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How (and Why) I Travel for a Week With Just a Carry-on Bag

Lori Zaino's image
Lori Zaino
Lori Zaino's image

Lori Zaino

Senior Content Contributor

59 Published Articles

Countries Visited: 58U.S. States Visited: 40

Lori is an intrepid traveler who loves creating itineraries that exude “luxe on a budget.” She’s written for CNN, NBC, The Infatuation, and more, and loves to muse about points-fueled trips to Sri Lan...
Edited by: Stella Shon
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Stella Shon

News Managing Editor

106 Published Articles 738 Edited Articles

Countries Visited: 25U.S. States Visited: 22

With a degree in media and journalism, Stella has been in the points and miles game for more than 6 years. She most recently worked as a Corporate Communications Analyst for JetBlue. Find her work in ...

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Summer vacations are kicking off, which means we’re all making important travel decisions. One of the most vital of such decisions is whether or not to check a bag.

The case for checking a bag is obvious: You can bring more stuff. And in certain circumstances, it makes a lot of sense. But you won’t find me checking luggage this summer for my week-long vacations.

Even better? It’s made me a more efficient packer and a better traveler. Here’s how I travel exclusively in a carry-on bag and how you can do it, too.

Why I Prefer Not To Check Luggage

I used to be a serial luggage checker. The more stuff, the better. Chance of rain? It’s fine because my massive checked bag has an umbrella, raincoat, and mosquito repellent for the post-shower humidity. Need to borrow a travel steamer? Got it! Surprise gala? Let me pull out my heels!

It got even worse after having my first child a few years ago. Packs of diapers, toys, wipes — and all of his rain gear, too. But once my son became potty trained, more self-sufficient, more mobile, and could roll his little suitcase, I changed my tune. I couldn’t chase after him through a crowded airport weighed down with lots of luggage. And 3-year-old boys can move at alarming speeds, in case you weren’t aware.

Inspired (and tired), I started to lighten my load. Soon after, I was traveling with just a carry-on bag for any trips 7 days or less. These are my arguments for traveling with just a carry-on.

My Bag Won’t Get Lost, Damaged, or Stolen

According to data from SITA, for every 1,000 bags checked, 7.6 of them were mishandled.

Sure, those odds aren’t terrible. Still, if your bag never leaves your hands or sight, the chance of it getting mishandled, lost, damaged, stolen, or delayed is slim to none (unless, of course, you overpack it and jam the zipper, which I’ve unfortunately done).

Traveling Light Makes Things Easier

Lugging bags through an airport, into ride-shares and taxis, and on public transport, even finding space to open several suitcases in a hotel room is annoying. It hurts my shoulders and exhausts me, especially after running after a toddler, too.

Traveling light, or even in a backpack that counts as a personal item, just makes things easier. It’s less to pack, less to unpack, less to lug around, and less to keep track of.

No Waits at Baggage Claim or Check-In

Some airlines are better than others when it comes to getting bags out on the baggage claim. Airlines like Delta and Alaska even allow you to claim miles or compensation if your bags don’t come out on time.

Starlux A359 Business Class Macau arrival baggage claim
Avoid long waits at baggage claim. Image Credit: Daniel Ross

However, I’d rather spend zero time waiting at baggage claim. After a long flight, I just want to get off the plane, get through the airport, and beeline to my destination or home. Baggage claim waits can sometimes add up to an additional hour onto a journey, and I’d rather spend that hour sipping cocktails at the hotel pool or getting unpacked and settled back home.

Plus, in many cases, if you aren’t checking a bag, you can skip long waits at the check-in desk and go straight through security if you already have your boarding pass.

It’s Cheaper

I do hold Oneworld elite status and hold certain credit cards that allow me to check bags with certain airlines for free. Still, there have been times when I’ve flown carriers outside of this alliance and low-cost carriers. In some cases, on an airline like Ryanair, the baggage fees can cost equal to or even more than the cost of the ticket.

Flying with just a carry-on helps me avoid these extra costs (unless, of course, your airline charges for carry-on bags — I can’t help you there).

Bottom Line:

Have I convinced you yet? Checking baggage is expensive, cumbersome, and time-consuming. It opens up the possibility that your belongings could face loss, damage, or theft. Still plan on checking a bag? At least apply for a credit card that offers you free checked bags. The Citi®/AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard® offers 1 checked bag on domestic American Airlines itineraries for you and up to 8 companions traveling on the same reservation. The Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card gives you 1 checked bag on Delta flights for you and up to 8 travel companions.

How To Take a Week-Long Trip With Just a Carry-On

Follow these tips if you want to ditch your heavy checked baggage and travel with just a carry-on.

Think About Your Destination, Weather, and Trip Style

Traveling with just a carry-on doesn’t always work. It depends greatly on the style of trip, destination, and weather. Traveling to warm and sunny destinations makes not checking a bag significantly easier. It’s just science — boots and sweaters are thicker, larger, and take up more space than sandals and swimsuits.

AC Hotel Malaga Rooftop View
Think about the destination before packing. Image Credit: Christine Krzyszton

The style of your trip is important, too. Not checking a bag works well on a trip to the beach, but if you have an important business trip where you need curated, distinct outfits daily, this might be tougher. If you’re going to a wedding or event, you may need a lot of specific items, including footwear and a tux or dress, that make not checking a bag challenging.

Finally, consider the destination. Imagine you’re going to Chicago, and you realize you need something. It’s easy to pop out to a Walgreens or H&M and pick up some sunblock or an extra pair of socks. However, trips to more rural destinations or emerging countries may make this more difficult.

Several years ago, I ran out of some essentials on a trip to rural Ghana. I couldn’t just pop into a shopping mall to get what I needed. Buying additional clothing from a street market and homemade mosquito spray from a roadside stall was certainly an adventure, but perhaps this wasn’t the right trip to travel light for.

Bottom Line:

Opt to just bring a carry-on for beach trips, leisure travel, visits to urban or first-world destinations, and during warm weather seasons. For business trips, events, cold-weather destinations, far-flung or rural destinations, big activity trips that require gear, or bleisure travel, where you’ll need both work and leisure items, you might want to lean into checking that bag.

Maximize Your Personal Item

Most airlines allow you to bring a carry-on bag and a personal item. This personal item is your key to success. Check the size requirements for each airline, but in most cases, it can be a small backpack, purse, tote, laptop bag, or other small bag. Make sure to fill every square inch of this of your personal item bag with your essentials to open up additional space in your carry-on bag.

My strategy is to usually fill my personal item bag with things I need on the flight and other lightweight items so it doesn’t kill my shoulders or back to carry it.

Use Packing Cubes

Packing cubes handles
Some packing cubes have handy carrying handles. Image Credit: Amar Hussain

Packing cubes not only help you organize your suitcase, but they can actually save you space. Certain compression packing cubes compress your items, pushing out added space and air and essentially shrinking them down so you can fit more in your bag.

Roll vs. Fold

This step is largely personal, but I have the most luck saving space when I tightly roll bulkier items, like sweaters, and fold smaller items. You can also roll items and tuck them into gaps in your suitcase. Remember to ball up socks and tuck them into your shoes within your suitcase to maximize space.

Be Smart About Shoes

Shoes, especially boots, wedges, or bulky or large men’s shoes, can take up major space in your carry-on bag. Wear your largest or bulkiest shoes on the plane, then take the smaller pairs. If you can minimize the number of shoes you take (e.g., just taking a pair of flat sandals or flip-flops on a beach trip and wearing gym shoes on the plane), you’ll save major space in your bag.

Think About Laundry

One of the things I always do when organizing a trip is consider the laundry options in my destination. If I’m traveling to a spot where it’s simple, cheap, and fast to send out laundry (e.g., Thailand or New York), I’ll almost always opt to do so. Booking a home rental with a washing machine is also an option. Some hotels offer elite members free laundry items. If you do decide to do laundry at a hotel, just check the pricing. It’s often not so bad for an item or 2 but can get very pricey for a whole load.

Finally, some people swear by bringing along travel laundry soap and doing a quick wash of their essentials, then hanging them dry.

Use Solids

Liquid items can take up a lot of space and weight in your bag. I opt for solids instead. I carry a small solid perfume and both shampoo and conditioner bars that take up less space than bottles. Not only does this minimize the possibility of spillage, but it saves space in my carry-on.

Mix and Match Basics

I won’t get into much fashion advice here, but it’s much easier to pack for a week if you’re smart about outfits. I try everything on before I go and make sure the items I pack can pair with multiple things and function in multiple scenarios. For example, a plain black tank can go with shorts, jeans, a skirt, or underneath a jean jacket. I bring purses and other accessories that go with the other items I pack. The more you can streamline your outfits and plan ahead, the easier it will be to pack fewer items.

Doing this makes the packing process slightly longer and more elaborate, but it’s worth it when I save time at the airport by not checking a bag.

Hot Tip:

Still not convinced you can travel with just a carry-on? It’s okay, don’t feel bad about checking a bag. However, please don’t pay for it! This guide can help you avoid paying fees to check bags and make sure to always use an Airtag or bag tracker in case your bag gets lost.

Final Thoughts

Not checking a bag for a week (or longer or shorter) may seem daunting to the serial overpacker. But I believe in you. Save time, money, and hassle on your next trip by using these tips to travel with just a carry-on. Your wallet, shoulders, and sanity will thank you, and you may just enjoy your vacation a little bit more since you won’t be dragging around and digging through so much excess stuff.

The information regarding the Citi®/AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard® was independently collected by Upgraded Points and not provided nor reviewed by the issuer.

For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card, click here.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can you fit 7 days worth of clothing in just a carry-on bag?

The trick here is to pack basic items that you can mix and match with one another. Having access to laundry in your destination helps, as does traveling on a leisure trip to a warm-weather destination. Using compression packing cubes helps create more space in your bag, too.

What is the 5 4 3 2 1 packing method?

The 5 4 3 2 1 packing method refers to packing 5 tops, 4 bottoms, 3 accessories, 2 shoes, and 1 swimsuit. However, when doing this method for packing in a carry-on, I suggest wearing a pair of shoes and packing the other. Accessories can be things like purses, sunglasses, and a hat. These items might be able to easily tuck into your personal item, too.

Are packing cubes really worth it?

Yes, packing cubes can ensure you can fit everything you need in your suitcase by compressing your items and pushing out excess air. Packing cubes also allow you to organize your items so everything is easy to find.

Is it better to roll or fold your clothes when packing?

This is up for debate, but a combination of both rolling and folding is often most efficient when packing your suitcase. Fold lighter weight or smaller items, then roll bulkier items. You can also roll things to take advantage of random spaces within your bag.

Lori Zaino's image

About Lori Zaino

Lori is an intrepid traveler who loves creating itineraries that exude “luxe on a budget.” She’s written for CNN, NBC, The Infatuation, and more, and loves to muse about points-fueled trips to Sri Lanka, Sicily, and Myanmar.

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