Travel tips: the essential carry-on only strategy


 Autumn 2016: five countries, three months, one carry-on


I couldn’t fit everything I’m bringing in a single photo, hence the slightly messy composite, but I could fit all of it in a single carry-on

I’ve written previously about my penchant for managing long trips in low income countries with only a carry-on, and I’m continually refining my methods for this.  Here’s my current list of essentials.  Some of the luggage in particular is rather expensive, but it’s always worth paying more up front if you can.  This travel strategy means that you’ll be using all of your bags and clothing more intensely than you likely would at home, and cheap items will wear out more quickly.


  • A waterproof duffel bag that’s slightly larger than standard carry-on size.  (Most airlines will let you get away with this as long as it still fits in the overhead bin.)  I have a slightly larger version of this Poler duffel which also converts into a backpack, and which has held up in nearly mint condition after two years of round-the-world travel
  • A waterproof backpack — essential for a day at the office or a weekend hike.  Current favorite is this daypack from Topo Designs, which is spacious without looking bulky
  • A waterproof, zippered shoulder bag for more formal meetings or trips to the market.  I’ve never found a better bag than the Longchamp Le Pliage, which is the perfect size for a laptop, capable of folding down to nearly nothing, machine washable, and overall quite durable.  My current version is four years old and still looks nearly new
  • A waterproof toiletry case — much better than trusting to easily-torn plastic bags.  If you’re passing through an airport which is strict about having liquids in a transparent plastic bag, like Heathrow, you can put your plastic bag inside the toiletry case and take it out for security.  Most of the other airports I’ve visited will accept a colored toiletry case at security
  • Drawstring bags for organizing shoes and small items of clothing, and a jewelry roll, which can also double as storage for pens, small electronics, extra SIM cards, etc.


  • My current strategy is to bring about five days’ worth of clothing, but do laundry as frequently as every two to three days in order to maintain a cushion of clean clothing.  (Particularly important if you’re drying clothing outdoors during the rainy season, when a single storm will undo a day’s worth of drying.)   I’ve previously written a bit about what type of clothing to bring
  • I find it easiest to wash small loads of laundry by hand when I’m doing it so frequently.  If you won’t be staying in a single place long enough to warrant buying laundry soap, bring along some travel soap sheets and stain remover
  • I’ve never liked carrying around sleep masks or neck pillows, so I’ve sorted out how to sleep comfortably on planes using only clothing that I was already planning to bring.  A key step is finding an outfit that’s comfortable to sleep in, like this great maxi dress from Athleta.  I pair this with a cardigan and sandals for easy removal at security, then switch into socks on board when the plane inevitably gets uncomfortably cold.  I also bring two lightweight pashmina scarves, then use one as a pillow and one as a blanket


  • Replace your liquid toiletries with their solid equivalents, like this shampoo, conditioner and perfume from Lush.  And don’t forget a pumice stone — essential foot care if you’ll be spending a lot of time walking around in dusty areas
  • Your travel pharmacy is probably overstocked.  You can get by perfectly well with hand sanitizer, band-aids, DEET-free insect repellant, ibuprofen, and the anti-malarial of your choice.  For my female readers, I would strongly recommend looking into an IUD as well.  It’s one of the most effective forms of birth control and will lighten or stop menstruation for many users, meaning up to 100% fewer tampons to pack (!)
  • If you, like me, can’t function without caffeine but also dislike Nescafé, you might try caffeine pills.  I was entirely hesitant about this, as I’d somehow got the impression that I would take one and then be miserably awake for the rest of my life, but they’re actually an excellent coffee substitute.  One 100 mg pill is the equivalent of approximately one cup of brewed coffee or a double espresso.  It’s a more compact solution than carrying around a travel French press


  • A lightweight tablet + keyboard setup is an increasingly good replacement for a laptop.  (For my research, I use this with Evernote to organize, tag and automatically back up my interview and reading notes.)  Just make sure get a waterproof case and a travel wall adapter if you’ll be switching voltages, as the small USB wall adapters that come with most tablets can’t handle voltage conversion
  • Bring the gym to your hotel room with a jump rope and some resistance bands.  I also carry my own helmet if I’m going to be cycling.  My indulgence for this trip is bringing my climbing kit in hopes of finding some new belay partners.  (Also on the note of helmets, consider bringing your own motorcycle helmet if you’ll be riding or driving)
  • Not directly related to the carry-on issue, but you might exchange your usual wallet for a wristlet or a front pocket wallet.  Both are less likely to get nicked out of your hand or pocket when you’re out and about

What else is on your travel must-have list?