The Points & Miles Backpacker: 8 Tips for Traveling With Only a Carry-On

Fitting everything you need for an extended trip into a carry-on sized pack is a skill that took me a long time to perfect. “Be prepared” and “just in case” were phrases I told myself that led to overpacking, baggage fees, time wasted at baggage claim and lost-luggage annoyances. I’ll share the key tips I’ve acquired during my downsizing journey as an experienced traveler with just a backpack, so you really can live for weeks or months out of a carry-on.
1) Know Your Limits
For most US carriers, the size limit for carry-on luggage is 9″ x 14″ x 22″. However, when shopping for a backpack, you’ll typically find size listed in liters, not dimensions. Generally, 40-liter packs will work as a carry-on, although with the flexibility of a backpack, that can vary. My 40-liter pack won’t fit in a measurement bin if I jam it full, but I’ve seen 50-liter and bigger backpacks tightened up and taken on board. You’ll want to pack completely and measure at home to avoid surprises at the airport.
If you’re close to the limit on size or weight, you can strategically pick your travel outfit. On the same trip where I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, I had a small regional flight from Zanzibar back to the mainland where they wanted to charge me ridiculous fees for my slightly overweight luggage. So I put on my hiking gear and got just below the weight limit. I looked slightly ridiculous wearing a winter coat, hiking pants and hiking boots through a tropical island airport, but I was also wearing a smile because I avoided a $50 baggage fee on a $50 flight.
What I looked like at the summit of Kilimanjaro is almost what I looked like walking through security in Zanzibar airport.
Unfortunately, many international airlines, especially low-fare ones, have really cut down on carry-on allowances. Ryanair, for example, now only allows one small personal item (8″ x 10″ x 16″) brought on board with its base fare. These sizes and allowances vary drastically, so make sure you check the airline website directly for your allowance. Occasionally, checking your bag may be unavoidable, so be sure to factor in all of the fees before booking an ultra-low-fare on an airline that charges high fees.
2) Make Efficient Use of Your Personal Item
My laptop backpack also holds my DSLR camera, toiletries and other electronics along with things I want readily available for a flight like a book or eye mask. I also find it’s a better place to protect smaller or fragile items like sunglasses.
To carry, go with the classic backpacker look: big pack on your back and smaller pack in front. It actually helps with weight distribution and keeps you from hunching forward. You don’t want too big of a personal item though — stay well below the common 9″ x 10″ x 17″ US limit or it’ll be too awkward to carry in front.
The classic backpacker look, although this picture is admittedly from before I slimmed my backpack to carry-on size.
3) Choose Footwear that Packs Small
Ditching regular shoes is probably your biggest space saver, but I’m not suggesting you travel hobo style. Bring footwear that is versatile and can pack very small. For me, it’s a pair of TOMS Canvas Men’s Classics which are comfy enough to walk around in all day but also stylish enough to make myself mildly presentable. While I’m not a fan of the $50 price tag for what is essentially slippers, that includes a second pair that the company takes credit for giving to charity. I haven’t found a travel shoe I like better, but many TPG team members though swear by Allbirds.
If you ever see me traveling, there’s a good chance I’ll be wearing these. Photo courtesy of TOMS.
A pair of flip-flops is also essential, especially if you’ll be seeing a beach. Invest in a comfy, durable pair, and avoid leather or cloth so you can also use them as shower shoes. Havaianas do the trick for me.
If you need something with a bit more support — I travel with running shoes — wear those shoes on flight days. On other transit days that don’t involve luggage restrictions or other people handling your bags, you can tie the shoes to the outside of your pack.
4) Here Is What You Can and Can’t Bring in a Carry-On
TSA publishes a list of all questionable items and whether they are allowed in carry-on and/or checked luggage. Note the common disclaimer that the final decision rests with the TSA officers. Also, you should expect similar guidelines abroad, but perhaps not exactly the same. So while you may be able to crisscross the US with deer antlers on board, other countries may make you check them.
5) You Don’t Need a Pocket Knife
Swiss Army knives can be pretty handy, but you don’t often need tools when traveling. Most times I’ve wanted a knife, it’s been for pretty minor cutting, and I’ve been able to substitute nail clippers for it.
Scissors with rounded points and less than 4 inch blades are technically allowed by the TSA, but remember the note about airport officers getting final discretion and varying regulations abroad. You can find multi-tools without knives like this Leatherman, but given the resemblance to a pocket knife, expect to be stopped and be ready to do some convincing.
6) You Can Buy Most of What You Need at Your Destination
This is how you can justify leaving behind your “just in case” pile, and these new items can double as a souvenir. Nights colder than you thought? Grab a jumper with the logo of your favorite Argentine beer. Back home, “What is Quilmes?” will be a conversation starter. Do your arms need freedom from t-shirt sleeves? Buy a tank top and get ready for story time after people ask “What is the Vang Vieng?” when your tank declares to the world you went tubing down it.
If you go tubing down the Vang Vieng river in Laos, you’ll want to tell the story. Best to let others ask you about it first.
Also, don’t feel like you need to pack a pharmacy. Decent, English-speaking health care is widely available across the world for pretty much anything your medical kit would combat. Even without insurance, the cost for doctor visits and medicine often compares to the price of a deductible in the USA (but travel insurance is a great idea).
However, if you have specific, non-generic go-tos for ailments, you may want to bring a bit of that. For me, it’s Alka Seltzer Plus Cold, Wellness Formula and Pepto-Bismol tablets. The same would apply to regularly taken prescriptions or birth control for the duration of your trip unless you have confirmed you can get it abroad. Finally, my recommendations on medicine are very general, so research your destinations specifically. And beware that taking prescription medication overseas may be problematic.
7) 100 ml Is Enough for Your Liquids
TSA has been drilling the 3-1-1 rule into our subconscious for over a decade now, but don’t let these limits force you into checked baggage. Shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, lotion, sunscreen, bug spray and pretty much any other type of liquid, aerosol, gel, cream or paste that you’d want while traveling you can buy at your destination. However, like with medicine, if you have a specific, branded preferences, you’re far less likely to find those abroad (contact lens solution is a common example).
Get some 100 ml reusable travel bottles for your essential brands. If 100 ml won’t be enough, fill up a couple bottles and buy your other liquids on arrival. It’s best not to push the limits, but in my experience the “100 ml bottle size” requirement is enforced much more strictly than the “in a one quart bag” requirement.
8) Roll Your Clothes
The folding vs. rolling debate lives on, but I am firmly a supporter of the roll — especially if you “Ranger Roll” your clothes as demonstrated by this guy. The roll works especially well with packing cubes, which I also highly recommend.
The main argument against rolling is wrinkles, but I’m normally not packing nice button downs or dress pants. If I am, I’ll fold only those items as the exception. Anything else you need to get wrinkles out of, hang next to you in the shower and let the steam take care of it.
The complete contents of a recent multi-month backpacking trip. I rolled clothes even before I was introduced to the “Ranger Roll.” To this day, I’m still learning new packing tips and tricks.
The Points & Miles Backpacker is a weekly column appearing every Monday. TPG Contributor Brian Biros, who has backpacked the globe for the past 15 years, discusses how to fund this adventurous, budgeted and increasingly popular form of travel with points and miles. He’ll also explore all things backpacking-related. Read his story here and his high-level approach here.
If you’re looking to back that pack up and get some guidance, send your questions to [email protected] !

How to Pack for Vacation: Six Tips from a Big Family

As many of you already know, my family is what some people might consider… large. I don’t often meet anyone that has more kids than I do! With myself, my wife and six kids, our family of eight travels a bit differently than others.
We’ve already covered how we usually have to rent TWO cars (instead of one) and how we often book two hotel rooms in order to fit our family. Today, I want to talk about our strategy for packing, with a few large family packing tips that we’ve learned in order to minimize stress on our trips. While these tips are tried and tested for a big family, even if you don’t have a large family, these six tips for how to pack for a family vacation should help keep families of all sizes organized and prepared.
Bags: To check, or not to check?
In the family travel space, there is healthy debate about whether or not you should check bags when flying. If you’ve never lived a #CarryOnOnly lifestyle, it’s something to think about. You’d be surprised how much you can bring on a trip with eight carry-ons and eight personal items!
If you do decide to check bags, make sure to include the cost of (ever increasing) baggage fees with your ticket cost.  Or, you fly an airline like Southwest, which doesn’t charge for baggage or lean on your elite perks or cobranded credit card benefits that may waived checked bag fees. A few years ago when our family went to Lake Tahoe, we took 17 pieces of luggage through the airport — all for free on Southwest.
When it comes to driving, our family of eight ends up taking more road trips perhaps than the average family. The economies of driving vs. flying skews much more towards driving when you can fit eight people in one vehicle. On a recent family vacation to Nauvoo, IL, we ended up spending about $50 in gas to drive ~1,000 miles. It would have cost more in fees alone to fly us there, to say nothing of the miles cost.
With driving, of course, you don’t have as many space concerns. Plus, depending on where you’re going and your lodging, you might also be packing food. Packing food can help with vacation costs, which can be some of the highest expenses on a trip.
Photo by Mumemories/Getty Images
Start with a packing list
Once you know if you’ll be flying or driving, and if you’re going to be checking any bags (as well as how many!), my top tip is to start with a packing list.
Even better, use an online tool to keep your packing list so you can refine and modify each time you take a trip, like Google Docs. Google Docs has two benefits: my wife and I can share a list (letting both of us review and contribute) and then after the trip, once we realize all the things we forgot, we can add it to the list for next time! Over the course of several years, we’ve gotten the packing list down!
I highly recommend printing out a hard copy of your packing list that you can physically check off. We keep ours with the suitcases and then check things off as they go into the bags. We circle the things that are still missing — usually things like kids’ stuffed animals or other items that can’t be packed until the last minute.
Pack your clothes by day instead of by person
Another good tip when packing for a family vacation that we learned a few years ago was to pack by day instead of by person. Prior to this, we would usually pack one suitcase for the boys, one for the girls, one for the parents and then one or two with random accessories.
Now, we pack by day instead. In a plastic grocery bag (or two), we pack everyone’s clothes for each particular day. That way, it’s easy to get everyone’s clothes out in the morning (no digging through suitcases). Plus, it gives you an easy container for everyone’s DIRTY clothes in the evening.
We have never personally used packing cubes, but this strategy seems like it would fit well for those who have some. I know people swear by space saver bags (aka vacuum packing) but we have never been in a situation where space has been SO tight that we’ve had to resort to that, so plastic grocery sacks work well for us.
Depending on where you’re staying, you may have access to laundry facilities, which can help limit the number of outfits that you have to pack for each person.
There’s more to pack than just clothes and toiletries
One common rookie family vacation packing mistake is focusing only on clothes and toiletries. Depending on how long you’re going to be gone, you’ll want to make sure not to forget all the OTHER things that you typically use and depend on in your daily life.
For example: medications! Not only prescription medications, but over the counter meds as well, depending on where you go. We usually take a couple aspirin, Tylenol, melatonin, antacids and other medications with us. If you’re traveling internationally, though, check the immigration/customs policy of the country you’re traveling to as you don’t want to go to jail for taking your meds abroad!
Also, don’t forget cash. While credit cards are more and more prevalent, there may be places that only take cash. Depending on where you’re traveling, it may be inconvenient (or more costly) to take out cash from an ATM.
Photo by Kenstocker/Getty Images
Find the balance (especially with baby and kid stuff)
Another family vacation packing tip is finding the right balance of all the baby and kid stuff that many families travel with. You don’t want to forget the necessities, but you also don’t want to go overboard!
The “right” amount will vary by family and destination, but unless you’re going somewhere VERY remote, it’s likely that you don’t have to account for EVERY possible contingency. Diapers can take up a lot of room in a suitcase, so decide how many it makes sense to pack vs. buy when you get there. The same goes for baby and toddler food and snacks. Bring enough to make the journey pleasant, but then (depending on destination) plan to get most goods while you’re at your destination.
We’ve had good luck having each of our children pack a few books/toys to entertain themselves, a blanket and their favorite stuffed animal in their own backpack. Which brings me to my next point…
Let everyone carry their own backpack
Like I mentioned earlier, one major space hog seems to be all of the random items that kids absolutely MUST take with them. We’re talking stuffed animals, blankets, night lights, books, nick nacks and other things to do.
If kids have to CARRY their own backpack, it helps them limit how much of that junk, err, important items they want to take with them. Of course, if your kids are little, you can augment the space in their backpack with space in larger suitcases. Still, even a little kid can carry some of his or her own personal items. My youngest daughter is six and she carries all of her own blankets, snugglies, books and other items. Kids as young as two or three years old can start to carry their own backpack through the airport and beyond.
Photo by Bonfanti Diego/Getty Images
What are your best family packing tips? Leave them in the comments below.
Featured image by @marn123424/Twenty20