How to Travel Carry-On Only: Understanding Airline Size and Weight Restrictions

This page may contain affiliate links. Please read our disclosure for more info.

When you travel with just carry-on luggage you avoid airline luggage fees, the risk of having your bags lost, and long waits at the baggage carousel on arrival. To make sure you can take your bag on the plane you need to be familiar with airline restrictions as only bags of a certain size and weight are allowed.

There’s been some concern lately about the IATA Cabin OK proposal that recommends a smaller hand luggage size than most airlines currently allow. This was only a recommendation not a mandate and they have now paused the initiative, so we shouldn’t see any major changes to current carry-on policies.

Size

The most commonly allowed size of carry-on luggage is 56 x 36 x 23 cm (22 x 14 x 9 inches) including all handles, side pockets, and wheels. This varies by airline with some allowing slightly larger or smaller bags, so check with the airline you plan to travel with.

Airlines have luggage sizers at the gate and while boarding the plane they could ask you to place your bag inside. If it doesn’t fit you could be forced to check the bag in the luggage hold (and some airlines charge fees for this). In practice, we’ve found that most airlines aren’t too strict about the exact size of your carry-on. In over five years we’ve never had our bags measured, although Simon’s Tortuga backpack is a few centimetres over the size restrictions of some airlines like Ryanair.

To be sure it’s best to choose luggage that fits the restrictions of the airlines you’ll be travelling on. If you’ll be travelling with a backpack look for one in the range of 30 to 45 litres, but do check the dimensions as well, and be aware of how overpacking can make the backpack expand over the stated measurements. We recommend the Tortuga Outbreaker backpack if you’re looking for the maximum carry on size or the Osprey Farpoint 40 (which I use) for something a bit smaller. We have written a detailed review of these carry-on backpacks.

It’s best to try to board the plane as early as possible as space in the overhead bins can run out, and some budget airlines (like Ryanair and Easyjet) don’t guarantee that there will be space for your hand luggage even if you meet the restrictions. We’ve never had an issue with this but if you are worried you might want to pay extra for priority boarding, which many budget airlines offer.

How to travel carry on only - us with our carry on backpacks on the way to Finland

Us on our way to Finland with our carry-on backpacks

Weight

Hand luggage usually has a weight restriction from 5 kg to 12 kg, with most airlines in Asia and Australia limiting it to 7 kg. This is a big concern for many people, as by the time you’ve added up the weight of your bag, a laptop, and a camera, it doesn’t leave much for other things.

The weight of our backpacks vary but mine is usually 8 to 9 kg and Simon’s is 9 to 11 kg, so we are over the limits for many airlines we fly. But in over five years our carry-ons have never been weighed so it hasn’t been a problem. We aim not to draw attention to ourselves—if the bag doesn’t look big and heavy then the airline is less likely to weigh it. It helps that we carry a backpack rather than a suitcase which are more conspicuous and look heavier. Backpacks also tend to use up less of your weight limit than heavier suitcases.

There are a few things you can do to help reduce the weight of your luggage and avoid getting it weighed at the airport:

Check in online – Print your boarding pass in advance (we use internet cafes or save it on our phone if the airline allows it) so you can avoid the check-in desk and go straight to security. The check-in desk is where your bag is most likely to be weighed.

Use your personal item – If you have to use the check-in desk and the airline allows an extra personal item (see below for details) remove something heavy from your bag like a laptop, camera, or packing cube while you are checking in. You can always put it back in your bag afterwards. You could also do this if you get weighed at the gate—there’s no need to check your luggage if you haven’t maximised your personal item allowance. Most airlines don’t include your personal item in the weight limit but a few do so always check before you fly.

Wear it – Wear your heaviest clothes and shoes on the plane—we did this for a ski trip to Finland. If it’s too warm to wear your jumper or jacket carry it or tie it around your waist rather than pack it.

Compress – Be careful how you pack your bag so it doesn’t look too bulky. Use packing cubes or compression bags to reduce the size of your clothes and compress the straps on the outside of your backpack to make it smaller. If it doesn’t look big the airline is less likely to weigh it.

One bag – If you travel with just one bag you’ll be less conspicuous—the aim is not to draw attention to yourself. The airline is more likely to weigh the bags of people who look loaded down with luggage.

Fill your pockets – If the airline is really strict you could fill your pockets with some of your heavier items—cargo pants or a jacket with pockets would be ideal. We’ve never had to do this but Benny Lewis managed to carry on 15 kg of gear in his jacket!

The worst case scenario is that your bag gets weighed and you’re forced to check it in. Have a backup plan for this scenario—Simon says he’ll take out his packing cube of clothes and check that (although I’m not sure that will work in practice). Or we might have to carry our laptops onto the plane and check the bags, or rearrange our stuff to check in one of our bags and carry on the other. Luckily we’ve never been in this situation.

Don’t let the weight issue stop you travelling with a carry-on. Try to keep the weight down, apply some of the above tips, and remember that if you do end up having to check it in, it’s unlikely to happen on every flight, and it’s still better than checking your luggage all the time.

Note: One airline that does regularly weigh hand luggage at the gate is Jetstar in Australia and Asia. They only allow 7 kg combined weight for your cabin bag and personal item, and will charge you AUD $50-160 to check in over the limit bags at the gate. We travelled with them on a domestic flight in Vietnam without a problem though. 

Best carry-on backpack for digital nomads;: The Osprey Farpoint 40 and the Tortuga backpack review

Our backpacks: The Osprey Farpoint 40 and the Tortuga

Personal Item

Most airlines allow one piece of carry-on luggage plus an additional personal item which must fit under the seat in front of you. Some airlines allow any small bag including a backpack, handbag, laptop case, or shoulder bag, while others only allow a small purse or handbag. Check with the airline you’ll be travelling with for the size and weight restrictions on personal items.

Not all airlines allow personal items, especially low-cost airlines, so I think it’s best to manage without a second bag. Our day bag is a packable backpack that we pack inside Simon’s backpack when needed, and can take out when a personal item is allowed—it’s often convenient to have a bag under the seat for items we need on the plane. A tote bag is another option.

In addition to your carry-on and personal item some airlines allow extra articles such as a jacket, umbrella, small bag of food, and bag of duty-free items. Check with the airline as allowances vary. If weight is a concern carry rather than pack these things.

Resources for Travelling Carry-On Only

If you’d like to learn more about how to travel carry-on only, see my book, The Carry-On Traveller: The Ultimate Guide to Packing Light, which is available for Kindle or paperback on Amazon US, Amazon UK or your local Amazon store.

You can also see our other posts about packing light:

SaveSaveSaveSave

Are you planning your travels for 2018? See our Travel Resources page for our favourite tools and gear to help you plan the perfect trip. 

  • Share:

Enter your email to sign up for our monthly newsletter and free ebook South America Highlights.

12 Comments (1 pingbacks)

  1. Question: when you reach your destination and want to head to a workspace or the beach, do you re-use your carry-on bags? or do you carry smaller backpacks as “day packs”? I find the carry-on bags so big and bulky for daily use, they don’t look cool

    Reply

    • We have a cotton shoulder bag that packs away inside Simon’s backpack on travel days. If we need something a more robust bag for a long hike or both our laptops, we use my Osprey backpack. There are plenty of packable backpacks that you can use as a day bag, like this one from Sea to Summit: http://amzn.to/1Uam7SF .

      Reply

  2. Whatever I do I just can’t make that carry on size for my upcoming 15 month trip. I think if I was just going to a summer climate or just going to a winter climate I could swing it- but having to pack for both makes it extremely difficult.

    I have the 52L Osprey Farpoint (I’m the women’s size) and it is seriously just borderline carry on. It’s frustrating because I just can’t trim that little bit of extra space I need for everything. Oh well I still get most of the benefits of packing light (no crappy back or having to be married to your luggage), just not the full benefits of being able to go carry on.

    Reply

  3. Thank you for this. My husband and I are about to finish the first leg of our trip around the world. We have been driving across Mexico. We will be heading to Europe without a car. Because we have had the car, we have been carrying a lot more than we want/can when we switch gears.

    Your article is helpful. I have an Osprey Porter 46 and would love to be able to carry everything in one bag plus a handbag for my wallet, passport, etc. How do you deal with clothing for both hot and cold climates? We are photographers, so perhaps trying to do everything in a carry on is a fantasy. I have a DSLR and three lenses, plus laptop, hard drives, power cables, etc. To go in my bag, plus clothes. I have packing compression bags for my clothes, which are a great help, but I am trying to wrap my head around carrying winter and warm weather clothes at the same time.

    Also, how do you deal with restocking toiletries? Finding travel sizes isn’t as easy as in the US. So we have gone to buying full-sized bottles of shampoo, deoderants, etc. But those sizes aren’t possible with carry on luggage and airline security restrictions.

    Thank you.

    Reply

  4. Yep you are definitely right about Jetstar in Australia being strict. It’s not worth risking it if your bag weighs more than 7kg because it costs a lot more to check it at the gate rather than online in advance. Tiger Air in Australia are the same

    Reply

    • It does sound like the one airline we wouldn’t risk it. Why are Australian airlines so strict about this? Most American airlines don’t even have a weight limit.

      Reply

    • Emirates is strict as well. They only allow 1 bag in the cabin with a max weight of 7kg. No second bag (handbag) allowed. If I had realized I wouldn’t have booked our return trip with them. No biggie since it’s a return flight with only 1 stop prior to US customs. I plan to just pack a camera bag in my Tortuga and then use that as my carry on and check the Tortuga on the way home. Unless I can manage to keep the Tortuga to 7 Kg :-).

      Reply

      • We haven’t flown with Emirates recently but we find that while international airlines like this may have low carry on limits they don’t enforce them. We flew with Singapore Airlines a few months ago and they also have a 7 kg limit, but they didn’t weigh our bags. It’s usually worth a try.

        Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *