Three Weeks with Just a Carry-on

People often ask me how I can travel for three or more weeks in Europe using only a carry-on bag.  With a few little tricks, it’s not difficult.

Carry-On Luggage
Carry-On Luggage

Carry-on bag requirements for international flights vary by airlines, but for the big three – United, Delta, and American Airlines – bags must be no larger than 22″ x 14″ x 9″.  For some international airlines, the size is smaller, so be sure to check before you fly.  My bag is actually a little smaller than the domestic airlines’ requirements and therefore, more versatile. (You can find my carry-on bag and my backpack on the Travel Product Recommendations page).

The amount of clothes that you pack makes the biggest difference in the size of your suitcase, so here’s what I start with:

  • 4 or 5 Bottoms – skirts, pants, jeans or capris
  • 7 or 8 Tops
  • Underwear – 8 panties and 2 bras
  • Jacket, umbrella, electronics, etc.

I can make my wardrobe go further by finding a Laundromat or washing my clothes in the hotel sink.  I bring along a little liquid detergent, but shampoo or body wash can also be used.

I like wearing jeans, even though they would take a long time to dry if I had to wash them.  I usually wear them on the plane and then other times.  Right now, I’m looking for a better alternative for my black dress pants; they are not very comfortable, but having a dressier pair of pants is a good idea.  I also have a pair of gray capris and a black skort.

I’ve heard travelers suggest that wearing all neutrals offers more versatility and therefore, saves room in the suitcase.  Neutrals may be fine for some people, but I love brights!  To be practical, then, I pack neutral bottoms that mix and match with any of my bright tops.

I like to bring tops that work in all kinds of weather.  I bring camisoles, nice t-shirts or other short-sleeved tops, and lightweight sweaters.  If the items coordinate, they can be layered to suit the weather.  If I am leaving the hotel and won’t be back until evening, I can wear a sweater in the cool morning weather and take it off when it warms up in the afternoon.

I find that I rarely have to wash my pants or skirts, but that isn’t the case with tops.  It is important to think about the fabric content of the clothes you bring.  If you bring a nice button down shirt and the hotel does not provide an iron, you may have to walk around in a wrinkled mess.  Clothes made from polyester, nylon and other synthetic materials will dry faster and wrinkle less. Woven fabric also shows wrinkles faster than knit fabric.

Dressed for Dinner in Amsterdam
Dressed for Dinner in Amsterdam

I accessorize with scarves, rather than jewelry.  Jewelry – even the cheap costume kind – can sometimes attract thieves.  It can become tangled in your suitcase if not packed carefully. A scarf can be used as a head or shoulder covering if a cultural or religious building requires.  A large one can be used as a light blanket on the plane.

I wash underwear and tops in the sink and hang them to dry.  Hotels often have hangers, or you can bring a travel clothesline.  Sometimes drying clothes takes more than over one night, so don’t plan to wash if you are checking out the next morning.  If you are unsure how your clothes will hold up to hand-washing, try it at home before you leave.

I have a couple of jackets that I like to pack – one is a bit dressier and yet goes with almost everything in my suitcase.  The other is water resistant, which is great, if rain is in the forecast.

Shoes are heavy – I try to limit myself to two pairs – a good pair of walking shoes and a pair of sandals or flats. Sandals and ballet flats are lightweight options for women, but walking shoes are necessary anywhere but on the beach.  Make sure you break in your shoes before you travel with them.

I find that fitting everything in is easier if I roll my clothes.  I have no idea why this works, but if I roll each item separately and then lay them next to each other in the suitcase, I can fit in much more.  I can pack the clothes listed above, picnic supplies, my empty backpack, and even my tripod – all in one carry-on bag.  My umbrella, camera, iPad and 3-1-1 liquids bag goes in an over the shoulder messenger bag, which I will use as a day bag throughout the trip.

Put some thought into what you pack.  Load your suitcase a week or more before you leave.  Does everything fit?  How much does it weigh?  You will need to lift your carry-on into the overhead bin and possibly up flights of stairs as you travel.  If what you plan to take doesn’t fit, see what can be left home.  If you have extra room, save it for souvenirs.

Once you start traveling with only a carry-on, you will never go back to a full-sized suitcase again.  There is an unbelievable freedom that comes with traveling unencumbered by luggage.



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