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How to Travel Around the World with Just a Carry-On: A Girl’s Guide to Traveling Light

Posted by on Jan 5, 2014 | 4 comments

How to Travel Around the World with Just a Carry-On: A Girl’s Guide to Traveling Light

As I am busily packing away for Round-the-World #9 (just 48 hours to go!), this seemed like the perfect opportunity to answer a question I get all the time – especially from you ladies out there – “How do you travel for so long and to so many different places with just a carry-on?”

I admit, it’s challenging. But, there’s a lot to be said for not having to heave a mammoth bag up a flight of stairs in a Paris train station or hold your breath while hoping your bag will appear on the carousel at midnight in Pago Pago. Traveling light is worth the extra time and effort you put into the packing process.

So today, in an effort to help the globetrotting women of the world learn how to travel carry on (and thus travel lighter and happier), I offer up an excerpt from one of my favorite chapters in The Grown-Up’s Guide to Globetrotting:

Chapter 15: Lean, Mean & Chic: The Art of Carry-On Packing

If you wish to travel far and fast, travel light.” – Cesare Pavese

I won’t lie to you, folks—this topic deserves a book of its own. Especially for all you ladies out there who think the carry-on liquids restriction was intended as a form of Chinese water torture.

When I first began researching my trip around the world, I did what I always do, I bought books. The internet is a great tool and a valuable resource and all that but sometimes you just want a good book. I found two books on the subject of RTW travel. One of them was Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, by the ultimate nomad, Rolf Potts. I knew my 30-day RTW trip wouldn’t exactly align with Rolf’s travel style but I figured he’d probably have some good universal globetrotting advice.

And he did, no doubt. I was happily flipping pages in his book and imaging myself exploring foreign lands until I came across this suggested packing list, which, after reading, resulted in a neighbor having to talk me down off a ledge:

  • A pair of sandals
  • Standard hygiene items
  • A few relevant medicines
  • Earplugs
  • Small gift items for your future hosts and friends
  • A few changes of simple, functional clothes (gasp!)
  • One somewhat nice outfit for customs checks and social occasions
  • A good pocketknife, a small flashlight, and a pair of sunglasses
  • A sturdy pair of boots or walking shoes

On behalf of the women of America, I was appropriately horrified. A few changes of simple, functional clothes? One somewhat nice outfit? And why do I need a pocket knife? Is there going to be trouble? Certainly, this is a packing list intended for the no-nonsense male traveler… or G.I. Joe. While some of the suggestions on Rolf’s list are good (I especially like the idea of bringing small gift items, a huge hit in many countries), clearly it needs a woman’s touch. Don’t hate me, Rolf, I think you’re great, but I need more than standard hygiene items.

Since I think men have it easier in the carry-on department, I’ll focus primarily on the challenges this presents for you ladies out there and on how to overcome this packing dilemma of Everest proportions.

It goes without saying that on a whirlwind trip around the world like this one, carry-on is essential. With so many flights in such a short time frame, one lost bag can mean total trip devastation. The odds that the bag lost by the airlines in Costa Rica will catch up to you three cities and two airlines later in Paris are slim to none. Take my word for it, I’ve been there.

So, how to avoid this issue? Learn to travel carry-on, of course! I realize that many of you travel divas with your full-size shampoo bottles and lotions are probably cringing at this thought but trust me—it’s not as hard as it sounds. The lighter you travel, the happier you will be. In eight trips around the world living out of only an international-size carry-on and small backpack, I’ve never wished I brought more, but I’ve often wished I brought less.

Antarctica Packing

Departing for RTW #8 with my standard carry-on (right) & Antarctica checked bag (left)

Remember that this packing list will vary based on your choice of destinations. If you plan to visit a lot of cold places, it gets more challenging. (Even I had to resort to checking a bag for my trip to Antarctica on RTW #8.) That’s why I’ve mostly evolved to only warm destinations on my more recent trips; it simplifies the packing process greatly. So, here it is, ladies, the top-secret RTWin30days packing list honed to perfection over more than 145 countries. I’ve shared it with no one until now:

  • Three words: Little Black Dress (LBD). Something in a wrinkle-free fabric works best. It should be casual enough to serve as a bathing suit cover-up in a pinch but nice enough to be dressed up with a light sweater or inexpensive jewelry and cute sandals for a night out. It should be easy to wash in a hotel sink and dry overnight. Search for as long as it takes to find the perfect dress, it will be worth the effort.
  • Lightweight tennis shoes/hiking shoes. I swear by the Nike Free Run line of running shoes ($80–130 depending on style). They weigh only a few ounces, the upper smooshes down almost completely flat, and they just might be the most comfortable pair of walking/running shoes I’ve ever owned. Like the LBD, they are a staple on my RTW packing list. While they’re not especially made for hiking; unless you’re planning to trek Kilimanjaro, they’ll probably do.
  • A sturdy (that’s for you, Rolf) pair of insanely comfortable flip-flips or sandals. Yellow Box makes my favorite flip-flops. They’re inexpensive, come in a variety of styles, and you can buy them anywhere. I don’t know what it is about their flip-flops but I practically live in them on these trips. They’re so comfortable I can barely tell I’m wearing them. As long as you’re in warm destinations and the local culture dictates that open-toe shoes are acceptable, these can be your go-to footwear. I also like that Yellow Box makes casual styles with a little sparkle that allows you to dress them up or down. Go for a style with a thicker sole, they’re much more cobblestone-street-friendly.
  • One or two pairs of additional footwear bringing you to a max of four pairs. Something respectable with closed toes for the times you can’t wear open toes and don’t want to wear tennis shoes (I usually go with a simple ballet flat for airports, etc.) and perhaps a dressier pair of sandals, maybe even with a small heel for a night out. The important thing is to select shoes that are lightweight and easily packable. Shoes are the hardest part of carry-on packing. (Note: If you’re planning to visit many cold-weather countries or will require sturdier hiking boots for a certain destination, plan on those being your airplane footwear as they’ll be almost impossible to cram into your bag.)
  • Bottoms – I tend to go sparse in the pants/shorts/skirts department sticking with a few basics like khaki, black, or navy that will go with anything. I stay away from jeans since they take up more luggage space (unless you’re in colder places where you may need them). Typically, I’ll pack two pairs of shorts, two pairs of capris, one pair of long pants (for long flights and any countries where you have to cover up) and maybe a casual skirt or two.
  • Dresses – Lightweight, wrinkle-free dresses (including the all-important LBD) are a great way to save space since you’ve got a whole outfit in one piece! I love dresses by Max Studio, they can be casual or dressy, and they never wrinkle. In addition to the LBD, I’d pack one, maybe two more.
  • Sweater or cover-up – Again, lightweight and multi-functional is key. Something with color to spice up that LBD is a great way to increase your wardrobe options. Those little sleeve-only cover-ups (shrugs) are great because they take up next to no space yet they’re an easy way to change-up a sleeveless dress.
  • Costume jewelry – I never travel with any jewelry of value. Yet, I think jewelry is a great way to dress up otherwise casual outfits without sacrificing crucial luggage real estate. Jewelry is also one of my favorite souvenirs to buy when I travel (it takes up no luggage space!) so consider bringing along a few pieces and picking up new and interesting pieces as you travel. I love when someone comments on my earrings or necklace and I can say, “Thanks! I got it in Morocco!” It’s a great way to bring home a little piece of each destination while at the same time supporting local artists and craftspeople.
  • Tops – Go nuts! This is the one area where I like to squeeze in as much variety as I can. From basic tees to silky sleeveless tops, you’d be amazed how many tops you can work in to the tiny crevices remaining in your bag. When it comes to the photos from your trip, as long as you are wearing a different shirt at the Pyramids than you were at the Taj Mahal, no one will notice that you’re wearing the same pants. They will all think you’re such an efficient packer that you managed to squeeze in 30 separate outfits for your 30-day trip. For that strategy, once I’ve worn something that I was photographed in somewhere fabulous, that shirt is then relegated to “travel-day” status for the remainder of the trip. You want to pack light, but no one wants to come home after an incredible trip and realize they were wearing one of three outfits in every picture. This is likely something men don’t give a second thought to but, ladies, that’s why this chapter is not about them, it’s about you. Another trick I like to do is pack tops at the end of their life cycle that were bound for the donation pile after another wearing or two. That way, I can wear them once early on in the trip and then just leave them behind in a hotel room. Later, when I want to buy a chic new top at a market in Thailand (again, a great souvenir), there’s room in my suitcase. After living with the same clothing options for a month, the prospect of a new top or two will excite you almost as much as unexpectedly spotting a washer and dryer in your hotel room.
  • A hooded windbreaker or rain jacket – Into every life, a little rain must fall and it’s safe to say you’ll probably see some during your RTW trip (hopefully not too much). You could bring a travel umbrella but I prefer to go with a windbreaker with a hood since it’s also a great layering piece for colder weather. Most decent hotels will loan you an umbrella for the day if you really need one. If the jacket doesn’t fit in your luggage, wrap it around your waist for flying days.
  • Swimsuits – This is an easy one, I just pack two. Bikinis are small. I also pack a cover up or two (in addition to the LBD). If you’re spending a lot of time in tropical destinations, you’ll practically live in these. Another good idea if you’re fair skinned like me is a sun-shirt for those full days on the water. It doesn’t take up much space and it saves on liquids because you’ll need less sunscreen. And speaking of liquids…
  • Liquids – Now this is where the whole master carry-on plan can collapse like a house of cards if you don’t employ a good strategy. TSA guidelines limit you to one quart-sized, Ziploc bag filled with liquids of 4 oz or less. And this is not just a U.S. rule; this rule applies in pretty much every country on earth (with occasional exceptions for domestic flights within less-developed countries). Barbaric? Without question, but you can make this work. Unless you use some kind of shampoo and conditioner you absolutely can’t live without for a month, don’t waste your precious liquids allotment on those. Every hotel will have shampoo and (usually) conditioner. I sometimes pack a tiny conditioner bottle just in case but never shampoo. Same goes for lotion. I’ll pack a small tube of hand lotion for long flights but every hotel will have body lotion. And remember that when you’re on the trip and you’re at a hotel where you really like the bath products, bring them along for the next stop! No need to bring any from home.

That said; I save most of my liquids allowance for my good cleansers, moisturizers, and sunscreens in travel size bottles. Consider mineral make-up so that none of your make-up counts against you. I switched to Bare Minerals the day after the liquids ban went into place in 2004. A tiny bottle of clear nail polish and a couple of individually packaged nail polish remover pads (which don’t count as liquids) keep my nails in good shape during the trip. Try cleansing wipes instead of liquid cleanser to remove makeup. Bring a small quantity of laundry powder (not liquid) in a snack-size Ziploc bag for impromptu laundry parties in your hotel room. Consider which of your daily beauty products are the most essential to you and pack them in travel size containers. You can actually get more than you think into a quart-size bag.

And, if all else fails, I’m going to share with you a secret that is not TSA-approved so employ it at your own peril. I wish I could take credit for this idea but the credit actually goes to my friend and travel buddy, Dena. When she took a trip to Europe with me a few summers ago, it was her first experience with carry-on packing but she was willing to give it a try after some not-so-subtle encouragement from me. I had explained the liquids rule pretty thoroughly (I thought) until we arrived at airport security and I watched in horror as she removed two fully loaded Ziploc bags! Now, technically the rule is one Ziploc per passenger but she had mistakenly interpreted it as one per bag (she had a backpack and a rollaboard). Well, I was convinced she was destined for some sort of secret TSA prison and that I, as a good friend, would offer to stay behind and get her proper legal representation but of course she would tell me to go on ahead without her. And just as I was trying to capture the appropriate forlorn expression to adopt as I waved goodbye… her bag passed through security without a second glance, and I was left wondering why the heck I hadn’t thought of that.

From then on, I have utilized the dual-Ziploc-bag-maneuver successfully on dozens of trips and never had a problem. In fact, I’ve had my bags searched completely by airport security personnel who clearly saw (and even handled) both bags of liquids and didn’t take either away. This, of course, makes me wonder if it really is even against the rules. To be safe, I always have one bag of “lesser” liquids that I’m willing to part with at airport security, just in case. But, especially for a month-long trip, it’s great to be able to start out the trip with two Ziplocs, by week two you’re down to one anyway. And always throw a few extra Ziploc bags (in quart and gallon sizes) into your suitcase. Those bags endure a lot of wear and tear during the course of the trip and can get holes that will leave the rest of your luggage at risk. The gallon-size bags are great for wet bathing suits and a million other uses.

  • Electronics – Purchase a good universal adapter that will work in every country. I bought one a Brookstone several years ago that has never let me down. Don’t pack a hairdryer. It’s a waste of luggage space and every hotel (even the budget ones) will have one. And if they don’t, it’s likely you’ll survive. I do pack a tiny travel-size flat iron for hair emergencies but I find that I rarely use it. You just don’t care as much about such things on a trip like this (unless you have really difficult hair). Invest in a good camera whether it’s a simple point-and-shoot or a high-end DSLR. I did my first four trips with a point-and-shoot but finally upgraded to a DSLR before RTW #5. Though much bulkier to travel with, I found that the superior photo quality is worth the extra weight to me. I’m no professional photographer but my Nikon D3100 sometimes makes me look like I am. Be sure you’re uploading and backing up all your photos as you go. Travel with a laptop or tablet for keeping in touch and uploading photos and use a service like Carbonite to make sure all your photos are secure no matter what. You’ve been dreaming of this trip for a lifetime, you want to have photos to remember it by. I also recently invested in the super tiny and very travel friendly GoPro Hero 3+ Black Edition for shooting video.

The Luggage

Now that you’ve got a large pile of clothes occupying space in your bedroom, what to pack it all in? You could go all backpacker-National-Geographic on me and buy one of those giant packs like they run uncomfortably around the world lugging on the Amazing Race. Or, you could join the rest of the sane traveling public and buy yourself a chic, international-size rollaboard carry-on. Because while this may come as a shock to some members of the hostel-dwelling public, they make luggage with wheels now!

General Packing Essentials

I have a bag that I absolutely love but it’s a little on the pricey side. There are numerous other options in similar styles at more reasonable prices. But because I travel for a living, good luggage is important to me. I happen to be a huge fan of Tumi luggage both because of the quality of their product and especially because of their service. I tend to be pretty hard on luggage and my Tumi bag always seems to be up to the challenge. And on the rare occasion when it isn’t (like the summer I dragged it across every cobblestone street I could find in all of Europe and one of the wheels wasn’t quite right by the end of the trip), I just send it back and they fix it and return it for free. In fact, on that particular occasion, they must not have been able to repair it to their high standards because they sent me an entirely new bag… free.

Tumi Vapor

Tumi Vapor International Carry-On

The bag I travel with currently and the one that has been around the world with me four times now is the Tumi Vapor International Carry-On. It has four wheels on the bottom, which I always thought looked dorky until I tried it and–I swear to God—it changed my life. Those four wheels keep me gliding through airports as if I’m not carrying anything at all. My second favorite feature–and one that I think is important when you’re going to be living out of a suitcase for a month—is that it has a zip-up divider separating the two sides. This allows me to pack all of my clothing in the zipped-up half and separate my shoes, toiletries, electronics, outerwear, etc. in the other side. Having the suitcase neatly divided in halves is a far superior organization strategy and allows me to quickly find things that I need without having to unpack the entire suitcase to look for that one shirt I want to wear that day.

Be aware that there is a difference between the U.S. standard allowable carry-on size of 21 inches and the standard international carry-on size of just 19 inches. Invest in an international size bag; otherwise, you’ll likely be forced to check it while overseas. Also, keep in mind that many international airlines have weight limits for carry-on baggage as well as size limits and will try to weigh your carry-on at check-in. Since you, like me, will obviously have stuffed that carry-on like a Thanksgiving turkey, you’ll want to avoid this wherever possible. The best strategy for dodging the weight check is to print your boarding pass ahead of time and go straight to security, bypassing check-in altogether. Unfortunately, you can only get away with this on certain aircraft. Smaller planes like those often used for inter-island flights just don’t have big enough overhead compartments so you’ll ultimately have to check at some point. Keep your most important items in your smaller carry-on, kiss your bag goodbye, and just hope it comes out on the other end.

Now that your major piece of luggage is covered, let’s talk about your personal item! That’s right, you’ll get one more allowable bag to carry with you on your flights. To me, this is the time and place for a backpack. My backpack is where I keep all my important electronics like my laptop, camera, video camera, cell phone, etc. I also keep my small over-the-shoulder purse with my travel wallet in there. And whatever else won’t fit in the larger bag. The backpack is multifunctional because it will also serve as your daypack when you’re off exploring in each new country. If your backpack is too big for comfortable day-to-day use, get a smaller, collapsible daypack to store in the bottom of the larger backpack instead. It should be something lightweight with lots of fun pockets for gadgets, chargers, medicines and any hotel soaps you may or may not decide to steal.

Another fun travel accessory you may want to consider is one of the James-Bond-style vests or jackets made by Scottevest. I’ll admit, I once considered myself far too stylish for any member of the travel vest family, but the free Scottevest the company was kind enough to give to each travel blogger at the 2012 TBEX conference made me a believer. It wasn’t just cute, it was incredibly functional. The vests are made with a variety of concealed pockets (mine has 17!) that help keep your important items safe and can be a lifesaver when dealing with airline weight restrictions–you can pack all your heavy stuff like iPad, camera, chargers, etc., into the vest and just slip it off when going through airport security. I wore mine all over Central America on my summer 2012 trip (which involved an alarming amount of prop planes) and it worked like a charm.

Since we’ve agreed you’ll at least make a spirited attempt at carry-on packing, the odds are you’ll need to do laundry along the way. Of course, you can just send a few things out for cleaning at your hotel but hotel laundry is often pricey. Instead, try a local Laundromat, where in many parts of the world you can drop off the entire contents of your suitcase and have it all clean and smelling like a rose again for $5 a load.

Or you can do what I often do and bring along a little laundry detergent (the all-in-one sheets are great for keeping your bag smelling fresh and limiting your liquids) and have the occasional laundry party in your hotel bathroom sink. It’s free!

So there you have it, all my accumulated knowledge about packing for a trip around the world with just a carry-on bag. Not as hard as you thought, right? But I’m always on the lookout for new space-saving ideas so if any of you well-traveled folks out there have any other great packing tips you’d like to share, I’d love to hear them…sound off in the comments!

A Note for the Guys: I promise, I didn’t completely forget about you! In The Grown-Up’s Guide to Globetrotting, several of the male globetrotters I interviewed also provided detailed lists of what they packed for their trips around the world. But today, it’s all about the ladies!

4 Comments

  1. 5-28-2014

    This website is everything I needed for my first 30 day RTW trip! Jenny’s experience traveling as a woman with one carryon bag gave me hope!!! I’ve just ordered her book and can hardly wait to read it!

    • Jenny
      5-28-2014

      Sandy, your comment just made my day! Thank you so much for reading, taking the time to comment and especially for buying my book. I really hope you enjoy it and I know it will be a great resource for you in planning your trip. I’m so excited that you’re also going around the world in 30 days! When do you leave and where are you going?

  2. 7-12-2015

    Thank you for so much helpful information won by your many trips. I am passing it on to my daughters who will appreciate your feminine, stylish and practical advice. God bless you! Yours, Jean

    • Jenny
      7-14-2015

      Thanks, Jean! May they never check a bag again 🙂

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