I Traveled Through Nine Countries With Just a Carry-on — and I'm Never Checking a Bag Again
When I found myself between jobs, I decided to fulfill my longtime desire to travel in my twenties. I planned a four-month trip across three different continents — and before I left, I was asked an obvious question.
“Backpacking?” My friends and family, excited about my big adventure, were curious.
“Not really,” I replied sheepishly. “I’m carry-on-ing.”
I didn’t arrive at this luggage choice after some long, grueling brainstorm session, nor did I make a Venn diagram weighing pros and cons. It just made sense.
The idea of stuffing all of my clothes into a freeform backpack was completely unattractive to me. The idea of bearing the weight of all my belongings on my back seemed even worse. I would be flying every other day, so the thought of checking a suitcase seemed like an inconceivable waste of time. I was left with a single option: I would pack everything I needed for four months in a carry-on.
Here’s how I did it.
What I Packed
Whether you’re backpacking or carry-on-ing, you have to understand that you’ll be doing laundry along the way. Once you research the climates of your destinations, it’s fairly easy to figure out what you’ll need. For me, there was a lot of variation: I knew that it would be chilly fall weather in Amsterdam, very hot and humid in Southeast Asia, summery in Australia, and crisp spring in New Zealand.
That meant one pair of jeans (high-waisted, light-wash from Madewell that go with everything); four pairs of workout leggings; one pair of jean shorts; one denim skirt; a handful of light tops; a couple long-sleeve tees; a few cotton dresses; one sweater; one windbreaker; two bathing suits; and two week’s worth of undies and socks. I will tell you right now that my undies math was off. If you’re washing your clothes at least once a week, half of your fourteen pairs of underwear will go untouched.
I did my best to pack articles of clothing that would be easy to mix and match, which is pretty seamless to do when your wardrobe, like mine, consists solely of black, grey, white, and denim. My other prerequisite was to include as many outfits as possible that did not require a bra, an article that somehow becomes even more uncomfortable when you’ve been on the road for months (plus, I wanted to take advantage of the freedom of life outside the office). For shoes, I narrowed it down to a pair of white leather Tretorn sneakers for walking, my running shoes, one pair of black leather sandals, and waterproof flip flops.
My small, green Fjallraven Kanken backpack functioned as a drug store — one that my mother had stocked with every conceivable over-the-counter medicine she feared wouldn’t be available in Chiang Mai. In terms of liquids, I brought a handful of shampoo and body wash samples, but resolved to mostly rely on what hotels, Airbnbs, and hostels would provide. I could buy anything I needed along the way — turns out, every country has conditioner.
In the entertainment and technology department, I had my phone, Kindle, journal, headphones, and an adapter for every country I’d be visiting.
How I Packed It
In order to avoid worrying about international suitcase measurement regulations, I determined that I needed a hardshell carry-on. My trusty Kipling, which got me through the JFK to ATL trips throughout college, was often a squeeze even on domestic flights. I didn’t want to deal with the crippling anxiety of having to jam my bag into the little sizer box to test if it would fit — for failure meant the shame and inconvenience of gate checking.
Drawn to its reasonable price point and flashy “smart” features, I purchased The Carry-On from Away. I figured it couldn’t hurt to have charging capabilities — but I was really in it for the TSA-approved lock, the functional compartments, and the laundry bag.
On advice from my mother (Hi, Mama!), I rolled each item of clothing individually, which compacts your wardrobe more efficiently than folding and tends to prevent wrinkles. I then stacked the cotton cylinders to minimize any unused space. I fit an incredible amount of clothes in my 21.7” x 13.7” x 9” bag — but I did have to forgo any shopping urges along the way for lack of room.
How It Worked Out
If I’m being honest (I am), I thoroughly enjoyed traveling for four months with just a carry-on. The luxury of a four wheel suitcase that rolls along beside you as you walk, unencumbered by weight, is game-changing when you’re constantly on the move. Rolling my clothes up neatly made it extremely easy to locate any given item — and somehow, rolling isn’t as tedious as folding when it comes to clean laundry.
It was rare that I didn’t have a clean, weather-appropriate outfit, and in those few cases, it didn’t kill me to wear a pair of leggings for the second time. I didn’t even get bored of my outfit options, and I promise I’m not lying.
You may be wondering about those draconian carry-on weight limits we’ve all been hearing about. Few U.S. carriers or nicer international airlines will weigh your carry-on, but many cheaper ones around the world do. However, as I’ve learned, they will only do this if you check in by talking to a human at the airport — a human who will often make you pay more than the plane ticket itself to check your bag. If you check in online and download your boarding pass on your phone, no one will weigh your (usually, severely “overweight”) carry-on.
For the month I spent in New Zealand on a hop on hop off bus (shoutout to Stray for anyone looking for this type of experience), I was one of the only travelers who wasn’t backpacking. While the rugged backpackers definitely looked cooler and less high maintenance than I did, many of them were jealous of my wheels and didn’t make me feel lame at all.
While the four-month travel experience was as incredible as it sounds, I’m perhaps the most thankful for the perspective I gained on packing and possessions. After four months (across three continents) of living out of a carry-on, I realize how little I need to have a fulfilling travel experience — and now, packing for a normal trip in a singular climate is a breeze. I don’t think I’ll ever check a bag again.