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International Travel With Only a Carry-On (and Other Tips)

Do you want to travel, but the idea of lugging around a giant suitcase through multiple airports makes you cringe? Do you wish to avoid costly baggage fees? With some careful planning, you can indeed travel comfortably with only a carry-on. But even if your trip will require checked luggage, here’s some tips for making travel easier.

Step 1: Choose Your Luggage Wisely

Picture of Choose Your Luggage Wisely
Picture of Choose Your Luggage Wisely

Your suitcase will be your home away from home, so make sure it fits your needs. But you have many choices – wheeled or backpack? Carry-on or checked? Backpacker or suitcase?

Personally, I don’t like wheeled suitcases because I find them difficult to maneuver on anything other than flat pavement. If you’re going for a backpack style, be sure to get a comfortable one that fits. Try it on (ideally with weights inside) and walk around the store for a bit.

Here are my main 3 pieces of luggage (from left to right):

1. My new favorite is the Osprey bag, specifically designed for carry-on travel. It is the maximum size and holds about the same amount of stuff as the Ferrino bag (#2), but it’s easier to pack evenly (and find things inside) due to the location of the nice lockable zipper and the square shape. The straps can be stuffed inside a pocket that doubles as a laptop sleeve. The downside is probably that it looks more expensive than it was.

2. My original carry-on only bag is the red and black Ferrino backpack. It meets the maximum carry-on size requirements, so long as it isn’t too heavy. It is designed for backpacking, so the shoulder and hip straps are very comfortable. The top-loading style makes finding just one buried item a pain though, and its drawstring top is not lockable. The number of straps hanging loose would make it difficult to check it as luggage.

3. If I do need checked luggage (which hasn’t been forever), I take the large green Caribee bag. It’s hard to see in this picture, but this bag is almost twice as thick as the other two. It has backpack straps that can be zipped into a flap and a removable duffle bag strap. This makes the airline happy, since you don’t have loose straps to get caught on things. This bag also has an expansion zipper, and a small day pack that zips on the back, or clips to the front for security. The downside is you can’t fully load up the day pack and zip it on. It also throws you off-balance if it’s attached to the back. But it’s otherwise an excellent bag…for checked luggage

Step 2: What to Pack?

Picture of What to Pack?

When deciding what to pack, you need to answer the following questions:

1. What are the expected local temperatures for this time of year?

2. What am I doing? Will I need any specialized outfits for outdoor pursuits or fancy events?

3. How do the locals dress? Would this outfit be considered offensive or inappropriate?

4. How long will I be there?

5. Do I need any special gear (sports, camping, etc) ?

Over-packing will only leave you lugging around extra stuff and take away room that you could be filling with souvenirs. On my latest trip, I spent 15 days in Turkey, Jordan, and Israel, in the summer, so my answers to the above questions were these:

1. very hot and dry (temperatures ranged from 80s-100 during the day, down to around 65-70s at night in the desert)

2. hiking, swimming, and clothing appropriate for Muslim, Jewish and Christian religious sites

3. even in more liberal parts of the Middle East, it’s probably a bad idea to wear a low-cut shirt…both due to cultural sensitivities, and sunburn. Knees (and often elbows) are generally covered.

4. 15 days. There will be a hostel with laundry available at one point (also, laundry in the sink is always an option)

5. no special gear.

Step 3: Sample Trip: Clothing

Picture of Sample Trip: Clothing

Here’s what clothing I packed in my carry-on for my trip to the Middle East (slightly modified to reflect what I actually used/needed, as there were a few items I barely used). This was everything I had for 15 days – I wore one of these outfits on the plane the day I flew out.

– swimsuit with shorts

– long sleeved shirt with hood (made of cool material and large enough to wear over other shirts)

– pajamas (t-shirt and short yoga pants)

– 4 pairs of capris (black denim, grey and green quick-dry, black dressy)

– black maxi skirt (though honestly I wore this once, black dress pants would have been more useful)

– scarf (essential for visiting mosques, though you can buy them everywhere)

– 2 nice shirts, 3/4 length sleeves (if I had more of these, I’d have brought another instead of a t-shirt)

– 2 t-shirts (I actually brought one plus one nice long sleeved shirt, but ended up never wearing the long sleeves)

– one quick-dry t-shirt

– sandals

– dark leather hiking shoes

– hat

– headband

Not shown: 7 pairs of underwear, 6 pairs of short black socks, 2 bras. I also had a pair of cheap flip flops, but they were not really necessary.

Step 4: Sample Trip: Gear

Picture of Sample Trip: Gear

Here’s everything else I brought along on that same trip:

– Packing cubes in various sizes (it helps keep things organized)

– a beach towel-sized quick-dry pack towel (in the small blue packing cube near the top of the picture)

– luggage scale

– toiletries – toilet paper (A MUST), deodorant, hair ties, hair brush, anti-diarrheal medication (just in case), painkillers, band-aids, other hygiene products as needed

– sunglasses

– belt

– paracord- for clothesline or fixing things (though I didn’t really need this much, about 12 feet would have been plenty.)

– silk sleeping bag liner (for when your hostel doesn’t have sheets, or your hotel is questionable, or just warmth)

– RFID blocking wallet, coin purse

– passport and passport wallet – can be attached to belt and hidden inside pants

– plastic baggie for liquids – shampoo, castile soap, sunscreen, and a travel toothbrush with a toothpaste tube in the handle

– camera, charger, and extra memory cards/batteries

– deck of cards, sketchbook, pencil, pen, book

– day pack that folds up into a pocket (though, if I’d brought a backpack instead of a purse, this was unnecessary)

– collapsible water bottle

– mini flashlight

– guide books

– tablet (or smart phone)

– shoe bag (so the shoes you’re not wearing don’t get everything dirty)

Not shown: power converters, photocopies of credit cards and passport, printed copies of hotel and plane reservations (don’t rely on electronic as your only copy for this!), several hundred US dollars in cash (not all in one place), and a duffel bag that folds up small, so you can check some of your stuff on the way home if you buy too many souvenirs!

Step 5: Getting on the Plane

Picture of Getting on the Plane

Most airlines allow one carry-on and one smaller “personal item”, which is usually defined as a purse, briefcase, coat, etc. So use that to your advantage!

The largest item will always be considered your carry-on, and must be smaller than the airline’s given dimensions. As long as it looks small enough, most airlines won’t actually check…but don’t push it, just in case. Be prepared to shift things around if necessary, and don’t fight the airline if they make you check the bag.

I chose a large purse as my “personal item” instead of a smaller backpack because, while the backpack I would have taken was actually smaller, purses are generally less questioned. (Also, the backpack was orange and I’m somewhat paranoid about backpacks in large cities, but I should have just gotten over it.) The personal item must fit under the seat on the plane.

When you are at the airport, make sure your passport, travel documents, all electronics, all liquids, and anything you want during the flight (a warm shirt, book, etc) are in the personal bag. Then you only have to dig through one bag at security checkpoints, and you can leave your main bag securely in the overhead bins.

Wear your heaviest clothing at the airport – hiking boots, jeans, coats, whatever. If it’s on you, it’s less weight in the bag.

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Rohit Sharma is an author of several Travelling Blogs and Magazines. Rohit Sharma is a regular contributor to sites on topics like Travelling, Domestics Travel and International Travels.