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How to Pack for Vacation in a Carry On Suitcase

When I was little, my family went on holidays every year loaded with massive suitcases and wheelie bags that I could comfortably fit in. We would spend ages standing in the crowd at the luggage reclaim carousel, waiting for our bags to come around the bend and hoping that they didn’t get lost somewhere along the way. Once or twice, we had to pick stray items of clothing off the conveyor belt one by one, like breadcrumbs along the way to our exploded suitcase. We’d wheel an overloaded trolley through the airport, trying to dodge obstacles while the trolley swerved side to side with fierce determination, and stuff the bags into the trunk of the rental car, only to find out there wasn’t enough space so we would have to put some of them on the floor in the backseat. A week later, we repeated it all again.

It was, in short, a bit of a nightmare.

Making some changes

When I first started traveling on my own, I got thinking about whether I needed to bring a huge suitcase with me at all. It was expensive, it wasted time at the airport that could be better spent exploring or even just getting a coffee, and above all, it simply wasn’t necessary to bring so many things on a short trip away.

So, I started packing everything I needed in my carry on, along with a small backpack or handbag. I travel exclusively with cabin baggage now, and I’ve convinced my boyfriend to do the same. In four years of travelling together, we have never had to get checked luggage. Whether it’s a weekend city break or a two week summer getaway, we always make it work.

If you’re planning a trip or a summer vacation of your own and you can’t decide whether or not to buy that extra twenty kilo checked bag, you’re in the right place.

Here are my top tips on travelling light and packing for your holidays in a carry on suitcase.

First of all, let’s get to the bottom of it: why is this a better way to travel?

Pros of travelling only with a Cabin Bag

(because it’s the best way to travel)

1. You’ll be in and out of the airport so much faster

Who likes to spend time at the airport? It’s crowded, noisy, poorly ventilated, and there’s a cloud of stress and agitation hanging around at all times. You couldn’t get me out of there fast enough. When I’m travelling with a cabin bag, I can get there with minimum spare time, and skip straight through to the security checks. After I land, I get to breeze past the crowds at baggage reclaim, waiting for the plane hold to be unloaded. I don’t have to worry about my luggage getting lost or stolen, because it’s with me the entire time. I don’t have to worry that my bag will be destroyed by the luggage handlers, or that my underwear will be floating around a conveyor belt. I just have to wheel my cabin bag right on out into the arrivals floor, and I’m ready to explore!

2. It’s a much more affordable way to travel.

As “cheap” airlines like Ryanair, Easyjet and Wizzair have grown in popularity and expanded their markets, providing accessible and affordable air travel for millions of people, they’ve also hiked up the prices of the add-ons you can purchase along with your ticket. Priority boarding, seat selection, and additional checked luggage can sometimes add up to more than the initial price of the flight, which was the incentive that made you want to book it in the first place. Ryanair especially has become notorious for this – last year, while booking an inexpensive flight to Spain, I was faced with an 8 euro seat selection option, a 12 euro priority boarding pass that allows you to bring your cabin bag on board, and a whopping 30 euro checked luggage option – and that’s per person, one way! There are certain add-ons I’m willing to splash out on, such as getting to sit beside my boyfriend when we’re flying on holidays together. A large suitcase just isn’t one of those things, and I refuse to pay for it unless I’m moving half my belongings to another country. Otherwise, I’ll just take my free cabin bag, thanks.

3. Cabin bags are so much lighter.

How many times have you arrived at a hotel after an exhausting day of travel, only to find that there’s no elevator, and you have to carry all your belongings up three windy sets of stairs? Or maybe you’ve just gotten off a train and realised that your Airbnb is just a little further away than you thought, and have to walk for 20 minutes to find it, probably getting lost along the way? These kinds of situations happen all the time while travelling – everything that can go wrong, likely will go wrong. Not having three massive suitcases to haul along can help you out and make you a lot less cranky. A cabin bag is usually around 10kg, so you’ll more than likely be able to carry it up some stairs, wheel it down city streets, or run for a metro with it in tow. And speaking of the metro…

4. Cabin bags are public transport friendly.

I remember catching a train to Florence with Aidan a couple of summers ago. Sitting across from us: an American couple with no less than six enormous suitcases stacked on top of each other, swaying dangerously as the train navigated bends and turns. It took them three trips and a five minute delay to get all their luggage off the train at the right stop. I don’t know how they made it out of the station and to their accommodation. If you’re going travelling for over a month, it’s understandable enough to bring a little more luggage – but if you’re just going for a week away, there’s no need! It’ll get in the way of using cheap local transport, and pretty much put a beaming target on you, signalling that you’re a tourist. A small cabin bag, however, can easily blend in with the business crowd catching the evening metro. Bonus point: you also won’t get many dirty looks for blocking half the carriage.

5. You just don’t need so much stuff!

Even packing just a cabin bag on trips away, I’ve found myself bringing things I don’t actually end up using on the trip – I mean honestly, did I really need to bring a curling wand, a pair of ridiculously high heels, and three separate books on a beachy trip to Spain?

Packing in a low maintenance way will not only be easier on your back, but also on your mind. Only travelling with the essentials means you’ll get to enjoy your time so much more, and focus on what really matters: getting to explore a new place, meet new people, and make memories. Forget the stuff, and focus on the experience!

Girl sitting on stairs with mosaic tiles in Italy, travelling light with no checked luggage

Cons of travelling only with a Cabin Bag

(just to balance things out)

1. You can only bring a limited amount of things.

As I’ve written above, packing in a more streamlined way can be really beneficial – but it does restrict the amount and variety of things you can bring. Because of this, it requires a little more strategy and planning. You’ll need to think about the outfits you’ll need, consider all possible scenarios, and possibly plan for any laundry you might need to do on the road. Being restricted to a cabin bag of around 10kg restricts your choices, and forces you to make more informed and thoughtful decisions. No, you probably won’t be able to fit your entire summer wardrobe into a small suitcase, but that way you’ll end up choosing your favourite pieces, curating a summer staples collection, and maybe even find an opportunity to declutter some of the things that didn’t make the cut. And I guarantee you’ll spend a lot less time digging through a massive bag to decide what to wear every morning.

2. You can’t bring full size toiletries or restricted items.

This is a tough one at times. It can be difficult to part ways with your favourite shampoo, or the only cleanser you’ve found in years that doesn’t break you out. There are a number of easy solutions to this though. Travel size toiletries have become my staples when I’m travelling, and I have a box of them in my bathroom ready for my next trip. If anything runs out, I stock up in the handy pharmacy in the departures terminal. I also usually buy bigger items like shower gel in the local supermarket after I arrive, or alternatively I make do with the hotel toiletries – though I’m not a huge fan of those. Aidan and I usually also buy razors at the airport or in a local supermarket when we land, as these are obviously banned from cabin bags for safety reasons.

Also, keep in mind that you will probably not be able to bring back drinks or food from your travels, unless you buy them in the duty free. Aidan and I had a heartbreaking situation on our way home from Brussels last winter, where our Speculoos biscuit spread was taken away by the security, even though it was sealed. On the other hand, my dad did once bring a block of cheese back from a holiday in his pocket, and got through security without issues – so it really depends on the item, but it’s best to be aware that you can’t bring all edibles home with you in a carry on.

One con of travel size products: they’re pretty wasteful, and not the best for the environment. I’d recommend picking up an inexpensive travel size bottle set and decanting your favourite products into them before you travel. It can get a little messy, but these containers can be reused, and you’ll still get to use your favourite products while you travel. One more lifechanging travel hack: Lush solid shampoo. It might not be the cheapest, but it lasts ages. I always take mine with me in its little metal case, and it’s an excellent environmentally friendly replacement for regular shampoo. Plus, the Rose Jam scent is to die for.

3. It all depends on the kind of travel you’ll be engaging in.

Certain types of travel are a little less suited to packing light than others. Backpackers are known for packing everything they need into a relatively small carry-on, and can go for months living out of their backpacks alone. It definitely can be done – but it really depends on what kind of activities you’ll be doing, and how much is provided by your accommodation. If you really need to bring beach towels, camping gear, and even bedlinen in some cases, you might want to consider packing those things into a bigger bag. But do think about what you’ll need, rather than all the things that would be nice to have, but will actually weigh you down for two weeks and you won’t even have time to use them.

One disclaimer: travelling only with a cabin bag works significantly better in a warm climate. Chunky sweaters and heavy winter boots are a lot less suited to packing small than summer tank tops and sandals. We’ve taken cabin bags on winter city breaks, but anything longer like that, such as a week-long skiing trip, probably wouldn’t work very well.

So there you have it – the pros and cons of travelling only with a carry on suitcase. If you ask me, the pros infinitely outweigh the cons – it’s all worth it for a lighter load, and an easier, more streamlined travel experience.

You might be thinking, how can I fit everything I need for three weeks travelling across Europe in a small suitcase? Well, here’s a complete guide on how to pack your carry on and make sure you have everything you need for an amazing, stress-free vacation.

Packing for Vacation in a Cabin Bag

8 Steps to perfectly packing in a carry on only

1. Make a packing list

I don’t think anybody is surprised that making a packing checklist is the first item on this list. Seriously, it is lifechanging. My packing list is always the first and last thing I check while getting ready for any trip.

For three years, I’ve been bullet journaling my way to packing success – I simply make one list of everything I could possibly need at the beginning of the year while I’m setting up my journal. Then, every time I’m travelling anywhere, I just add an extra column, and check off everything I’ve packed.

This keeps me organised and on top of things without fail – touch wood, but I’ve never forgotten to pack anything important in three years of following this method.

You don’t need a bullet journal to use this method – simply draw up a list, and check it twice to make sure you’ve packed all your essentials!

packing list for holidays in bullet journal

2. Start with a Quality Suitcase

It almost goes without saying, but it’s important to mention anyway: you’ll need a sturdy and practical cabin size suitcase for this to work. It doesn’t need to be a $200 Instagram travel-blogger approved piece of hardware – all it needs is a few key features, and the ability to not fall apart.

Make sure it has wheels. Trust me – a 10kg bag seems light at first, but after an hour of carrying it around a new city, your shoulders will be very angry with you. Unless you’re backpacking and don’t mind a huge weight on your back the entire duration of the trip, do invest in something with wheels. Bonus points if you can wheel it by your side, and if it doesn’t make a ridiculously noisy clatter while you wheel it down a sidewalk.

Make sure it’s regulation size. Check this before you buy, and before you fly. Airlines like to charge extra wherever they get the chance, and I’ve seen many people caught out by a flight attendant asking to try putting their case in the regulation size frame at the boarding gate. If your bag is oversize, chances are you won’t be able to take it onboard with you, and you’ll have to pay a hefty checked luggage fee as well. Most luggage brands adhere to the standard regulation sizing, but it’s always worth it to do your own research and double check.

Opt for soft shell rather than hard shell cases. This is entirely subjective. Here’s where I’m coming from: I’ve been in more than a few situations where my flight has been fully booked and I was asked to place my bag in the hold instead of in the cabin. Certain airlines are notorious for this (I’m looking at you, Ryanair), and it’s good to be prepared. While a lot more stylish, hard shell cases, unless they are extremely high quality, have a tendency to break or shatter when they’re thrown on a conveyor belt. I once found mine broken like the screen of a dropped iPhone when I got to my destination, and had to buy an entirely new suitcase at the airport. On the other hand though: a hard shell can protect fragile belongings more than a soft case – so weigh up the pros and cons for yourself, and choose the option that’s best for you.

3. Plan your Outfits

As previously mentioned, packing in a cabin bag requires a little more prep and planning – two things that I don’t shy away from.

When planning out your wardrobe for an upcoming trip, consider some key factors:

  1. How long will you be away?

  2. What will the weather be like?

  3. What kinds of activities will you be doing?

  4. Will you need to change a lot throughout the day?

The length of your trip determines the amount of outfit combinations you’ll need to pack. I would overestimate the number a little to make up for unexpected circumstances, such as staining your favourite white shirt on the first day when you planned to wear it two more times, or simply wanting to dress up a little more in the evenings.

So, if you’re going away for a four day city break, you’ll probably need between 4 and 8 outfit options. If you’re away for two weeks, that number will rise to somewhere between 14 and 28.

These numbers may seem pretty steep, but it all depends on your plans. For example, if you know you’ll be very active every day and need to change shirts frequently throughout the day, then packing a few extra will be a good idea. If you know you’ll be walking a lot, an extra pair of comfortable shoes probably wouldn’t hurt. If you’re going to be out for fancy dinners and nights out a lot, then you’ll probably want a couple more changes of clothing than if you’re just going out morning to night without coming back to get changed.

But remember! They don’t all need to be separate outfits every time! In fact, with the amount of space you have in your cabin bag, they simply can’t be different every time.

Make sure every item you bring is multipurpose, and can be worn with multiple options. No item of clothing should have only one way of styling anyway – there are endless options for mixing and matching your clothes. A white button down can be work open over a tank top with shorts in the daytime, but dressed up with a midi skirt and heels in the evening. It will look like a brand new outfit every time. I love watching capsule wardrobe or 10×10 challenge videos for inspiration on how to combine items and make them work in various situations.

It’s also a good idea to make sure that the style or colours of the clothes you’re bringing match and complement each other – that way, you’ll never run out of ways to wear them in various combinations.

Checking the weather is also important to make sure you’re not caught off guard while you’re away. This isn’t always entirely accurate of course, so I would always advise bringing something warmer than you expect you might need. One time, I got caught in a severe rain storm in the middle of a hot Italian summer, with no jacket or hoodie at all to keep me warm. Even if you expect cloudless skies and warm summer nights, bringing one warmer sweatshirt and a foldup rain jacket could save you from unpleasantry later on.

So let’s round it all up:

When I’m packing for a week away, I like to bring:

  1. About 7 daytime outfit options (eg. 5 tops and 4 bottoms), plus 2 or 3 additional eveningwear pieces that can be combined with my daytime clothes.

  2. One or two pair of comfortable shoes, and one less casual pair for evenings.

  3. A warmer item, just in case. A rain jacket if needed.

  4. Swimwear, even if swimming seems unlikely.

Natalia sitting by a fountain in Valencia, Spain, with two cabin bag carry on suitcases and a backpack.

Travelling light for a week of sun in Valencia

4. Roll it Up

When it comes to the practicalities of getting all my clothes to fit into a tiny suitcase, I’m a pro. I’ve developed a system that makes everything fit neatly and compactly, usually with lots of room to spare.

I like to roll my clothes, not fold them. There are two reasons for this. One, it keeps your clothes relatively wrinkle-free, saving you from burning holes in your shirts trying to use ancient hotel irons. Two, it makes a tightly packed, compact unit out of every single piece, and these can be arranged almost like puzzle pieces in a cabin size suitcase.

First, tackle the bigger pieces, like jeans and tops. Roll them into tight cylinders and lay them at the bottom of the case. Then, stuff the gaps with underwear and socks. On top, layer shoes and jackets until all your items fit snugly in the case. You can also put socks and smaller items into your shoes if you’re worried about maintaining their shape.

If you’re worried about your clothes being jumbled up together in this method, you can try buying packing cubes to fit your suitcase. These will separate your items – but you might find that they can’t fit quite as many things as my roll and puzzle method.

One tip that I’ve found crucial over the years: bring a bag for dirty laundry. This will start piling up from day one of your travels, and you’ll want to keep track of it, and separate it from your clean and fresh clothes.

5. Pack All Necessary Toiletries

Like I’ve said before, the one con of packing in a carry on is that you can’t bring full size toiletries. Have a think about what you absolutely need to bring along, whether that be skincare, makeup, sunscreen, shaving cream, and, let’s not forget, toothpaste.

The way I like to do this is to run through my daily routines in my head, from the moment I wake up, wash my face and moisturise, through my makeup routine, right down to my shower and evening skincare. I make a mental note of all the essentials I will need on the road.

Then, I try to streamline the list, and get travel size replacements for all the essentials. I often get mini skincare or body things in the airport pharmacy, or bring them from home in travel size containers. Like I’ve mentioned before, Lush solid shampoo and conditioner is my solution here. Similarly, you could bring bar soap or solid cleanser to avoid the liquid restriction.

In terms of makeup, I’ve found that the most helpful thing is to get multipurpose products. I’ve had my TheBalm Favorites Palette for close to three years now (it’s probably time to get a new one) and it’s almost exclusively all I need to bring on holidays. A foundation, concealer, powder, brow pencil, lipstick, and mascara later, and I have a fully packed makeup bag.

A tip: in my experience, things that are measured in grams rather than millilitres (such as lip balm, face powder, solid shampoo etc.) don’t count as liquids, and you can keep them in your bag rather than put them in the little liquid plastic bag. (Don’t quote me on this though – who knows, perhaps this is a rule I’ve been breaking for the last 14 years)

Another helpful tip: share the plastic bag you have to use at the security check with your travel partner. When you’re only allowed one bag per person, it can be tricky to fit everything into one, especially when some items are bulkier than others. With the help of a willing boyfriend who only brings a deodorant and a tube of sunscreen, though, this issue is easily sorted.

6. Keep the important stuff close

Even though I keep my cabin bag close to me at all times while travelling, I still do make sure all the important stuff is in my personal bag. Most airlines allow you to bring a small handbag or backpack onboard along with your cabin bag – so make the most of this privilege! I usually bring my Herschel backpack or a big tote bag with me while travelling, so I can make sure it holds all of my essentials comfortably.

I always make sure I have my passport, wallet, charger, camera, and headphones in my personal bag, along with my reusable water bottle, some reading material, and snacks for the flight. I pack as many things as I can fit into my backpack, so I can free up as much space as possible in my suitcase for clothes, toiletries, with room to spare so I can always bring something back from my trip if I want to.

A word of caution though: pay close attention to this bag if you put all your valuables in one place. Always watch it, and be wary of pickpockets and thieves on public transport or in other public places. Where possible, keep your wallet, phone, and passport out of sight at all times.

7. Wear the Bulkiest Things while Travelling

I once saw a man wearing three winter coats one on top of the other while flying back to Dublin from Poland. Every pocket was stuffed with things he couldn’t fit in his bag. I remember feeling a strange admiration for how he optimised every space he could find, along with puzzlement as to how he had managed not to overheat.

Now, I’m not saying you have to embody Polish frugality, but it’s good to strategically plan the outfit you’ll wear to the airport when you have very limited space in your suitcase.

I always like to wear my bulkiest clothing while travelling, whether that be my thickest jacket, chunkiest sweater, or most mom pair of jeans. I often wear my biggest pair of shoes too, especially when travelling in the winter. I always make sure to pay attention to pockets too, and make sure I’m always able to put my phone and passport safely and quickly out of sight, and take them back out again as needed.

If you have a hat or a pair of shoes that you don’t want to get squished in your suitcase, it might be best to wear it on the journey. You might get a few strange looks wearing a huge sunhat in the middle of freezing London, but at least you’ll be happy when it gives you precious shade on the beach.

8. Make some Sacrifices

My final tip for packing light and travelling exclusively with a carry on is to make some sacrifices.

It’s inevitable: you’re going to run out of space. You probably won’t be able to bring everything you’d like to, particularly if you’ll be travelling for a long time. It’s remember to stay focused on your priorities. Think about the kind of experiences you want to have, rather than the stuff you want to bring along with you.

  1. Do you really need that straightener or curling wand?

  2. Will you get any use from those 6 inch heels on your trip to hilly, stair-filled Lisbon?

  3. Do you really need to bring your laptop? Or can you manage with just your phone for a couple of days?

Chances are, you’ll end up not using half the clothes you packed because you were too busy enjoying your time to go back to the hotel and change every few hours.

Packing light is a great exercise in self-discipline. Be strict with yourself – make practical decisions that will give you the confidence you need to be adventurous on your travel experience.

Think about what you want to experience, pack only the essentials you need to succeed, and then go off and do it, little suitcase in tow!

So that’s it – my complete guide to packing for vacation in a carry on suitcase.

Please share your travel essentials with me in the comments or on Instagram – I’d love to know what you absolutely cannot travel without! Feel free to check out some more of my travel posts too while you’re here!

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