How to Make Carry On Travel Work

This is my carry on travel pack - a Pacsafe Venturesafe 45L GII - at check in at Hotel Nature Lodge in Joffreville, Madagascar. Photo by Brett Fisher.
This is my carry on travel pack – a Pacsafe Venturesafe 45L GII – at check in at Hotel Nature Lodge in Joffreville, Madagascar. Photo by Brett Fisher.

November 4, 2016

A couple of months ago, I was talking to some friends who are coming to Madagascar next year. Of course, one of their questions was what should they bring. That’s not as straightforward a question to answer as you might think.

My friends will be traveling between 24 and 36 hours just to get to Madagascar. Some say this is a pretty remote destination. Won’t they need to bring lots of clothes and supplies and things just in case? Not really.

I saw the most baffling thing soon after I began to live and travel abroad. Travelers loaded down under fully stuffed expedition sized packs on their backs and an equally full daypack carried backwards across their front. How much fun could it be to drag all of that through airports, on buses, on foot, in and out of hotels, or however and wherever they were going?

Warner Springs Monty, a long trail hiker and trail angel on the Pacific Crest Trail, coined a popular rule for long trail hikers. “As the weight goes down, the fun goes up.” He’s referring to the weight of your pack. I’ve forked the rule over for travel. As the stuff goes down, the fun goes up. I’m referring to the stuff in your suitcase or travel pack.

You only need one suitcase or travel pack. Really. And it should be a small one at that.

Carry On Travel

Carry on travel is not only about traveling with just one carry on suitcase or backpack. It’s also a choice about lifestyle and values like simplicity, freedom, and not burdening yourself or others.

I’m definitely not an expert on carry-on travel. I’m still refining what I take with me. Here are a number of folks that know a lot more about carry-on travel than I do.

At, Doug lists out a number of the benefits of carry on travel. On the top of his list is security, as in less risk of loss, theft, damage, or misrouting of your belongings. Then economy as in reduced costs like no checked baggage fees. Also mobility as in more options and flexibility in when and how you travel. Also serenity from fewer packing and getting about hassles on a trip. And, ecology, with long-term benefits to the planet because you need less stuff made and use fewer fossil fuels to move your stuff around.

Rules, What Rules?

There’s one rule about carry on travel: the dimensions and weight of your suitcase or travel backpack. Unfortunately, this rule is not hard and fast as each airline sets their own requirements.

How do you figure it out? You can check with the airline you’re flying with. I also like the following. Ali and Andy at compiled a handy Ultimate Carry On Size Chart: Luggage Restrictions for 150+ Airlines Worldwide. Likewise, James Eagleman at put together Carry On Luggage Size Limits Made Simple.

As a general rule of thumb, your carry on should be a maximum of about 22 inches long, 14 inches wide, and 9 inches deep (53 cm x 335 cm x 23 cm) and 22 lbs (10 kg). This is pretty much a 45 liter travel backpack.

Guidelines, What Guidelines?

There are general guidelines for making carry on travel work.

Choose the right bag. I use a travel backpack instead of a suitcase because of flexibility and mobility. As long as you don’t over fill your pack, you can squish it a bit and use its compression straps to reduce its size to meet an airlines smaller carry on dimensions. Also, you can hoist the pack on your back and take it a lot of places you’d be hard pressed to take a suitcase even if it’s on rollers. And, if you happen to to be boarding a small, regional or commuter plane, on most models of travel packs there’s a way to stow shoulder straps and waist belt so you can check the pack as needed.

Buy good stuff so you can buy less stuff.

Pack only what you need and reduce or eliminate the what if and just in case stuff.

Bring the clothes that are what you wear at home. Also, bring only what you’ll need for one week. Travel with clothes that layer well to keep you cool or warm as needed. Own clothes that are of similar color so you can mix and match them all. Bring only two pairs of shoes. Buy or borrow what you need that you didn’t bring. Wear your heavy clothes and shoes when you fly.

Do laundry. Most of us wash our clothes about once a week. When traveling, do the same. Hire it out, find a laundromat, or wash by hand in a hotel sink.

Buy your toiletries on arrival. Everywhere in the world people use toiletries. You only need enough like a toothbrush and toothpaste in case a flight is delayed and you get stuck somewhere for awhile. You can get what you need once you are there.

Review your stuff. During a break while traveling or when you get home, evaluate each thing you brought. Did you use it? Did you use it enough to keep carrying it or to take it next time? If not, give it away.

The above are a conglomeration of personal experience and guidelines from a number of websites. Looking through my bookmarks, here are some sources that have guided me.

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