After almost four years of solid backpacker experience, and a couple more years dabbling in and out of Europe before that, I’ve learned a thing or two. Packing light is the name of the game.

You save serious cash by not checking in baggage on flights and the airport process is plane sailing (sorry). But most importantly, you learn how to become a pro-packer backpacker.

Of course, it comes with some limitations. The size of your baggage is important. And those pesky liquids… (we would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t Manchester Airport).

Learning how to pack the bare essentials is a skill, and it takes some practice. But trust me, it can be done.

I’ve done 6-month backpacking trips with as little as 40 litres of luggage and it was splendid. I have never checked a bag in EVER whilst backpacking and I swear by the process of carry-on only.

Although some airlines may be assholes (I’m looking at you EasyJet), this guide is filled with tried and tested methods that’ll get you travelling light in no time.

Enough waffle, here’s how to travel with carry-on only.

Joe on a scooter with a surfboard and Osprey Farpoint 40 - Hand lugagge only
Let’s stuff life into a carry-on!
Photo: @joemiddlehurst

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Why You Should Travel with Hand Luggage Only

Budget backpacking rocks, but it’s next-level awesome with hand luggage only! The first reason to travel light (and my favourite) is that you don’t have to lug a massive backpack everywhere you go.

Man walking towards Hohenzollern Bridge in Cologne, Germany in winter clothes wheeling a hand luggage suitcase behind him.
Transporting hand luggage is so easy.
Photo: @Lauramcblonde

Other reasons include not having to wait for baggage claim and reducing clutter inside your pack. You also get to keep all your valuables with you and don’t run the risk of delayed or lost flights/baggage.

But we all know what the main reason is to travel carry-on only… saving money.

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    Saving that $$$

    Ok, so we are all broke backpackers, right? And even if you’re not broke, who doesn’t love saving money? I know I do anyway.

    Flying is expensive enough. Travelling carry-on only prevents you from having to pay extra to check in a bag.

    For long-haul international flights with multiple stopovers, this can save you hundreds of dollars. Even for short international or domestic flights, you can save $20-50 a pop.

    Whilst this may not seem like a big deal as a one-off, just imagine how much you can save across a whole backpacking trip. Psst, it’s a lot!

    a person holding united states dollars
    Money money money… must be funny…
    Photo: @amandaadraper

    For example, I’m currently backpacking the Philippines and here you need to fly EVERYWHERE, you know, from island to island. I have saved hundreds on this Southeast Asia trip so far.

    That money is being better spent on other things, like surfboard rentals and waterfall tours. Much better, right?

    Choosing the Right Luggage for You

    Ok, so you wanna save some cash, but you gotta invest a little to save a lot. Choosing the right luggage for YOU is a big decision. Determining the type of traveller you are will dictate the best carry-on luggage for you.

    I personally travel with the extremely popular Osprey Farpoint 40 – it’s popular for a reason. I have used my Farpoint 40 on four big backpacking trips and I can’t imagine ever buying a different pack. I just love it.

    Osprey Farpoint 40 and packing cubes. Hand luggage only
    The Osprey Farpoint 40 is all I’ll ever need 🙂
    Photo: @joemiddlehurst

    My partner uses the Nomatic Travel Bag 40. Both the Osprey Farpoint 40 and the Nomatic Travel Bag 40 fit almost any carry-on size requirements and are extremely durable, stylish and functional.

    If you’re looking for a wheeled duffel then the Osprey Transporter is a good shout and it comes in a variety of different sizes.

    On the other hand, if you’re looking for something a bit more traditional, then check out the awesome hard cases from Level8 instead.

    Check out other great alternative carry-on backpacks below!

    Is This the Best Backpack EVER???
    Aether Backpack

    We’ve tested countless backpacks over the years, but there’s one that has always been the best and remains the best buy for adventurers: the broke backpacker-approved Osprey Aether and Ariel series.

    Want more deetz on why these packs are so damn perfect? Then read our comprehensive review for the inside scoop!

    View on Osprey View on REI

    Limitations of Travelling Carry-On Only

    The limitations of your hand luggage size will depend on the airline you are flying with. The standard size is 55 x 40 x 23 cm though.

    Be sure to check your airline’s carry-on allowance which can be as small as 55 x 35 x 20 cm. Most airlines also allow a personal item in addition to a cabin bag. It’s important to note that you should also check your carry-on weight allowance.

    The standard hand luggage weight allowance is 7kg. Airlines often don’t check this but sometimes they do, so watch out. I like to take heavy items such as battery packs and liquids and stuff them into my pockets if I think they’re going to weigh my bag down.

    Another tip is that many airlines allow a personal item that you can stash under the seat in front of you but this is often omitted from the weight limit, so whatever is heavy can just be your ‘personal item’. 😉

    Joe on a scooter with a surfboard and Osprey Farpoint 40 - Hand lugagge only
    See that bag on my front? That’s my very heavy ‘personal item’
    Photo: @joemiddlehurst

    Differences Across the World 

    I must admit – I am far from an expert when it comes to flying in the USA and Canada. Though I’ve got the rest of the world pretty well covered. And 99% of the time, the differences come down to the airlines. 

    No matter what, always check the airline’s luggage restrictions for size and weight. Some airlines are super relaxed and will even let you sneak on more bags sometimes. Just watch out for strict airlines who are under strict orders to rake in whatever cash they can. 

    Air China Airplane, Aeroplane Flight, Sunset
    Air China had NO chill for liquids…
    Photo: @joemiddlehurst

    The restrictions for things such as liquids usually come down to the country’s and airport’s specific restrictions. So again, I can’t say anything except preparing is key.

    It’s important to consider what you should NOT put in your carry-on. Knowing what’s off-limits will help you avoid hiccups at security.

    Don’t Just Take My Word For It

    I’m not mister know it all. Check out some of the other friendly faces from The Broke Backpacker and what they had to say about travelling carry-on only in different parts of the world.

    bio pic for Danielle Wyatt

    Dani’s Adventures: Hand Luggage Only in SEA

    Dani has been in Southeast Asia for the past year or so. At this point, she’s basically a local. I’ve never seen anyone pack as light as Dani, when I heard rumours that she used to travel with a 20L pack I honestly just laughed. I thought I was good at this sh*t.

    I’ve spent a large majority of the last 12 months exploring the incredible countries of Southeast Asia (SEA) with just my lil carry-on bag. And I’ve learned a thing or two; that’s for sure.  

    If there is one place in the world where you can EASILY go carry-on only, it’s SEA. More often than not all you’ll need are a couple of pairs of swimmers, a sarong (if you want to head to the temples), a couple of T-shirts, a pair of sandals, a rain jacket and not a whole load else! 

    The first 6 months I spent in Thailand I had a 20L pack with ALL my stuff. But to be honest – that was wild – even for me. I’ve now upgraded to the 40L REI Co-op Ruckpack and it’s perfect. I can even fit my snorkel and all my journals that seem to be stacking up! 

    I’ve mainly travelled with Air Asia to get between countries and they seem to be pretty chill with baggage (especially compared to Europe!).

    A top tip from me is to make sure that you check in online as this often means you don’t have to go to the check-in desk. If you’re a couple of kilos or cm over the size limit – this is a crucial step to miss as it’s where they will often weigh your bags. 

    photo of Laura Hall, member of The Broke Backpacker team

    Laura gets around Europe’s budget airlines

    When you’re a true Broke Backpacker, Europe can be pretty tricky to navigate. Yet, Laura manages to find her way around all sorts of places. Only travelling with hand-luggage hasn’t just saved just saved hundreds of €€€, it’s also saved a whole heap of fannying around in European airports.

    Pre-pandemic, I travelled across Europe on €20 return tickets – all my hand luggage comfortably in tow. 

    But then, you know, 2020… it all changed. Global pandemic problems. 

    Prices started to creep up and all the budget airlines did a Ryanair special on us. All of the tickets started coming with a “small hand luggage only” stamp: you have to pay extra if you want to bring anything but the basics in a small backpack. 

    person facing away wearing a raincoat and camo coloured backpack walking up a grassy hill
    Love of my life, you’re hand luggage.
    Photo: @Lauramcblonde

    Does this mean that I’m paying extra for flying with luggage in Europe? Am I buggery.

    First off, I have pretty much boycotted Ryanair at this point. I choose airlines with more relaxed restrictions. The staff are usually more easygoing and – unless you’re taking the piss – they’re not after catching anyone out. 

    Secondly, I travel with a squishy bag. This means that IF they do stop you, I can squish it into the sizer. Worst case scenario, I wear all my clothes and it’ll be an extremely warm flight.  

    If you do need to bring extra luggage, it’s cheapest to pay to add large hand luggage rather than checked. Then you can keep both the small and big hand luggage – which should be PLENTY for any backpacker. 

    Pro booking tip: Bypass the part on the booking website where they sell you a package deal of luggage + a seat. If you don’t mind where you sit on the plane, adding luggage later in the booking process is usually the best way to make your flight cheaper.

    Samantha’s take on going carry-on only in the USA

    The USA is certainly not a cheap place to backpack or travel, and domestic air travel is nothing short of a headache. Samantha chimes in about how she’s managed to avoid the inflated fees and deal with some of the cheapest and least forgiving (not in price but in services) airlines in the world…

    Let’s be real. The US is one of the most expensive places in the world, and to be quite honest, I’ve never really travelled in it as it simply does not appeal to me. I now live in Asia, which as Dani shared, is pretty easy to travel carry on only.

    BUT, I haven’t jumped into this post for nothing! For years, I routinely travelled domestically between my home state of Connecticut and my university in Florida, and you be that I NEVER paid for a checked bag.

    I’ve even travelled on Spirit Airlines (one of the worst in the world, even beating out Ryanair) with a pack that certainly should not have made it by indulging in a bit of… trickery. I’ve re-used old luggage tags and even engaged in a bit of Photoshop fun when the airline used to allow you to print your boarding pass.

    I’ve also done some things like having a family member or travel partner stand elsewhere with my bag while I checked in, so they didn’t realize I had a larger carry-on to weigh when they only allowed personal items!

    But even as a broke backpacker, when travelling in the USA, it really is worth it to use a more reputable airline these days. Since the pandemic hit, domestic airlines have been as pathetic as ever. So that’s why I highly recommend flying with JetBlue when it’s available. It has an insane amount of legroom in economy, FREE high-speed Wifi on all flights, and a pretty solid carry-on allowance.

    Just make SURE to check in right when it opens though – boarding groups E-F are routinely denied that sweet overhead luggage space, which is yet another post-2020 problem that never seemed to be an issue beforehand.

    Negatives About Going Carry-On Only

    Now then, travelling with just hand luggage isn’t without its negatives. You’re gonna have to make some sacrifices in order to pack light. You may even have to be brutally honest with yourself and ask yourself some of the following questions.

    • Do you really need a big bulky DLSR or will your phone camera do just fine?

    • Do you need a laptop or can you just use your phone?

    • Is more than one pair of shoes (plus sandals) essential?

    • Can I buy this at my destination to save space?

    • Do you really need all these hygiene products? Are some purely luxury items?

    • How often am I going to have to do my laundry? (Often).

    Nic taking a photo on Mam Tor mountain in the peak district, UK
    Do you really need a camera this FAT?
    Image: Nic Hilditch-Short

    When you travel carry-on, it’s unlikely you’re gonna be dripping in designer on the road. There is a lack of flexibility in what you can bring with you.

    If you’re travelling somewhere cold, like Europe in winter, you’re going to find it a lot harder to pack light than someone just packing boardshorts and vests for a trip in Southeast Asia. But it’s still doable nevertheless.

    In my opinion, the worst thing about going carry-on only is that you can’t afford to leave much space in your bag. This means it’s very tough to acquire items on the road and bring gifts or souvenirs home with you.

    How to Travel With Cabin Baggage Only

    So, how the hell do you pack so light and travel with hand luggage only? Well, you’ve got to start from scratch.

    First things first, you HAVE to prioritise. My general rule is that if I think I may not need it, or I can buy it on the road, I won’t pack it. I only pack what I KNOW I’m going to need. If there’s any doubt in my mind, it’s a no from me.

    One of the biggest travelling light hacks is… good packing cubes. Yep, packing cubes really help you to prioritise your pack and keep everything super organised. I use the Amazon Basics packing cubes and can recommend them as a good budget option.

    Packing things tightly helps to maximise space in your bag. Packing cubes are the best tool for this. They’re legendary for when you’re moving about and always have to repack your bag too.

    There is no secret to travelling carry-on only. It’s purely about sacrifices and priorities. Now, I am a hairless male who is fortunate enough to not need any skincare, hair, makeup or cosmetic products; and that defo helps.

    But I do have my own priorities that I make work. Believe it or not, I go carry-on only WITH a travel fishing rod (and fishing gear), a laptop, a GoPro and a large reusable water bottle. So if I can do it with this crap, you’re makeup bag excuse is invalid. 😉

    Small Pack Problems? 😉

    Wanna know how to pack like a pro? Well for a start you need the right gear….

    These are packing cubes for the globetrotters and compression sacks for the real adventurers – these babies are a traveller’s best kept secret. They organise yo’ packing and minimise volume too so you can pack MORE.

    Or, y’know… you can stick to just chucking it all in your backpack…

    Get Yours Here Read Our Review

    Carry-On Only Packing List

    When you’ve only got 40 litres or so of space, and several miles to hawk this bag on your back, you must evolve or crumble in the travel life. You can’t become attached to things. Yet still, we do. 

    Here are some things I am seriously attached to in my hand luggage kit.


    Nomatic Travel Bag 40L

    • Weight > 3.42 lbs
    • Capacity > 40L
    • Included Accessories > Laundry Bag, Waist Straps
    • Price > $289.99

    Osprey Ultralight Packing Cube Set

    • Weight > 2.5 oz combined
    • Dimensions > 3 in × 9 in × 3 in
    • Price > $42

    SeaToSummit Microfibre Towel

    • Dimensions > 81.28 x 40.64 x 0.51 cm; 72.57 Grams
    • Price > $18.94

    Nomatic Collapsible Sling

    • Weight > 1.36KG
    • Capacity > 3L
    • Price > $59.99

    International Travel Adapter

    • Weight > 4.1 ounces
    • Price > $21.99
    Packing list backpack clothes
    My Portugese essentials…
    Photo: @joemiddlehurst

    Tips and Tricks to Get More Into Your Carry-On

    After nearly four years of backpacking carry-on only, I’d consider myself to be somewhat of a professional at this stuff. In my time, I’ve learnt a good few tips and tricks on how to bypass strict rules and fit more into carry-on only. Some of these tips are kinda obvious… but some are genius, hehe.

    • Wear as much as you can on the plane – Obvious, but golden. Wearing all your heavy and bulky items like shoes and jackets on the plane keeps them out of your bag. And you can always take them off mid-flight.
    • Take a bum bag – Airlines rarely consider this to be luggage and you can fit a surprising amount in a good fanny pack. It’s like an extra front pocket on your rucksack for chargers and valuables.
    • Fill your pockets – This one isn’t the most useful tip in the world, but every little helps, right? If you have a big jacket with zip pockets, load ’em up. Why not?
    • Pack a day bag – This is standard procedure for me. I pack an empty day bag into my main bag and transfer any overspilled items into my day pack when I’m not flying.
    • Get a duty-free carrier bag – This is my best and most tip-top secret super cheeky tip. I’ve never been caught doing this, but it is risky – do so at your own risk. What I do is fill a duty-free carrier bag with extra items. Airline staff rarely check what’s inside as duty-free items often don’t count towards your carry-on allowance.
    Eastpak bum bag, hand luggage only
    Bum bags are small but mighty 🙂
    Photo: @joemiddlehurst

    However You Travel, Travel Insured

    Travelling without insurance is a rookie money-saving error. You don’t want to skimp on safety, and a medical bill can set you back a silly amount. Don’t risk it, get good travel insurance.

    ALWAYS sort out your backpacker insurance before your trip. There’s plenty to choose from in that department, but a good place to start is Safety Wing.

    They offer month-to-month payments, no lock-in contracts, and require absolutely no itineraries: that’s the exact kind of insurance long-term travellers and digital nomads need.

    SafetyWing is cheap, easy, and admin-free: just sign up lickety-split so you can get back to it!

    Click the button below to learn more about SafetyWing’s setup or read our insider review for the full tasty scoop.

    FAQs About Travelling Carry-On Only

    Here are some of the most frequently asked questions I get about travelling carry-on only. If you have any of your own, drop them in the comments below.

    Final Thoughts on Travelling With Just Hand Luggage

    I hope you have been inspired to embrace minimalism and give travelling carry-on only a go. Having such a light pack is liberating and really reduces decision fatigue.

    I have only ever travelled with hand luggage and have NEVER paid to check in a bag when I’m backpacking. There’s no feeling like hopping off a flight and going straight to the whip without standing around waiting for delayed baggage.

    The best thing about travelling with only hand luggage is that you save so much money. But there are definitely some negatives about it too. I often struggle to deal with walking away from souvenirs I LOVE but just won’t fit in my bag.

    The best way to successfully travel with only hand luggage is to have a plan and invest in some good gear such as packing cubes. I can recommend the Osprey Farpoint 40 as a great carry-on compliant bag for your travels as this is the bag I’ve used for the past four years or so.

    Remember, before you go for it, make sure you check your airline’s baggage limitations. Each airline is different and some are notoriously strict (*cough* EasyJet, *cough* Ryanair).

    Worst case scenario, you can just pay to check in your extra baggage. In my opinion, it’s always worth the risk, life’s all about risks after all!

    Disclaimer: Some of the tips and tricks in this article are ‘bending the rules’. Success is not guaranteed. If you get caught, you didn’t hear it from me 😉

    Why stop here? Check out more ESSENTIAL backpack content!
    Cebu Pacific Flight, Aeorplane, Airplane in Philippines
    Now go and catch that flight. Hand-luggage-only style!
    Photo: @joemiddlehurst

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