How to Pack Carry on Only For An Overseas Trip

Last Updated on December 23, 2022


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When I first started travelling, I used to carry around a ridiculously huge backpack/suitcase filled with unnecessary crap.

It wasn’t until I was forced to fit everything into a bag small enough to use as hand luggage that I realised how little I actually need.

I was packing for yet another adventure, but this time around Southeast Asia, and suddenly I found myself needing to know how to pack carry on.

Here's how to pack carry on only! Packed brown duffel bag resting on wooden floor next to a round chair
Photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash

We were booked onto numerous flights (which cost an arm and a leg extra if you want to include luggage); plus, it was Southeast Asia!

No one wants to be carrying a suitcase on the beach or lifting it up 5 flights of stairs.

So, I’ve put together everything I learned about how to pack for overseas trips when travelling with carry on only.

Hopefully, this guide will help show you how to pack a carry on, and finally decide between a backpack or suitcase for your next trip.

Whether you need to know how to pack for 4 days in a backpack, how to pack a carry on for 2 weeks, or how to live out of a backpack indefinitely, I’ve got you covered!

Learning how to pack carry on only

Kathmandu kindly gifted me one of their transfer packs and I must say, I was nervous when I saw the size. At 28L I knew I had a challenge on my hands not to over pack!

When I went through my luggage from the previous, I found that I didn’t even wear half of the clothes or use half of the beauty products I originally packed.

I made 3 piles – ‘definitely’ taking, the ‘maybes’’ and the ‘no’s’.

If you’re also learning how to pack carry on only, this step will be invaluable to get you started. And the truth is, the more you get rid of, the more you realise you don’t need!

It didn’t take long for a lot of my ‘maybes’ to wind up in the ‘no’ pile, leaving me feeling lighter – both physically and emotionally.

🧳 MUST-HAVE: Before you head out on your trip, make sure you have travel insurance. I recommend either SafetyWing or World Nomads.

How to Pack Carry on Only For An Overseas Trip, small turquoise backpack with packing cubes laid out next to it

Here’s my Ultimate carry on packing list

Every trip is different, and you might need to modify this list a bit depending on where and when you are travelling, but this should help give you a general idea of what to pack in hand luggage.

And I promise, whether you need to pack for 2 weeks in a carry on, or 2 months, you will very quickly realise just how little you need on the road.

In fact, learning how to pack carry on only and flying with hand luggage turned out to be totally life-changing for me as I realised what I really valued.

Pants/Shorts

  • 1 pair of shorts
  • 2 pairs of jeans
  • 1 pair of long leggings

Shirts/tops

  • 3 t-shirts
  • 3 long-sleeved shirts
  • 1 throw over jersey (thin)
  • 1 light bomber jacket
  • 4 light dresses (1 long and 3 short)
  • 1 down winter jacket – I usually use this as a blanket on flights because it gets so cold

Underwear

  • 7 pairs of underwear
  • 2 normal bras
  • 1 sports bra
  • 2 pairs of socks

Shoes

  • 1 pair of jandals (flip-flops)
  • 1 pair of sneakers

Accessories

  • Mini first aid kit (with no scissors as you cannot take them with you in your hand luggage)
  • Comb (a hairbrush would have been too bulky)
  • Travel towel
  • Hat
  • Toiletries – deodorant, sunscreen, a little bit of makeup, shampoo, conditioner (use conditioner as body wash to save room!) and disposable shaver.

Electrical

  • Go Pro
  • DSLR Canon Camera
  • Tripod
  • Computer + case
  • Hard Drive
  • Chargers
  • Go pro accessories
  • Battery Pack
  • Headphones

📸 PRO TIP: My go-to camera for all my travels is the Sony A7iii – I highly recommend it!

Obviously, your bag would be a lot less bulky if you don’t have to carry around things like a DSLR camera and tripod, but because I’m a travel blogger I need to carry all of that damn bulky stuff!

travelling with carry on only, turquoise backpack with top zipped open to show inside which is empty

Top tips for how to pack carry on only

Roll everything

When I was trying to learn everything I could about how to save space while packing, this was the number one tip friends told me.

And I’ll be honest, I never believed the hype – until I tried it! But it really does make a difference if you roll your clothes!

Not only that but it keeps them in shape and you won’t end up with horribly wrinkled clothes like you would if you just stuffed them in your bag.

Use packing cells

The second biggest tip I can give for how to pack hand luggage efficiently is with packing cells. In fact, once your clothes are rolled, put them into packing cells for optimum space-saving.

My Kathmandu packing cell is double-sided, which is perfect because you can put tops in one side and bottoms in the other.

You can also get smaller ones which I find are perfect for underwear, toiletries or chords since I travel with a lot of electrical stuff.

👡 PACKING TIP: Looking for the best shoes for travelling? I highly recommend getting a pair of Chaco’s They are my favourite!

Find the perfect bag that is space optimised

The bag that Kathmandu kindly gifted to me is perfect for hand luggage because it’s made for that reason.

This made it really easy to figure out how to pack carry on only without sacrificing everything I need for my travels.

There are plenty of pockets and even a laptop pocket at the back of the bag making it perfect for a traveller like me who carries a laptop.

Make sure you find a bag that is made to be used as hand luggage so it will be easy and convenient for you.

If you are debating a backpack vs rolling luggage, I always recommend a backpack as they are easier to transport in many parts of the world.

After many trips to cities with streets that aren’t all that friendly to rolling luggage, I’ll always choose a backpack. However, do what is right for you!

How to pack for flying with hand luggage only, turquoise Kathmandu backpack

Get a little laundry kit

Since you will be carrying a lot less clothes, a laundry kit is great because you will probably need to wash things more often since you don’t have as many clothes with you.

Doing your own laundry is easy enough if you have a little kit. This one is from Kathmandu and came with laundry strips, a little clothesline, a universal sink plug and a laundry bag for your dirty clothes.

Getting laundry done is expensive unless you’re in Asia but even then, half of your clothes may get ruined or go missing. It’s just easier and a lot cheaper if you do it yourself!

Wear the heaviest clothing on board

When you travel with checked bags, what to pack in carry on vs checked bag usually comes down to the big items. But carry on only is different.

As you are carrying hand luggage, your weight limits are probably strict (however my bag has never been weighed (touch wood).

I suggest you wear the heaviest clothes you have (Jeans and sneakers) so that your bag is on weight.

I have even had to stuff my pockets with half of my electrical stuff to get my weight down once, you just have to do what you have to do!

Tie anything too big to fit in your bag on the outside

For example, if you are carrying sneakers then you should tie them on the outside so you don’t have to squeeze them into a bag.

This also works for something like my down jacket as it comes in a bag that looks like a sleeping bag.

So I usually pop it in there and tie it to hang on the outside of my bag if it’s too hot to wear it in the airport, leaving more space for other things!

Let me know if you travel with just hand-luggage and if not, why not try it out! It’s actually easier than you think to start travelling with carry on only.

📦 PACKING TIP: Don’t leave home without a solar powered battery pack so you can keep your devices connected at all times.

A big thank you to Kathamndu NZ for supplying me with these products and helping me learn how to pack carry on only!

Frequently Asked Questions

✅ How do I pack all my stuff in my carry-on?

There are lots of tips and tricks for how to pack carry on only that optimise space. Two of the best tricks are using packing cubes and rolling your clothing. If you still have too much stuff, consider if you REALLY need everything you are trying to pack. You might be surprised by what you’re okay to leave behind.

✅ What’s not allowed in a carry-on bag?

You cannot carry any liquids (including gels) over 100 ml (or 3.4 oz). This means bringing smaller toiletries. You also can’t bring any weapons, including potentially dangerous items like scissors.

✅ How many 100 ml bottles can I take on a plane?

You can bring up to 9 100 ml (3.4 oz) bottles per person onto a plane.


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