When I fly, I don’t check a bag. No matter how long the trip is. There are two reasons for this: I love flying budget airlines, where the checked bag fees are usually more than the flight itself; and I love the peace of mind that the airline can’t lose my bag. There are a lot of secondary bonuses too, like not having to go to baggage claim, having less bags to watch/deal with when moving from city to city and up and down stairs and in and out of trains and taxis. I find the less I pack, the happier I am.
A lot of people have asked me “how do you travel for months with only 2 small bags?” A combination of experience, creativity and a little sacrifice. As a photographer who works while traveling, I also bring with me tons of gear. If you don’t have to do that, you have even more room to work with! Without further ado, here are my bags, every item in them, and descriptions of/links to each item. I am not paid to endorse anything here, it’s all based on years of buying stuff and finding the best items that work for me.
The Best Carry-On Luggage
I’ve been through about 10 bags in my travels over the past 15 years. Not because they wore out (although some of them did) but because most bags aren’t great. My Jeep and JanSport duffle bags only lasted about 2 trips each. My most expensive camera bag got stolen, because it looked like an expensive camera bag. My prettiest/nicest looking bag was the least functional. My favorite camera backpack is too big to take on RyanAir (budget European Airline) as a “personal item” even though it counts as one with most US-based airlines. So here are the bags I think are perfect for my upcoming trip (2 months in Europe). They are both carry-ons under the strictest airline rules*, so I don’t have to worry about checking either one.
This bag is amazing. It still looks almost brand new after at least 10 trips taken. The wheels have been through the wringer and are still in great shape. Without anything in it the bag is only 7lbs, which is very important when considering carry-on weight restrictions. This seems to be about the average for light carry-on size luggage. I’ve been very happy with this bag.
Prior to this trip I was able to get away with bringing a behemoth camera backpack on as my “personal item” on all flights, even though it barely fit under the seat in front of me. Now that I’m looking forward to 5 flights on RyanAir on my upcoming trip, I knew I couldn’t bring “the beast” (Lowepro ProTactic 450) with me and had to find a tiny little backpack as my personal item, since RyanAir has extremely tight restrictions for carry-on luggage. *Even though this bag is still slightly larger than their allowed personal item size, it’s scrunchable and it’s the smallest laptop-carrying backpack I could find. So here’s to hoping this tiny backpack is small enough for RyanAir’s specifications. I haven’t done a proper field test with it yet – but so far, so good. It comfortably fits all my essentials and feels very light on my back, and has tons of fun compartments including a great hiding spot for cash and passports. It has the capability to attach to a roller bag, which is an excellent feature to take strain off your back/shoulders occasionally. It also looks really nice, but the plain black doesn’t make it stand out and makes it a target for theft, so I made sure to put a few pretty ribbons on it 🙂
Another thing I like about this bag is it’s interior clip. On it I’ve clipped a PacSafe slash-proof strap that I’ve attached to my wallet, to prevent pickpocketing and grab-and-run wallet theft.
Even though it’s not a bag, I have to give a special shout out to my awesome Herschel wallet which I absolutely love. They make a lot of great travel accessories.
What’s in my backpack?
- Ray-Ban case, Target shades. Target shades don’t come with a nice case. Luckily, at one point I was the owner of a lovely pair of Ray-Bans that I no longer have, so my $14 Target sunglasses have a nice home.
- Apple MacBook Pro charger. Sans the longer extension portion. The extender is only for a US-based plug, so I leave it home when traveling abroad and bring the Apple plug adaptors that snap right into it.
- Apple MacBook Pro 2012. Love this thing. It’s needed a lot of care and love but she’s still hanging in there!
- Canon 5D Mark II. Still an incredible camera. I’m not seeing better images come out of anything that’s come out recently. Still waiting for a camera that’s actually a vast improvement, but this thing never disappoints.
- Lexar CF card reader. Bulky but necessary to read those obnoxiously big CF cards.
- Canon 24-105mm 4.0. My go-to for 90% of my photos. Extremely versatile lens. Only drawback is the aperture, which is why I carry around a second lens…
- Canon 50mm 1.4. My lens for when the 24-105 doesn’t cut it light wise and depth-of-field wise. Much better in low light, for portraits, for small and close-up subjects, and to get a very shallow depth of field or bokeh effect.
- One extra Canon battery. A bulky battery pack is totally unnecessary when traveling. I find one battery lasts 2-4 days, and this is my backup in case I forget to charge the main one.
- Canon remote. Just in case I decide to do long-exposure shots, which is rare but I do love doing them!
- SanDisk CF card pouch with 4 high capacity CF cards.
- Canon battery charger.
- Felt pouch with 2 Western Digital Passport external hard drives inside + cables. Both are 2TB capacity and have pretty much every file I’ve created over the past 3 years on them. I have them backed up with drives at home and in the cloud via the amazing service Backblaze.
- Targus laptop lap desk. I’m always tempted to leave this home, but when I do I regret it. I do so much work sitting in hotel beds, and my laptop gets so hot when editing photos and videos I can’t even touch the bottom, so this is essential.
- Apple headphones. On prior trips I’ve brought my favorite headphones (Grado SR60e) but they are big and bulky and just not travel friendly at all as they are designed to be studio headphones (please, Grado, make better travel headphones). I typically hate earbud style phones, but until someone can make an extremely compact over-ear headphone that sounds incredible and is super comfortable, I’m just sticking to these even though I don’t like them.
- Lens and screen cleaning wipes. I am obsessed with keeping all my gear clean while traveling.
- Cleaning cloth. A must.
- Travel size screen cleaning spray, for when the wipes aren’t enough… ok… I may have a problem?
- Oyster card holder, to keep my Oyster card in (duh!) plus it’s handy for storing train tickets for other cities too. The Oyster card is London’s underground card and buying a new one costs $ on top of the fare cost, so I always hold on to mine for future trips, since I visit London a lot.
- PacSafe theft-proof strap/leash for wallet. This came with a PacSafe bag that I’m not using on this trip, but I took this off to use because I love it. You attach it to the inside of a bag and clip the other end to your wallet to make it virtually impossible for a pickpocket to steal it or for a thief to grab it out of your hand and run.
- Passport. Pretty important. This is my third, lets hope I hang on to this one for a while!
- Herschel Wallet. Already raved about this above.
- Third Man Records pen. Gotta have a cool pen. Pens come in handy, you’ll always need one at some point.
- Four combination TSA approved locks. One has a cable to wrap around a bag to secure it. I haven’t field tested any of these, but they are well-researched replacements for other locks that sucked, so here’s to hoping they are better!
- All my different adaptors! I need three different kinds for all the countries I’m going to. Two are Apple adaptors, and the rest are for my camera charger and my straightener which needs a heavy-duty grounded adaptor. In some countries I will need to rig it so I have two adaptors on one device. No idea if that’s safe, but I’ve done it with success many times! I never use the big power converter adaptors though, the last one I had almost caught fire. The only device I have that would need that would be my straightener, as the apple chargers have built-in power conversion. My work around with the straightener was to buy one from the UK, and that’s what I use in Europe. It’s already set to the European voltage so it doesn’t need a converter! Voila!
- Hand sanitizer, chapstick, Advil. Necessary evils.
What’s in my carry-on luggage?
From left to right, top to bottom:
- Toiletry bag. I’ve found it’s great to use something with straps in hostels, that can hold everything including your dry clothing. A lot of hostel bathrooms don’t have a good place to put stuff down as every surface is typically wet or dirty, so it’s best to find something to hang your bag off of. A little draw-string bag is perfect.
- Havaianas Flip-flops. A must in hot countries, like Morocco and Greece.
- Tiny causal but semi-formal looking purse, that could be used with any outfit if need be.
- Bathing suit (Target)
- White blazer. It makes any outfit look fancier and is super comfy and the material is very soft and folds down very compact.
- 6 pairs of socks, 6 pairs of undies
- Baseball cap
- 5 night shirts
- Billabong jacket. This is my go-to for when it’s chilly out but not cold. It’s just right for summer nights and pairs well with a light grey hooded sweater I’m also bringing (not pictured) for when more layers are needed (I am going to the Scottish Highlands).
- My European Straightener! I have crazy hair when it’s not straightened. It’s a thick poofy mane that won’t stay out of my face so this is a must for me. I can’t use my US one in Europe because it’s a different voltage and likes to catch fire, so I bought this one and it works like a dream over there.
- Scrunchie and belt. Scrunchies are the best. Hair ties can suck it.
- 7 day/night shirts. Some of these shirts are super comfy and can double as night shirts on days where I don’t really need to change for bed, prolonging the laundry cycle.
- Long sleeve light shirt (to limit sun exposure in Morocco and Greece). I love wearing super light long-sleeve shirts in hot places, the right one can actually keep you cooler and protect you from the sun and having to reapply sunscreen every couple hours.
- Cropped jeans/shorts. These cropped jeans are actually a pair of old jeans I cut off above the knee myself, and I love them. They are my go-to shorts. I used to have a fancy pair of light-weight travel capris, and I hate them and went back to wearing these. Sure, they don’t dry very fast, but I love them anyway.
- 2 Pajama pants! Because I can’t live without pajama pants.
- 2 tank tops. One is a plain grey tank top for casual days, one is a super fancy one from AllSaints that’s good for dressier occasions, especially ones outdoors in the heat!
- 2 Nice jean pants/jeggings (from H&M). These brownish-colored pants go with everything and are super comfy and can also pass for being semi-dressy if I wear a nice top, since they don’t really look like jeans but give off more of a proper pants vibe. I have another pair I’m also bringing that is dark brown, almost black. They also breathe very well, so they are still comfortable even if it’s a bit hot out.
Left to right, top to bottom:
- Little canvas bag for the makeup, in case it breaks so it won’t spill all over everything else.
- Shampoo & Conditioner packets, in case I run out and need a little extra until I buy more
- Tom’s toothpaste. This size is actually too big, they may not let it through security, but I can’t find a travel size for Tom’s…
- Allergy/congestion medicine. After a midnight trip to a pharmacy once to get this in Prague, I realized I should keep a little on hand in case of emergency.
- Extra razor cartridge
- Little blunt-edge scissors
- Flamingo bag (Target)
- Gillette Fusion ProGlide Razor
- Folding travel toothbrush
- Shampoo, conditioner and body wash in squeezy travel bottles (Target)
- Bhodi Basics natural deodorant
- Dry shampoo
- Natural shade eyeshadow
- Travel size sunscreen
- Wet wipe (I need more of these!)
- Breathe-right strips for when I’m in hostels so I don’t snore
- Eyelash curler
- Blue mascara
- Earplugs, for hostels
- Washy gloves
- Covergirl foundation powder
- Harmonica necklace (the only jewelry I bring as it costs $5 and looks good with anything). Wearing any fancy jewelry at all makes you a target for thieves and increases risk of loss.
- Tweezers, nail clippers
- A few flossing sachets
- A few bandaids
- 2 Bras, because that would be awkward. Victoria’s Secret all the way.
- Women’s products. Also a little too awkward to include in photo. I usually bring 2-3 weeks worth and then re-stock.
- Allergen blocking pillow case. This thing is awesome for allergy sufferers like me, plus has the awesome bonus feature of making sure your head is resting on a clean surface every night, which can be questionable if you couchsurf and hostel hop like me.
- Small linen travel towel. Linen is apparently the way to go since it dries fast and is more odor-resistant than microfiber and cotton.
- Tiny travel umbrella. Ireland. Scotland. England. I’m looking at you and all your rain. It’s because of you that I need this.
- Tiny poncho. To cover my body and my backpack if caught in an unexpected downpour, which I’m sure will happen somewhere in the UK.
- Dress and dress shoes (flats).
- Running shoes. These don’t fit in my bags, so I always have to wear them on the plane.
- Vitamins. I bring about a 3 week supply of multivitamins, and try to restock with a small bottle when I can.
How is that possible?
Some of you might read this and be all “wait, what?” confused about the lack of certain items, the inclusion of others, and the amounts of certain items (only 7 day shirts for 2 months, etc). And some of you have already figured it out. But for those of you who are still confused, I’ll break it down for you:
- Laundry services. Laundry services are abundant in most countries. You can easily find a place to either do your laundry yourself or have someone do it for you. And it’s usually pretty cheap too. I’ve found that a week is a perfect amount of time to go without needing to do laundry.
- Whatever you don’t have, you can buy there! Missed laundry day and need a shirt? Go find a clothing store and buy a shirt. Wow, that was hard. Got a boo-boo and need some first aid stuff? Go to a pharmacy, buy a little kit. Donate it to another traveler or a hostel or hotel when you’re done with it.
- You don’t need everything you use frequently at home. A common impulse when traveling is to assume you need to bring everything you frequently use at home, thinking you cannot possibly adjust to life without it on the road. Your full makeup kit, at least 4 pairs of shoes, a wider variance and array of clothing, a full first aid kit, journals and books, etc… you’ll be amazed at how quickly you can adjust to less stuff. And if you find you really can’t live without something after giving it a week or two, buy it on the road and dump it before the end of the trip, or ship it home.
A question I get asked sometimes is why I don’t use a “backpacking” pack. I’m very susceptible to back pain, and it gets much worse when I carry heavy loads (backpacks) on my back. Very few are made small enough to be a carry-on, and then they are usually too small. I greatly prefer the combo of a roller bag and a small backpack. Obviously this has its shortcomings when you must hike with your bags. I’ve only had to do that twice with this combo (Costa Rica and Thailand) and that was only for short distances. If I ever go on a backpacking adventure that includes lots of hiking, I would use a pack. If you’re mostly staying in cities with sidewalks and streets, I think a roller bag is 100% the way to go.