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Erica Ho / Map Happy

How To Travel (and Pack Everything) With a Personal Item Only

I almost dumped a guy once upon discovering that he loved to check in luggage.1 

Traveling with a carry-on bag only is passé and basic. This is how to fit everything into a personal item, and how to travel like a boss. Packing for the faint of heart, this is not.

There are good reasons to do this. Not only are passengers able to avoid the ridiculous bag fees that budget airlines impose, but it also allows you to travel lighter, and feel freer. It forces you to reevaluate what is truly important in life, not in a metaphorical sense (that’s for your therapist), but in a physical sense.

More importantly, in order to pull off traveling with a personal item only, the trips need to be brief in nature. Quick weekends and three day trips are entirely possible to do, but a five day trip in early winter might be pushing it. (It is possible as demonstrated below, but let’s think of it as Advanced Packing 607.)

Here’s how we did away with a personal item only for a trip to Asheville, North Carolina for five days in chilly late October.

Picking the right personal item is half the battle.

This personal item can’t be any personal item. It’s got to be small enough to sneak on by, but large enough to carry a full suite of necessities.

In most cases, for the fairer sex, it’s got to look somewhat like a purse, unless you are a backpack kind of gal. Our preference is the Lo & Sons O.M.G and O.G. bag (which actually looks like a bag you’d take out on the town), but in this example, we use Away’s The Everywhere bag (because we’re reviewing it).

Men have slightly more briefcase- and duffel- like options, from Lo & Son’s Cambridge bag to Waterfield’s Atlas Executive Holdall (under review).

The Watefield Atlas Executive Holdall is expensive.

The main downside to picking out a specialized personal item is usually how expensive some of these bags can be. Though there are budget options available, some of these specialized bags can hover around the $200 mark, and further, easily surpass it. But if the technique of packing efficiently is mastered, think about all the countless roundtrip bag fees saved ($60 each time!).

Based on that math, the expense of a $200 bag is recouped in three to four trips. That’s three or four shitty weddings you have to travel to each time, and in the age of being 30+, easily doable in one year alone.

Ideally, the personal item should range from 18 to 25 liters in capacity. In personal experience, that’s usually the sweet spot for a bag that straddles the personal item and weekender line. Thirty and up liters are typically reserved for suitcases.

Backpacks are also great options, but tend to lack the compartmentalization preferred for traveling.

How the clothes are packed are key.

There is no room for beginner clothes folding mistakes here. At the bare minimum, it’s time to roll with those advanced packing techniques, literally and figuratively. You may choose to exit this article if you have no desire to bring those packing skills to the next level.

It really boils down to to techniques, primarily rolling clothes, and putting them inside a packing cube, even if a suitcase isn’t involved. I frequently use packing cubes all the time for all sorts of bags to keep things organized, so they can later be stacked upon like Jenga blocks.

Packing cubes are great for everything.

Item Type Count
Bras 3
Dresses 1
Gloves 1
Pants (normal, PJ pants, tights) 5
Shirts (normal, PJ shirts, long shirts, sweaters) 7
Socks 1
Underwear 5

How effective are packing cubes? So extremely effective that we wrote an entire article on their efficacy, and further broke down the number of clothing pieces that we were able to stuff in a single set.

Generally, it’s preferable to have packing cubes of different sizes to allot for different bag capacities. For North Carolina, we opted for a small and wide packing cube, roughly measuring 10 inches x 4.1 inches x 8.25 inches.

In terms of capacity, this meant clothes were relegated to 5.5 L of space out a 20 L bag. The contents of the cube are outline in the table on the right side. In a freak accident of nature, it actually ended up being the perfect amount of clothing. 

It’s worth quickly noting this doesn’t account for an additional sweater, scarf, and overcoat that made surviving 30°-40° F (roughly around 0° C) weather pretty bearable. Like the champs that we are, we wore this onto the plane to maximize space.

Again, clothes are generally the biggest packing variable but the base items almost always stay the same regardless of trip length. In that regard, the following objects were also packed into the bag.

  • Face scrub + mask
  • Makeup bag
  • Laptop + charger
  • Work documents, journal, pens, business cards
  • Kindle
  • Travel slippers
  • Tupperware, travel utensils, tea packets (underrated travel accessories!)
  • Umbrella

Leave the golden ticket items at home.

In our personal opinion, everyone is allowed to one “golden ticket item,” or a ridiculous impractical bulky item that has only one singular purpose (other than taking up space, its primary function). Exactly one, not two, or three, but one.

Examples include things like hairdryers, heels, angel cards, a turkey baster, or what else have you. In Advanced Packing 607, golden ticket items don’t come along.

In fact, it’s probably more notable to point out what we didn’t pack instead of what we did.

Here’s a quick list of omitted items.

  • Shoes (the only shoes worn on the entire trip were the ones we wore to the airport, which admittedly drove us mildly crazy)
  • Hairdryer (the hotel had it)
  • Towel (the hotel had it, but can be subbed with a travel towel easily)
  • DSLR (opted in favor of phone camera)
  • Shampoo & Conditioner (the hotel had it)
  • Phone charger (by complete accident, we would not omit it again)

Are there things that we missed?

In a perfect world, there would be unlimited carry-on and check-in everywhere. There are definitely  items that we would have packed, if we had been given a little bit more space, but these generally include items that make life a little bit easier on the road.

In that case, I would have preferred to take along a portable speaker, my favorite coffee mug–its spillproof!–and a few leisure items but considering a personal bag item trip is bound to be so short, it didn’t matter in the end.

1 footnote

  1. In my defense, that’s waiting an additional 20 minutes by the carousel for the rest of your life. I’m also a Sag.




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