The Carry-On Philosophy for Traveling Internationally

By Lloyd C | Updated April 12th, 2010

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carry on bag

Global travel is somewhat of a religion. But within this religion, there are many other ‘faiths’. One of these is the carry-on philosophy.
And as the name suggests, it’s a philosophy to travel the globe with nothing but carry-on luggage.
But why would anyone relinquish their airline-given rights to cart 20, 30, or even 40 kilograms of luggage through airport terminals and around the globe?

Firstly, ‘carry-on’ refers to luggage that airlines allow you to take into the cabin of a plane. The restrictions depend on the airline and airport, but the size and weight restrictions are becoming somewhat standardized (the emphasis being on the word ‘somewhat’). A consensus is that a safe size/weight is:

55cm (22in) x 35cm (14in) x 23cm (9in) and ~7kg

Some airlines have smaller/lighter restrictions, but if you don’t have checked baggage, they’re usually a little flexible. We traveled through Africa and the Middle East with carry-on bags of 10kg+ and didn’t have any issues when we said we had nothing to check in.

Okay, so why carry-on only?

1. Waiting

You don’t have to wait for baggage handlers after a flight, which seems like a non-issue at home, but it’s akin to winning the lottery after a 14-hour flight. You simply grab your bag from the overhead locker, exit the plane, and walk straight out of the airport (also see ‘agility’ below).

2. Reliability

You may think, ‘oh, airlines don’t lose luggage these days’. But they do, and it’s actually quite common on smaller airlines. We’ve heard estimates of a 1 in 7 chance of losing your luggage on certain smaller airlines. Of course, it’s close to impossible for them to lose your carry-on bag, which is especially important if you have irreplaceable items (E.g. mountaineering boots that you’ve spent 6 months wearing it).

3. Access

How many times have you thought, ‘darn, I left it in my checked-in bag’. When you carry everything into the cabin, you have immediate access to everything. You’ll have all of your books (Kindle or iPad), your laptop charger, all of your toiletries, and even your clothes.

4. Agility

Whether it’s in the terminal, on the plane, in a taxi, on the streets, in a hostel, through the jungle, or absolutely anywhere… a smaller, lighter bag is a godsend. Everything is easier and quicker. There’s a lot less to think about and you just feel free.

5. The Challenge

Everyone loves a challenge. And this challenge helps you to enjoy your time away even more. Have you ever heard anyone say, ‘I wish I brought more with me’? Probably not. But almost everyone has said at some time during their travels, ‘I wish I brought a lot less’. Even if you miss something, you can buy it anywhere in the world and probably for a lot less.

So what are the downsides of the carry-on-only philosophy?

You may forget something or need something that you couldn’t fit in. And it’s not always available locally, especially if you’re traveling to the Antarctic or similarly remote regions. Also, you may find that you enjoy your travels more with the luxuries of home. And that’s okay (don’t let anyone tell you-you’re less of a ‘traveler’ because of you like luxury). But given all of the potential benefits of traveling light, it’s at least worth a try.

Stay tuned for a write-up of our full kit-list, which fits entirely in a carry-on bag. We’d also love to hear of your adventures with carry-on only.