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How to Travel with a Carry-On Only (Because It *Can* Be Done)

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There are few things more liberating than flying with nothing but a carry-on overhead and a personal item at your feet. For starters, you get to skip the whole baggage claim scene…and let’s face it, no one wants to stand next to that not-so-merry-go-round after getting off a cramped airplane. Also, every bag you check will cost you a pretty penny these days. Traveling light, however, is an acquired skill—but if you’re on board with the idea (pun intended), we’ve got a few smart packing tips that will help. Here’s how to travel with a carry-on only and make it work.

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1. Choose the Right Carry-on

Weight, durability and ease of use are key factors to consider, in addition to size, when shopping for a carry-on bag. Let’s start with weight: Aside from the fact that you have to lug the thing around the airport and lift it in and out of overhead storage bins on the plane, it’s also worth noting that many airlines have weight limits for carry-on bags (more on that later) and the heavier the luggage itself, the less weight you can add to it. In other words, you stand a much better chance at being able to stuff your carry-on to the gills without exceeding these limits if the luggage doesn’t already weigh a ton when it’s empty.

Of course, durability is also important when you’re packing all your essentials in a single carry-on bag, so spring for a high-quality option. Hard-cased carry-on pieces are great for keeping your belongings safe and are easy to roll around the airport—provided you pick one with good wheels, that is. On the other hand, soft options, like duffle bags, often require more schlepping, but you can squish and shove them into the overhead baggage compartment easily, even when they’re bursting at the seams. Bottom line: The type of carry-on you choose is really just a matter of personal preference—just make sure that the bag you travel with is constructed well and doesn’t exceed the dimensions specified by the airline. (Psst: If you’re in the market for a new carry-on, you can check out our top picks here.)

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2. Read Up on the Restrictions

There are several rules for traveling with carry-on luggage, and most, but not all of them are determined by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). For example, all airlines require that carry-ons be no larger than 22 x 14 x 9 inches, but weight restrictions may vary depending on the carrier. Of course, there are also rules about what you’re allowed to put in your carry-on, and you can find an exhaustive list of the permitted and prohibited goods on the TSA website. Finally, most airlines permit you to travel with a “personal item,” and if you’re flying with a carry-on only, you would be wise to take advantage of this. In general, personal items must be small enough to fit under the seat in front of you. That said, you should consult the airline’s website for the maximum dimensions of a personal item, as this varies as well.

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3. Make the Most of Your Personal Item

As previously mentioned, most airlines permit you to travel with a personal item in addition to your carry-on bag, provided the former is small enough to be stowed under the seat in front of you. Don’t waste this opportunity by traveling with, say, a tiny crossbody purse. Instead, opt for the biggest backpack you can reasonably pass off as a personal item—be sure to double check the dimensions—and fill it up with all the stuff you want to bring, but couldn’t squeeze into your carry-on. (And yes, that cute crossbody bag can go inside the backpack.)

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4. Wear Your Bulkiest Items

The simplest way to free up space in your carry-on and stay within the weight limit is to wear the bulky and heavy stuff you want to bring on your body. In other words, pack your favorite cardigan and flip flops, and wear your parka and hiking boots. Yes, slip-on footwear is much more convenient at security, but the extra hassle is a small price to pay when you consider the extra packing space you gain. As for the parka, the airplane cabin may very well be cold enough to warrant it, but you can always take it off once you board, if need be.

Make Marie Kondo proud and roll your clothing instead of folding it. This brilliant travel hack allows you to fill every nook and cranny of your carry-on and bring more clothing on board. Plus, if you roll your apparel, you won’t have any stubborn creases to contend with when you reach your destination.

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6. Use Compression Bags

We recommend rolling up your clothes because it makes them more compact, but nothing reduces the volume of a wardrobe quite like compression bags. These come in all shapes and sizes—from colorful fabric packing cubes to plastic space bags that look like giant, durable Ziplocs. In general, packing cubes are great for keeping your carry-on organized and many have zipper designs that create a compression-like effect, as well. Still, packing cubes don’t hold a candle to heavy duty plastic compression bags (i.e., the kind that rely on a vacuum cleaner to suck out every last pocket of air) when it comes to condensing clothing and maximizing space.

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7. Be Selective with Footwear

You want a pair of stilettos for a night out on the town, business-casual pumps for the work conference, slippers for the hotel, sandals for the beach and sneakers for sightseeing. We get it. However, footwear is seriously bulky, so if you want to pack smart, you’re going to have to pare back. Leave the majority of your shoe collection at home and aim to cover all the bases abroad with no more than three pairs—two in your carry-on and one, the bulkiest, on your feet. Example: Wear your comfiest sneakers then pack your sandals and a pair of heels that can be dressed up or down.

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8. Rely on Layers

Not to belabor the point, but when flying with only a carry-on, it’s wise to cut back on bulky items as much as possible. Of course, this is easier said than done if you’re traveling to a colder climate. The solution? Layer, and then layer some more. If you pack long underwear, and as many slim fitting long-sleeve T-shirts as you can, you’ll be able to stay warm and have plenty of outfit options to boot. As a result, you’ll be able to leave some of your chunky sweaters and outerwear behind and save space in your suitcase for other things.

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9. Keep Toiletries to a Minimum (or Skip Them Entirely)

Before you start packing your toiletry bag, keep in mind that the TSA has strict restrictions on liquid items in carry-on luggage. Specifically, you are only allowed to travel with liquid, gel and aerosol items that are stored in travel-size containers of 3.4 ounces or smaller (regardless of how much product is in the container) and only as many travel-size containers as you can fit in a quart-sized bag. Tip: If your favorite cleanser and shampoo only come in large containers, transfer a small portion into an empty travel-size bottle.

That said, everything you can live without for the length of your trip should probably just stay behind—namely because hotels and vacation rentals typically provide basic items like shampoo and body wash free of charge. Plus, you can always purchase travel-size toiletries when you reach your destination, so that you have just enough product to last the length of your stay (without any of it taking up space in your carry-on, whether you’re coming or going).

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10. Do Your Laundry at the Destination

Ideally, you should plan on packing no more than one full week’s worth of clothing in your carry-on. What if your trip spans more than seven days, you ask? Wash and dry on at your new accommodation. Even if there’s no washer and dryer where you plan on staying, lightly worn clothing can be quickly and thoroughly hand washed in a bathtub or sink and left to dry overnight, provided you buy some laundry detergent when you reach your destination. In other words, pack seven pairs of socks, not 14, for a two-week trip and give those undies a quick soak before you hit the hay—they’ll be fresh and ready-to-wear come morning. (Psst: The same goes for T-shirts, blouses and other quick-drying items.)