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The Definitive Carry On Packing List

This article concludes our three-part series on packing carry on only. We recommend starting with the first two articles in the series to learn the rules for carry on luggage and the principles for packing carry-on-only.

As I stood next to the luggage carousel waiting for my bag, I realized the absurdity of the situation.

I was in Frankfurt, the first stop of a two-week backpacking trip through Europe. Traveling light. Traveling fast. Staying flexible. We hadn’t booked any train tickets or hostels past Germany’s financial capital.

Why was I waiting (with fingers crossed) for my backpack?

I shouldn’t be at the mercy of the airline. I should control my own destiny.

This was my “see the light” moment.

Checking luggage made no sense. Now, years later, baggage fees have become common, and checking luggage makes even less sense.

If you’re reading this article, you’ve seen the light too.

Whether you’ve always packed light or are a recent convert to the carry on club, you’re in the right place.

In the first two articles in this series, we discussed the rules for carry on packing and the principles to help you maximize your packing space. In this article, you will find a complete carry on packing list with links to some of our favorite products to get you started.

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7 Secrets to Packing Light

This article is the second in a three-part series on packing carry on only. If you haven’t read The Carry On Luggage Rules to Live By, we recommend starting there.

Last week, we covered the rules of carry on packing as set by the airlines and government. Now we can move on to the guiding principles that will help you get the most out of your allowed packing space.

The suggestions below guide our carry on packing list, which will be published next week.

Your exact packing list will depend on your destination, the length of your trip, the weather, and your planned activities. The seven core principles below apply to every trip.

Packing is like grammar. You have to know the rules before you can break them. Learn to work within these constraints, then you can start to freestyle.

#1: Pack “Must Have,” Not “Just In Case”

Pack Must Have, Not Just in Case

When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then take half the clothes and twice the money.

Packing light requires sacrifices.

You can’t bring clothes for every possible situation. You should only bring what you wear on the average day.

Pack with the Pareto Principle, aka the 80/20 Principle, in mind.

Applying the Pareto Principle to packing means that 20% of what you pack will account for 80% of what you wear.

Bring your core wardrobe that you wear over-and-over at home. Those clothes will cover more than 80% of the situations you will encounter on the road.

For the rest, buy or borrow what you need depending on local prices and your budget. Most of your “what if” scenarios will never happen. Don’t carry around extra physical and mental baggage “just in case.”

If a surprise does come up, you can solve it cheaply with a temporary solution, not one you have to deal with for your entire trip.

Pack light and stay flexible. Deal with situations as they come. You’ll get a better story out of it that way.

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Don't Leave Anything Behind

Perfect your packing with our free carry on packing list.

Join our mailing list below to get your packing checklist and weekly packing tips sent straight to your inbox.

Spam is the worst, so we won't send you any.

Carry on luggage rules

This article is the first in a three-part series on packing carry-on-only. Read the rest of the series to learn the principles for packing light and to find our Definitive Carry On Packing List.

The first step to mastering carry-on-only packing is to know the rules.

Carry on luggage allowances differ by airline. Check your airline’s rules before flying. Just Google “[airline] carry on luggage” or “[airline] hand luggage.”

Always use the measurements from your airline’s website. Those measurements will be the most accurate.

Be wary of third-party sites that aggregate information for multiple airlines as their measurements may be inaccurate or outdated.

Carry On Luggage Size

The most commonly allowed size for carry on luggage is 45 linear inches (length + width + height).

Some airlines allow larger bags, but forty-five inches is a reliable baseline to use.

Airlines that give measurements by dimension typically allow bags up to 22 x 14 x 9 inches. Some airlines allow bags that are larger in one or more dimensions, but this configuration will meet the guidelines for most major airlines. We used these measurements to maximize packing space in the Tortuga Travel Backpack while still keeping it carry-on-eligible on most airlines.

Budget airlines like Ryanair are the most common exceptions to these norms. Cheaper airlines are often more strict with luggage size rules.

Check your favorite airlines’ rules before buying new luggage.

In addition to your carry on luggage, most airlines also allow one personal item, like a purse or laptop bag. Your personal item must fit under the seat in front of you.

Very few airlines publish size rules for personal items. United’s new baggage policy allows items up to 17 x 10 x 9 inches. If your airline doesn’t have specific size limits, use United’s rules as a guide to determine if your personal item will fit under the seat.

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How to Hand Wash Clothes When You Travel

Eastern Europe. July 2009.

The weather was hot, and we were covering a lot of ground on foot every day. Before reaching Hvar, we were spending these long, hot days in cities. We were sweaty and gross. Typical backpackers.

Unlike some of our brethren, we tried to maintain some dignity and actually clean our clothes.

Every night our hostel room’s sink was plugged up and filled with soapy water so that we could clean our socks, underwear, and t-shirts.

It wasn’t pretty, but it did keep us clean and save us from trying to navigate any Hungarian laundromats.

By selectively hand washing clothes, you can pack light and avoid re-wearing dirty clothes.

If you’re traveling for a week or more, doing laundry is the easiest way to pack significantly less.

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The best travel podcasts to listen to on your next flight

Long, international flights can be brutal. I’ve endured 15 hour flights to Dubai, Sydney, and (as of last night) Hong Kong.

Even for an avid movie, music, and book fan like me, that’s a lot of time to fill.

I’ve never found using a laptop to be very practical or productive. Plus, most international flights still don’t have WiFi.

My recipe for passing the time is a combination of sleeping, eating, reading, listening to music, watching movies that I wouldn’t watch under any other conditions, and listening to podcasts.

Podcasts are like a cross between radio and blogs. Most podcasts are episodic shows that you can subscribe to via iTunes.

A few months ago, I started to look for travel podcasts. The options were disappointing. The iTunes Store’s search results were dominated by Rick Steves and filler from AOL.

The few other shows I found centered each episode on a different destination. I didn’t subscribe to them because most episodes were be totally irrelevant to me. Right content, wrong time.

Then I dug deeper. And I found the good stuff. Now I’m sharing it with you.

Let’s start with the best travel podcasts, then I’ll recommend other, non-travel shows for your listening pleasure.

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