Carry On Only For Flashpackers

Carry-On Only. How To Prepare A Carry-On Backpack. Why Carry On Luggage? Tips For Carry-On Only Baggage.

Traveling light has become more than just a trend; it's a necessity. With airlines tightening their regulations and baggage fees becoming out-of-control, mastering the art of the carry-on backpack can save you both money AND time. But packing your backpack efficiently for a carry-on only flight requires a little planning and organization.

Why Carry-On Only?

Carrying-on a bag for a flight saves you from the hassle of waiting at baggage claim, allowing you to breeze through the airport and head straight to your destination upon arrival. It also eliminates the risk of a lost or damaged bag, giving you peace of mind throughout your flight. Lastly, airlines are imposing strict carry-on baggage dimensions and weight limits. They are charging more and more fees for checked bags and traveling light can significantly reduce your travel expenses.

In our recent journal entry, Travel Packing Hack : Easiest Way To Save Money While Traveling, we highlight the easiest way to save money while traveling is never checking a bag!

In The News

American, JetBlue, Alaska, United and now Delta have all RAISED check baggage fees in the first few months of 2024. We're almost certain to see this trend continue to other airlines throughout the year. All over the US and Europe airlines are raising these fees to make up for inflation especially in labor and fuel expenses.

Another trend in the aviation industry is to adapt a similar baggage pricing model as budget airlines. Where paying for bags before you arrive at the airport are simnifically cheaper than paying for them at the airport. This incentivizes travelers to get the transaction over with and therefore frees up the airport employees to help travelers who actually need assistance. 

Know Your Airline's Carry-On Restrictions

Before you start packing, familiarize yourself with the carry-on restrictions of your airline. Carry on bag dimensions and weight limits can vary between carriers and the type of ticket you purchased. So make sure your bag complies with their requirements to avoid any surprises at the airport. 

There are over 700 different commercial airlines in the world and these restrictions are airline specific. Keep in mind if you are flying with a budget airline (such as Easyjet, Ryanair, Spirit etc.), they tend to have a lot more baggage restrictions as that's how they can sell cheaper tickets and make money in other ways.

What Carry On Size Is Allowed?

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) sets guidelines for cabin baggage/hand luggage/carry-on baggage size. IATA recommends a maximum size of 56 cm × 45 cm × 25 cm (22 in × 18 in × 10 in). This included protuberances like wheels, handles, and pockets - another reason why we travel with backpacks! Note that there may be slight variations among different airlines. This standardized size ensures that your bag, along with others, can safely fit into the overhead bin during your flight. Typically speaking, Travel Backpackers should be fine carrying on a backpack that is under 50L.

Choose The Right Backpack(s)

Selecting the right carry-on bag is crucial for successful packing. Travel Backpackers should opt for a lightweight, durable bag with ample compartments and organizational features. Choose well-known brands as your backpack is literally carrying everything you need on your trip. I only use Osprey backpacks but I have seen a lot of travelers with brands like Patagonia, North Face, and Cotopaxi. A soft backpack with expandable capacity can be particularly useful for accommodating any extra items you pick up during your travels.

There is a general rule, if your backpack is less 50L (liters) or smaller, you're probably good to go in regards to carrying it on a plane. Personally, I travel with two backpacks! A 40 liter backpack (fits the typical dimensions of a carry-on) plus a 20-25 liter backpack (my personal item). Can I a backpack be a personal item? Yes, a backpack can be a personal item!

I see a lot of backpack travelers with 60 liter backpacks. This size is pushing it when it comes to carry-on dimensions; there is a good chance the airline will make you check it. There is also a lot of talk that airlines are stricter on bags with wheels than backpacks. I do find that to be true but it's just easier to split those 60 liters into two bags (one 40L and one 20L).

I like this two-bag dynamic because it distributes the weight better and it saves you stress if you are dealing with budget airlines. Usually with discount airlines, if you buy an economy ticket, it only permits one carry-on (a bag or personal item - not both). You would have to buy a second carry-on bag. What I have learned is to always pay for this second carry-on bag and in advance.  

Budget Airlines

Let's look at my favorite budget airline Easyjet's baggage fees. If you pay in advance for a second bag or "large cabin bag" it is £5.99 or around $8. This price becomes £40-48 or $50-60 if you pay for it at the airport. So paying in advance for an extra carry-on is cheaper than checking a bag, you avoid the baggage sizer at boarding, and you usually get an added perk of boarding earlier. Boarding earlier secures your bag space in the overhead compartment near your seat.

Think about it for a second. If you are flying a budget airline and pay an extra £5.99 or $8 for a second carry-on bag, you can easily make up this cost just by avoiding to buy a coffee or a snack at an airport. (Did I just do girl math?) When it comes to normal airlines, you should be fine with this two-bag dynamic as these airlines typically permit one carry-on bag and one personal item.

    Are Backpacking Bags Carry On? Can Backpacking Packs Be Carry On?

    Are backpacking backpacks carry on? The answer isn't exactly simple. Backpacking bags CAN be carry on. However this really depends on you. The average Backpack Traveller needs between 40L to 70L of backpack space and the average airline permits backpacks that are roughly 50L. So it depends on you. You need to ask yourself if you can travel with a 40L-50L backpack and if not, are you ok with travelling with two backpacks.

    Pack Smart & Maximize Space

    Make a packing list to avoid overpacking and ensure you have everything you need. Start by listing essential items such as clothing, toiletries, electronics, and travel documents. Then list out the accessories you need such as sleep masks, portable wifi, or a travel towel.

    When it comes to packing clothing, Flashpackers should stick to a minimalist wardrobe consisting of lightweight and versatile pieces. Aim for a color scheme that can be easily mixed and matched. Solid colors like black, khaki, navy, and gray are ideal for this. Consider packing lightweight layers that can be added or removed depending on the weather at your destination.

    Mastering efficient packing techniques can help you maximize space in your carry-on bag. Utilize compression packing cubes to organize and compress your clothing. I like packing cubes that are all the same sizes so there will be no wasted gaps in your bag. This is the same for liquid and gel pouches over toiletry bottles. Since pouches lay flat against each other and the toiletry bottles have wasted gaps between them. Just make sure your pouches meet TSA regulations.

    Another one of my favorite travel items to maximize space in my carry-on is a collapsible travel water bottle. Hydration is important while you travel. Buying a new water bottle every day adds up financially. Don't even let me get started with how much a bottle of water cost at airports these days. Backpack Travellers should bring their own bottle and make sure it is collapsible and durable.

    Stay Organized

    Toiletries are essential items that require careful organization. Try to find a toiletry bag that is designed for carry-on. Especially when you are backpacking, you don't want a toiletry bag that doesn't have organization to it. Try to find a lightweight toiletry kit that has compact compartments to mitigate your toiletries from shifting and opening up while traveling. Avoid toiletry bags that have just one open space.

    Come up with a plan to keep your travel documents organized. Think about what documents you want to keep physically in your bag, digitally on your smartphone or both.

    When you travel with just a carry-on bag, your bag is usually filled to the gills. Keep all your physical travel documents, including passport, boarding pass, and itinerary, in a secure yet easily accessible location. Flashpackers should consider using a travel document pouch to keep all your physical travel documents together. 

    Tips To Review

    1. Always check your airline's baggage allowance. Even do this when you are browsing flight ticket options since bag fees may be included with some airline tickets and not included with others.

    2. It is best practice to pay for your bag (checked or even carry-on) BEFORE you get to the airport. Generally you don't need to do this at the time you purchase your ticket but definitely do it if you are checking-in online before your flight.

    3. Invest in lightweight travel essentials. You can find our full checklist in this journal entry: Backpacking Packing Guide.

    4. Some airlines and credit card companies offer perks if you are apart one of their loyalty programs. You should check to see if you are entitled to any baggage perks before paying baggage fees.

    5. If you plan on just carrying-on your backpack(s), it's a safe bet you wont have to check it if your bag is less than 50L. If you need more baggage space but technically don't want two backpacks, I have seen larger backpacks that unzip into smaller bags for situations like this.

    6. Lastly, if you are carrying-on more than your baggage allowance, you're more likely to not get questioned about it by aviation staff if its in the form of a backpack than rollerboard suitcase. I don't have official data on this, but it's definitely an insight tip from industry professionals. I have even seen budget airlines measure and weigh rollerboard suitcases and completely skip over backpacks.

    (snow on the beach in Sweden)

    My Mistake & Final Thoughts

    If you are planning to travel with just a carry-on bag, double check TSA's website (or the local government's transportation website) on what you can and can't bring on-board a flight with you. I recently came back from a backpacking trip all over Scandinavia and bought a bottle of cloudberry jam at a Sami market in Sweden. It was supposed to be my father's Christmas gift. Well, it totally slipped my mind that jam is considered a liquid by airport security and it was confiscated. Learn from my lesson and just double check if you are unsure. 




    I’m Mark, the Founder of Generation Nomad, Avid Travel Backpacker & Digital Nomad. I am passionate about helping others discover the world through my experiences. I solo backpacked for months at a time, lived abroad, and even speak two foreign languages. Besides collaborating on the best lightweight travel accessories for Travel Backpackers, I also love sharing my travel photography.
    Favorite Trips: Spain, Egypt & Vietnam 
    Favorite Cuisines: Italian, Peruvian & Japanese
    Quote: “Be a circle and just roll with it” 

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