Ah, airlines. Want to take a bag on your vacation? Of course you do! That will be $50 please.

Carry On Travel

This past summer B and I traveled to Europe. Well, we actually traveled separately TO Europe, but met up in Ireland. Let me tell you, I can be a frugal lady – especially when it comes to silly things with travel. Don’t get me wrong, we splurged and stayed at nice hotels occasionally and ate delicious food. But I was NOT going to pay $50 (35 euros) per bag per person to get to/from/around Europe. We were traveling with WestJet, Iberia, Iceland Air, and Air Canada. With the flights that we took, it would have cost us nearly $400 in fees! Um, I have better things to spend my money on, thanks. Once I figured this out, I made it my mission for us to do carry-on only for a month long trip. You’re probably laughing right now, but let me tell you – we did it!

Step 1 – Get a Bag

Choose your bag wisely you must!
Choose your bag wisely you must!

I already had a great North Face Electron 26 backpack from a trip to Europe years ago. By 26 I mean it was only 26 Litres which is actually super tiny. But, I’m stubborn and decided that’s what I was going to use. My bag – check! Billy’s was different. He has this sad looking Roots bag I’m pretty sure he got in junior high (just kidding, he’s old and that would be too long ago) and it was also small. So I ordered a ObusForme bag from shop.ca (got a good deal through ebates) thinking it would be a good investment. Turns out, it was – for about 10 days. Then the zippers fell off when we were in Florence and there was nothing to be done. Unfortunately, we had to purchase a little suitcase (still carry-on size!) in Paris so we could get his stuff home. Anyway – first step – good quality bag. I suggest a backpack (would have to be under 40L to fit as a carry-on) if you’re going to be wandering through some cities with your bags. Knowing the size of your bag will also help you when planning the number of items you are going to take with you.

Step 2 – Check the Weather

Where will you be going? We had a very diverse trip planned – I went to London first to meet a friend, then we all went to Ireland. From there we hit Rome, Florence/Tuscany, Paris, and Iceland. Oh, and did I mention that we were not going home after Europe, but to Nova Scotia for two weeks for his sister’s wedding? Yeah, pretty long and diverse trip to plan for.

So before you can make a wardrobe plan, you need to check the weather (or usual weather) for your destination. Ireland? No warmer than 20 degrees C (68 F). Italy? Freakin’ HOT and humid. Paris? Usually low 20s. Iceland? Highs of 12. Soooo… plan for three seasons. No problem! Layers will be key.

If you haven’t decided where you’re going to go yet, you might want to plan destinations with similar summer climates to make packing easier. Even if you don’t decide to do carry-on or small backpacks, trying to plan for either really hot or moderate climates will be easier.

Step 5 – Check Social Customs

That title sounded weird, but hear me out. Some churches/mosques/cities/etc require men to wear long pants and women to cover their shoulders. If you’re planning on visiting any such locations, make sure you plan accordingly. This didn’t really apply to us, but I made sure that we had the necessary clothing if the situation were to arise.

Step 4 – Take Inventory

Carry On Travel List

Carry-on only travel requires planning and thought. You can’t just pack your favorite tops and randomly decide on outfits once you arrive. It really only works if you bring clothes that ALL pair with one another. Every top should go with every bottom and all of the layers should pair well together. Take a look through your wardrobe and cover the following criteria:

Is it synthetic or quick-drying?

Synthetic fabrics dry much faster and are easier to wash than cotton. Merino wool is also very quick-drying and less likely to smell.

Can I wear it with multiple items?

Is it flattering? Will I actually wear it?

If you’re traveling as we did – on a budget (don’t want to waste money on a hotel laundry service) and tight timeframe (don’t want to waste a lot of time at/trying to find a laundromat) – you’ll want to make sure that you choose items that can be easily washed and dry quickly. I found that the polyester is easy to wash, dries quickly, resists wrinkles and folds up tightly.

The four shirts I included plus accessories.
The four shirts I included plus accessories.

I’ll be posting suggestions for what to bring to specific countries, but for now you want to aim for something like the following clothing items for a 7 day or longer trip. Definitely shorten this if you are going for less than a week.

25 Item Complete Packing List for Europe:

1 pair of long pants (or leggings)

3 other bottoms – shorts, skirts

1 sweater/cover-up

5 shirts: tee, button up, tank tops

5 pairs of undies

3 pairs of socks (or fewer if you’re bringing sandals or sock-less shoes like Toms)

1 rain jacket or poncho

2 bras (if you’re going to be doing more hiking/fitness, make sure that one is a sports bra!)

1 dress/nice outfit

1 dressy pair of shoes (wedges, ladies!)

A pair of sandals OR walking shoes

Bathing suit

Optional Extras/Accessories



Cross-body purse



Jewelry – one or two necklaces, one or two pairs of earrings

Again, make sure that the tops and bottoms can ALL pair together. You want to make as many outfits as possible with as little as possible.

If you don’t happen to have all of the items above, maybe it’s time to go shopping!

Step 5 – Add What You Need

In my research/shopping for the trip, I discovered many wonderful items (and some super weird ones). Here are some links/ideas to help you round out your list:

Reversible shirts! My favorite (I bought two – they were buy one, get one 50% off and often are) are the Express Barcelona Cami. It was like 4 shirts in 2 and they were polyester, cute, and easy to wash/dry. They also work well under sweaters or jackets in colder climates.

Clothes that multi-task. Leggings thick enough to be pants (with a long shirt)? Sweet. A dress/poncho/skirt? Even better! I wish I had discovered Buttercream Clothing’s Layer Cake 3-in-1 Dress Poncho prior to going to Europe. Isn’t it the cutest? On pay day I am ordering one for my next trip. This could cover three items in your bag for you, including a sweater! I would keep this OUT of my carry-on and wear it on the plane. Saves space and keeps you warm in that recycled air!

Wedges for walking and looking pretty. I’m a short 5’2″ so I like to wear heels. But I also like to be comfortable, especially when exploring cities by foot for days on end. A few years ago on a trip to DSW in L.A. I discovered these b.o.c wedges. I now own two pairs (one I wore for my wedding) and they’ve lasted for years. Bonus: They’re cheap!

Toms make for great walking shoes. I literally wore holes in my Toms this summer. But, my feet were super comfortable (although, smelly, I will admit). They squish down small, are lightweight, and can be worn with a lot of outfits. Get your own pair here.

Travel pants are a thing (but you shouldn’t actually wear them). I’m no fashionista, but I knew that we weren’t going to get pants that zipped at the knee and turned into shorts. But, they do exist and you’ll see many recommendations for those pants if you’re Googling “lightweight travel clothing”.

Step 6 – Organize

When you’re on the plane, you’ll want to wear as much as possible. Wear your runners or heavier shoes, leggings or pants, and layer a shirt with your sweater or cover-up.

Separate your smaller items, like socks and undies, into travel bags. Ziploc bags also make this easier. And let’s be real, no one else is checking out your bag so no one else will care that you used sandwich bags to keep yourself organized. I made sure I also had a separate liquids bag so it was easily accessible at airport security.

One bag for undies, one for socks, and one for beauty (but no liquids!)
One bag for undies, one for socks, and one for beauty (but no liquids!)

Another solid investment is travel sized items and travel-sized plastic bottles for filling with shampoo, conditioner, sunscreen, lotion. Travel-sized toothpaste, face wash (I actually used Olay cleansing cloths but cut them in half thanks to a tip from my mom), moisturizer, OTC meds will all help you to pack more efficiently.

Travel Must-Haves

Final Step – Evaluate

Was this perfect? Absolutely not. But would we do it again? Yes! And again, and again!

Here are some “hindsight” thoughts based on our experience with carry-on-only traveling for a month:

  • Ireland was MUCH colder than expected and I ended up wearing my leggings almost every day. For colder climates, I would definitely bring an extra pair (or two) of leggings since they are lightweight and easy to pack.
  • Bring lots of tide/laundry detergent packets and do your laundry in the sink as needed. One packet does NOT go very far, and hotel soap/shampoo does not work as effectively. If you can’t find them at a local store, you can grab them on amazon.
  • You really do not need jeans for summer travel. They are heavy and you won’t wear them frequently.
  • A travel-sized spray fabric refresher was also nice to have – Febreze worked well.
  • Wash your items as soon as you get to your hotel so that they can dry for the next morning.
  • Bring your favorite travel products with you, as Europe has quite different items. The biggest one I found was Gravol – they don’t have it anywhere in Europe!

Have you ever tried traveling carry-on only? I’d love to hear your stories!

Stay tuned for more posts on my successes with carry-on only travel, as well as what to pack in those liquid bags and purses!

Thanks for reading!