Step Down to Carry On: Max Packer to Moderate Checker

By Jessie Beck

At Tortuga, we talk a lot about packing light, and traveling with nothing more than a carry on is the ideal for most of us. But, over the past year, my friends and family have made me realize traveling that light isn’t necessarily a desire, or possibility, for everyone.

Some travelers like ditching their bag at the check-in counter and wandering freely through the airport. Some have kids and like packing a few more “just in case items.” I get that — airlines have this service for a reason.

However, max packers — or, travelers who usually bring two checked bags, a carry on, and a personal item — usually express an interest in lightening their loads. The problem is, they’re often not sure how.

Not to worry! Over the next few weeks, I’ll be covering the step down process for going from max packer to carry on only packer. In this first post, I’ll show you how to pack lighter, traveling with only one checked bag and one full sized carry on.

Why Should You Pack Lighter?

I won’t waste too much time on this. If you’re interested in packing lighter, you have your reasons. However, if you’re in need of a little extra motivation, think about this:

  • If you travel twice a year, checking one bag instead of two could save you around $140 (that’s the price of a round-trip flight from San Francisco to Seattle) or more if you’re constantly caught paying overweight fees, tips to luggage helpers, valets, etc.
  • Packing less means you’re able to maneuver around airports and cities easier — less stress!
  • You’ll waste less fuel — more luggage means more struggle for the plane (especially around the holidays…)
  • You can save money on transportation by renting a smaller car, or even opting for a train instead of a taxi.

Still with me? Then let’s get to the real bulk of the article: how you can get from two checked bags to one without sacrificing preparedness, or comfort. You won’t be ditching the checked bags just yet. Just like eating lighter, packing lighter requires taking baby steps. This is simply the first step away from max packing towards carry on only.

Step 1: Change Bag Size & Ditch One Checked Bag

I’m a big believer in the rule that, “If your bag is smaller, you’ll pack less.” Smaller bags force you to think more carefully about what you put in them.

Part of this is definitely a mental exercise — you need to demonstrate restraint from reaching for that second suitcase — and it’s a hard habit to break. It’s like going on a diet and not allowing yourself that second slice of chocolate cake. You don’t want to resist, but you can do it!

So, for someone who still wants to get down from one checked bag to two, the first step to packing lighter is changing your luggage to:

A Full Sized Backpack for Your Carry On

Something like the Outbreaker Backpack, which is a good sized backpack, is more than enough to fit all your in-transit items and an extra days worth of clothes just in case your suitcase gets lost.

A Very Small Bag as a Personal Item

“I like to bring a small purse I can tuck in my carry on tote,” says frequent business traveler, Melissa Wolpert. Personally, I like this tactic because it saves me from having to rummage around in my large carry on while in transit.

Another great option is the Outbreaker Laptop Backpack. This will allow you to use it if you must, but tuck it away if you don’t need it. A safety net, and another step down.

Checked: A Large Roller Duffle or Suitcase

I’d recommend an expandable bag, but try to force yourself not to expand it until you’re on your way home (that way, you’ll always have a little extra souvenir space).

With this combination, you — in a way — have the space of two full-sized pieces of luggage. And, you’re sneakily eliminating your carry on and personal item. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

Step 2: Limit “Just in Case” Items

“I always overpack and think I’ll be sorry if I don’t bring extra items ‘just in case’,” says 28-year-old Amanda Christensen.

As someone who has tried to communicate, “I NEED A BANDAID” in a foreign language multiple times, I definitely see the value in having just in case items. Still, there’s no need to prepare for every possible scenario, so limit (rather than eliminate) your just in case items — especially since they tend to be the reason most packers go from stuffed, to overstuffed.

Some tips for limiting just in case items:

  • Pack clothes within a single color pallette — raise your hand if you’re guilty of packing too many clothes because you want options. I get it, which is why I like to stick to a single color palette and give myself lots of mix and match options. At the same time, I also like to allow myself to pack one top or dress to fill that “just in case” void.
  • Pack 2 – 3 pairs of shoes MAX — shoes are bulky and take up lots of room. Don’t bring a pair for every outfit. Wear your bulkiest pair on the plane.
  • Ditch the full sized toiletries — for any trip under 2 weeks, you won’t run out of anything if you stick to travel sized. Aim to keep all of your toiletries in a small-medium sized bag.
  • Keep your first aid kit simple — it’s best to prepare for things that are highly likely to happen (i.e. a cut, sunburn, motion sickness, allergies) than every injury or sickness under the sun. Stick to the basics for a travel first aid kit.
  • Check the weather and pack accordingly — no signs of rain? Forget the umbrella. An even 40 – 50 degrees? Ditch the sundress.
  • Remember: You can always pick things up on the go — unless it’s a very specific medication or your favorite little black dress, 99% of the time, you’ll be able to buy, or do without, any of these “just in case” items you forget.

Step 3: Maximize the Usefulness of What You Bring

Keep an eye out for items that are more useful and versatile than others. For example, a solid t-shirt that matches all of your pants is better than three t-shirts that each match only one. Sneakers that double as hiking shoes are better than having a pair of hiking shoes and a pair of sneakers.

Try to reduce your electronics if you’re bringing one for each function (i.e. a phone, kindle, camera, and laptop) and don’t forget about all the freebies and amenities you’ll have while in hotels. If all of your hotels come with a blow dryer, leave the travel blowdryer at home.

Step 4: Pack Two Days in Advance

It’s easy to pack too much when you’re packing in a rush. Before every trip, pack all (or most) of your bag 2-3 days in advance. Then, the day before leaving open your bag and take out 1/4th of your items. Whatever you were on the fence about, ditch it.

Especially if you tend to overpack, being able to take a second look at your bag before you leave, rather than in the middle of your journey, will help you note thing things you don’t really need.

Step 5: Organize Your Bags

There are two reasons to do this: first, you’ll be more aware of what you’re packing (oops! I have how many pairs of socks??) by grouping like items together.

Second, you’ll be able to get up to 30% more space without actually packing less (just, resist the urge to fill that extra space with more stuff).

A couple of tricks for saving space:

  • Use packing cubes – Make items easier to find and sort by using packing cubes.
  • Use travel space bags – By using travel space bags, or vacuum seal bags, you can reduce the size of your stuff (clothes especially) in half.
  • Fold or roll your clothes – If you don’t want to invest in any of these, at least make sure you’re folding or rolling your clothes. Stuffing your things haphazardly in a bag can make it seem like you need more space than you really do. Snap a rubber band around each roll to keep it in place.

Step 6: Save Time Like a Carry On Only Packer

One reason that I don’t like checking bags is because it takes time. However, most airlines now offer you the ability to check in, and pay for your bags, online before you arrive at the airport. Take advantage of this to save time (and, it often saves you money).

Also, make sure you keep your laptop and any liquids in your carry on are easily accessible so you can get through security faster.

Want to really speed up things? Consider investing in TSA pre-check. It’s an $85 fee and valid for five years — which is especially worth it if you spend a lot of time traveling.

Tip: if you travel for business, ask if your company will cover it.

Bonus: Keeping Track of Your Checked Bag

One headache that anyone who checks their bags dreads is losing your bag en route. Though this section won’t necessarily help you pack lighter, it will help you keep all of your stuff together — our bonus section of travel-savvy tips for bag-checkers.

Prevent Lost Luggage

The following tips are thanks to the Caroline Costello of SmarterTraveler:

  • Get a sturdy luggage tag with all your information (email, address, phone number, and name) on it
  • Check in & drop off your bag earlier
  • Put your itinerary and contact information inside your bag
  • Avoid tight layovers (1 hour or less)
  • Take a photo of the inside and outside of your bag
  • Make sure your bag stands out with a luggage strap or something unique.
  • Never pack electronics in your checked bag

Following these rules will minimize the possibility of a lost bag and will help make your bag easier to retrieve if the worst happens.

Coping With Lost Luggage

Cope with lost luggage before it’s even lost. Make sure you have all your essentials and important items (especially electronics) in your carry on. That way you’ll be okay for a day if your bag has to catch up with you. Follow the above tips so you can approach the airline armed with the appropriate information to help them to retrieve your bag. If lost, check out this fantastic guide on how to deal with lost luggage. Some key takeaways:

  • Report it lost ASAP and get the airline to file a report
  • Get a number to call just in case
  • Be patient — most bags are simply put on the wrong flight
  • Ask to be reimbursed the baggage fee if there was one

If it’s really lost, you may be able to file a claim and get insurance money from your credit card, home owners insurance, or travelers insurance.

If you’re a max packer and want to take your first step towards traveling with carry on only, start small. To go from two checked bags, a personal item, and a carry on to just a carry on and one checked bag:

  • Swap out your bags for a large carry on and an expandable checked suitcase.
  • Limit your just in case items
  • Maximize the usefulness of what you bring
  • Pack two days in advance
  • Organize your bags with packing cubes and vacuum seal bags
  • Save time by checking in online, in advance
  • Be prepared in case of lost luggage with good luggage tags and photos of the inside and outside of your bag.

Once you’ve mastered this step, then, maybe you’d be open to packing even less? Yes? Then stay posted for our second segment of step down to carry on.