Vacation Hack: 7 Tips for Single Bag Travel

By Kentin Waits on 20 July 2010 (Updated 16 September 2014) 18 comments

As the air travel industry continues to limp along in the face of rising fuel prices and stiffer competition, airlines are finding new and novel ways to squeeze our wallets. An extra charge for checked baggage was only the beginning in what’s fast becoming a textbook example of how to nickel and dime consumers. Blankets, pillows, headphones and — believe it or not — bathroom access are all profit centers now. Welcome to the great fleecing at 30,000 feet.

After my usual airfare comparison shopping, the one fee that I feel like I have some control over is the checked baggage fee. After 9/11, for the sake of shear convenience and (relative) speed, I became a single bag traveler. Now, regardless of the distance or duration of the trip, I pack strategically and fit every item I need into a well-designed and well-packed carry-on bag. If it won’t fit in a reasonably sized carry-on, it stays behind. Here are 7 tips to become a single bag traveler yourself. (See also: Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards)

1. Choose the Right Bag

Just because you’re traveling with one bag doesn’t mean that bag should push the limits of reason. A modified steamer trunk on wheels defeats the purpose. Shop around and choose something that’s road-worthy, versatile, easy to carry, and easy to stow. I chose a black soft-sided shoulder bag that’s about twice the size of a standard gym bag. It’s made of durable nylon, has a comfortable strap and a few outside pockets. The dark color camouflages scuffs and dirt, the soft sides help it squeeze into those overhead bins on crowded flights, and the outside pockets keep my boarding pass and other quick-grab items handy.

2. Embrace Essentialism

Travel, especially when it’s for pleasure, can inspire us to pack everything we love and figure out the rest when we land. Without a serious attempt to resist this temptation, single bag travel will never be in your future. Decide which items you’ll reasonably need on your trip based upon weather forecasts, activities, events, contingencies, etc. If you want to really get specific, plan out your wardrobe on 3X5 note cards for each day of your journey and pack accordingly. It may sound extreme, but this method ensures there won’t be a single non-essential item taking up precious real estate in your bag. Realize that it’s okay to wear clothes more than once. Choose items wisely and focus on comfort, versatility and practicality.

3. Use Your Body as Your Second Carry-On

What you wear for your flight is part of your travel wardrobe. Choose these clothes strategically — maybe those boots you want to pack will take up too much room in your luggage, but they’re fine to wear on the flight. Maybe your gym shoes or that hoodie would be fine to wear for a long day of travel and serve as workout gear once you arrive.

4. Go Small

We’re all operating under the TSA’s 3.4 ounce rule for liquids, so grab a zip-loc baggie and consciously consider what you’ll need for this part of the luggage puzzle. For the guys, there are finally smaller shaving cream tubes appearing on the market now. For other items that don’t come in trial sizes, buy some good travel bottles and get creative.

5. Reset Standards

Let’s face it; Americans (especially) have a thing about hygiene. Socks, underwear, even jeans can’t be worn more than once without inspiring a look of slight disgust. It’s hard to argue with such embedded social standards, but I can’t help but wonder what we’re doing to get so dirty. Unless a trip involves day-long hikes or fossil-digging, our bodies (and in turn, our clothing) are probably staying fairly clean. Thanks to some new high-tech fabrics, underwear can be washed in the sink and hung to dry quickly. Rethink some of those conditioned expectations and realize that they aren’t universal.

6. Use the Russian Nesting Doll Method

Packing is an art and a science. The method that I find works best is to lay out everything on my bed, excluding the clothes I’ll be wearing on the flight. Then, see how the items can work together. Rolled up socks and underwear can fit inside shoes. Folded jeans can protect ties, a rolled up tee-shirt can add extra protection for a digital camera or sunglasses. On top of everything goes the laptop case, the zip-lock toiletry kit (for easy access at security) and a third ‘break-away’ bag. The break-away bag is a small separate case (about 8” X 6”), that holds a good book, an MP3 player, any medication I might need, earplugs, an energy bar and aspirin…anything I might need mid-flight. This ‘break-away’ bag saves me time rummaging through the carry-on once I’ve boarded.

7. Drop Shopping

Remember, you have to pack to come home too. Travel often means shopping or picking up a few souvenirs along the way. If you can’t avoid the temptation to accumulate new items on your trip, make sure they will safely fit in your carry on or consider shipping them ahead before your return flight. Otherwise, skip the snow globe and send a post-card instead.

Many folks might find the concept of traveling only with a carry-on much too limiting. After years of perfecting the science of single bag travel, I can’t imagine going any other way. Packing a single bag smartly will allow you focus on the purpose of your trip and not get bogged down with “inventory management.” Imagine: no more long lines to check bags, no more wondering if your luggage will get lost along the way, no more waiting in line at baggage claim areas, no more keeping track of large bags and small bags, and no more fees.

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Guest's picture
Dick

My own two cents for the Single Bag concept.

Tip one :On long distance flights you need lots of water and the cabin crew aren't exactly forthcoming with lots of water and you can bring only 100 ml (yes i'm European) with you . What to do ? My trick is tp put an empty plastic bottle in the carry on-bagage and after the security check go to the toilet (alright rest room...) and fill the bottle with water . Either several small bottles or one big one.

Tip two: and further to the using your body as a carry-on tip ; photographers (and fisherman) use a vest which has lot of small and deep pockets and since (not yet anyway)they don't weigh you you can stuff it with all all sorts of ..stuff.

Guest's picture

Hmm great tip ! Never thought about it. I am always thirsty on the plane .

Guest's picture
Guest

I do something similar to your water tip -- rather than packing an empty bottle, I fill a 1 liter bottle before heading to the airport, empty it while waiting in the TSA line, and fill it again inside the secured area. That way, I'm at least somewhat hydrated if something goes wrong and I don't have time to refill the bottle on the way to the gate.

My bottle never goes inside a bag; the TSA and airline folks don't seem to mind if I hand-carry it around the airport and onto the plane. I always use bottles with good carabiner clips so I can attach them to my embarrassing tourist hold-all wherever I go on my trip.

Guest's picture
Guest

For women, some items to dual duty. I like to bring a shawl on trips with me. I can use it as a blanket on the plane, a scarf on a cool day, over my head when it rains, and as a wrap when I go out.

Guest's picture
axel g

That's a nice list Kentin!

I spend about four months per year away from home, usually for a month at the time.

It's just wonderful to travel with a single bag.

As a minimalist it's easy, but I feel for those who drag a lot of clothes and electronics along...

Guest's picture
KarenJ

My husband and I perfected this when we spent a week on a catamaran in BVI. As a female, one of my tricks is to pack black and white. Black/white skirt, shorts and tops that go with both. This way you can do a lot of mix and match and create new outfits. I got tired of lugging around my entire closet and then not wearing half of what I brought. Even though it's hard to not pack all your favorite stuff, once you're at your destination, it makes dressing much easier.

Kentin Waits's picture

The B&W wardrobe idea is great...it's all about versatility and multi-use when you're on the road. Thanks for the tip!

Guest's picture
JB

If you know where you're going a head of time, just mail/UPS/Fedex your clothing to your destination and back to your home.

Its less expensive and you can save your bag for your core essentials.

Guest's picture
DC

JB,

I think the idea is not only to avoid the extra bag at the airport, but also having to carry it once you reach your destination.

Also, you say that FedExing is cheaper. Really? Since when can we overnight (or even slower) a 50 lbs. bag for $25 or less? which is what the airline charges per piece of luggage.

Guest's picture
Dorothy

Yes, color coordinate your wardrobe.

But consider this: Where are you going? If you're going to a city/town/stay with friends you can probably wash your clothes along the way and/or buy something if you need to. I often coached women colleagues in my travel-for-work days about packing. If you're going on a business trip to Cleveland, newsflash! They have stores and washing machines there.

If you're going to another country it's actually fun to take an hour or two to go to a self-service laundry and see how things work there. Drink some water, update your journal, write a few postcards and your laundry will be done!

Guest's picture
Rich

I travel a lot and am in hotels 40-50 nights a year. I agree with you re: choosing the right bag. The suitcases I've had over the years were cheap ones, and the zippers and wheels have broken off. I'm of the mind now that i need to pay more now to get a great bag that will last longer, and utilize the space better. Also, because I travel so much, I have a separate set of toiletries that I just always keep in the suitcase. They're travel-size and are ready to go, so I don't have to think about packing everything each time I travel.

Guest's picture
frugalking

This may sound funny. But, a tip I learned from my parents is to pack old clothes that you plan on donating or throwing away. The clothes should be old and close to being tattered, but still wearable. If you have any socks with simple holes in them, you can bring those, since they will be in your shoes anyway.

By the end of your trip, you could be shedding your old clothes and packing your suitcase with new stuff!

Guest's picture
Guest

I do this too!

Ok, not all the clothes, but say a few cheap old tops I am tired of, and especially old socks since I hate carrying those around once they're dirty! (if I can't do laundry)

Guest's picture
Ginny

I knew women in the 1970's who flew with NO luggage--they wore everything and carried the extras in their purses. I don't know how they would fare now, but they used to fly wearing say, two skirts and two blouses under a sweater. The big problem was shoes, but they packed some of those little indoor/outdoor foldup slippers in their purses. Jeans are pretty useless overseas--they're too heavy, they take forever to dry, and in the cities you might as well wear a sign saying "American Tourist."

Guest's picture
Guest

I wouldn't take jeans to Europe either but if I were going to Rio, I would pack jeans, black tee shirts, and flip flops. I would leave the jewelry at home. Otherwise, I would look like a tourist there. In addition to packing for climate and location, I think a person needs to check out the culture of the area as well. I like the notecard option.

Guest's picture
Guest

I am also a one-bag traveler. One thing I always do is wear each pair of pants/bottoms that I bring twice. I also wear some tops twice. (I pack a small travel-size bottle of Febreeze.) So, for a 6-day trip, I have 3 pairs of pants and 4 or 5 shirts - MAX. I also pare down jewelry to just a few select pieces - as in one pair of earrings and a necklace. I like the idea of a shawl one poster mentioned - using it for multiple purposes. I may need to adopt this idea. Excellent ideas in the article!

Guest's picture
Dr Dre

Great article Kentin. I'm going to keep it in my "travel essentials" box where I store all the 3 oz bottles and the emergency bottle of xanax for travel and family gatherings. One thing that has worked for me these past several years are Brooks Brothers non-iron dress shirts. I hate ironing (can't iron) and, if I get them on sale at the BB outlet, a standard white oxford broadcloth type (or 2) are great investments if your dress code is business or just biz cazsh--also works well if you find the need to hit the road quick for a wake, funeral or wedding over a couple days. Quick and easy to pack, wash (or not), rewear on the same trip and always look like they've come straight from being laundered and pressed. A friend of mine travels for days at a time with his tablet PC, 2-3 of these shirts, a few pair of clean socks + underwear and can be on the road all week--easily fitting all in a carry-on canvas tote bag that I'm pretty sure he picked up for free at a trade show. He wears everything else including a versatile black suit, black shoes and belt that go with everything. It's as easy for him to get through and around the several cities, airports and hotels per week as it is for me to head out for lunch.

Guest's picture
margo

I'm surprised nobody has mentioned bringing a small bottle of Woolite and a universal drain plug. I got through 5 days in Patagonia with just a backpack (and my boots inside it!) by using the Woolite to wash dirty shirts at night before bed. They'd be dry in just over a day.

The one toiletry I can't find in travel-size is sunscreen. Still all 4oz bottles where I shop. :(