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7 tips to fly without checking bags

My wife and I traveled to Europe for 10 days with no checked bags. If we can do it, so can you.

By Stacy Johnson Dec 12, 2012 9:49AM

This post comes from Stacy Johnson at partner site Money Talks News.


Money Talks News logoThe first time I went to Europe, more than 30 years ago, I took only a backpack that fit in the overhead. I've taken something similar to South America, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, and back to Europe multiple times.


parked airplane © Sava Alexandru, Vetta, Getty ImagesI haven't been traveling light all these years because of checked-luggage fees. Those are relatively new. Here's why I've avoided checked bags for decades:

  • I've had luggage lost on more than one occasion. Think business trips are stressful? Try meeting an important prospect in the clothes you were wearing yesterday.
  • Claiming luggage adds to the stress of travel. It takes time and requires fighting a crowd. I'd rather be heading for the rental car counter while my fellow passengers are elbowing each other at the carousel.
  • The more luggage you have, the more hassle and expense you have. Hassle because you have to drag it around, and expense because when you check into a hotel, you have to tip the people who drag it around for you.

I'm not saying I never check a bag; there are times when I've had to. But I can honestly say I've checked none for at least 90% of the flights I've taken over the last 30-plus years. 


How to travel without checking a bag


1. Get the biggest possible carry-on. 

There's no reason to pack lighter than necessary. When you're shopping for luggage, go for the maximum: 22 inches long, 14 inches wide, and 9 inches deep. Overall dimensions (those three added together) can't exceed 45 inches. (If you're traveling on foreign airlines, check their requirements before you buy.) Also make sure the "personal item" you're allowed to bring on board is roomy. When traveling long-distance, my wife puts her purse in a small backpack, and my computer bag is roomy enough to carry a few things in addition to my laptop.


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2. Pack early.

Many people pack at the last minute, cramming in everything "just in case," then sorting it out when they get there. I get my carry-on out a day or two in advance and start carefully considering what I'll need. Rule of thumb: If you think you might want it, leave it at home. If you know you're going to need it, pack it.


I also maintain a checklist on my smartphone, so I don't forget anything.


3. Sweat the small stuff.

What's the difference between a full-sized deodorant and a travel-sized version? Not much, but when you multiply it by all the stuff you're carrying, it adds up.


I use travel sizes of everything I take, and I don't always bring everything I have. For example, when it comes to stuff like shampoo, if the hotel is likely to have it, I leave mine at home.


4. Sweat the big stuff.

The two categories of clothing that require the most room are coats and shoes. That's why I keep them to a minimum.


If I'm going somewhere cold, I wear a leather jacket on the plane. When I arrive, I layer. Warm? T-shirt or short-sleeve shirt. Getting chilly? Undershirt underneath. Cold? Undershirt with long-sleeve shirt. Freezing? Add the leather coat. Granted, this system won't keep me toasty if the trip involves lots of outdoor activities, like skiing. But for most trips, it works.


As for shoes, I try to limit them to the pair on my feet, or maybe two if I'm going to need both casual and formal. And I make sure all clothing works with whatever color shoes I take. 

5. Think about what you're packing. 

Every shirt I pack will work with every pair of pants, and it will all work with my shoes and belt. This is one reason why I like jeans and khakis. Casual clothing takes up a lot less space than suits and is more relaxing to wear. It's also easier to mix and match.


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I go to New York periodically for TV appearances, as well as meetings with partner websites. In the old days, both would have required a suit. These days, having a collar on your shirt is formal. I've done network interviews in jeans.


When you get home and unpack, take note of anything you didn't use. Remove it from your list and don't take it next time.


6. Think about how to pack.

My mother was a roller -- she liked to roll up shirts and pants, claiming they took up less space and were less likely to get wrinkled. I fold some things and roll others; I can fit a rolled-up pairs of boxer shorts in a shirt pocket. Find a system that works for you and stick to it. This is another reason to start early: Try different packing methods to see how much you can compress your clothes.


7. Do laundry. 

Pop quiz: You're going to Europe for 10 days. How many days of clothes do you need? Answer: Five. That's because halfway through your trip, you're going to do laundry.


When you're at home, washing your clothes is a hassle. When you're in Europe, it's an adventure. Of course, you could just turn it over to the hotel and have the staff there do it, or turn your sink into a washing machine. But wherever you are, I'd encourage you to ask around and do what the locals do. It's challenging, interesting, will provide a unique experience, and you never know whom you might meet.


What about women?

It's a safe bet that a lot of females reading this article are thinking, "Sure, easy for you to say. You're a man. But from makeup to shoes, women simply require more stuff."


I won't argue the point. But I can say I've traveled internationally on many occasions with women who brought only a carry-on. And if you do a search for "traveling with only a carry-on," you'll find articles written by women who routinely do it as well. 


More from Money Talks News and MSN Money:

Dec 17, 2012 6:47PM

For 20 years, I have been traveling with carryon and purse, packing only 2 colors + scarves.  Sometimes I ship a box of clothes to my destination before the flight, then donate stuff before returning.  When my husband and I took a cruise, he had a carryon and backpack.  We were able to exit the ship first to catch our return flight because we had no baggage to be unloaded.  Natural fibers maintain body temperature better than synthetics, so are more comfortable for travel.

Dec 17, 2012 6:11PM

Why fly to Europe they all cane here years ago and speck english now. You can buy a 28' motor home with all the toys and take your time in the USA & Canada with out cramping your self in an aircraft and

loosing your baggage. Sure beats traveling with your own hot shower, bed and snack bar with a view.

Dec 17, 2012 6:05PM

10 or 15 years ago I might have agreed with rule number one but not anymore. Weight restrictions have become so stringent on some airlines that if you completely fill up that small legal size carry on with clothes they will say its too heavy and wont let you take it onboard. In fact I cant count the number of times on international fights that I’ve had to open my carry on right there at the check-in counter and transfer all my valuables to an even smaller bag after they told me I would have to check my legal size carry on bag. And what’s the point of having a legal size carry on bag if you can only fill it up half way to meet the weight requirements? They try to tell you that the reason for the weight limit is incase a bag should fall out of the overhead bin an onto someone’s head, yet in first class they have a much higher weight limit. Are they saying that first class passengers have harder heads than the rest of us? Or perhaps they think that they are just less likely to sue them. In any case it hardly seems fair. I go to all the trouble to travel light with a single small bag so that I wont have to check any bags and then I end up having to check it anyway and worry the whole time that it will get lost an my vacation will be ruined. I can understand some weight restrictions. After all I once had to help a girl lift her carry on into the overhead bin and it almost broke my back. It was jam packed with only books and weighed 50 or 60 pounds. If that had fallen on someone head it would have broke their neck. Still a weight limit of 15 pounds is absurd.

Dec 14, 2012 12:07PM

being a constant business traveler what I hate the most is people who think they have to pack the house into their carry-on bag - and that is a LOOT of other business people. I would just assone the airlines put even tighter restriction on carry ons. NO 22" rollers, NO garment bags, NO duffle bags. anything bigger than a brief (get it - BRIEF) case. NO big purses carring your chest of drawers, NO 50 pounds packs get the idea.  We would ALL be able to load and off load in two or three times faster, and lost luggage3, well lots of times it is as much the travelers mistake as it is the airlines. 


So check that stuff and lets make flying a bit better. And oh yes, I have over 5.5 million flyer miles and have NEVER had a piece of luggage lost - NEVER !!!!!!! And only one time was it delayed by a 1/2 a day.

Dec 14, 2012 11:58AM
I travel almost everyweek for work and have not checked a bag in over 10 years. My trick is to mix and match. if I go for a week,  and I'm visiting more than one customer, I typically take 3-4 tops and 2-3 pants. along with what I am wearing, I have several outfits. occasionally i will take a second pari of shoes.
Dec 14, 2012 10:22AM
Another positive to not checking bags.  When you have to make connections, you don't have to worry about your luggage making it to your destination.  You have it with you.  I had someone flying in from Texas that left late & had to run thru the airport to make his connecting flight.  He made it-his luggage did not.  It arrived 24 hours later. 
Dec 14, 2012 9:22AM
Oh, and as a comment to people below regarding a large carry on? Mine is absolutely not the largest you can buy and I put it under the seat in from of me.
Dec 14, 2012 9:20AM
I went to Costa Rica for 1 week with carry on only (and I'm a woman).  I've learned to travel light and do exactly what this man says unless I have to travel for business. And like his mother, I'm a roller too.  I thin kyou can fit a lot more clothes into the bag if you roll them up.
Dec 14, 2012 8:29AM
I usually just have a carry-on.  I have learned to pack light.  I use those vacuum seal bags that you roll the air out of to pack with.  You can get alot more in your small carry-on. 
Dec 13, 2012 9:43PM
I've found all of these posts interesting. My situation is different in that I have sleep apnea and when I travel I carry a (very expensive) machine as my carry on. It's in a bag that is suitable in size for a carry on, but I can't very well carry enough clothes etc. in my "personal item" to last  a whole trip. I do wish there was an alternative for me other than checking my bags. Maybe the UPS. I'm wondering what other folks who travel with a C-Pap machine are doing?
Dec 13, 2012 8:41PM

To minimize your cost for "checking" bags bring the maximum size carry on allowed and a "personal" carry on (maximum size).

If the flight is full most airlines will check bags at the gate FOR FREE because they know there isnt enough room in the overhead compartments and they'll end up checking bags anyway and that will delay the plane waiting to take a carry on off the plane and down to the cargo hold. If the flight isnt full then there should be plenty of overhead bin space.

Dec 13, 2012 8:37PM

Airlines need to do away with the current model of boarding. Region one (boarding 1st) could mean people from the back and region 3 (boarding last) could be people from the first row.

They should board according to seat assignment....first row on first, last row on last. That way the people getting on would have to use the overheads above their seats.

And deboard the same way....that way we can ridicule the a**holez who put their bags over our seats...

Dec 13, 2012 8:26PM
exactly the WRONG thing to tell the non-traveling public..I have stood in line waiting for security to unload one of those magnum bags..and I have had to lift one of those for 80 year old women who had no business carrying it around  what an idiot  you must never really travel..if you traveled for business you would NEVER tell people to bring those big truck-sized bags on board...
Dec 13, 2012 8:21PM
ScotteVest - wear your items instead of carrying them. 
Dec 13, 2012 7:54PM

I have to say I agree and disagree with some of the things listed here. I'm a 24 year-old female backpacker. I've spent a week in five European countries (Iceland, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Norway) totalling five flights and twenty-one train/subway trips. With a backpack and a laptop bag (most women can probably do without this, but I'm a computer geek, sorry). These are my tips for women.


1. Some of us use special shampoo like detangling stuff. Don't leave this at home. Seriously. I did, and I wanted to rip my hair off.

2. Please don't forget your hair brush. Most hotels have hair dryers. If you NEED a straightener, invest in a mini.

3. Make-up. Ladies, I know you all have your "go-to" make-up. Certain eyeliner and shadows. ONLY bring those. Trust me, you're going to be too busy to have time to use anything else than your absolute FAVORITES.

4. Chapstick. Don't be like me and spend hours hunting for chapstick. Bring it!

5. This guy knows his stuff, DO LAUNDRY. I am a woman too, and I managed Europe with two pairs of jeans, a pair of shorts, and one pair of sweatpants. However, your underwear is condensable. Please pack extra into your purse/carry-on!

6. Again, LAYERS! Airplanes are freezing. The temperature you fly at is extremely, EXTREMELY cold. If you're going from a hot>cold climate, wear an undershirt, long sleeve shirt, short sleeve shirt, hoodie, and jacket.

7. Women. Plan for TOM. Men, we're not cheating on you. Don't worry about it.

8. If you MUST have electronics, YOU NEED A CARRY ON. Please don't check these items, they will be stolen!

Dec 13, 2012 7:53PM

I also am a woman who always travels with a carry on and a medium sized tote bag. My carryon is the the proper size (not oversized) and with good planning and careful packing, I always have enough clothing. I generally do laundry, washing lingerie and blouses. I make sure my toiletries, meds and electronics (chargers, etc) are in ziplock bags in my carryon. I wear one pair of shoes (generally sneakers) and bring one or two others, ideally sandals which take up little space.

My carryon fits easily in the overhead compartment and my tote bag fits under my seat. (I tuck a mini-purse inside my tote bag).

Its wonderful to be able to skip baggage checkin/pickup.

I use most of the same tips as the author.



Dec 13, 2012 7:27PM
Stop Stop, I would have all overhead compartments removed from planes. Pack light and never pack anything you can not afford to lose. I have traveled for business for years and I have a fairly good plan I follow. Like oleshep said ship your items if you really need that heavy coat, coveralls, hard hat or spending more than a week. I always take underwear and socks as well as undershirts I can throw away. We all have them in our dressers. I mix and match and for business usually figure a pair of pants for 2 days, shirt and underclothes everyday. CHECK, CHECK CHECK YOUR BAGS. Boarding and departure is quicker and easier. Thanks and good luck to everyone
Dec 13, 2012 7:26PM
I am so sick of dealing with idiots who insist on "beating the system" by carrying all their luggage on board.   It delays boarding, arrival and everyone in the cabin has to deal with less space for themselves because of your crap.
Dec 13, 2012 7:12PM
I think you guys pointing out the author as "that guy" are missing the point. He is giving tips on how to pack better and smarter. The truth is many people don't want to pay $50 to check a bag on! And if you can get around that without bothering anyone (yes it is possible and no you shouldn't cause boarding/departure to take any longer if you know what you are doing!)

Yes some people are "those people". However it sounds like this guy travels the way I do- smart.

If everyone is allowed the same size carry on and personal item and you are abiding by that-which sounds like this guy does, then how is he being any more of a "hog" than anyone else on the plane?

I was converted to traveling with a carry on only and will never go back. Please note I am a girl who loves her stuff- but I realized I hardly wear much of what I bring, and now have my own travel toiletry bag I throw in which is comprised of all mini products of what I enjoy using so I don't have an issue with the TSA. I also get everything out and ready (shoes off, toiletry bag out in bin) prior to getting up to the scanners.

I no longer have to pay fees, wait for my luggage (which helps a lot when you are only somewhere for a short time- waiting for your luggage cuts time out of your trip!), and I can also show up a bit later to catch my flight since I don't have to worry about a checked luggage cut off time. I use the correct size of carry on (so I only use my allotted overhead space- if you pay for that ticket I choose to believe everyone on board is entitled to a spot in the bin!) and keep my personal item small and under my seat where it stays and does not bother others.

I'm sorry so many of you have issues with people who travel like this, but I challenge you to try traveling once with only a carry on and you will probably be converted too! Of course be respectful of others though and don't overdo it!

*I traveled around S America and then went straight to Europe for 3 weeks and encountered a 1 week trek, warm weather (S America) and cold Fall weather (Europe) and did just fine with my small carry on!

Dec 13, 2012 7:10PM
I haven't checked a bag in about 10 years. Not even when I went traveling through Australia for 3 months.
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