Can a full-grown man travel with only a carry-on?

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If I counted all the hours I’ve spent standing around airport luggage carousels waiting for my bag to finally appear, I’d probably end up with enough time for a week’s vacation. But those days may be over: as of this month, I’ve started travelling with a carry-on.

For the past few years I’ve noticed more and more people showing up at the airport with only one of those little knee-high rolling suitcases and a purse or day bag. Then they just carry all their gear onto the plane: no checked bag, no carousels, and no chance of lost luggage when your bag is in the bin above your head.  At first it looked funny, but a while ago, as I was dragging my ancient soft-sided bag through yet another airport line, it suddenly dawned on me that these people were right.

For one thing, checking and retrieving your luggage is a pain — hell, just finding the baggage area in some airports is a 10-minute search. Second, airlines are getting stingier about how much you can bring on board. Some charge $25 or more for even one checked bag, with steep fees if it`s overweight. Why not pack light, carry your luggage aboard and walk straight out of the airport when you arrive?

Looking at carry-ons

So a while ago, I started looking at luggage. I did a little research, and after comparing quite a few models, I was the proud owner of a 20-inch, hard-sided, Kenneth Cole Reaction carry-on spinner. Here it is, at right. It comes in a soft-sided version, A photo of a hard-sided "spinner" 20-inch carry-on suitcasetoo. Others make very similar cases, including Samsonite.

If you’re as uninitiated as I am, these cases are called spinners because unlike many bigger models, they have four wheels (or sets of wheels) that spin freely so you can move the bag in any direction, even when it’s standing upright. And 20 inches is the maximum size airlines will let you carry onto a plane, so this size is called a carry-on.

Soft-sided cases are more popular, according to the sales girl, because people like to put their travel documents in the outside pockets. But I travel with photo gear and electronics, so the idea of a hard case made my eyes light up. In a pinch, I could put a lens or some other equipment inside and it would have some protection, even if I checked the bag.

I also liked the fact that this bag is light, and it has both top and side handles so it can be carried like a regular suitcase when the ground gets rough. It also has corner bumpers to handle hard knocks, and the wheel units can be replaced if they wear out. And like most of the bags I saw, it carries a 10-year warranty — though the value of that is hard to judge until you actually try to collect.

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Still, one nagging question lingered: would all the stuff I pack for a decent-length trip fit inside this pint-sized case? I’d be carrying my shoulder bag, too, but that would still leave more than this thing looked able to hold.

Let’s try it out

There was only one way to find out. I carried my new carry-on home and decided to do a test pack. If it handled a full load of clothes and travel gear, it would stay. If not, it was going back. Here’s how it went:

As you can see, the bag has a pretty handy interior layout. There are several separate compartments and pouches for things like shoes and toiletries — and some others for mysterious purposes I still haven’t figured out. But with the case wide open, it looked bigger than I’d imagined: call it inner bigness.

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I usually put my pants on the bottom, so two pairs formed the base for the first side. I had to fold them in three rather than two, but that wasn’t a big problem.

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Add seven days’ worth of socks and underwear and the first side was comfortably full.

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The second, zippered side was for my upper half. I packed a sweater, five t-shirts, a polo shirt and two long-sleeved shirts. Everything fit, and I didn’t have to fold my shirts so many times they’d look like corduroy when they came out.

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Now for the shoes, which fit neatly into the supplied pouches. My toiletries went into the zippered, plasticized pouch on top. The other miscellaneous stuff I carry — granola bars, vitamins, electrical cords and chargers, etc. — slid into the cracks around my clothes, as usual.

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I was done! Would the case close? No problem. It snapped shut without summoning all my friends to come and sit on it. In fact, I could have put more stuff inside — my snorkel gear and sandals, for example — without any problem. After that, there was the expansion zipper, which would balloon the case another two inches.

I didn’t add a suit jacket to the mix, since I usually don’t travel with one. But a later try-out showed that one would fit comfortably if folded in two.

The verdict

So, there it is: a tiny-looking, 20-inch spinner will carry all the gear I usually take on even a fairly long trip, assuming that I’m carrying my camera gear in a shoulder bag. But nothing’s perfect — there are some worries.

One is the airport security gauntlet, with its restrictions on bringing sharp objects, liquids and gels onto the plane. But I don’t think that’s going to be a big problem. They’ve recently loosened the rules on things like nail clippers and small scissors: in fact, I carried my toiletry bag on board during a recent trip to Europe. However, I left my toothpaste and shampoo in my checked bag — and that’s another worry.

But that’s not such a big an obstacle, either. Toothpaste and shampoo come in 100-ml tubes or bottles, which are allowed on board. If you really need bigger ones, you can buy them at your destination (or use the hotel shampoo, like I do). Another strategy is to use toothpaste tablets, recommended by my colleague The Travelling Fool. As for things like bug spray, I’ll have to check that out.

Of course, toiletries are more of an issue for female travellers: if you’re attached to a particular shampoo, skin cream or such that doesn’t come in small bottles, you might have to get creative. And let’s face it, there are some people who will never leave home with anything smaller than one of those giant cargo cases that give baggage handlers back spasms.

For me, though, the spinner looks like the future of travel, at least if I’m going somewhere other than the jungle — for those trips, I’ll still be lugging my old nylon bag with the hidden backpack straps. But I’m looking forward to travelling with my carry-on: all I have to do now is book a trip and carry on.

(To see the results of my experiment, read about my first trip travelling with a carry-on suitcase.)

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

13 Comments

  1. Usefull post, Paul. My wife and I are big supporters of Zuca, the rather expensive but very good U.S.-made carry on luggage. Easy to handle, easy to pack, and — perhaps best of all — you can sit on them. Great for airport line-ups.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation, Loren. I know there are high-quality brands out there and I’m sure they’re worth the money. I wanted to stick to $100 or less and the case I bought seemed to do the job for a fair price — not sure if I can sit on it safely, though. Do you find that you can just scan your travel documents and go straight to the airport gate?
    PJM92 recently posted…Can a full-grown man travel with only a carry-on?My Profile

  3. Verrrry interrrresting, but in which pocket do I put my golf clubs? Ha Ha just kidding. sounds like an ideal way of travelling light. What will the airlines do when everyone starts to do this. No luggage in the cargo hold, no ballast. All the luggage up top the planes makes a top heavy plane and it will lean over to its side. OOps lopsided planes don’t fly very wall. I don’t think the airlines would like it if their planes got broken. Maybe that will encourage them to find a more efficient way to deal with baggage.

    • Golf clubs — THAT’s what that extra pocket is for. There are already a lot of people bringing their carry-ons onto the plane — in fact, I’ve wondered at some of the things they let people carry on. But when I see some of the giant hulks other people travel with, I don’t think that’s going to be a problem — they’re never going to get those in the overhead compartments.
      PJM92 recently posted…Why I cruise like a NorwegianMy Profile

  4. Pingback: Travelling with a carry-on: the verdict is in | The Travelling Boomer

  5. Traveling with carry-on luggage only is a must when you’re on a budget (like me) and traveling for a few days only.
    I never fold my clothes like I would when putting it in a wardrobe, but always roll them. Sounds weird maybe, but it saves lots of space. There’s also a system you can use in which you conveniently fold your pants, blouses and shirts into each other, making it into one, but small package. Hard to explain here, but there are (believe it or not) video tutorials online on how to do that.
    What you can also do when you decide to take an extra pair of shoes with you, is to simply put socks and underwear inside your shoes, leaving more space open for other things.
    My final tip is to buy empty, plastic bottles (or use old contact lens boxes or other empty cans) to put any creams or make up in you want to take with you, but which are in tubes which exceed the 100ml mark (think shower gel and shampoo). This saves you a lot of money, since buying these mini versions of shampoo and shower gel can be extremely expensive!
    That was it, additional tips from a traveling student 😉

    Maaike (www.travellousworld.com)
    Maaike (Travellous World) recently posted…Orange City (for the day) – a Photo EssayMy Profile

    • Thanks for the great tips, Maaike! These can be a big help to people who like to travel with lots of stuff but want to avoid checking their bags. I use the shoe-stuffing trick myself — that’s also good for stashing breakable stuff like camera lenses. I have my own method for folding clothes that I think saves more space than rolling them: one of these days I’ll do a post where I compare all these techniques.

    • Thanks for those tips, Maaike — all good ones. I actually have my own technique for folding clothes. I lay all my shirts one on top of the other, flat. Then I put socks across the middle and fold the whole stack over once, folding the sleeves across the top. That makes a package that fits well in a carry-on suitcase, and the socks prevent a crease forming where I folded them. To my mind, this saves space just as well as rolling them, and everything stays flat. I always stuff socks and things like my travel alarm clock inside the shoes — a great way to save space.

  6. Thanks for the great post and all the great ideas you guys. We try to carry on as much as possible. Sometimes we need more for longer trips or when we are carrying items back and forth. It definitely saves time. I l like the idea of rolling clothes together. Will have to try that the next time we travel. Again, thanks for the great ideas!

  7. IN answer to the question what will the airlines do when more people are just bringing carryon instead of checking bags….well, the airline will put size and weight restrictions on! So, I suspect that now, the bag you packed with two pants, shoes, shirts, etc, would be too heavy to take on – and at the very least, even if you could carry it on – there would be a charge for it now.

    • That’s certainly a possibility, Kim. However, even if they do start charging for our carry-on baggage, it will still be more convenient to fly carry-on. And no chance of the airline losing your bag …

  8. Hi Paul, good article. A single carry-on is all I’ve been using since I started solo traveling. Done several 18 day trips with it. I use a small Pac-Safe backpack. Their items have theft protection built in. Like steel webbing so someone can slice the bottom of the pack and nothing will drop out.

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