One Bag Travel
I travel pretty often between vacations, conferences and our new Louisville office. I probably travel overnight at last once a month and longer trips happen multiple times a year. Over time, I’ve become
interested addicted to travel technology and packing efficiency.
When I started this article, I was flying back from two weeks in Italy where both my wife and I each had just one carry-on bag (more or less… we’ll get to that). This post isn’t about convincing you of the wonders of one bag travel. If you’re interested in why you might want to do this, I highly recommend you take a few minutes to go read a few of these. This post is about:
- What I took and why
- How I packed it
- How it went
- What I would have done differently
So if that’s interesting dear reader, please stick around. If not, here’s a video of baby sloths.
Planning Your Clothing
A traditional packing list is really a list of outfits: “We have X days and so I’ll need X + 2 outfits”. We were leaving for 15 days, so I would probably include 17-19 outfits. The extra outfits would account for more dressy dinners, or more casual outfits (read: shorts) for sightseeing. You might even pack one really nice outfit if you go to a theater or something.
This is a TON of clothing, and there’s no way this will work with carry-on only travel for anyone larger than a child. I’m significantly larger than a child. My clothes are bulky. Even if I plan a laundry day (every city has laundromats), I’d still be talking probably 9-10 outfits. Airline overhead bins are only so big.
My packing list for this trip is very different. First, I only planned on taking a small handful of each type of item: 2-3 pairs of pants, 4-6 shirts, etc. I’d plan on mixing-and-matching my items to give me some variety. Even more important (and this may be a total deal breaker for you): I’d plan on washing my clothes every single day.
I’d plan on washing my clothes every single day
This has some implications. I’d have to set aside a small amount of time every night to hand wash whatever needed it. I’d have to live with the fact that my wardrobe wasn’t going to have a ton of variety. I’d also have to pack some detergent and a clothesline. We were staying in 3 cities during this trip so there would be three days (the nights before really) I couldn’t wash things, but otherwise I’d do so every day.
Most importantly, all of my clothes need to be able to dry overnight. Implicitly, this meant taking next to no cotton, and mostly thin and lightweight items. Thankfully, I’m a big guy and am WAY more likely to overheat than be cold, so thin cloths are what I want anyway. Cotton is the enemy here. Good quality synthetics that breathe and are treated for oder resistance (this is important… crap polyester gets stinky) and merino wool are ideal. Cotton blends may be ok.
Yes, I said wool when talking about lightweight clothing to stay cool. I’m not kidding. merino wool is insane (and insanely expensive). I suggest going here to learn more. I took wool underwear, athletic socks and crew socks from Icebreaker and SmartWool. I’m on my way to replacing all of my cotton socks.
Travel Specific Clothing
I wear many of my merino items year round because they are so awesome, but I’ve gotten to the point where I own other travel specific items as well. I’ll be writing up specific reviews for many of these but until then, here are some highlights:
- prAna Bridger Jeans - I bought a pair of these at REI on a whim once because they were super comfortable. They’re also a poly/cotton blend that just about dries overnight. Sadly, they don’t have zipper pockets.
- Bluffworks Chinos - I just bought these for this trip and they are amazing. They’re very comfortable, dry in about 6 hours after a hand wash, and have 3 hidden pockets which are great for stuff you don’t want to get pick pocketed. Like reviews elsewhere state, I do wish the pockets were deeper.
- Rohan Fenland Shirt - I just bought this as well. It’s a nice button down with a hidden zipper pocket on the chest. I’m in full agreement with Snarky Nomad about wanting travel clothes that don’t look like travel clothes.
- Haines Undershirts - I lucked into a pack of these at Target. Who knew they made undershirts that weren’t cotton? These dry overnight quite well. The only ones they list on their site have cotton, but the ones I found were Rayon/Polyester.
- Uniqlo Airism Undershirt - This was a test purchase and I loved it. It dried in a matter of hours. I probably could have gotten by with just this one undershirt and wore it every day.
- Patagonia Shorts I bought these at a cool store called MEC in Winnipeg. It’s like REI but Canadian. They dry really fast and like most technical clothes, pack really slim.
The First List
Packing It All Up
If you are only going to use a carry-on, you have to make sure it actually qualifies as a carry-on. For US airlines, this generally means a 40-45L bag. Regional jets (which I always have to take from CMH to a real airport) often won’t even fit those, so you may have to gate check until you get a hub.
This bag needs to hold your clothes, toiletries and gadgets while being easy to carry or haul around. Both from a capacity standpoint and from a portability standpoint, I prefer backpacks to roller bags for a couple of reasons:
- Roller bags sacrifice some part of their capacity to structural items (my estimate is that this is often 15-25%).
- A bag you pull behind you is much less convenient for moving around crowded train stations or buses than one you wear.
I now own three different full size carry-on travel backpacks: an eBags TLS Mother Lode Weekender Convertible, an Osprey Farpoint 40, and a Tom Bihn Aviator 45. I just bought the Tom Bihn for this trip and absolutely love it, but I’ll save that review for another time.
Next, you need to figure out how to pack the items inside of your luggage. I’ve experimented with bundle packing, packing folders, packing cubes, rolling, etc. I’ve found that packing folders are generally too bulky (although I like them for overnight business trips) and that bundle packing and rolling is too messy and annoying. I’ve settled on packing cubes to help compress my items but also keep them organized while in transit and once in a hotel or apartment. I ended up taking a few of the eBags slim cubes and one larger one of these.
Laying Everything Out
It’s now time to lay out everything you want to take with the bags/cubes/etc you want to pack it all in.
Then it’s time to start removing items. I’ve done this enough times that I can pretty well eyeball what will and won’t fit in my luggage now, but sometimes I still do a test pack. My goal is to get everything in my luggage while still having 5-10% of the capacity left over. I shouldn’t have to compress the heck of out everything to close the bag. I’ll cull things from my list until I get there.
In this case, I think I only removed the portable speaker, thinking we wouldn’t really use it. I didn’t miss it.
Packing the Bag
One thing most travel reviews don’t cover is how to actually fit all the stuff in the cubes and luggage you have. I won’t go into every single detail, but here’s my general strategy. I put together packing cubes by types of clothing. For t-shirts/undershirts, I quick fold and then roll them up. I fit all of these rolled shirts next to each other in a cube.
For colored shirts, I fold them a little neater and stack them a bit more gently in their own cube. I do the same for jeans.
I pack another cube full of odds and ends including the clothesline, power adapter, cables, etc. I then start placing these cubes inside the center area of my luggage. I use a layer on top and bottom to pad my delicate electronics (in this case an old Surface Pro 1). My toiletries go into a pouch that I shove into the remaining space. There is enough space around the edges and corners to tuck in any last-minute items. This includes a couple of packable bags: a duffel bag for hauling purchases back with us (I use it as my personal item on the way back) and a backpack for day trips.
My extra pair of shoes (stuffed full of socks) goes in one end of the luggage. My airplane entertainment bag with my battery backup, DS, snacks, etc goes in the other. I also put my liquids bag here for ease of access.
I also attach little locks to all the zippers to make it a little inconvenient for someone to try to unzip them on a crowded bus to get something out, and to help keep the cleaning staff at hotels honest. We’ve had things stolen before so it doesn’t hurt to add a little extra security.
And that’s it. I don’t carry a personal item or anything else. When I hop on the plane, I pull my entertainment pouch out and stick it under the seat and put the bag in the overhead bin. When deplaning, I reverse the process.
How Did It Go?
This is the first trip where I’ve intentionally recorded what got warn, what didn’t, and what I wish I had packed. In general, I packed more than I needed (everyone does) but I did miss a couple of items. Fortunately, Italy has stores and the travel saying of “Pack half as much stuff and twice as much cash” works in a pinch.
As is our tradition, we went to a local soccer game and bought some jerseys as souvenirs. We picked up a few other items on the trip as well. On the way back, I dumped my jacket, some clothes and my entertainment stuff in a collapsible duffel and used it as my carry on. So for the last day only, I had to carry something in my hands. Not too shabby.
There were a number of clothing items I didn’t wear at all. These include:
- My second set of prAna jeans. These were completely unnecessary.
- Flip flops were a waste of space. I never even unpacked them.
- My 3rd undershirt. I honestly could have gotten by with the Airism every day because it dried so fast, but a spare isn’t bad.
- My backup cotton socks. I took a higher cut pair of socks in case either of my shoes started irritating my ankles while wearing no-show socks. This didn’t happen.
- My 2nd t-shirt. I found myself much more comfortable in button downs in Italy and only wore a t-shirt a few times. One would have been enough.
- My 4th pair of underwear. I could have probably gotten by with 2, but the 3rd pair was handy one time when I didn’t have time to wash/dry the others due to a transit day.
- The battery was total overkill for this trip. I never drained it past 60% and could have taken a lighter one.
I could have actually decreased the number of button down shirts I took as well, but I think I would have missed the variety. I really could have just had two that I alternated every day but that would have had a low WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor).
What I Missed
I really needed a layer that was heavier (and a little fancier) than just my button downs, but not as heavy as my full jacket. Before the trip, I went to REI looking for a technical 1/2 or 1/4 zip layer that would look nice over a collared shirt but didn’t have any luck. I ended up buying a cotton blazer from a GAP-like store in Rome that worked out well enough and was cheap (on sale). You don’t wash a blazer much anyway so cotton was fine there. I’ll still look for a technical jacket (like this perhaps) in the future.
Travel writers often talk about packing more layers and not heavy layers. I thought I had done a good job here, but now I see where I could improve.
I also wished for a less clunky plug adapter solution. The plug adapter I have is a universal one I bought at Target a few years back (like this one). It would work in Asia, Eastern Europe, etc, but I wasn’t going to any of those places. A smaller adapter that didn’t dangle precariously from the wall would have been nice. I would also have liked to have a USB adapter with more than two ports.
Finally, I probably didn’t need my Surface. I took it since it’s the smallest computing device I own, but I likely could have gotten by without it. If I ever buy an iPhone 6 Plus, I may just get a bluetooth keyboard.
Bonus thought: It might be possible to have a tailor add a hidden zipper to one of the prAna jeans pockets. This would make them perfect. I’ll have to find out how much that costs.
Is It Worth It?
So is the extra work (and cost for technical gear) worth it? I think so. We booked our own itinerary and took regional trains to get from place to place. Once in cities, we could just hop on buses and knew there would be enough space for our bags.
Knowing you have to fit anything you buy into your baggage helps limit purchases. Knowing you have to carry it helps even more. It’s easy to unpack and repack in every hotel too, so a trip with more than 3 locations would benefit even more.
So it’s worth it for me. I think my wife is convinced as well. I can’t say it’s right for everyone. I can say I’m wondering whether I can take an even smaller bag.