The practical traveler: 30 days in a carry-on

People ask me all the time how I pack as lightly as I do when I travel.  My rule is never to check anything in for any trip two weeks or less.  That goes for winter or summer.

It’s horribly inconvenient to have to check your luggage in, and then have the airline lose it, only to wear dirty clothes while they’re looking for it, or be improperly dressed to meet a government official, or have to scramble shopping, or waste money on clothes you don’t need and don’t want.

The keys are really simple:

  • Pick a base neutral and coordinate all your clothes around it: black, brown, or navy, which will also dictate your shoe choice.
  • Include no more than two pairs of shoes, including the ones on your feet, and make sure they are comfortable, and can be dressed up or down.
  • Multifunctional is great.  Shawls and scarves, for example, serve variously as bed sheets, extra insulation, cover-ups in conservative countries, and if you’ve got it in a pretty colour, a pick-me-up. I also heart wrinkle-free material, like jersey knits, which come in all sorts of weights. And I prefer non-descript suiting so I can rotate colourful shirts underneath.

I also always pack one equivalent of a little black dress that can be dressed up or down, no matter the nature of the trip (fact-finding in a refugee camp can lead to an unexpected meeting with an Ambassador, or hiking a mountain can make you new friends who invite you to a dinner party).

I always carry the essentials for a stranded night on me even if they make me check my bag in. Airline weight limits have put a real cramp in my packing style.  Some airlines cap your carry-on at 7kg!  In the event they make me check my baggage, or take it away from me at the gate (that’s the worst), I always have on my person the things I need to survive comfortably for a couple of days in case my luggage gets lost:

  • my toiletry bag, or at least toothbrush, toothpaste, facial soap, and moisturiser in a little pouch
  • nightshirt
  • 1 change of clothing
  • blackberry charger

A month with a carry-on is pretty extreme, but I’ve done it before.  In order to pack a month into a carry-on, it has to be not winter, all my clothes have to match one another, I can’t bring more than one pair of shoes that I wear on my person (plus flip-flops for gross showers), and when I can’t get laundry done, I have to be willing to be dirty some days (which isn’t hard on a some trips — I could live without another cold shower in brown water for the rest of my life).  I also cheat by carrying a backpack for briefing materials and other reading, but the backpack also doubles as an overnight bag for short trips where I can leave main luggage with a colleague, friend, or real hotel.

Items that never leave my suitcase, even between trips:

  • all-in-one electrical adapter and blackberry charger
  • cheap shawl ($5 from a street vendor)
  • silk sleep sleeve (super compact, light, warm, and indispensable for cleanliness in questionable sleeping situations)

Other useful items:

  • a nice, patterned silk shawl or scarf (my travel wardrobe tends to be pretty neutral but I’ve found a fancy shawl in a nice material will punch up a boring outfit, and make it more formal in a pinch)
  • small combination lock for luggage left behind on trips within trips (TSA accessible in case you put it on checked-in luggage)
  • micro-fiber towel
  • facial cleansing wipes (Johnson’s and Ponds are both good, and indispensable when you just can’t bear the thought of splashing dirty water on your face; I don’t like Dove as much and can’t explain why)
  • in place of a laptop, USB memory stick and netbook
  • a foldable nylon bag large enough for paperwork –  Longchamp’s Le Pliage series is lightweight, perfectly compact, and the open tote model is just professional enough to substitute for a traditional briefcase:


  • first aid kit: aspirin, anti-biotics, lavender oil, bandages and antiseptic wipes, allergy medication, anti-inflammatory (like Benadryl)
  • retractable headlamp (Petzl makes a great lightweight LED one, available from REI and other gear shops, and all I have to say is you never know when you need to feel your way around an outhouse at night and trust me you’ll want to be able to see)
  • noise canceling headphones (I have the Bose, which I found to be the most compact, and have a comfortable on-the-ear design; they’re an investment, but I’ve gotten so many hours of relative quite on noisy plane and train trips, which translates to more sleep and less exhaustion, they were worth every penny)
  • in non-summer months, a belted trench is my coat of choice (can be dressed up, perfect weight over suits for really cold weather but not too heavy to carry round, durable; Burberry is classic and will last forever if you can afford it)
  • Camper Pelotas (insanely comfortable, and I can somehow get away with them in black with a pantsuit if I don’t feel like wearing real shoes)

The greatest piece of luggage I’ve come across is the Eagle Creek Switchback 22.  I tramped with it through three months in Asia, Australia, and New Zealand:

The road from Kenepuru Saddle, Queen Charlotte Track, Marlborough, New Zealand
85 km around the Queen Charlotte Track, Marlborough, NZ
Doubtful Sound, New Zealand
Doubtful Sound, NZ. I swam in these waters, brisk and beautiful.

The Switchback is a wheeled carry-on with a detachable daypack.  It’s like the SUV of luggage.  It’s made with rip-stop nylon, and the wheeling mechanism is so well-designed, wheeling it feels like a cloud, even when it’s full and heavy, or on rough terrain.  The entire thing also converts very easily into a backpack.  It’s not designed to be carried on your back all the time like some packs, but it’s still pretty comfortable, and great for stairs, or wet or muddy terrain.

The detachable daypack is great, it fits a ton of stuff, and it’s perfect for trips-within-trips when I don’t want to carry everything I have with me.  When getting on a plane, I usually have the wheeled luggage as my carry-on and detach the daypack as my “personal item” in place of a purse or laptop case.  On layovers, I strap the daypack back onto the main wheeled piece and don’t have to tramp through airports and lines with anything on my already weary back between flights.

Another piece I really like is the Briggs and Riley expandable carry-on.  I like the clean lines of the black one, and it has a suiter, but the best thing is the One-touch rigid expansion system — no more expanding with zippers and having the sides of the suitcase collapse.  I also like that I can carry it on the plane with me, and it fits books or shopping on my way back when I don’t care as much about checking my luggage in and possibly losing it.

That’s all, folks.

P.S.  I’m back from Jakarta and leaving for India in a week!


One Reply to “The practical traveler: 30 days in a carry-on”

  1. hallo! i remembered you had an entry like this and looked for it specifically for my imminent trip =)

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