Gear and Tech

A Bag of Dirty Underpants: Carry-On-Only Travel for Business and Leisure


The internet is filled with posts and articles outlining how to travel lightly. So why am I writing another one? Simple–because everywhere I go, people still ask me how I do it, typically while wrangling their own oversized, overweight, about-to-be-checked suitcase (or three). People want to travel more lightly. They just don’t believe that they can. So today I’m here both to inform and inspire. Trust me. You can do this!

And because I am a hard-core realist, I’m being really, really real about this. Dirty underpants real. That is, I’m not showing you a perfectly packed, ready-to-hit-the-road bag. No. That would be easy and boring and, well, not gross. I’m showing you my actual bag, real-life style, upon returning home from a 15-day trip.

Here’s what happened before the series of photos below: I went on vacation in Miami and the Keys for nine nights, spent one night in Disney World, and five days at a conference for work. And then I came home, ate some soup, and took photos of the inside of my bags, post-trip.

My dog Morgan thought this was a rather strange exercise, and felt the need to participate. Because I know that the internet loves dogs–and because a 12-pound lhasa poo provides great size perspective–here’s a photo of Morgan-dog posing with my luggage:


Ok. So now you understand both the general size of my wheeled carry-on and my personal item backpack, right? And you also think Morgan-dog is very, very cute, right? Right. Let’s move on. The inside of my wheeled carry-on looked like this, post trip:


And yes, those are my feet. I feel they, like the dog, add perspective. Also they just happened to be in the shot and I’m lazy so I’m leaving them there. See? You can even be lazy and a light packer!

carryononlygraphicSo what do we learn from this first photo? Several things:

  1. I use packing cubes.
  2. My carry-on is a clamshell design, meaning you can pack in both sides.
  3. The clamshell design is made possible by straps on one side and a zippered divider on the other.
  4. Some things, like the sweater on the top and the plastic bag in the side, did not make it back into the packing cubes for the return.
  5. I did not get a pedicure before this trip.

If you take anything away from this post, please pay attention to lesson #1, above. Packing cubes. To make this work, you almost have to use packing cubes. Packing cubes are not optional. Say it with me now: I WILL BEGIN USING PACKING CUBES.

Honestly, it took me years to become a packing cube convert. I just couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that adding a smaller bag inside of a bigger bag would somehow save space. I was all like ‘how can ADDING something make packing LIGHTER possible?’ And the answer is: compression. Because here’s the big light packing secret:

When using packing cubes, you aren’t necessarily packing light. You are packing dense.

If you roll your clothing and squish it into a packing cube, you will be able to bring almost twice the amount of stuff in the same small bag as you would without the packing cubes. I’ll pause while chronic over-packers open another tab and order a set of packing cubes. Budget tip: you can often find them at discount stores like Marshalls and TJ Maxx.

Alright. You are sold on the packing cubes concept. Now. Let’s dive in to how to pack using packing cubes. When I’m traveling for multiple purposes, I use one cube for each purpose. For this trip, I packed casual clothing in the large cube, work clothing in the medium cube, and underthings in the small cube. However, when I return, the purposes of the cubes often changes. This is what my cube breakdown looked like for this trip:


There are several important things to note about this image. First, I somehow managed to come home with clean clothing. How did I do this? Through the magic of…DOING LAUNDRY! That’s my next best light packing secret: almost everywhere you go, doing laundry is an option. Most hotels have coin operated laundry rooms, and if they don’t, there’s typically a laundromat near by. Don’t want to spend the time watching your clothes spin? Many laundromats offer drop off service. For $11, I had all of my casual, vacation-wear washed in Key West, allowing me to wear some of it again during nights off at my conference. And I came home with clean clothing!

Another thing to note about this image is that I bought stuff. Three dresses to be exact, along with one sweater (which was necessary because I forgot that Florida loves its air conditioning). And even though I bought stuff, it still all fit back in my bag for the trip home. Magical!

The final thing to note is the number of pairs of shoes. One. There is one pair of shoes in this photo. There was another pair of shoes on my feet. Those are the only shoes I took. THIS IS CRUCIAL. A cursory Google search tells me that the average woman packs eight pairs of shoes when she flies. EIGHT PAIRS OF SHOES! WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH EIGHT PAIRS OF SHOES?!? I have never, not once, packed more than one extra pair. In colder climates, I wear boots on my feet on the plane and pack either a pair of nice flats or a pair of converse in my bag, depending upon the purpose of the trip. And nothing bad has every happened to me. I promise.

Ok. Let’s open those packing cubes.


There’s one major take-away here: notice that I rolled my dirty clothing just like it was non-dirty clothing. Because here’s the thing: if you pack properly to go on a trip, you must pack properly to come home. Or your suitcase won’t close. So roll your dirty clothing, don’t just mound it in there like you know you typically do.

So what’s in each of those cubes? I’m not going to create an item-by-item list and here’s why: because you are going to pack differently than I am. And that’s ok. I mean sure, there are general guidelines–take more tops than bottoms, dresses are good for women because they are only one piece, try to make sure all of your colors go together–but you have an existing wardrobe and must make it work for your own packing needs. And really, it’s not that complicated. Use packing cubes, roll your clothing, take fewer shoes, and consider doing laundry. That’s all you really need to know. Simple.

And speaking of simple, here’s another great reason to follow these packing guidelines–it makes coming home so much easier. Check it out:


Because I have clean clothing (thank you laundromat) and because I packed my dirty clothing in separate cube (thank you packing cubes), all I need to do upon returning home is throw the clothing from the dirty cube directly in the washer and hang up the clothing from the clean cube. Or, you know, put the clean cube on top of my dresser and continue living out of it for the next week because I’m lazy and hate to put away my clothing. Whatever.

Of course, whether on vacation or business, one cannot travel with clothing alone. Which is why I carry a TSA-friendly backpack which fits under the seat in front of me and counts as a personal item on all domestic and international flights (it’s an older model Timbuk2 bag that they don’t make anymore.) Here’s what lives in there:


It is again important to note that I came home with more stuff than I left with. Because sometimes you just need to buy a ridiculous hat, and sometimes you just need to bring home a coloring book for your mom. And if you are traveling for business, you will often acquire printed documents, though I try to keep these at a minimum by being as digital as possible–I record all notes in Evernote and honestly do not understand how business travel people live without it. Hashtag Evernote Forever.

So there you have it. Visual proof that it is easy and practical to travel carry-on only. Trust me, if I can do it, you can do it. So–are you going to try to do it? Let me know in the comments below! And remember, fewer bags equal greater adventures. Or, at the very least, fewer bags equal fewer checked bag fees and fewer lost bags. Happy traveling!

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