Ask Stacy: How Can You Go to Europe for 10 Days With Just a Carry-On?

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I mentioned in a recent article that my wife and I had traveled to Europe for nearly two weeks with only one carry-on each. This reader wants specifics on how we did it.

In a recent article called 21 Things You Should Never Pay For, I said the following when talking about getting free checked bags: “My wife and I went to Europe for 10 days with just one carry-on each. If we can do it, so can you.”

That line prompted the following note from Julie in Lafayette, LA:

Loved your article 21 Things You Should Never Pay For and have subscribed to your newsletter, thanks!  One question… did you do an article on how to travel for 10 days with just a carry on? I would love to read that too.

I responded to Julie that we hadn’t done such an article, but it was certainly a good idea. So here it is!

Is it possible to take long trips without checked baggage?

I stopped checking bags long before airlines started insulting their passengers by charging for it. The first time I went to Europe more than 30 years ago, I took only a backpack that fit in the overhead. I’ve taken something similar to South America, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, and back to Europe multiple times.

Here’s why I’ve avoided checked bags for decades:

  • I’ve had luggage lost on more than one occasion. Think business trips are stressful? Try meeting an important prospect in the clothes you were wearing yesterday.
  • Claiming luggage adds to the stress of travel. It takes time and requires fighting a crowd. I’d rather be heading for the rental car counter while my fellow passengers are elbowing each other at the carousel.
  • The more luggage you have, the more hassle and expense you have. Hassle because you have to drag it around and expense because when you check into a hotel, you have to tip the people who drag it around for you.

I’m not saying I never check a bag. When you travel to shoot a TV news story – something I’ve done quite a bit – there’s so much stuff you need, you almost have to check a bag. If I’m going on a long business trip requiring a variety of business suits – something I never do anymore – it’s tough with just a carry-on. But I can honestly say I’ve checked very few bags over the last 30-plus years.

How to travel without checking a bag

1. Get the biggest possible carry-on.  There’s no reason to pack lighter than necessary. When you’re shopping for luggage, go for the max: 22 inches long, 14 inches wide, and 9 inches deep. Overall dimensions (those three added together) can’t exceed 45 inches. Also make sure your “personal item” is roomy. When traveling long-distance, my wife puts her purse in a small backpack, and my computer bag is roomy enough to carry a few things in addition to my computer.

2. Start early. What many people do is pack at the last minute, cramming in everything “just in case,” then sorting it out when they get there. I get my carry-on out a day or two in advance and start carefully considering what I’ll need. Rule of thumb – if you think you might want it, leave it. If you know you’re going to need it, pack it.

I also keep a checklist on my iPhone so I know what to pack and don’t forget anything.

3. Sweat the small stuff. What’s the difference between a full-sized deodorant and a travel-sized version? Not much, but when you multiply it by all the stuff you’re carrying, it adds up. I use travel sizes of everything I bring, and I don’t always bring everything I have. For example, when it comes to stuff like shampoo, if the hotel is likely to have it, I leave mine at home.

4. Sweat the big stuff. The two categories of clothing that require the most room are coats and shoes. That’s why I keep them to a minimum.

If I’m going somewhere cold I wear a leather jacket onto the plane. When I arrive, I layer. Warm? T-shirt or short-sleeve shirt. Getting chilly? Undershirt underneath. Cold? Undershirt with long-sleeve shirt. Freezing? Add the leather coat. Granted, this system won’t keep me toasty if the trip involves lots of outdoor activities, like skiing. But for most trips, it works.

As for shoes, I try to take one pair, maybe two if I’m going to need both casual and formal. And I make sure all clothing fits with whatever color shoes I bring. Which brings us to…

5. Think about what you’re packing.  Every shirt I pack will work with every pair of pants, and it will all work with whatever shoes and belt I bring. This is one reason why I like jeans and khakis: You really can’t go wrong. Casual clothing takes up a lot less space than suits, is more relaxing to wear and easier to mix and match.

I go to New York periodically for TV appearances, as well as meetings with partner websites. In the old days, both would have required a suit. These days, having a collar on your shirt is formal. I’ve done network interviews in jeans.

When you get home and unpack, take note of anything you didn’t use. Remove it from your list and don’t bring it next time.

6. Think about how to pack. My mother was a roller – she liked to roll up shirts and pants, claiming they took up less space and were less likely to get wrinkled.  I fold some things and roll others – I can fit a rolled-up pairs of boxer shorts in a shirt pocket. Find a system that works for you and stick to it. This is another reason to start early: Try different packing methods and see how compressed you can make your clothes.

7. Do laundry.  Pop quiz: You’re going to Europe for 10 days. How many days of clothes do you need? Answer: Five. That’s because halfway through your trip, you’re going to do laundry.

When you’re at home, washing your clothes is a hassle. When you’re in Europe, it’s an adventure. Of course, you could just turn it over to the hotel and have them do it, or turn your sink into a washing machine. But wherever you are, I’d encourage you to ask around and do what the locals do. It’s challenging, interesting, will provide a unique experience, and you never know who you might meet.

What about women?

It’s a safe bet that a lot of females reading this article are thinking, “Sure, easy for you to say. But from make-up to shoes, women simply require more stuff.”

I won’t argue the point. But I can say I’ve traveled internationally for trips of 10 days or more with women who brought only a carry-on. And if you do a search for “traveling with only a carry-on,” you’ll find articles written by women who routinely do it as well.

Got a money-related question you’d like answered?

Drop me a line! Just try to make sure your question would be of interest to our other readers – don’t ask for personal or super-specific advice. And if I don’t get to your question, promise not to hate me. I do my best, but I get a lot more questions than I have time to answer.

Stacy Johnson

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