This post may contain some affiliate links for your convenience (which means if you make a purchase after clicking a link I will earn a small commission to help keep my blog up and running, but it won't cost you a penny more). For more information, please read my disclosure policy.
Carry-on travel will get you out the door and on your way to enjoying your destination and activities with everything you need to be comfortable.
By packing a carry-on bag, you save yourself time, decrease the possibility of loss or theft, and make it easier to be mobile and on the go instead of dragging large suitcases with you.
There’s no denying that being an empty nester means a lot more flexibility with time. You may still have to juggle work schedules and pet arrangements, but you don’t have all the responsibilities of getting children up and through their day.
You have time and you can be spontaneous!
Why not take a quick weekend trip to the coast or to the lake?
Does one of you have a 3-day business trip out of town? Why not join your spouse (or vice versa) and add a weekend to explore the city?
- Travel & Leisure magazine quoted the Airline Information Technology Company’s (SITA) 2017 annual report in saying that fewer than 6 bags per 1000 checked in bags were lost each year. The chances of your bags being mislaid or lost are much higher if you have a connection in which your luggage has to be transferred to another plane.
- Luggage thefts by airport and airline employees are also up. Thieves frequently target luggage that has to be transferred because it is more difficult to track. Luggage is forced open, valuables are taken, and the bag is then sent on its way.
- Whether you are planning a quick weekend getaway or a 5-day trip, choosing to pack a carry-on will save you time better spent relaxing and having fun. Once you arrive, you just stroll to your chosen transportation and you’re on your way.
- Some airlines (I’m looking at you, United!) are now charging for every checked bag when you purchase their lowest fares. $25 for the first bag, $35 for the second, and $100 each for additional bags (up to $200 on some international routes).
- They go a step further on their Basic Economy fare, charging you for carry-on bags that go in the overhead bin too!
- Checking bags in can get expensive and carriers vary over what they charge. Carry-0n (with most airlines) is free.
- You have one suitcase to keep track of. When you get to your destination, you don’t have to pick up additional bags at baggage claim and then make sure the extra bags are with you in the cab, at hotel check in, and when you leave.
Traveling with only a carry-on bag is not for everyone, or every situation.
- If you need to bring bulky clothes or sports equipment, you will need to plan to check some of your luggage.
- A business trip requiring a range of clothing for day to evening might be too much or a carry-on.
- Packing for a cruise usually means planning for lots of changes and clothing from bathing suits to evening wear.
- A conference at which you’ll likely pick up brochures, mugs, and other promotional giveaways. This one I know from personal experience! I came home with the same carry-on and tote back I left with, but they were dangerously close to bursting!
For travel of a week or less, a carry-on bag is fine for most people. If you have access to laundry facilities, you can extend that to weeks!
With some careful packing and thoughtful choices, a carry-on bag can easily carry everything you’ll need. The trick is to not try to address every what-if situation by adding and adding to your luggage.
What if you get sick at your destination and you need cold medicine?
If your destination is not rural or hard to get to, you can just buy cold medicine when you need it. That also goes for the nail clippers, sunblock or any number of things that you may have forgotten to pack. You can tuck all sorts of small things into a well packed carry-on, but don’t go overboard. You’re going on a short trip, not moving there.
What if the weather predictions are wrong and it gets cold or starts to rain? Should I pack an umbrella & heavy jacket?
Like the cold medicine, you can likely buy an inexpensive umbrella if you need one at your destination. Many hotels have them available for guests. As for the heavy jacket, if it makes you feel more secure to have it, bring it. But wear it on the plane and don’t pack it. You can take it off and toss it in the overhead with your bag.
There will be times when carry-on luggage fails you. Or at least challenges you.
A 5-day trip is pretty easy for carry-on travel. I’ve done it a lot, on week-long trips to big attractions or to scout out colleges. One of my most recent carry-on trips was recently, when we traveled to Maine to take our youngest to college. We checked in 5 large boxes of things he was taking to his dorm but other than that, we each just had a carry-on case and a tote bag or backpack each. The airline allowed 2 pieces of checked-in luggage free per person as long as they conformed to the total size and weight (and we made sure they were), so we got all his stuff there free instead of paying exorbitant shipping costs.
It worked fine but we had some exhausting and hot days (it’s humid in early September Maine!) and clothes had to worn a little longer than I would have at home. By the time we got on our last connection home, we were a mess, our suitcases were filled with only dirty clothes, but we made it.
Would I have done it any differently? Probably not. We knew what we were in for and we had a heck of a time dealing with personal luggage, the boxes and then all the shopping bags once we’d finished shopping in Maine.
The bright light of the trip was wheeling our small carry-on luggage from plane to car when we arrived. No stopping at the luggage carousel, just home to our washing machine!
A month later, I went to a 5-day conference in Portland and thought I was so smart with how nicely I’d packed everything I needed, including a couple of heavy course notebooks I wanted to study in the evening. My laptop case was my second bag and housed my wallet & phone en route (I had a flat purse in my carry-on). What I learned from regular conference attendees is that it’s not what you bring to, it’s what you bring back that’ll kill you!
How cute were those free mugs from one of the sponsors? “I’m not bossy! I AM the boss!” And I scored a second one that said “Coffee </strong>”. That’s a blogging code reference and it’s hilarious. Trust me. No way was I going home without them.
Then the conference people gave us great deals on books and various items and well, it was just too good to pass up! I spent the day after the conference with my sister who lives in Portland. At least an hour of our precious visit was taken up with engineering everything to fit into my bags. And I walked very carefully everywhere I went so that nothing would break in transit.
The lesson that I’m taking from this is to think through what your trip is about. Will you likely be bringing things (souvenirs, conference paperwork, gifts from people you visit) home with you? That may, and should, affect how you approach packing for your trip.
- One option is to find a local post office and ship a box home. Some hotels will even handle it for you. You can keep your delicate items with you in your carry-on and ship your dirty underwear. I’m not telling.
- Another option is to pack a larger suitcase and check it in when you know you’ll have more on the return trip. Problems with lost or stolen luggage tend to be with flights that require plane changes. If you are flying non-stop, your luggage should be fine.
- Buy another suitcase when you know you’ll need it. I’ve been known to buy a suitcase at my destination to bring home some great buys. This happens regularly with Hawaii and international travel. Go to the local Target or Walmart and buy an inexpensive but sturdy bag to get the rest of your stuff home. Our bright red & white plumeria rolling tote is very popular with the kids when they travel. I’m pretty sure one of them took it and never brought it back. See? A gift. If your return trip includes plane changes, pack all your dirty clothes and non-essentials in the checked bag and bring your valuable personal items and purchases on board in your carry-on.
Choosing the right carry-on bag
When it comes to carry-on size, there is no exact rule.
Permissible size varies according to airlines, the size of the plane, and even the position on the plane (rows near the front usually have smaller overhead compartments, so if yours is on the larger allowable size, you’ll want to move towards the center or back of the airplane), and even what class your ticket is in. Airlines will sometimes allow first and business class passengers more leeway.
It’s smart to check on your airline’s carry-on size recommendations, but the largest allowed across most carriers is the 22″ x 14″ x 9″ size, so aim for smaller.
One note: Some small regional airlines do not allow carry-on at all. You’ll be asked to check in your bag on arrival. Always check the airline’s rules and regulations before making your plans.
I recommend that you look at the new 4 wheeled suitcases. They are so much easier to navigate around a crowded airport. No more yanking your arm out of your socket as you pull a heavy bag behind you. The 4 wheeled cases will glide in front of you with only slight direction. They’re amazing and wonderful when you’re exhausted from traveling!
There are a few great tools that make carry-on packing a lot easier, but I’ll go over those in the next article. Feel free to click over, you can easily come back from there.
What to take as your second bag
Here is where savvy travelers get away with a lot.
Most people choose a purse or small backpack as their second bag. If you are just going away for the weekend, that’s probably ample for your needs. But if you want to take your camera bag or other larger item that is too bulky to put in your carry-on, a carefully selected second bag can make a big difference.
I have a small pink polka-dotted canvas bag that I bought in Chinatown for about $20. It’s surprisingly sturdy and doesn’t get much wear because it only has one function – to slip under the airplane seat in front of me.
I don’t overfill it so that I can easily pull it out if I need something, but it carries a lot. I can fit my camera bag, an extra pair of shoes, a book to read, and my purse, in it.
You may choose entirely different things but the point is that it serves as an overflow bag when you just can’t get everything into your carry-on.
And no, it’s not cheating. It’s just smart packing.
For your second bag, think tote bag, small duffel bag, backpack, or other moderately-sized bags, about half the size of your carry-on. It should be flexible in case you need to push it to fit under the seat.
Don’t forget that you can actually put it in the overhead if you don’t have a need for it during your flight (and if there’s room once other passengers have had a chance to put their carry-ons away). I usually pull out my book and put my bag up and out of my way.
Don’t use the second bag as an excuse to overpack.
Think of it as a way to add a travel essential that would otherwise take up too much packing space in your primary carry-on.
My camera and lenses fit well in a relatively small camera bag, but it is still a bulky item. I would never check in delicate camera equipment, so I either have to put it in my carry-on or second bag.
For you, it might be some gifts for people at your destination, medical equipment, or snow boots needed on your arrival. Just remember that if you overfill your carry-on and second bag, it’s time to either switch to a checked-in bag, or edit what you’re packing.
If you are buying a new tote, or other bag, to use as your second permissible carry-on, look for one that has a wide strap attachment on one side. These slide right over the handle of your carry-on, making it that much easier for you. No need to sling it over your shoulder.
Also good is a zippered outside pocket so that you can slide your travel documents or phone there for easy access when you need to show your boarding pass to TSA or flight personnel.
- Take a packing list (in categories and with outfits planned) WITH you on your trip so that you don’t forget anything on the way back. You can download a free carry-on packing list and travel tips below.
- If you like manicured nails, get them done right before leaving so they’re set and you don’t have to locate a nail place at your destination.
- For more versatility, choose clothing pieces that will work with almost all the others. A capsule wardrobe will give you multiple outfits, especially when you transform them with accessories.
- Personal tip – get your hair done (or at least professionally blow-dried) on the day of your trip. Unless you have very oily hair, the style will hold up for several days and wearing a shower cap when bathing will prevent the frizzies from getting too bad.
Be sure to download your free Carry-On Packing List & Wardrobe Planner.
See More Travel Articles:
Don’t Miss The Latest!