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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 13, 2012 4:55PM
Get the magnum is right.  I've seen people dragging on bags big enough to fit a circus midget .  What happened to those size restrictions that were put in place?  Thank you for hogging the aisle and the overhead compartment as well as adding to the time it takes to board while you attempt to bench press your carry on into the overhead compartment.
Dec 12, 2012 9:07PM
I  have been known to use UPS to ship my bags for me.  When I have advance hotel reservations I simply ship them to my hotel with instructions to put them in my room.  When I arrive and check in my bags are waiting in my room.  No strain and no pain.  Best of all no lost luggage.  If UPS looses anything they pay for it promptly I am told but I have yet to loose anything with them.
Dec 13, 2012 4:10PM
This is the type of person who takes up all the over head room, so those of us with just a simple carry on end up having it at our feet. Very selfish in my opinion.
Dec 13, 2012 5:40PM

I am a woman and I always travel with just a carry on and personal bag.  I just keep my makeup & "personal care" routine to a minimum while traveling and wash my clothes in the sink or shower.  The last cruise the hubby and I took, I went 10 days out of a carry on and personal bag.  I often wonder what our stateroom attendant thought of my clothes hanging all over the bathroom.  :)


And before you jump all over me, I have had multiple TSA screeners praise/thank me for being prepared at security (I step aside and get my shoes off, baggie, etc. BEFORE I get to the line), my personal bag goes under the seat in front of me & my carry on goes in the overhead bin above me.  I always turn my bag so the bottom goes in, that way it maximizes the overhead space (I hate people who turn them the long way or don't put their coat ON TOP of their luggage & hog all the overhead space).


Really, traveling by plane is just a matter of courtesy and common sense.........two things slowly becoming extinct.............

Dec 13, 2012 5:26PM
when the writer says to have the biggest carry on bag as possible this is a big part of the whole problem. Because airlines are charging for bags now everyone has the max carry on crap and often now there is no room over your seat so your forced to put in down with your feet making your small space even worse. I hate to fly these days. First there is the high price, then TSA rips through you bags, long lines to get a over the top pat down or some sort of porn scam from the TSA, then off to your cramped seat with no longer free inflight meals, when you get to your stop its a race to baggae claim with hopes it will not be lost of dammaged. Flying now sucks so bad its better to drive or stay home.
Dec 13, 2012 5:33PM
Article clearly states, the maximum: 22 inches long, 14 inches wide, and 9 inches deep.
The people who carry on bags too big or that won't fit are bigger than the maximum allowed or the bag would fit easily in the overhead. If he is using the size bag he mentions to use, it is not causing any problems.
Dec 12, 2012 5:43PM

I respectfully disagree with kevsteck about travelling with only chedked in luggage.  My wife and I have extensively travelled through out the world with a carry-on each and a travel purse and shoulder pack.  We have done so on cruises and land trips with no problems.


On the other hand, on many occasions, we have experienced missing checked on luggage which greatly inconvenienced us.


In other words, rather than criticizing the author, you should know that what works for one traveler may not work for another.   

Dec 13, 2012 4:58PM

The author typifies the kind of travelers I can't stand on airlines. Oversized, overstuffed carry on bags put over the seats closest to the front of the aircraft while the passenger's seat is all the way aft. I think checking bags is much more stress free. I've never wrestled or been a victim of elbowing at the baggage carousel.


I think all bags should be checked through as it would save millions of hours at security lines and reduce TSA and airline costs.  

Dec 13, 2012 4:10PM
I (a woman) always only take a carry-on.  And I still don't wear all the clothes I bring.  Layering and laundering are definitely the secrets. 
Dec 13, 2012 4:55PM
Some good ideas here, from both the article and reader comments (except for Kevstek who definitely needs some work on his social skills). One thing that must be considered is the reason for travel: business or pleasure, as each generally requires different attire. As one who has traveled extensively over the past 20+ years I have certainly had luggage sent to the wrong place. And yes, this does create issues when you must meet customers and attend dinners, etc. A few things I have picked up on over the years (and with this I am restricting my comments to males:
* Patterned dress shirts show fewer wrinkles than solid colors.
* Carry a steamer or small multi-voltage iron, and most hotels have irons anyhow.
* For casual, visit a quality sporting goods store and check out their 'fly-fishing' shirts, shorts and
  pants. These can be hand washed and rinsed in a hotel sink and will dry by morning.
* Some places (REI and Exoficcio ) carry underwear with the same benefits, but these are quite
  expensive. Better to use plain cotton, which dries just as quickly.
* Get yourself a small roller-bag that has a hard-shell on the bottom, as this is where you pack your
  more wrinkle-prone clothes. Accessories and less wrinkle prone items go in the soft shell area.
* Its cheaper to buy a small pocket knife(with a nail file) when you arrive at your destination than to
  pay baggage fees. Toss them or give them away prior to your return home.
* Cordovan shoes go with any color clothing. One pair will thus suffice.
* Dark grey socks work with both black and blue. One pair of brown should do it and can be
  washed out in the sink if you need them more than once.
* When flying, wear layers. Less to pack and you can take things off on the plane.

Dec 12, 2012 8:01PM
Us UPS, the bags get to you destination before you do in most cases and they have special fees, that are cheaper than the Air Lines. The best part is no bags to lug thru the Airport, and UPS very seldem loses things. 
Dec 13, 2012 5:05PM
I would like to see an airline (Southwest maybe?) advertise that "We have raised our rates across the board by $15...but we won't nickel and dime you on everything" and see if they see an increase in customers. It's freaking ridiculous that you can't even get a bag of pretzels or soda on some airlines, and checking into a plane has become a REAL pain BECAUSE of guys like this author who try to cram their life into a carry on bag that only fits with significant time and effort.
Dec 13, 2012 4:45PM

Yep - here is the bum that crowds the overhead - needs help since his bag won't fit, and expects everyone to wait on him! I wish all airlines would allow only 1 carry-on the size of a computer bag!


Never shipped ahead to Europe, but I do it all of the time in the US, and it is nice to have your stuff waiting on you when you get there - plus if you get your boarding pass the day before you can go straight to security.


Don't think about yourself - there are 100 other folks that you make life difficult for!

Dec 13, 2012 5:46PM
I am a woman and only travel with a carry-on.  I've done Africa and Italy, both for two weeks, and France for a week...all with a carry-on bag of the allowed size by airlines... and, my carry-on is a bag...not hard sided with wheels, so it takes up less room in the overhead. 
Dec 12, 2012 5:06PM
For ladies who like to travel, check out It is a great woman-focused website with lots of tips for packing light, as well as other information about traveling the world.

kevstek you are an idiot.

 Many car rentals are away from the airport.

Do not give up your day job of being a world traveler.

I travel with one carry on plus computer. My grandkids do the same and have ever since they were old enough to fly with me.

Moms have a propensity to over pack.

If we need some thing bad enough we get it at the good will and donate it back when we leave.

Cheap you say,nope smart is as smart does I say.

Dec 13, 2012 5:06PM
I've been traveling without checked baggage for 30 plus years. I pack all my necessary items in my carry-on and if I need something extra, I go to the store and purchase it. On my return flight, I still have the same carry-on.  
Dec 12, 2012 4:46PM
My first trip to Europe my checked luggage arrived in a plastic garbage back, no suitcase in sight. I now only travel with what I can carry with me.
Dec 12, 2012 8:25PM
I mail my "luggage" to my destination.  I board the plane with my laptop, cell phone, book, pen and puzzle book.  No muss no fuss!  If I will be staying at a hotel, I call ahead to let them know.  Also, write the reservation confirmation number on the outside of the package.  Always pack an extra roll of tape inside the luggage, then "donate" it to the hotel on check out.
Dec 13, 2012 5:41PM
I believe the airlines have caused this because of their absurd baggage fees, they have that space empty anyway, don't they?  as a retiree I have to save where I can and going mainly to warm climates I make a point of only using an overhead bag.
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