The simple packing math that means you never, ever need to check a bag

Pack light, for life.
Pack light, for life.
Image: Reuters/Yuya Shino
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Quick: think of a short list of the most frequent-traveling people that you know. Whether that list is full of frequent flying points-chasers who are well-acquainted with in-flight mimosas or budget backpackers who spend most of their time in coach, I’m willing to bet they have one thing in common: They never check a bag.

It’s true that much of the minimalist packing advice found online comes from the type of people for whom convertible trousers and sweat-wicking performance wear are frequent outfit choices. So let me say upfront: This article is not for those kinds of people. Instead, I genuinely believe that with a small adjustment to your packing proportions—and not your overall put-togetherness—there is no reason you need to check a bag ever again.

Before we get to the how, let’s address the why. Packing carry-on only completely eliminates an entire swath of micro-injustices associated with modern travel. Allow me, for dramatic effect, to outline a few of them here:

  • You don’t have to think about paying for baggage fees, ever.
  • You don’t have to shell out for a taxi or Uber to drive you through traffic to the airport because your bag is too heavy or bulky to take on public transportation.
  • You don’t have to queue when you arrive at the airport if you’ve already checked in online.
  • You don’t have a nagging worry that your bag might get lost en route.
  • You don’t have to guess how many layers to bring with you on the potentially freezing plane, because they are all with you.
  • You don’t have to wait for your baggage at your destination, nor deal with the admin or inconvenience if it gets lost.
  • You don’t have to take another taxi upon arrival because your bag is once again too heavy and bulky to take on public transportation.
  • You can go straight to a meeting/lunch/dinner with your manageable—rather than embarrassing—amount of luggage.
  • You don’t have to be that person who sits with a noticeably large bag in a small cafe waiting for your Airbnb host to arrive.
  • You can easily maneuver your own luggage up Parisian walk up apartments or on the back of a Cambodian tuk tuk or literally anywhere you end up.
  • You don’t have to double back on your way back to the airport to pick up your stored luggage at your hotel.

If you remain unconvinced by the list above, consider that you’re probably closer than you think to packing carry-on only already. For one thing, most people do not wear or use every thing they bring on a trip if they pack a full-size suitcase. Plus, the more room you have, the less efficiently you actually pack your items. By choosing the bag size before you choose what you have to bring, you immediately streamline your packing choices. And you just might find that the amount of belongings you ultimately wind up using on a trip doesn’t change that much—while the amount you haul around does.

I call this the 30/70 rule of packing—my theory is that by eliminating just 30% of the items you actually use on a trip in order to fit into a carry on, you actually end up reducing your overall travel bulk by 70%. Now, I may be shaky at math, but I am good at packing. Let me show you how good.

Liquids: The first, and perhaps the most vexing, obstacle is liquids. Admittedly, people have different liquid needs, and women tend to need more capacity due to makeup, if they choose to wear it. The best way around this is to create a dedicated, plastic pouch (like this one, or this one) for your toiletries that is always stocked and ready to be thrown in your carry-on. To fill it, buy travel sizes of your usual products, or empty bottles (like these) to refill with your favored products. This way, when the moment comes to pack, you don’t throw your hands up in frustration and end up checking a bag simply so you can bring your full-size bottle of face serum.

It’s a bit of a time and money investment up front, but it’s worth it in the long haul. I also prefer to keep this pouch in my small “personal” item (computer bag or backpack, depending on the trip) rather than my carry-on. Then it’s close to hand while going through security and later when you want to brush your teeth mid-flight.

If you’re traveling for a while, or need things like sunblock and insect repellent etc, consider bringing a travel sized version to get you started, and/or buying a full-sized bottle after you pass through security. (However, in the US, which refuses to put useful things like pharmacies in airports, this might not be a good strategy). Where you can, bring solid forms of certain products to leave more room in your allocated liquid bag: soap instead of body gel, stick deodorant instead of spray, compact powder instead of liquid foundation. Better yet, leave things like lotion, soap, and mouthwash that are easy to find everywhere (like a hotel room or corner shop) at home altogether. If you really need it, you will find it.

Shoes: Shoes are another tricky one. If you can get away with bringing one pair of shoes, then you probably don’t need to be reading this. I can’t, so I generally wear a stylish but versatile and comfortable shoe on the plane (like a black flat boot, which works with everything from a dress to jeans), a pair of running shoes (that I like enough to wear when even I’m not working out) and, if it’s summer, then sandals as well. However, edit accordingly: If you’re headed to Bali or Miami, ditch the boots. If you won’t have time to work out, ditch the sneakers.

Outerwear: Traveling in winter is admittedly harder when living the carry-on life, but the trick is to double up on outerwear on the plane. If it’s winter, you really only need one coat, so wear or carry that on board, and then perhaps wear a lighter blazer jacket underneath, with a scarf for the plane. If the weather at your destination is variable (New York City in October—always a tough one) a good strategy is to bring lighter, waterproof jacket (consider these travel jackets) and a warm inner shell layer (like this one, which packs down to nothing) for just-in-case warmth. That way, if it’s just a slight chill, you won’t be stuck with a winter coat, but if it quickly descends into winter, you can wear all your layers at once and get by.

Get used to the idea that you will wear everything at least once: If you get good at the carry on life, you may find you become a better shopper, too. You will instinctively be drawn to items that work with multiple things (grey blazers, black jeans, white button downs, khaki jackets) because they lend themselves to being worn multiple times, in multiple ways. When you look at the items you’ve laid out to pack, be ruthless: Ask yourself if each item will work more than once, with more than one thing throughout the week. If not, ditch it. And when it comes to jeans, only bring one pair, and wear them on the plane. Also keep in mind that the maximum amount of clothes you will bring on any trip is seven day’s worth. If you’re traveling for more than that, then guess what? Everywhere has laundry. (My record was a two month trip in Southeast Asia, carry-on only, pictured above).

Bring the right bag: Just say no to expandable and possibly too-big bags that might not meet the airline’s requirements on a busy flight. Why? You will undoubtedly pack more stuff if you have the space, defeating the whole purpose. Contrary to popular belief, there is no standardized size dimensions for carry-ons, so it’s best to err on the conservative side of around 22 inches tall, 14 inches wide, and 9 inches deep (the standard of domestic US airlines like including AmericanDelta and United and just about the standard of low cost European carriers like Ryanair, who stipulate 55cm x 40cm x 20cm). Though these sizes are not always enforced, sometimes they are—so if you can get your packing game to comply, you’ll never have to worry.

It’s a good idea make sure your luggage doesn’t exceed 10 kgs (or 22lbs) as in the low-cost, long-haul era, airlines are starting to weigh carry-ons. However the good news? If you have the right-sized bag and you’ve followed the rules above, your bag will always sail under the limit. Four favorites which fit these dimensions include Away’s The Carry On, which comes with a built-in, TSA approved battery charger; TravelPro’s Platinum Magna; the Briggs and Riley Baseline model; and the Cadillac of luggage brands: Rimowa’s 32L Cabin Multiwheel.

Extras? This is where you can undo all your hard work, so proceed carefully. But there are a few things in my carry-on that I never take out when I get home: a universal adapter (I’m obsessed with this one, which is a bit of investment, but you’ll never go back to a bulky one without a USB port), an iPhone cable, ear plugs, an eye mask, melatonin and pain killers, a small bag of laundry detergent for sink laundry emergencies, an amazingly light and effective travel towel like this one, (which I always manage to find a use for), and the improbably light Manduka eKO SuperLite yoga mat, which folds up to the size of an airline blanket, and means I’m never without a way to exercise.