I Traveled Carry-On For One Month, Here’s What You Need.

Ditch your excess baggage, literally.

PHOTO Nadia Gerlach

Choosing to travel with a single carry-on bag frees your time, wallet, and mind from stresses that come with checked luggage, including airport lines, airline fees, and lost or stolen luggage. For over a month in Europe and Africa, I traveled with a single backpack. Here are your must-have travel essentials and how to travel with only a carry-on. After all, the only thing that should be fully loaded on any vacation is your itinerary.

1. A solid bag – with backpack straps…

A dependable bag is the cornerstone of carry-on travel. I’m in favor of backpacks–no wheels/handles frees up your hands to navigate any street or transport with ease, cobblestones be damned. I’m a huge fan of Minaal’s bags, sophisticated for business meetings, yet durable enough for the Sahara.  

2. …and your double-duty day pack.

You need a place for all the random little essentials. A smaller tote turns into a farmer’s market bag, nighttime purse, or easy-access airport catch-all. As airline rules differ, make sure your smaller bag can be folded and stored in your main pack, like this one from Lipault.

3. A deck of cards.

The easiest way to make friends on the road. Who knows the games you’ll learn or the friends you’ll meet!

4. Beauty products that go the extra mile.

I brought six toiletries in my carry-on: toothpaste, a 2-in-1 shampoo and conditioner bar, face oil cleanser, tinted moisturizer with SPF, waterproof mascara, and a creamy makeup stick. All have more than one function. If you miss the rest, buy abroad!

My two ride-or-dies? LUSH’s Godiva Bar – it shampoos, conditions, and perfumes for up to 80 washes (that’s the same as three bottles of liquid shampoo!). The all-in-one NARS’ The Multiple multipurpose makeup stick warms my eyes, cheeks, and lips with dewy, buildable color.

5. An old Altoid container.

Limit your jewelry and hair accessories to one old Altoid tin. It’s the perfect size to store in a pocket, and keeps easy-to-lose pieces safe.

6. Travel towel.

A small, extra absorbent towel covers a range of needs. On my last trip, my Aquis Lisse transformed from a makeshift picnic blanket to a shower towel at a not-so-cleanly AirBNB to an impromptu 70’s swing class gym towel.

7. A flexible wardrobe…

Face it: after 10 days, you’re going to have to do laundry regardless of your bag’s size. Stick to the minimum: interchangeable, basic layers in one color palette. A good rule of thumb on quantity: 2 pairs of shorts, 2 pairs of pants, 2 walking shoes (tennis shoes and walking sandals that can be dressed up for evening), 1 belt, 1 swimsuit, 4 pairs of socks, 5 pairs of underwear with bra (silk, lace, or micro-fiber dries quickest), 4-6 shirts, 1-2 skirts, 1 dress, 1 hat, 2 sets of PJ/activewear), and one rain jacket (like this one from Denmark-brand RAINS). Roll your clothes and use packing cubes to save more space (and save yourself from digging through your bag)

8. …that includes Anatomie Pants,

These are the best travel pants on the market. High-function meets high-fashion, Anatomie took me from a grueling Sintra hike to chic BA Hotel dinner in the same day. Lightweight, breathable fabric wicks sweat, dries fast, and packs tightly. I live in the insanely flattering Susan Skinny Ankle, and also own the Skyler. Bonus points if you pair with their luxe basics like the Isadora tank.

9. Lightweight scarves,

Scarves add a pop of color and a dash of French chic to any outfit. Tie as a head wrap when culture dictates modesty, and a shirt when it doesn’t. Stick with space-saving silk, nylon or micro-fiber fabrics.

10. Reversible swimsuits,

One swimsuit becomes two with a reversible print. Shoot for non-underwire styles, as they don’t fold as easily. Maaji’s vi brant Colombian prints stand out anywhere (like above in Portugal).

11. And a collapsible hat.

A sure way to ruin a trip? Sunburn. A collapsible hat with UPF 50+ protects your face, and folds neatly. I’m a big fan of California natives The San Diego Hat Co. (They even launched during a trip to Bali in 1993!)

12. A Converter for electronics…

A universal travel adapter is a good bet for plug-in items, offering various prong configurations to use with plugs found in different countries.

13. …and a Notebook and Pen to turn them off.

My notebook shifts from organizer, itinerary, checklist, to communication aid. Above all, it brims over with experiences from past adventures, and is my most treasured souvenir. Invest in a hardbound journal to last a lifetime, like the cult classic Moleskine.

14. Three non-negotiable apps: Kindle, Google Maps, and What’s App.

Frequently, I find myself lacking cell service, a paper map, or a Wifi connection–or sometimes all three at once. As soon as I get to a new city, I download Google Maps offline area to always have a map on my phone. What’s App lets me talk to anyone, anywhere, no matter the country. Amazon’s Kindle app stores books and travel guides on the go, for entertainment and emergency resources.

15. Colorful Passport Case.

Stop digging through your bag at security and lengthen your passport’s lifetime by investing in a nice passport cover.

16. Melatonin.

On flights, I try to sleep as much as possible, but avoid Ambien as it makes me groggy when I hit the ground. Depending on the country, supplements are expensive. Pick up all-natural, non habit-forming melatonin before you take off.

17. Nausea bands.

Sea Band Wristbands use acupressure points to alleviate symptoms of sea sickness and nausea. The perfect remedy for windy roads, turbulent flights, and that Alaskan fishing cruise you had to go on.

18. Patience and a good sense of humor.

Embrace flexibility and uncertainty. You don’t always know what’s going to happen, and you just have to go with it. You never know what adventures you’ll discover by showing up with a good sense of humor and a smile.

Extra: If you need heels, try cork wedges.

If your itinerary requires a set of heels, pack cork wedges. My girlfriend’s wedding in France meant I needed to carry with me a pair of heels and a bridesmaid’s dress. Cork is naturally lightweight and oozes comfort, from walking uneven streets all day to dining on the Douro at night. Use my code “nadina394” at M*Gemi to score my heels, The Peonia, at $40 off.

What could you not live without for a month? Let me know in the comments.

Article written by Nadina Gerlach @nadina.la.

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