Skip to main content
Report this ad

The Carry On Challenge: How Much Can You Stuff?

The 'Light' Way to Pack
The 'Light' Way to Pack
Photo by Goriti

To check or not to check, that is the dilemma. The ever-increasing fees for checked bags, however, are forcing travelers to re-think their options and pack a carry-on bag rather than the traditional ‘Pullman’ size. Granted, carrying on rather than checking a bag is not always possible; ski vacations or trips of long duration will generally require checking a bag. Many, if not most, travelers will groan at the thought of schlepping luggage through the airport but the advantages are many:

1. A carry on reduces the chances of the lost or delayed bag (if the airline makes you gate check your bag this is not a guarantee that it will arrive at your destination with you).
2. Your bag is always with you thereby lessening the possibility that it may be stolen
3. This is important: if your flight is delayed or cancelled after check in your bag isn’t inaccessible until the next departure.

Business travelers, the road warriors, have mastered the carry-on; they have it down to a science, as do flight attendants. But it helps considerably if the basic outfit is a uniform or a suit; that leaves more room for workout wear and the ‘off the clock’ casual separates. One can follow the advice of intrepid traveler Philias Fogg, hero of Jules Verne’s classic “Around the World in 80 Days”:

"We'll have no trunks; only a carpet-bag, with two shirts and three pairs of stockings for me, and the same for you. We'll buy our clothes on the way.”

Though many not-so-frequent fliers groan at the thought of schlepping luggage through an airport and will swear that there is no way that one carry-on will hold all the necessaries of travel for more than a long weekend, it can be done by following some basic guidelines—or just by just packing half of what you intended to take. But for those of you who are carry-on challenged this advice will certainly help you.

Rick Steves, travel guru, is a master of the carry on. His article, “Packing Light and Right” is a comprehensive guide to efficiently packing a carry on for travel to and within Europe. The number one rule is to make sure your bag meets the carry on size requirements for your airline. This may seem obvious but it is truly amazing how many people skip this first and most important step. Steves writes “Limit yourself to 20 pounds in a carry-on–size bag. A 9" x 22" x 14" bag fits under most airplane seats. That’s my self-imposed limit.” There is almost always one person who travels with the kind of backpack which, while meeting the length requirement of the airline’s carry on dimensions it exceeds the width restriction; it is as big around as it is long. Nor does it have a prayer of fitting in the overhead compartment or under the seat. Beware standing next to the person wielding such a backpack as the wearer can unintentionally inflict an injury simply by turning around.

Rule number two, select the right type of carry on bag:

Rick Steves rates the types of carry on bags in “Packing Light and Right” as well:

“Of all the options, I consider only three: 1) a carry-on–size “convertible” bag with zip-away shoulder straps; 2) a carry-on–size “roll-aboard” bag; or 3) an internal-frame backpack. Travelers who want the easy mobility of a backpack but with a more low-key appearance travel with bag #1: a convertible backpack/suitcase with zip-away shoulder straps… Carry-on–sized “roll-aboard” bags (option #2) are well-designed and popular… Most younger travelers “backpack” through Europe with an internal-frame backpack (option #3) purchased from an outdoor store. While these are the most comfortable bags to wear on your back, they can be expensive, and are often built “taller” than carry-on size.”

There are literally hundreds of online sites and retail stores that stock carry on bags of every variety, just pick the one that meets your size requirements and has the roomiest interior.

Rule number three: Know how to pack.

There are hundreds if not thousands of online sites offering downloadable packing lists and advice for surviving using just a carry on. The consensus is that rolling clothes rather than folding them is a more efficient use of space although there are those who swear by the space saving bags that allow the packer to reduce a stack of clothing to a couple of inches by squeezing air from the bag. Of course, the best advice is to pack less in the first place.

Rule number four: 3-1-1 For Carry-Ons

TSA (Transportation Security Administration) sets the rules and you either follow them or else. The official wording from the TSA website states:

“3-1-1 for carry-ons = 3.4 ounce (100ml) bottle or less (by volume) ; 1 quart-sized, clear, plastic, zip-top bag; 1 bag per passenger placed in screening bin. One-quart bag per person limits the total liquid volume each traveler can bring. 3.4 ounce (100ml) container size is a security measure.”

Check the website,, for further details including exceptions but there is no getting around the fact that if you are going to spend a month trekking through Australia and plan to squeeze a travel wardrobe into a carry on, your shampoo had better fit into a 3 ounce bottle; and no, a half empty 6 ounce bottle will not clear security.

It’s more complicated to pack a carry on bag these days and there are many who opt to spare themselves the aggravation and just check the darn luggage. The alternative is to buy what you need at your destination (à la Philias Fogg) with all the money you saved by carrying on instead of checking your bags. ‘Pack less, save more’ is the new standard for travel in the 21st century. Now if airfares would just go down…but that’s another story.


  • Stephanie Weyer 5 years ago

    The thing I find annoying are the people who "carry on" bags that are 2 sizes too small to be a carry on and avoid the checked bag fee. It disallows people who have real carry-ons a place to put them on the aircraft...grrrrr.

  • Pauline Dolinski 5 years ago

    Really excellent advice. I would prefer to travel with no bags at all and have everything checked, but that just isn't practical. The worst problem is when you can't change flights because your bag is checked. That's the deciding factor for me.

Report this ad