carry-on: pros and cons

vintage luggage
“those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end…”

I’m occasionally asked why I bother with light packing and traveling with carry-on only luggage. I recognize that this isn’t necessarily the best choice for everyone, and even though it’s my preference, definitely has its tradeoffs.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that when we began traveling to Europe, we over-packed horrendously the first couple of trips. I soon realized that I frequently wore the same few items over and over, and most of my “just in case” pieces never left the hotel room. Another wake-up call was when le Monsieur’s primary checked bag never showed up on the conveyor belt at our destination and was only delivered to our hotel two days later. Had we not been staying in the same location for several days, this could have been more than an inconvenience.

Since then, I’ve been reading up and studying how others manage it and have traveled “carry-on” for the last four years. I’ve never regretted making the switch. I’m not as hard-core as some; I don’t invest in a separate travel wardrobe, I stick to clothing styles I’d feel comfortable in at home, I use a “spinner” wheeled carry-on bag to save my neck, back and shoulders, and if we’ve purchased liquids along the way (wines, olive oils, skincare, some of those lovely mustards from the Maille boutique in Paris) I’ll check a bag on the way home and cross my fingers.

Being able to easily navigate up and down stairs, through turnstiles and on and off trains and buses unassisted has been one of the biggest payoffs of packing this way. Traveling light allows for greater mobility, and the ability to change plans when flights or trains get cancelled or delayed. And in small hotel rooms, carry-on sized bags occupy less of that precious space.

Carry-on only travel might make sense for you if:

  • You are traveling to multiple destinations, and relying at least in part on trains, buses or other public transportation. (Another note, on many trains there is limited room for luggage, and the racks that can accommodate large bags may not be near your seats.)
  • You like to change travel plans on the fly, or be able to adjust for flight or other transportation interruptions.
  • You hate the idea of paying checked baggage fees. (Though be sure and check with your airline; some discount and other carriers have begun charging for bags carried on as well.)
  • The thought of your luggage going missing makes you break out in a cold sweat.
  • You like to avoid complication whenever possible.
  • You don’t mind either doing some hand washing of clothing or visiting a laundromat or paying to have laundry done if necessary.

However, some people prefer to have more options, don’t want to have to worry about laundry, or have special wardrobe requirements. Carry-on travel may be more hassle than it’s worth for you if:

  • You are traveling to a single destination or will have access to a car in between destinations.
  • Your travel plans include activities that require special equipment (e.g. skiing, rock climbing, music retreats) or have one or more “special occasion” events on the agenda (e.g. destination weddings, formal dinners, costume parties).
  • You either don’t mind the baggage fees or are part of an airline loyalty program that waives them once you hit a certain status.
  • The thought of not having a lot of variety in your wardrobe makes you break out in a cold sweat.
  • Hey, lost luggage is a great excuse to go shopping! 😉

Either way, you want your luggage and what you bring to be a help, not a hindrance.

My carry-on bag is this 22″ spinner from Lipault Paris. I call it The Little Bag That Could. It holds a LOT, yet still fits easily in overhead bins. As my “Personal Item” that fits underneath the seat, I use this Lipault Paris 19″ Weekender. Lots of pockets for organizing, and slips over the handle of the wheeled bag.

I’ve also updated my SHOP page with some of my favorite travel clothing, accessories and equipment.

travel clothing and gear

You can see all HERE, and I’ll be adding new items over the next few weeks, in addition to sharing some travel-friendly finds in upcoming posts.

How about you…do you prefer carry-on travel or having more options?
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  1. I’m in the middle.of a UK trip and am thrilled that I have one 20″ spinner case…there are a lot of areas that only have stairs, or limited room, and I’ve easily navigated both. I paid to check the bag on the plane as I didn’t want to be bothered with finding overhead storage space. I used your wardrobe packing tips, and all has gone swimmingly. I don’t feel clothing-deprived at all.

    Having said that, I’m in London for 8 days and shopping is on my list. I’ll get an additional bag for my loot.

  2. We are big fans of carry-on, but when we need to bring a laptop we usually check one bag. I always tell myself, though, that I can buy almost anything I need at our destination, save for prescriptions, credit cards, and computer/s. xox

  3. I hope to convert to carry on only now that I’m not traveling for business and events. But my biggest issue is toiletries/makeup and hair stuff. Although I pack only sample/travel size items and try to take a minimum of makeup, these items still take up a lot of room. How do all of you handle this?

  4. I always use a carry on sized bag, but for a trip greater than 5 days, its usually checked.Managing the liquids is part of the problem: because of allergies, I am taking a risk buying hair products or cosmetics as the trip progresses…Paris with eczema is no fun at all! If I am traveling alone, I need help lifting a bag into the overhead compartment : for health reasons, I am not to lift items over 20 pounds, and I can not always count on a kind stranger to help me. I can pack in a small space, but after figuring in the weight of the suitcase, it is hard to keep the load below my limit.

    Years ago, I broke my shoulder while traveling in Italy. I finished the last three days of the trip with one arm in a sling, tied to my body. That moment alone taught me the value of traveling light.

  5. So far, we’ve done carry-on only for the last 6 or 8 years. I’m wondering what we’ll do for a possible 3 months away planned for sometime in the next year. I’m still inclined to go carry-on, and then perhaps do a bit of shopping and a bit of sending things home via the post office. . . on verra!

  6. I would and could do carry-on only if not for the TSA liquid restrictions. I must always check a bag for things like hair products (some simply do not come in travel size), nail scissors etc. I don’t have a lot of cosmetics but I still cannot fit all I need into a quart size bag.

  7. It isn’t one of my big interests, but ideally would love to do only carry-on everywhere!

    What strikes me the most about this post is the picture of the elegant woman travelling– wow! I can remember when people dressed up for travel– my parents did– and it is so appealing! Is that what they used to call a “sack suit”? She looks glamorous, and like she might even be on a mysterious mission of some sort…

  8. I have little trouble travelling light – I need things I can wash out in a sink (including underpants and bras), but I need food prep things such as a knife and corkscrew that aren’t allowed in the cabin. Now the Dutch HEMA chain also has several shops in France, including at Gare du nord and Gare St-Lazare (in Amsterdam, there is one right at Schiphol arrival). Perhaps I’ll pick up a cheapo knife and corkscrew there and just leave them where I stay. They also have surprisingly good (and cheap) toiletries.

    I presume that on most flights we are still allowed to take our laptop bag and a larger carry-on for clothing? I know one must check that in any event. My laptop is a little MacBook; I can’t really work seriously on a tablet.

  9. I love the travel wardrobes you post, and always get some great ideas for my own travel! And I completely agree with you: After having one bag lost forever (with Parisian purchases inside!), and having bags delayed more times than I can count (even on our honeymoon), we’ve given up checking bags, except when bringing back oversize liquids with us, which only happens once every couple of years. My travel wardrobe is, like yours, culled from my regular wardrobe, and I have no problem with hand washing a few things if necessary to stretch things. As for the toiletry question, my own beauty routine is VERY streamlined anyway: one tiny face cream or SPF 15, no foundation, lipstick, under eye coverup, and mascara. No hair care products, since I make sure I have an easy-to-style haircut, and can use any shampoo/conditioner that’s available for a few days. Decanting larger tubes of things can work for carry on: I like to bring a tiny amount of antibiotic cream and cortisone cream when traveling to unfamiliar countries, to deal with cuts/bites/irritations. Just use contact lens cases for small amounts of liquids/creams; works like a charm!

  10. Traveling light is a wonderful education on how little it takes to have a coordinated wardrobe. As an artist, I fly to workshops that can last up to 2 weeks. The events span from painting outside, museum visits to dinners out. I have learned to pack a carry-on with my personal essentials and also most of my art supplies. The rest goes in a zipped tote for under the seat. My rule is to always pack light enough so I can lift both easily.

  11. We only do carry on – a 20 inch bag each and I use the same Lippault weekender as my “personal item” – anything larger is simply not practical if you are getting on and off trains and if you plan your wardrobe not necessary – even if you are attending formal events! I’ve been experimenting with toiletries and liquids and now break them up into 3 bags that I can stash in those little empty spots in my suitcase and found that this works great – one bag for liquids, one for make up and one for medications, etc. , etc.
    One piece of advice I’ll pass on – yes you can find just about any over the counter med (and prescription one as well) in Europe – however 24 hour pharmacies aren’t always easy to find and the pharmacists don’t always speak english! So, my “rule of thumb” is to take 72 hours worth of OTC meds – nyquil, immodium, etc,. etc. I put the blister packs in a small ziploc to reduce bulk.

  12. Hi there. I am interested in buying the Lipault Weekender, as I also have the 22″ 4 wheel spinner. Do you have the 19″ or the 15″ bag? If you have the 19″, do you think it passes as a handbag? I frequently fly Icelandair and they are very strict. I also carry-on my bag as I have had many bags go missing over the years.

  13. If I’m going for a quick weekend I’ll carry on, for anything longer I’m happy to check a bag. It lets me bring my workout wear, that extra sweater, a book and not have to go through my toilet bag to get rid of liquids.
    It helps to be the spouse of a million mile flier and that Southwest is the carrier of choice for my other main destination.

  14. A friend was just reminiscing about a business trip she took with her husband many years ago. It involved a stay in Los Angeles for meetings and events and then a stay in Honolulu, again with meetings and events. She had SEVEN pieces of Samsonite, very much like the three pieces in your photo above! Included in the seven was the old “train case” for her cosmetics. Although I’m annoyed with the airlines for charging for checked bags and causing people to bring way too much carry on luggage, I am grateful for lightweight, wheeled bags!

  15. I am very interested in this topic and hope that you continue on with it. In November we are traveling to Bali for my son’s wedding , and then onto hong kong for a wedding reception. I will need a light weight dress for the wedding in a tropical color and then another dress for a reception with the bride’s family and another outfit for a brunch reception with the bride and groom’s friends. Going by your rules might not work because black and blue suits are regarded as funeral colors and would not be auspicious for wedding attire. Any suggestions please?

    1. There are so many great light weight dresses out there these days that will roll and take up very little room. And don’t be afraid to wear the same dress twice or at least be sure they can double for other occasions on the trip. Congratulations and have a great time!

  16. I do carry on only for weeks at a time. I love bypassing the bag check lines. I also enjoy bypassing luggage claim – especially when I have jet lag! There’s just less to stress about.

    One of the keys to carry on is switching to solid toiletries and also to decant liquids into little bottles. Many people bring too much liquid. You don’t usually need 3 oz of face serum or foundation. Decanting them into 1 oz bottles saves space and weight. Test out solid products ahead of time to see if they work for you. If you stage your liquid and solid toiletries ahead of time you’ve made a major step.

  17. I knew someone who worked in baggage handling and I’ll never check a bag again! Actually, even when I flew more frequently I always used a carry-on and would go shopping at my destination. I like your choices. The elegant luggage shown in the your photo I’m afraid wouldn’t last long today unless you had a private jet.

  18. When I was young I travelled around the world with a backpack and that was great at that time. But now I seem to belong to a minority here who always check-in luggage. I don’t want to travel without a selection of clothes but prefer to be prepared for changeable weather and various occasions which include different shoes and accessories.

    Annette | Lady of Style

  19. I learned the hard way and way overpacked my first time to Europe discovering what a nightmare it was to lug those bags around. Since then I have used carry-on or at least carry-on size for 2-3 week trips. Europeans do not have much closet space and do not buy extensive wardrobes, so they re-wear things over and over and I have learned to do the same thing. Living in France for 3 months this year, my husband and I each brought two bags, but one of mine was virtually empty so that I can bring home some goodies when we leave in May. I teach a class at REI Santa Fe on packing and what to take. It’s fun to help others learn how to tread lightly in all respects. Great post! Enjoy your next travels! Au revoir!

  20. Such a great topic. I have to travel for conferences and presentations as well as for vacations. I had a terrible habit of overpacking. Like you I wore the same outfits and those times and events I thought “might happen” never did. It makes the airport so much easier to navigate, and with the exception of super crowed planes where it is hard to find an overhead rack near your seat, it just really always makes for an easier trip.The only problem with bringing less, iis that it makes me more likely to buy!

    Accidental Icon

  21. I have been doing only carry-on (a small, soft-side bag with no wheels) since 1985 after my small checked luggage was lost somewhere between Hong Kong and Tokyo. Fortunately, it was my homeward bound trip and I had a few essentials in a small carry-on tote that impressed the passport control people no end. (My luggage got checked in HK and I had an overnight in Japan so had enough to get me through the suitcase-less night and the following day.). Since then, I have moved on to a very small bag (19x12x7″) with hidden back-pack style straps for the long walk from train station to hotel or from terminal to terminal in an airport. I take very little excess clothing and have a workable, pared down wardrobe that gets me through most situations. A word about not needing a carry-on when traveling by car: the first time I traveled with only a small carry-on was a 2-week trip to the UK in 1986. My traveling companion and I stayed in London then rented a car for a long tour around the UK. Mindful that I only had my small carry-on, I made purchases accordingly. My friend bought lots and lots of bulky stuff (sheepskin rug, thick sweaters, etc.) and threw it all into the boot of the car. But eventually, all that “booty” had to come out of the boot and get packed in a newly purchased suitcase and taken back home.

    Venice is banning wheeled luggage; could be the thin edge of the wedge.

  22. I’m going to be going to Italy and France this fall, and plan to follow your tips for packing. I may even buy the Lipault bag, or at least something similar and lighter than my old suitcase. But I do have concerns about the scramble for overhead bins on a plane; I’m short, and a battle for space doesn’t seem like a nice way to start my vacation. I’ll probably take some clothes and underwear in a weekend bag on the plane and cross my fingers for the checked bag. My travel companion has already said she couldn’t possibly go carry-on only so we will have to wait for her bags anyway. (I’m already a bit worried about having to help her manage all the stuff she’s insisting on bringing!)

    1. Hi Northmoon, I think even for those who prefer to check bags, it still may be beneficial to keep luggage as small and light as possible for ease of getting around once you’re off the plane. Carrying a change of clothing and “necessities” with you is always a good plan, regardless.

  23. I travel wth a small bag but check it. From Australia they tend to be strict on the weght of carry on luggage as well as the size. I am unable to get the bag below the required 7kg. I always have a change of underwear & shirt in my carry on tote so if the worst happens and the bag goes missing I having something that is clean at the destination. Traveling light also means that it is easier when nagiviating public transport and that is my real focus as I like to be able to leave the airport and just go where I want how I want. Heavy bags are no fun.

  24. I travel with a small, 20 to 22 inch bag, but I check it when I can, or if I need to change planes in the US. I can handle it and lift it but would prefer to be an unencumbered as possible unless there is good reason to have it with me (multiple destinations in Europe or other places) for example.

  25. Checking bags is for sissies:) I travel with a Tumi lightweight carry on and a Longchamp expandable tote. I wear a small cross -body bag which I stick in the Longchamp bag when I’m boarding so I don’t get nailed for having more than one personal item. The Longchamp gets looped over the handle and rests on top of the Tumi. Personally, I prefer the traditionally wheeled carry-on bags rather than the spinners because I find the spinners much more difficult to manage over curbs and particularly over the cobble stone streets of Europe. Inside the Tumi I have a lightweight foldable duffle which I can check, if needed, on the way home. I almost never have to use it because, unless I buy liquids, I can smoosh everything in the Longchamp which expands and even in its expanded state STILL fits under the seat. As far as liquids, I’m not too picky about shampoos and whatever the hotel provides is fine. If for some reason I need something else I go to the pharmacy. I will wash out stuff in the hotel sink. I bring some travel size detergent packs for hand washing. Tide makes them. My other recommendation is to bring a pair of Lisette black pants. They can be dressed up or down, are super comfy and can be washed out in the sink or tub and be dry the next day.

  26. Well, I guess I am really running against the tide here! I rarely carry on. I did it once, by myself on a trip to France a few years ago. Never again. I couldn’t possibly lift the suitcase up top. So on each of my six flights I had to wait for some kind (yes, a man…) to help me. Flight crews were useless. So, I do check but nothing too large: a 24″ 4-wheeler. Then I will take a small rolled bag aboard, the kind I use for trade shows to carry heavy catalogs. That holds a ton and is then also useful for overnight trips out of Paris, or London or wherever. Yes, I realize the value of light when changing trains etc. but generally I am not moving around a lot. Also, I find the liquids, and makeup and hair straightener can take up so much valuable space. And lastly, I have trouble with my feet so probably take more shoes than some of you!

  27. Nice summary of pros and cons.When Le Duc and I travel I have a carryon size and he has a bigger bag, and we check both. I have done 3 weeks in Europe with a carryon. Like An Eye for Detail, we don’t move around a lot.

  28. Your shop page won’t load for me. I see the header and the sidebar, but the page itself is blank. I use Chrome. (Longtime reader, but first time commenting. Really enjoy your blog.)

    1. Hi Tracy, I just tried in Chrome and it seems to work for me. If you have any ad-blocker software, that may prevent the images from loading.

      1. Ah, yes, I needed to pause Ad Block. Thank you! Hopefully my new access to your shop page won’t be too expensive for me. 🙂 I’ve purchased several EF tops and the Nordstrom silk/cashmere wrap after you’ve featured them, and they’ve become favorites of mine.

  29. We went to England and France for three weeks last August with a 12 year old and a 15 year old. Each of the boys took one carry-on and one backpack, and I swapped the backpack for a large purse. It was great. I can’t imagine getting through all the Metro/Tube stations and trains with huge luggage. We did have regular access to laundry facilities, so only once did we have to use a laundromat, but that was an interesting cultural experience for the boys!

    I relied heavily on your blog when deciding what to wear. Then when I got to Paris, I thought “She’s right! This is what everyone wears here!” It took me a day or two to realize that almost everyone I was seeing was American, as all the Parisians were out of town, LOL. Didn’t matter, everyone looked great, including me, if I do say so myself. So, thank you!

  30. I usually travel carry on these days after a couple of bad experiences. The first time, we were going to Australia for a wedding via Hawaii. I bought a couple of lovely tops in Hawaii, which I packed in my large canvas bag, only to find when we arrived that my bag had been slashed and several of my purchases had disappeared. Recently, on returning from the UK, when I saw my case on the carousel it was unzipped, although luckily nothing had been taken. We are going to London next month and going to put our cases in the hold as we want to buy lots of products that we can’t buy in Spain. After my experience of my case being unzipped, important things like some of my jewellery (not expensive but it has sentimental value), my camera (with holiday photos) and favourite clothes will be in my hand luggage or on my body! Even when it comes to hand washing, I’ve had bad luck: in Paris I washed out a new top and hung it on the balcony, but sadly it blew onto another balcony and I failed to get it back!

  31. I haven’t been traveling overseas but I still like a carryon within the States. I don’t want to schlep a big bag any longer nor do I want to wait at Baggage Claim nor do I trust them to get the bag on my connection although some travel sites say the airlines have improved immeasurably on that score. I like minimizing my choices to a few outfits and sets of shoes. If anything, I’m worse about shoes than outfits although I’m learning to stick with 3, maybe 4, pair.

  32. I have three Rimowa Salsa Air suitcases, 32″, 29″ and 22″. This luggage is very light weight and the wheels move multiple directions. I just can’t pack all that I need in a carry-on suitcase. I find that I take the 32″ suitcase most of the time, even if it is not completely full. My husband always uses carry-on since he travels the world for his work. When we go to Europe (at least twice a year), I take my very best clothes. Part of the fun to me, is dressing well on vacation.

  33. Funny actually because I always say that if they lose my luggage….let’s go shopping!! I have a hard time with the carry on due mostly to the fact of my obsession with shoes & their characteristic biggness! jodie