How To Switch To Packing in a Carry On Only

Laura Lopuch

Maybe you’ve always checked a bag when you fly, but this year you want to challenge yourself and see if you can pack for a trip in a carry on only. This year you’re ready to break free of the expensive baggage fees and long waits at the carousel for your suitcase to be spit free.

The problem: You’ve always checked a bag and switching to a carry on seems intimidating.

Where do you start with this challenge? How do you switch to a carry on after years of checking bags?

How To Switch To A Carry On

1. Change Your Mindset

The true secret behind packing in a carry on is your mindset. It’s thinking light. It’s the belief that you’re capable of handling whatever the trip throws your way. No matter what you packed.

No matter what is in your bag, you won’t be prepared for what travel offers to you. That’s part of the reason why I travel: to challenge myself and expand my thoughts.

First, accept that you won’t be ready. You won’t be ready for how travel will impact you.

Accept that you’re Bear Grillis embarking on an adventure, armed with only a small bag filled with necessities you might need. Accept that even if he was dropped from a helicopter with a backpack bursting with finest military gear, he still wouldn’t be fully prepared for what awaits him. Neither will you.

The gear, extra set of shoes, the other collared shirt, that you feel compelled to bring won’t make or break your trip. Once you realize that packing for every situation is simply impossible, you’re free.

You’re free from the huge burden of always being prepared.

2. Why Mindset Matters

In a lot of ways, stuff equals security. Stuff is a symbol of wealth and a fat bank account makes you think you’re impervious to harm.

I think that’s why we tend to over-pack for trips. We’re searching for security in the face of unknown adventures. On a trip, we enter into an unfamiliar arena bursting with monsters, dragons, wizards, and magic. No matter how excited and prepared you are for a trip, it’s still an unknown.

We need to feel secure. The easiest way for us to assuage that anxiety is to bring stuff. But when you switch to a carry on, your stuff diminishes and your feeling of security can as well.

Take a deep breath and realize you are far more capable at handling unknowns than you give yourself credit for. Remember, this is an adventure. This is about discovering how you can tackle any situation and come out on top.

3. Seek Out Small Victories

It’s hard to change your mindset. It’s hard to accept that you won’t be prepared.

You might run out of contact solution in Rome, enter a pharmacy, have to figure out which of the numerous white bottles is contact solution, and order it from the Italian pharmacist using smiles and hand gestures.

But when you exit the store, clutching your little white bottle, you’ll feel like a Gladiator defeating the lions, fist-pumping and yelling, “Victory!”

Believe in yourself. You can do anything. Set yourself up for small victories — like buying contact solution or floss — and go accomplish them. Soon those victories will add up to a new mindset. A new ferocious mindset that travels fleet and fast, can chew his way out of a situation, and packs only in a carry on.

4. Buy What You’re Missing

If you forget something, you can buy it on the road or at your destination.

Every city in the world has stores. Every airport has a place to buy bottled water, coffee or snacks. In nearly every town in America, you can find a gas station or Wal-Mart. People everywhere visit stores to buy what they need in their daily lives. Even if you’re traveling, you can do the same thing.

5. Determine Your Never-Forget Items

The exception to the above rule is the answer to this question: What’s the one thing that would totally ruin your trip if you forgot it?

That’s your never-forget item. Never forget it while you’re packing. Double and triple-check your bag to make sure you’ve got it.

For me, it’s my glasses. Without them, I’d be blind as a mole. Everything else in my bag is replaceable.

Some examples of never-forget items:

  • Spare pair of contact lenses
  • Medication
  • Glasses
  • Sound machine
  • Hat or sunscreen
  • Favorite pair of shoes

6. Identify Your Necessities

Space demands to be filled. When you have a large bag to fill, it gets filled. But not everything that’s in your bag is a necessity. When you go from a checked suitcase to a carry on, you don’t have as much space.

How do you spot your necessities?

Grab a small bag (like a messenger bag or backpack) and fill it with the most important things that you absolutely must bring with you. When you run out of room, put the other items next to that bag.

Examine that pile and ask yourself:

  • Do I really need this fourth shirt when I’ve packed three already?
  • Do I really need a second book when the first one is 500+ pages long and I’m only on page 5?
  • Do I really need another pair of sandals?

Listen to your gut. If you feel doubt, ditch the item. You might not miss it. If you do, buy another one en route or when you get to your destination.

I have a packing list of core items that go with me on every trip, regardless of my destination.

Sample Core Packing List:

  • 3 pairs of underwear
  • 3 pairs of socks
  • 1 three-quarter length cardigan
  • 1 black tank top (for layering or to wear alone)
  • 2 shirts: short sleeve or one three-quarter length
  • 1 pair of jeans (wear)
  • 1 brightly colored scarf
  • Travel alarm clock
  • One book, at least 400+ pages long
  • Travel reading light
  • 1 pair of shoes: running or leather
  • iPhone charging cord
  • Spare pair of contact lenses
  • Glasses
  • Sunglasses

Depending on where I’m going, I’ll add in a jersey dress, skirt, flip flops, or a collared shirt. It’s easy to switch up or change the core packing list.

7. Test and Re-Test

Packing in a carry on is an ever-evolving skill. What you pack depends on your destination, the weather, your wardrobe, which clothes you like at the time, and how comfortable you are with bringing a certain amount of stuff.

As you take more trips with just a carry on, you’ll learn what your necessities are and what your core packing list looks like. That’s when the fun starts. You can test and re-test your core packing list to figure out what are truly necessities.

For example, I’ve always carried a second book to read for fear I’d end up without reading material. But on a recent trip, my husband persuaded me to leave it behind since there wasn’t enough room in my small carry on.

He was right — I didn’t finish reading the first book I brought. If I’d brought the second book, it would have been extra weight taking up valuable space.


Packing less is about adjusting your mindset. Stop packing extra stuff as a security blanket and embrace your ability to conquer the unfamiliar as you travel.  Switching from a checked a bag to using a carry on, like the Tortuga, will set you free!

Remember, nearly everything can be purchased at your destination. Identify the items that will ruin your trip if you forget them, and consider everything else in your bag a bonus.