With costs on the rise, and the hassle of flying with checked luggage, Jerry offers his stress-saving strategies for traveling with only carry-on… whether for a weekend or a month.
Jerry: Learning the “the hard way.”
Have you ever made it to your destination airport and found your checked-in luggage didn’t? It happened to me at London’s Heathrow Airport back in 2007. As the last bags came around the carousel and were quickly claimed by their owners, I was bagless and panic-stricken. Checking at the airline service counter, an agent said to phone back the next day and my bag would be delivered to me… assuming it had been located.
As you might imagine, finding myself in London with only the clothes on my back was rather disconcerting. However, really upsetting was not knowing where to go and where I’d be staying, once I left the airport. You see, I made the terrible mistake of packing all my travel documents in my checked bag. I couldn’t even remember the name of the B&B I had booked, much less the address.
Long story short, with a lot of help from the friendly London “natives” and the internet, I finally found and got to my B&B. Another long story, but my bag was finally located only several days later, the day before my departure. So, I ended up retrieving it back at Heathrow just before boarding my return flight. Despite traveling many more times to many places since, that was the last time I checked luggage.
Apologies: I apologize if any of the following seems like simple common sense or you’ve heard it before. If so, please accept it as reminder. Also, if you notice I’ve missed or overlooked a great travel tip, feel free to let me know.
Start by choosing a good carry-on bag
There are varying opinions about what attributes make a “perfect” carry-on bag. Of course, most important is that it meets the airline’s carry-on restrictions. Current U.S. carriers state carry-on bags can’t be larger than 22″ x 14″ x 9″ (56 x 35 x 23 cm), with no maximum weight limits. HOWEVER… you’ll often see domestic airline passengers boarding with bags that clearly exceed the official size limitations. They do so at their own risk… I don’t. Enforcement of an airline’s rules can be arbitrary and unpredictable, often based on the size of plane, number of passengers, or phase of the moon.
On the other hand, foreign airlines and airports are more consistent about enforcing carry-on bag restrictions, which can also include varying weight limits (check your specific airlines and airports). For example, Singapore’s Changi International Airport (SIN) states carry-on bags must not exceed 15 lbs. (7kgs), while Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport (PVG) states carry-on bags can weigh as much as 22lbs. (10kgs). Carrying a luggage scale is useful for international flights.
The hard bag versus soft bag debate
The pros and cons of hard-sided or soft-sided roll-on bags can be validly argued without consensus. Personally, I go for the soft-sided bags that can be expanded or compacted, depending on the contents. Also, for the most part, you can over-stuff a soft bag and still manage to squish it into an overhead compartment. However, a soft-sided bag requires taking into consideration how fragile the contents might be. Not an issue for me (see “personal item” recommendations).
When two bags are three
For years, before I refined my packing skills, I traveled with a small backpack and a soft-sided carry-on bag with a zip-off daypack. Although the bag with daypack attached exceeded the overall carry-on size dimensions, I was never prevented from taking it aboard as one item. However, 9 out of 10 times, I had to remove the daypack before I could fit the bag in the over-head compartment. Wala, three bags. I now consider the two-bags-are-three strategy a bit risky and unnecessary.
Maximizing your bag space
In general, my strategy is:
- Don’t use containers that take up space themselves. Don’t pack things inside hard boxes or containers. Rather, use soft fabric bags or plastic baggies that conform to the contents.
- Purchase and pack items that are small, foldable and/or flexible.
- Purchase and pack multi-use, multi-purpose items and eliminate duplications.
- As much as possible practice “throw ‘n go” (see below).
- Rather than pack, wear bulky and heavy articles of clothing (you can strip down later).
What goes in my “personal item”
My personal item is a small backpack that has lots of pockets and fits under an airline seat. I also use it to carry useful items at my destination. Guidelines for packing daypack are:
- Delicate items such as electronics and camera gear
- Jewelry, watches or other expensive items
- Travel information, reading material, guide books, etc.
- Medications, antacid tablets, vitamins (for longer flights)
- In-flight comfort (earphones/earplugs, inflatable pillow, tissues, etc.)
- Snacks, collapsible water container (filled before boarding)
- Contingency items: flashlight, blade-less multitool, pocket-size rain jacket
- Change of underwear and socks (wrap around delicate items… camera lenses fit great inside socks)
Don’t pack it, wear it
So far, the airlines haven’t started weighing and charging for what you’re wearing when you board. That said, in addition to those things you literally want to keep close to your chest (wallet, passport, boarding pass, etc.), many inflight essentials and comforts can be carried in a specially designed pocket-rich travel vest or jacket.
True enough: In the security line at the Johannesburg airport, I saw a man wearing an over-sized vest with every pocket bulging beyond capacity. It must have weighed 40 pounds, if not more. For those old enough to know who I’m talking about… he looked like Harpo Marx. Anyway, his vest-suitcase went through the scanner and onboard the plane without a hitch.
Packing light, packing right
While I’m a believer in the old adage, “It’s better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it,” packing only what you really need is the key to traveling light.
- Know, as best as possible, what you will encounter… climate, weather conditions, situations and activities (outdoor sports, night excursions, formal nights, etc.)
- Pack mix ‘n match clothing that is easily dressed up, layered and maintained
- Packing for varied and cold climates and a range of situations requires a good strategy (see below for Jerry’s “plan ‘n ship” and “throw ‘n go” strategies)
Plan ‘n ship strategy
For trips including particularly varied climates or activities you can think about when and where you will need what items or clothing. For instance, if your trip starts in a tropical climate, then moves on to a colder climate, it would be a drag and waste of luggage space to drag your heavier clothing and cold-weather gear to your beach-side cabana. Instead, you might consider planning ahead and shipping your cold-weather items to your cold-weather destination. By prearrangement, most hotels will hold a shipped package for a guest’s arrival. You’re your departure the procedure can be reversed, shipping unneeded items to your home.
Throw ‘n go strategy
My favorite strategy for the above situation is what I call, “throw ’n go.” An example of how this strategy works is a trip I took a couple of years ago. My ultimate destination was to southern Africa for a wildlife safari. However, my plans included first stopping in the Swiss Alps for four days… talk about varying climates.
Obviously, I wouldn’t need a parka, sweater, heavy pants, and flannel shirt in Africa. So, why even take them there? Here’s what I did. I went to my local thrift stores and bought very nice, nearly new cold-weather clothes. Everything together cost me $15. Then, when it came time to leave Switzerland, I simply left everything I wouldn’t need in Africa on a bus bench… hopefully to become a “lucky find” for someone in need.
Jerry’s “rule of three”
Minimizing the amount of luggage space needed for your travels, as you might guess, requires minimizing the amount of things you take with you.