Step Down to Carry On: Let it Go!

Jessie Beck

If you constantly overpack, reaching your goal of packing light is a process. Expect to work through a few tries before you nail traveling with a carry on only. There will be some trial and error, practice, and learning. Just as you would with a diet, you should aim to ditch the extra weight bit by bit.

In this segment, we’ll take the chronic overpackers through their last step in the process of getting from traveling with all the luggage they’re allowed to bring on a plane, to a simple carry on and personal item only. This is where things really get fun and the true packing adventure begins!

First, a quick review of the steps we’ve already taken:

Getting From 2 Checked Bags to 1 Checked Bag

In our first segment, max packer to moderate checker, we took you from checking two large suitcases, to just one. To do this, we:

Checking an Even Smaller Bag

In the second segment, we worked on how to check a smaller bag and showed you how to get that 1 large suitcase down to a more manageable piece of luggage. To do this we:

So, if you’ve already followed all of these steps, then, young padawan, you are ready for the next and final step. You’re ready to step down to carry on, and let it go (*let it goooo*):

Step 1: Change Your Bags (Again!)

So, if you’ve been following along so far, you should already have the bag you want to use for this carry on only trip. In the last segment, you would have been traveling with two carry on sized bags (just checking one). So, for this trip, grab:

  1. Either the carry on sized rollerbag, duffle, or backpack. Use whichever one you liked best. If you haven’t been following and need some recommendations on what to look for, head on back to the previous installment for some tips. One of the bags from the Outbreaker Collection would be a great, TSA friendly choice.
  2. A daypack, messenger bag, or purse. Choose whichever one you’d prefer to walk around town with and opt for something the size of Tortuga’s daypack. It absolutely counts as a personal item (since it fits nicely under the seat).

Just keep in mind that if you’re on a crowded flight, you might be asked to check your bag at the gate — especially if it’s a rollerbag. Fortunately, though, on most airlines, you shouldn’t have to pay anything for this service.

Step 1.5: Get Familiar With Carry On Rules

This is an extension of step 1, since it might change which pieces of luggage you decide to travel with. But, if you’re not familiar with them already, get familiar with carry on rules when it comes to luggage size, weight, and what you can, and cannot, bring on an airplane. Most of it’s obvious, a few things, like what the TSA considers a liquid, bears double checking.




Step 2: Eliminate “Just in Case” Items

Except for some basic medicine and first-aid, try to travel with absolutely 0 just-in case items. For each item you’re thinking of packing, ask yourself, “Will I use this?” If the answer is “No,” or, “Maybe,” don’t pack it. Basically, you’ll have to be able to give a confident, “Yes!” to allow yourself to bring this item. Step 3: Go Compact, or Travel Size, for Everything

If you can make something smaller, make it smaller. Literally, every little thing could make a difference in getting your stuff to fit in a small bag over a medium sized bag.

When possible, try to ditch cases and consolidate containers as well. For example, I swapped out my bulky laptop case for a hardcase (when traveling for work, I’ll bring my laptop instead of the iPad) which makes it much easier to fit in the outer pocket of my backpack. Get creative.

Step 4: Plan Activities in Advance


Rock climbing while traveling

Personally, I tend to overpack when there are a dozen different activities that I want to do on a trip (all of which require their own special type of shoes, naturally) and feel like I need to bring my own personal equipment for each.

It’s taken a few years to stop traveling with my rock climbing harness, climbing shoes, hiking boots, a yoga mat, and sports gear for every other possible scenario (what if we decide to go camping? Ahh!) but it’s helped me to reduce the amount of single-activity-specific gear I bring by planning my activities in advance and becoming okay with renting equipment when necessary.

This is, of course, a little different if I’m planning a 5-day trip somewhere just to rock climb, bike, hike, or do a yoga retreat, but for an average trip where one of these activities is simply one of many, between going out, eating, or laying on the beach, I push myself to leave my personal equipment at home. Instead, I’ll take a look at what the destination is most known for and choose one activity (usually hiking) that I’d like to do the most. For everything else, I’ll rent equipment from a tour outfitter once I’m there.

Step 5: Employ the Pro Tips

If you’re ready for it, try out the packing pro tips that we’ve talked about elsewhere in the Tortuga blog.

For example, instead of saving space for souvenirs, pack items you’ll want to get rid of along the way (old clothes, toiletries, a book that you can leave behind at your hostel) to free up room. Shannon talks about this in her Disposable Packing List post.

Challenge yourself to see if you can get your packing list as minimalist as possible by reducing what you’ve already packed, then reducing again!

Ditch the destination packing list and use our definitive carry on packing list instead — for every trip.

Step 6: Organize Your Bag for a Speedy Security Check

Airport security

Organization is so crucial while traveling. Not only will it help protect you against theft, but it can help save you time and keep you from overpacking. There’s no better example of this than the security check line. Avoid being “that guy” holding everyone up by organizing your bag. Make sure you are ready with:

I’d also recommend avoiding accessories and bobby pins. Wear slip on shoes when possible. For this reason, I always prefer to travel with hiking sneakers, not hiking boots, since if I have to wear them while in transit they’re much easier to slip on and off.

Step 7: Test it Out & Take Notes

No matter how much advice I give or how specific it is, the perfect carry on packing list for you will be different than anyone else’s. The only way to truly nail a carry on only travel style is to test it out and take notes on what worked, and what didn’t.

Was ditching the neck pillow a truly terrible idea? Do you think you could probably bring one less t-shirt? You’ll never know until you’ve tested it out, taken notes, and then put those notes to the test the next time you travel. In my opinion, that’s the fun part!

The Results

So, I haven’t talked too much about the benefits of traveling with carry on only throughout this series, since I assumed that if you’re here, you’ve probably got a reason or two for wanting to pack lighter. But, just in case you need a little extra encouragement, here are some of the results (in numbers!) that you can achieve if you travel with carry on only.

Assuming that you fly twice per year (meaning, 4 one-way trips), getting down to carry on only pays some pretty great dividends:


Shave off an average of 21 minutes per trip waiting at the luggage carousel, and anywhere from 5 – 35 minutes checking your bag in the first place. For a round trip flight, let’s assume that’s a total of 1 hour 22 minutes saved. If you travel twice a year, that’s nearly 3 hours less time spent in an airport per year.


Expect to save between $100 – 200 per year on luggage fees, depending on airlines, as well as the additional money spent on tips for porters, luggage carts, and possible overweight baggage charges. Without extra bags you’ll be more likely to take a bus or train instead of a taxi, which saves even more.

Reduced Stress

Gone are the worries about anything getting broken, stolen, or lost by an airline in transit. Ever. Also, less luggage=less stressful airport and transit experience overall. Yay!


With less luggage, you’re able to move more freely and say, “Yes,” to more. Once, I met a guy who was traveling by motorcycle in Morocco. When I asked if I could hitch a ride from Marrakesh to the coast, he said, “Well, since you’ve packed so light, that’s not a problem. Sure!” Had I brought too much, one of my favorite travel adventures never would have happened.


Let’s put it all together now. To stop checking your bags and travel with a carry on only, follow these steps:

It’ll take a couple of trips before you get your packing list perfectly honed, but before you know it, you’ll be a packing pro. Best of luck! And, we look forward to hearing about your packing adventures in the comments below, or on social media.

Image: Negative Space and Flickr