How to Travel Light with Just a Carry On

Toamasina, Madagascar — 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. Some consider Madagascar to be a pretty remote destination. My friends will be traveling between 24 and 36 hours just to get to here. Wouldn’t they need to bring lots of clothes and supplies and things just in case?

My carry on travel pack - a Pacsafe Venturesafe 45L GII - at check in at Hotel Nature Lodge in Joffreville, Madagascar
My carry on travel pack – a Pacsafe Venturesafe 45L GII – at check in at Hotel Nature Lodge in Joffreville, Madagascar.

This is not as straightforward a question to answer as you might think. The answer depends a lot on your personal values. My answer is less is more and you’ll be a lot happier traveler.

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 day pack carried backwards across their front. How pleasant could it be to drag all of that through airports, on trains, on buses, in and out of taxis and tuk-tuks, 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 travel pack or suitcase. To travel light, a traveler only needs one travel pack or suitcase, and a small one at that.

Travel Light Is About Values

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

I don’t yest consider myself an expert on carry on travel. I’m still refining what I take with me. The following bloggers have some great suggestions.

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-unpacking and getting about hassles on a trip. And, ecology, with long-term benefits to the planet because less stuff means less resources used up in making your possessions and use fewer fossil fuels used to move your stuff around.

Rules, What Rules?

There are two rules for carry on travel. Rule one is the dimensions of your pack our suitcase. Rule two is the weight of your pack or suitcase.

But wait, you’re thinking, those aren’t rules. You haven’t given said the specification or limit or size or weight. That’s because it’s not a rule like you think of a rule. Each airline makes up their own rules and changes them whenever they want to.

So how do you figure it out?

Well, in general, your carry on should be a maximum of about 22 inches long, 14 inches wide, and 9 inches deep (53 cm x 33.5 cm x 23 cm) and 22 lbs (10 kg). This is pretty much the size and weight capacity of a 45 liter travel pack.

And, of course, always check with the airline you’re flying on. Airlines typically publish their baggage dimensions and weight limits on their websites so it’s not usually very difficult to get a specific answer. So, when you’re traveling on multiple airlines, you should check the dimension and weight limits for each one and go with the smallest and lightest allowances. Or, you could go with the heavier allowances, and just know that some airline agent along the way might ask to weigh your carry on. And if that happens, you might be required to check your bag or pay an extra weight fee.

You can also get an idea for dimesnion and weight limits from an online guide like Ali and Andy of’s Ultimate Carry On Size Chart: Luggage Restrictions for 150+ Airlines Worldwide and James Eagleman at’s Carry On Luggage Size Limits Made Simple.

Guidelines, What Guidelines?

There are general guidelines for making carry on travel work.

Choose the right bag. I use a travel pack instead of a suitcase for 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 some 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 during layovers and in case a flight is delayed and you get stuck somewhere for awhile. I also keep a safety razor and bar shaving soap in my carry on. Yes, I’m one of those brushing teeth and shaving in airports between layovers. The rest you can always get 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, sell it or give it away.

Here are a few articles if you want to read more about carry on travel.

Update: August 17, 2017 — My recent experiences on Air France and KLM underscores that carry-on rules change from airline to airline and even on the same airline from time to time. Both airlines allow you to bring a carry-on and a personal item in the cabin. I generally bring my travel pack and a computer shoulder bag with my laptop computer, cables, and such. Both airlines have a 12 kg (26.4 lbs) carry on weight limit. Air France and KLM now include your personal item in this weight limit where they did not on my previous flights with them. This is the first time I’ve experienced my pack and personal item being being added together in the carry on weight limit.

Brett and a Lemur in Madagascar!

Thanks for reading. Do you travel light? Are you a carry-on traveler? What are your guidelines, tips, or tricks? Let us know about this or any other thoughts you have on this post in the comments section below.

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Happy wandering!