How to Pack and Travel Anywhere with a Carry On Bag


We have probably all traveled with too many bags. We struggle through the airport and try not to topple over on the escalator. We scramble to find a luggage cart or a porter and then cross our fingers when it comes time to check in and weigh our bags.

Unfortunately, too many of us have experienced lost luggage, forcing us to spend the first hours of our precious vacation replacing clothing and toiletries.

I once juggled two large suitcases and a tote bag through an airport in Ecuador, before dragging them across a cracked and uneven road and then lifting them onto the luggage rack of a bus. My shoulders hurt for days.

A New Approach

In recent years, my husband and I have made travel a priority, and we want it to be easy and comfortable. Though not quite world traveling jet setters, we have made several trips in the last year, each time traveling lightly. We each use one 21-inch soft-sided, four-wheeled carry on bag that fits in the overhead compartment of the plane. My husband carries a backpack that fits under the seat and I carry a cross-body tote bag.

We have found this arrangement works well. The wheeled bags take up a bit more room, but allow us to move smoothly across airports and cobbled streets. The backpack and tote bag keep things handy in flight or in the car and work as a day bag once we are at our destination. The cross-body bag is a game changer as it allows me to hang on to railings on escalators or buses. Here is a closer look at what I packed for 5-10 days and how I adjusted the contents for four different trips.

What I Pack in the 21 Inch Carry On Bag

In general, I pack clothing that doesn’t wrinkle and roll most things. One pair of jeans, one pair of black pants, one pair of black leggings, one thin long-sleeved gray sweater, five knit shirts in solid colors that go with any of the pants and the gray sweater, one printed tunic, one denim shirt, a pair of black yoga pants and T-shirt for sleeping, one knit black dress, socks and underwear for the number of days I will be gone and an extra pair of comfortable black shoes. I also add a colorful printed scarf and a couple of necklaces.

Here’s What’s in My Tote Bag

My swimsuit, a thin cardigan sweater, a black wallet on a string that doubles as an evening bag, my iPad mini, earbuds, a clear plastic bag with liquids and gels, a small cosmetic bag and comb, a reusable water bottle that I fill after check-in, a few snacks such as almonds and raisins, pens, notepad, guidebook, my glasses and medications.

Ireland in September

For a trip to Ireland in September I wore jeans, a shirt and a sweater on the plane, along with a pair of short boots. I added another pair of pants and a hooded raincoat to the carry on and removed the dress, since we were mostly planning to be outdoors and in and around castles.

The shoes in my carry on were a pair of comfortable walking shoes. In my tote bag, I also took a lightweight Pashmina wrap for sleeping on the overnight flight.

Texas in November

I added a denim jacket to the mix, as evenings in Texas can be chilly. We were also planning a couple of days at the Canton Flea Market, and I like the many pockets on the jacket for handling small bills. I wore the jacket, jeans and short boots on the plane and put black flats in the carry on bag.

The Caribbean in February

Because we were leaving a cold climate for a warm one, I wore a quilted vest, jeans, a long sleeve shirt and walking shoes for traveling. I removed the sweater and jeans from the carry on bag and added another casual dress and two pairs of Capri length pants. I also added a swimsuit cover up to my tote. I replaced the casual flats with a pair of sandals.

Nashville in the Spring

I skipped the dress and added another pair of jeans. I wore the raincoat en route, along with jeans and a pair of tennis shoes. The sweaters got a work out as days were warm and muggy and nights were chilly. I took black flats in the carry-on, and found just enough room to bring home a pair of sandals I purchased there.

My travel wardrobe may not be exciting, but it works. I can mix and match the items if I stay with black and gray as basics. I plan on wearing things more than once, and change up outfits with a scarf or jewelry. I take a small amount of laundry powder with me in case I want to wash something.

The downside of traveling lightly is that I don’t have room to bring home souvenirs. I collect Christmas ornaments from each place I visit, and fortunately, these are small and easy to fit into a small space. Otherwise, I ship items home. I happily trade the ease and convenience of being able to cart my own luggage around for the ability to buy more things.

What about you? Do you have any tips or tricks for packing lightly? I would love to hear your thoughts about traveling with ease. Please share in the comments.

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