My Uncomfortable Shift To Being a Carry-On Only Traveler

Sanctuary Retreats Ngorongoro Crater Tanzania

By nature I am an overpacker and I’m not entirely sure why. Scratch that, I think I know. Throughout my life whenever it came time to pack my bags for a trip, suddenly my imagination would get in the way and I imagined every scenario that could possibly occur. Would I have to look nice and if so, how nice? Surely the country I planned to visit wouldn’t have any toiletries at all, so I needed to bring duplicates of mine. Swimming likely in the Arctic Circle? Not really, but you never know! Before I knew what had happened, I had a valise that would rival the steamer trunks of the Gilded Age. I didn’t like it, but I also felt stuck. I didn’t see how to change and I honestly didn’t think it was possible. That all came to an abrupt halt when I was forced to go carry-on only or not travel at all.

The Defining Moment

Earlier this year I joined an Abercrombie & Kent safari in Africa. The schedule was a good one and involved moving around Tanzania from camp to camp, spending time in a variety of national parks searching for wildlife. I was impressed with Abercrombie & Kent though before I even left home thanks to the incredible prep work they do with their guests to help them get ready for their big adventure. I was excited, and poured over every new document and information packet with a fine-toothed comb. As I read through one of the booklets, I noticed a paragraph regarding luggage and stopped cold. Due to restrictions on internal flights within Tanzania, our luggage was restricted to 33 lbs per person. That was inclusive of everything, including traditional carry-on bags. At first blush, this may not sound like an issue but there’s a lot to take into consideration. I travel with a lot of electronic equipment which alone accounts for almost half of that 33-pound allotment. Then came the prospect of packing clothes for a week and making sure that it all would somehow weigh next to nothing. I was worried, but luckily Abercrombie came to the rescue.

Understanding that guests may be somewhat challenged by these weight limits, Abercrombie & Kent provides their safari guests with a custom-crafted A&K Duffel. The bag was designed specifically for this type of journey and with it Abercrombie helps ensure that their guests will easily be able to bring everything they need on their trip without hassle. The bag is the perfect size to be used as a carry-on bag and is surprisingly roomy, with special spaces for shoes and other necessities. But I was still worried. This is the guy who takes a mega-suitcase on a weeklong trip to Europe and I wasn’t at all confident.

The other way I was aided in my safari packing was by Sanctuary Retreats; their tented camps were our accommodations throughout the trip. Among their many services for guests is complimentary laundry service, meaning I could recycle clothes as needed. Obviously this isn’t an amenity available on every trip, but in this case it helped me better manage my clothes for the week.

By the end of my safari experience I was genuinely surprised and proud. Thanks to the bag and its construction, not only was I able to prepare for my safari with ease, but I didn’t even use all of the clothes I brought with me. A light bulb went off, and a change in my own travel behavior began.

Carry-On For All Trip Types

I had accomplished what I thought impossible on my safari experience, but was that unique? Would I be able to scale this as I travel to other destinations and on other styles of trips? I still wasn’t sold, but soon had an opportunity to test it out. My trip to China was also a week in length, but it couldn’t have been more different from Tanzania. In addition to casual walk-around-town clothes, I also needed to bring along business casual wear so that I would fit in with my fellow guests at the Ritz-Carlton properties I patronized. I decided to once again use my new duffel bag along with a small internal packer to keep my dress shirts, slacks and jackets neatly folded. Thanks again to the unique construction of the bag, I was able to efficiently pack, include everything I needed for multiple styles of travel and once again, travel carry-on only. Once more I found myself oddly proud of this admittedly minor travel accomplishment and eager to see how I could further refine this process.

Traveling to Ireland, my trip was only 5 days and I knew that I would only need casual clothes – no formal occasions were planned. Light sweaters, long-sleeved tees and slacks was all I needed, and so I used a very small roller bag that until now, I had only used for overnight getaways. I always thought it too small for a real trip overseas, but thanks to many of the packing lessons I learned out of necessity from my safari experience, I was able to self-edit and as a result I traveled for 5 days with only my carry-on bags. But why does this matter? Why is going carry-on only so important and why do I think it’s more of a challenge for guys than it is women?

Finnair A350

Pros and Cons

The pros to going carry-on only are, I think, fairly obvious. Traveling around any new destination with bags that are small, light and easy to transport makes life so much easier. I’ve been that guy hauling massive suitcases over cobblestone streets, through subway systems and it’s not fun. It’s annoying, it can be painful and you irritate everyone in your path. With a small carry-on bag, all of this is necessarily avoided. But the real benefit comes at the airport. If fees exist, going carry-on only helps us avoid them but even better is that after a flight, I no longer have to wait at baggage claim for my trusty suitcase to emerge. Over the years I have probably spent collective days waiting, not patiently I might add, for my bags to emerge from the bowels of an airport. It’s not fun, sometimes they get lost and all in all it’s a massive waste of precious travel time.

But I think it’s harder for guys to go carry-on only than women, especially on a longer trip. The reason for this has to do with the kinds of clothes we bring, what they’re made from and their size. Our shoes are large, heavy and take up a lot of space. My partner has size 14 feet, which means after packing a pair or two of shoes, whatever extra room in the suitcase existed is long gone. If we have to anticipate smart casual or business events, then slacks, jackets and all of the accouterments must necessarily be included. Unlike my female friends who can get away with a dress that miraculously folds up into the size of a quail egg, our clothes are big, made from heavy materials and can’t really be folded, scrunched or otherwise neatly stowed. It’s an issue, and makes packing for guys a little more complicated.

For as much as I like going carry-on only, there are some drawbacks. A few weeks after my China trip and my shoulder still ached from lugging my duffel bag around airports and hotels. I was able to go carry-on only, but only just barely I think. I love the duffel, but if you’re constantly on the move then something with wheels is easier to deal with. Also, there really is no room for error. I now pack for each day without anything extra. So if something comes up that is unexpected or if I spill something on my clothes, I’m left without much recourse. There’s no room for error and while I don’t usually need “just in case” clothes, sometimes I do and in those situations I’m not really sure what I’ll do.

Going carry-on only is something I had long wanted to accomplish as a traveler, but I just didn’t think I had the skill sets, or the wardrobe, to manage it. That changed when I was forced into this travel style as a function of my safari with Abercrombie & Kent. I didn’t have a choice, it was go light or not go at all and that’s what I needed. I needed to be forced into self-editing and it was only through this process that I was able to go carry-on only and as a result become a better traveler.

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By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer. Also follow Matt on Twitter, Facebook and

9 Responses

  1. Brian Eubanks

    I’m doing carry-on only for the first time on my next trip. It’s going to be 17 days long. I’m kind of nervous.

    Reply
  2. Lesley Fenton

    I’ve always been pretty good at keeping to the minimum. In my far gone youth I was an avid participant in wilderness canoeing and portaging was a quick cure for a desire to carry anything but the essentials.
    Forty years ago I lived and worked in the Northwest Territories of the Canadian North. Your comment about swimming in the Arctic Ocean made me smile. We camped on the shore of said ocean near Tuktoyuktuk and yes, we swam. Just for the bragging rights you know! I don’t think we bothered with suits.
    I am near seventy now and need to check some ” old lady” items that cannot be carried on. However even my checked luggage is minimalist and as light as I can make it.
    Good article!

    Reply
  3. Jean | Holy Smithereens

    Wow congratulations on the transition or at least venture into carry-on luggage only. I’m a heavy packer and the only times I travel carry on is on day-trips or weekend trips at the most. I think I’ll be similar to you – where I’ll have my carry-on only transition when I’m faced with a no-choice situation. My husband will probably pass out in disbelief then!

    Reply
  4. SC

    I think it’s harder if you’re doing outdoor trips that require a lot of gear/equipment and for travel bloggers too because they have extra tech (laptop, camera, tripod, etc).

    Reply
  5. Stephanie

    I’ve had the same issue for years with the carry-on dilemma! I’ve found that upgrading to a sturdy hiking backpack has eased some of the pain of (literally) carrying all your weight in your shoulders, but for shorter trips, I still prefer a carry-on sized suitcase that I can roll around (I can cram less things in a hard-sided case, but it’s so much easier on the body!)

    Reply
  6. Sfs

    Enjoy your articles..I am 67yo and have never checked luggage. You are right though..it is harder for a male due to just plain size. There are many new fabrics for men nowadays. Think microfiber. Take 1 travel blazer and u are ready for everything.

    Reply
  7. Tamara Elliott

    I love that A+K gives guests a bag, such a great (and helpful) gesture! I definitely struggle with overpacking too, but as you alluded to it seems like all my electronics are the problem. My camera equipment and laptop pretty much fill up my entire carry-on bag on their own!

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Yup, it’s a challenge no doubt. I had an electronics bag and then my clothes bag, combined it was all underweight!

      Reply
  8. Jo

    We are a one carry on bag family and have been for many years. I agree with you about the problems men face – particularly with respect to shoes. My husband generally packs socks and underwear into his shoes and packs them around the outside of his bag. He finds that he can fit everything in that way. The other space saver for men is to use a soft squashy camping toilet bag rather than a more rigid sided one – it saves stacks of space

    Reply

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