Stop Checking Bags: Tips for Traveling With a Carry-On Bag Instead

This is a guest blog post by Hydaway ambassador and travel writer, Alicia Underlee Nelson. Follow her on Instagram @prairiestylefile and check out her blog for more travel tips at

Fees for checked bags keep going up and schlepping loads of luggage through crowded airports is such a pain! In this blog, we will be sharing 5 ways to lighten your load and so you are traveling with only a carry-on bag, instead of messing with checked luggage.

Clothes on a hanger

Create a travel capsule wardrobe

Pick a neutral color to serve as the building block of your travel wardrobe. Choosing one neutral eliminates the temptation to pack duplicate items in different colors and forces you to pare down your options. Brown, black, gray, or khaki work great! I guess if you’re brave (and neat!) enough to tempt fate and try white on vacation, more power to you!

Then choose one or two accent colors and one pattern — max. This way, everything goes with everything else, and getting dressed on location is a snap. Resist the temptation to add “just in case” choices. Traveling with just carry-on bag is about focus and restraint.

If you’re worried you won’t have enough options, remember that you can always do laundry at your destination. Most hotels and resorts offer laundry service, but you can also do your own. Just tuck a little powdered detergent into your bag and hand wash it in the hotel sink or bathtub in a pinch. (No judgment! I’ve done it.)

Pack items that can pull double duty

Once you’ve narrowed down your color scheme, it’s time to get ruthless. Only the items that can pull double (and ideally triple) duty make it into your suitcase.

Start with clothing and accessories. Choose the leggings that work under tunics, but can double as workout pants or stand-in for tights.  Grab the scarf that looks great with jeans, but can be used as a blanket on the plane, a wrap on a chilly night, or a poolside sarong. Make sure staples like jeans, shirts, and jackets can be worn with multiple outfits. Anything that only works with one other ensemble goes right back in your closet. Be sure to check the weather with where you are going, if you are even going need jeans or a coat.

Items Exempt from this rule are clothes that will get wet or muddy, like hiking boots or bathing suits. It’s worth sacrificing a little space to not have to tromp around in muddy boots or pull on a wet swimsuit in the morning.

If you’re tempted to pack bulky items you’ll need every day (like a hairdryer) or “just in case” items (like an umbrella), call or email your hotel to see if they’re available for purchase or for rent. I’ve happily used everything from books and board games to umbrellas and sewing kits at my destination, all for free.

make up stuff

Minimize liquids

Traveling with only teeny, tiny bottles of liquids, gels, and creams that are all 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters) or less can be the trickiest part of not checking a bag. (Just to make life really interesting, they all have to fit in a quart size bag and be placed in a plastic bin for security screening.)

Buy travel-sized containers of only the most necessary or hard-to-find items. Or, bring your faves by decanting your existing products into special travel bottles. You can also try non-liquid alternatives like solid perfume, sunscreen sticks, and facial cleansing, antibacterial, and bug repellent wipes.

And remember – you don’t have to pack everything you need. It can be easier (and often cheaper) to buy full-size bottles of essentials. Things like sunscreen, bug spray, and shaving cream will likely be available at your destination. Exploring a local drugstore or pharmacy can also be a fun look into local life.


Use every inch of space strategically

When it comes to carrying on bag, most airlines allow one larger bag to fit in the overhead bin (usually 9 x 14 x 22 inches) and one smaller personal item to put under the seat in front of you. (Don’t forget to check all dimensions and carry-on luggage policies with your airline in advance.)

I pack everything I’ll need on the plane or in the airport in my personal item, so I only need to open one bag in transit. This bag holds my regular purse, a daypack for hiking, as well as my bag of liquids, make-up, chargers, snacks, medicines, earplugs, and a sleep mask.

Next, turn your attention to the bag for the overhead bin. Take out your bulkiest footwear and heaviest clothing to wear to the airport. Then maximize every single inch of remaining space. Roll or tightly fold all clothing, working on getting everything as flat and/or small as possible. Tuck underwear and socks into shoes to help hold their shape and use every available nook and cranny. Try packing cubes to keep small and/or similar items together, and strategically squeeze them into your luggage like a game of Tetris.


Hydaway bottles

Picture by Alicia Underlee Nelson, 2018.

Stash your snacks and drink containers

Nothing sabotages a streamlined packing plan like getting hungry or thirsty. Traveling with only carry-on bags is about physically lightening your load, saving money, reducing stress and helping you breeze through the airport. It’s hard to achieve if you’re rushing on board with an armful of crinkling fast-food sacks and overpriced bottled water, stressed out after waiting in line.

Avoid this fate by bringing your own snacks and water. I like to pack hiking/camping-friendly snacks like dried fruit, nuts, granola bars, and jerky for long-term energy. (Avoid items like crackers, which will inevitably get pulverized in your bag.) If you don’t eat it all in-flight, you can save it for a snack later on.

A reusable water bottle is a great, environmentally friendly way to save money and stay hydrated. When every inch of space matters, the fact that Hydaway bottles collapse is seriously a game-changer. I like that I can slide one into my purse before the security checkpoint, then pop it open and fill it up before I board. (Just make sure every last drop of water is out before you go through security.)

What are your tips and tricks for traveling with only a carry-on bag?

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Comments 1

  1. For a future blog tip – if you do need to put on a damp bathing suit, get it warm with hot water. Many places recommend showering first anyway.

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