can make three tops, two skirts and a pair of pants into nine different outfits.

The same three tops can all go over this dress to make four outfits. Now I have 13 outfits with just seven items of clothing.

On the subject of repeating outfits - there’s a smart way to do it! Just wear the repeating outfit as far apart as possible. Say you are on a two-week cruise, wear it on Day 1 and again on Day 14. I guarantee that no one will remember or notice!

There’s another double-duty element that helps me pack for a cruise. I make sure that my daywear can also be worn in the evenings. This means I pack more blouses and skirts than I do t-shirts and shorts because the former two can be worn to dinner, whereas the latter two cannot. The same would apply if you are holidaying at a resort, as they usually have some sort of dress code at night.

My biggest sacrifice: shoes
This was my toughest adjustment switching over to carry-on travel. When I used to check bags, it wasn’t uncommon for me to bring six pairs of shoes on a one-week cruise - mind you, it included gym shoes and flip-flops. Now, I travel with three, including the pair on my feet. If your trip does not require dressy shoes, you could make do with just two pairs - pack one and wear one. Here’s my shoe list:

  1. One pair of dressy heels for evenings.
  2. One pair of flats for day wear but nice enough to also wear in the evenings.
  3. One pair of walking shoes. If I’m also going to work out, then I bring shoes that can double as gym shoes.

My black sparkly flats can go from day to night, neutral-coloured heels go with every dressy outfit, and my Sketchers walking shoes can also double as gym shoes.

If a pool/beach is on my agenda, I tuck a pair of flip-flops into the outside pocket of my bag.

Other things I bring
I include a light daypack for excursions and a small purse for evenings out. I also take energy/protein bars for quick fill-ups during my travel day or when I’m touring around. I only take reading material that I can leave behind once I’m done, such as magazines or old novels.

For international travel, I bring two power adapters so I can charge multiple devices at the same time. The ones with USB outlets are great. I also take a power bank to charge my devices on the go, as I can never count on finding available outlets at airports or in public spaces.

Don't run out of juice while travelling! My small Belkin power bank lets me charge on the go. For power convertors, pick one that has USB outlets.

How to pack your bag
Firstly, ensure your carry-on bag fits within the size limitations of the airline you are flying with. I wish all airlines would adopt one universal set of measurements, but unfortunately, they don’t. And with so many people bringing carry-on bags nowadays, airlines are extra strict with their sizing policy and will force you to check your bag if it exceeds their specified measurements.

Once I’m ready to pack, I lay everything out so I can do a visual scan to make sure I haven’t forgotten everything. I roll each piece of clothing tightly and pack them as tightly together as possible. My pyjamas, toiletries, and next day’s clothes and shoes are packed at the top for easy access once I arrive in my destination.

I also just started using packing cubes on my last trip, and they worked well to keep everything together and in place in my bag. It also makes unpacking easy, I just transfer the cubes into the dressers/drawers in my room.

Roll clothing tightly, packing cubes also come in handy.

Choose your personal item wisely
In addition to your carry-on, the airline allows you to bring one personal item onboard (and they have specific measurements for that, too, so check in advance). Depending on my trip, my personal item may be a tote bag or a backpack. In it will be everything I need on my travel day. Whatever you choose to use, make sure it is sturdy and lets you access things like your passport and wallet easily.

My Coach tote is great if I have meetings or events to attend during my trip as it becomes my purse and business bag.

My Samsonite backpack has wide, comfortable shoulder straps and lots of compartments. It also has a trolley sleeve so I can sling it through the handle of my bag and not have to wear it on my back all the time.

My final advice
To get you ready to travel, read my tips on post-pandemic travel. If the last time you flew was a few years ago, give yourself extra time. Your home airport and its policies and procedures will surely have changed. Always have your ID and your boarding pass in your hand or within quick reach. Don’t be that person holding up the security line while rummaging through your bag to find them. I’ll be the person tapping my foot behind you!

And there you have it! Now that you know how I do it, will you try it? If you do, let me know how you make out!

Keep calm, and carry-on!

Disclaimer: The brand names mentioned in this article and the items shown in the photos are what work best for me. It does not mean I am promoting these brands or that you should buy them.