What NOT to Pack: 21 Carry-On Travellers Share their Packing Mistakes

It’s Packing Light Week on Never Ending Voyage to celebrate the launch of my new book, The Carry-On Traveller: The Ultimate Guide to Packing Light.

When you are travelling carry-on only you need to be careful about what you pack and only include things that you’ll use regularly. Experience is the best way to learn what you really need, but you can also learn from other travellers.

We asked 21 carry-on travellers about their packing mistakes—what they packed that they regretted or got rid of.

High Heels

I initially packed a pair of high heels, which I discarded one month into the trip. After wearing them a grand total of once, I just couldn’t justify taking up valuable space in my backpack for something I would use so infrequently. While I think it’s possible to achieve both style and comfort while travelling, in order to pack light you have to be smart and selective about the clothing items you bring with you.

Brigid, Bolivian Life. Read Brigid’s packing list for Bolivia.

Laptop

When people say “less is more,” they’re usually right. Chances are that you can get away with a lot less than you might think, and even some of those “must have” travel gadgets are still kind of iffy. Unless you’ve got serious work to do, leave the laptop at home. Your phone can probably handle emails, hotel reservations, video entertainment, and photo storage just fine. You can even upload the pictures to the cloud, so you can skip the external hard drive. There’s no reason to worry about losing a $2,000 laptop if your phone can handle it all.

Eytan, Snarky Nomad. Read Eytan’s ultralight packing list.  

Eytan with his carry-on backpack at Orheiul Vechi-Canyon in Moldova

Eytan with his carry-on backpack at Orheiul Vechi-Canyon in Moldova

Towel

Leave the bulky towels at home. They take up too much space that’s better saved for more important things. Most hostels and guesthouses provide bath towels, so you can decide not to stay at places that don’t provide towels. If you’re going to the beach, a travel towel or sarong will work. If it’s warm enough for the beach, the sun will dry you off without needing a normal beach towel. Or you can buy a cheap beach towel when you arrive and leave it behind when you no longer need it.

Ali, Travel Made Simple. Read Ali’s advice about what not to pack in your carry-on

Ali with her backpack

Ali with her backpack

Travel Towel

I love travelling light so I loved the idea of a travel towel made of microfibre that took up barely any room in my pack. It was smaller than a hand towel, super absorbent and helped me travel with only a 20-litre backpack. However, in practice I found it annoying. It did work very well to dry me. However, it was always annoying to have to dry myself with something so small, especially when it was cold. It also was no good for hostel bathrooms or to take to the beach. I took it on quite a few trips as I am stubborn, but I am glad I finally retired it! Only normal towels for me from now on.

Sharon, Where’s Sharon. Read Sharon’s family packing list.

All the luggage Sharon, her husband, and two children took to Europe for 3.5 months

All the luggage Sharon, her husband, and two children took to Europe for 3.5 months

Mosquito Net and Repellent

I did a round the world trip with changing weather conditions with carry-on luggage only. Deciding what to pack and adapting it to different climates wasn’t an easy task. I was mostly happy with my packing list, but I made a few mistakes. I especially regretted taking a mosquito net and mosquito repellent. In Southeast Asia, the rooms had mosquito nets (when needed), even in budget guesthouses. The mosquito repellent I bought in Europe wasn’t effective and I had to buy another one in Thailand. I learnt that local products are more effective on local mosquitos.

Laia, Dream Travel Girl. Read Laia’s packing list

Laia on her round the world trip

Laia on her round the world trip

Liquid Soap

Don’t pack all in one liquid soap for hair, body, and clothes like the Sea to Summit kind. It’s much more effective and cheaper to get a 3-oz (90 ml) travel shampoo bottle and keep refilling it with shampoo you like that you purchase throughout your travels. Separately purchase a solid bar of laundry soap and keep it in a plastic bag. It should last many, many months. Solid beats liquid for packing light.

Drea Castillo. Read Drea’s packing list. 

Liquids over 100ml

I always try to pack light and organized, especially for air travel, but I still experience an occasional hiccup when going through airport security. I once packed an aerosol can of saline spray (for cleaning my nose piercing), which cost me an extra 20 minutes at a U.S. security checkpoint. When the TSA agents can’t perform their usual test on medically necessary liquids, the alternative is a lengthy pat-down and item-by-item luggage inspection. (Bleh!) Good thing I was ahead of schedule, or I may have missed my flight. Lesson learned. Now I buy when I arrive!

Diana, Stylish Travel Girl. Read Diana’s favourite packing organisers

Unnecessary Electronics

When we set off on our long-term journey, Gianni carried a Nikon D7100 and a bulky external flash SB-800. He used it for the fashion photography he was doing in the past and he expected to use it on our travels. However, after a couple of months on the road, he switched to a lighter mirrorless Fuji X-T1 and sold the flash, which turned out to be completely redundant for street and travel photography.

Another unnecessary device was an Olloclip 3-in-1 lens for an iPhone. It’s a tiny thing, but we never used it and eventually we gave it to a friend.

Ivana & Gianni, Nomad is Beautiful. Read their packing list

Gianni with his carry-on backpack

Gianni with his carry-on backpack

Pyjamas

I have found that packing pyjamas is a waste of space. I got rid of them and am now using soft leggings and camisoles as my pyjamas so they can be used during the day sometimes as an extra layer as well as at night.

Lori, Freetirement

Hair Dryer

I originally brought a hair dryer but never used it. I ditched it after a month.

Anne, The Yoga Nomads. Read Anne’s packing list

Playing Cards and Torch

Though I’ve been carrying them in my backpack for years, I’ve still never used either the set of playing cards or the small torch (flashlight) I used to travel with. Sure, they might be useful one day if my phone runs out of battery, or heaven forbid, is lost or damaged, but in reality, a smartphone serves the function of both items. I had thought that I might use playing cards to pass the time on long bus journeys or while waiting at airports, but in fact, I just play on my phone, so I’d rather carry an external battery for my smartphone than continue to carry these two items that serve only very limited functions.

Sam, Indefinite Adventure. Read Sam’s free ebook for more packing tips.

Zab and Sam with their carry-ons

Zab and Sam with their carry-ons

Clothes that Don’t Work Together and a Gym Ball

At first I packed all my favorite clothes, but what I didn’t think about was how well they fit each other. I ended up with several pieces of clothing that only went well with a certain other piece, and bad luck if that specific piece was already waiting for laundry. I learnt that with limited luggage space it’s very important to make sure all the clothes you pack look ok with each other, unless you want to hand wash your clothes every other day.

Another mistake was starting our nomad travels carrying a gym ball. Our logic was that as nomads we often don’t have ergonomically sound working conditions, so a gym ball would be great for exercise and could double as a working chair. We ended up lugging it around eight countries and using it twice.

Mirje, Anywherism. Read Mirje’s packing tips 

Travel Clothes

My biggest regret is packing clothes I hated just because I thought that’s what travellers should wear, but it’s not the brand that matters, it’s the functionality.

Alex, Travel Fashion Girl

Hiking Boots, Travel Pants, and More

I was wrong about so many things! I replaced my fancy laptop bag with a zippered tote, my embarrassing safari hat with a packable sun hat, my cumbersome hiking boots with sneakers, and my inappropriate “travel pants” (i.e. safari) with a pair of leggings. In the process, I discovered that finding ways to reduce and modify my stuff is one of my favorite projects. For example, I sewed secure zippered pockets into a pair of athletic shorts and ditched my silly passport holder necklace and money belt.

Anne, Viajar y Amar. Read how Anne made her own zipper shorts

Thick Yoga Pants

I regretted bringing thick yoga pants to Southeast Asia. They were way too warm for that hot and humid climate. When I mailed a box home for Christmas, those went with it!

Kristin, Be My Travel Muse. Read Kristin’s winter packing list

Hammock, Mosquito Net, and More

We used to travel with a double hammock, travel towels, a mosquito net, and more technical style clothes, such as pants that zipped off into shorts. We only used the hammock once; we have found that if we are in a place where we need a mosquito net around the bed, it will be provided; and we always stay in places where towels are provided. So we stopped travelling with all of those things.

Tom and Jenny, Till the Money Runs Out. Read their packing list

Tom and Jenny with their carry-ons

Tom and Jenny with their carry-ons

Chipless Credit Card

While it’s important to pack a backup credit card, I made the mistake of packing an old one without a chip. The number for my card with a chip was stolen online, and now I only have my chipless backup, which I can’t use in stores or at ticket machines. It turns out it’s not so easy to get a replacement card delivered to a temporary rental, and it’s only good for a month anyway, which doesn’t help when you’re traveling long-term.

Allison, Off the Blue Print. Read Allison’s packing list. 

Power Converter

Many moons ago, as we prepared for our first trip abroad, I knew two things about using electronics in a foreign country: (1) different countries have different shaped outlets, and (2) some countries work on a 110v system, while some are 220v. #1 is easy, you just need a small adapter. #2 is a little more complicated; in order to not fry your electronics, the voltage needs to be on the right system. So we bought this giant, heavy thing called a converter (transformer). Here was our mistake: most modern electronics have a converter built in (it’s that “bump” on your charger). Anyway, we carried this stupid thing around for two weeks, and didn’t use it once!

Michael & Shannon, Camera & Carry On. Read their packing list.
What not to pack in your carry on

Travel Clothesline and More

I got rid of my travel clothesline, compact flashlight, waterproof/rugged camera, long underwear, sandals, and silk travel liner.

Dave, The Quest for Awesome. Read Dave’s packing list

Waterproofs

I’d recommend not packing oversized waterproof jackets, clothing, ponchos or even a waterproof cover for your backpack. I traveled with a waterproof cover for my backpack for over a year and never used it once. I am also currently traveling with a poncho that thankfully takes up no space at all, but know I’m never going to use it. I want to throw it out every time I go through my backpack but don’t. My point is you really don’t need any real waterproof gear unless you’re going to be hiking during the rainy season. I’ve traveled with a small water-resistant jacket for years and it’s been great.

Jaime, Breakaway Backpacker. Read Jaime’s packing list

Jaime with his carry-on backpack

Jaime with his carry-on backpack

Tripod and More

Over the years I’ve got rid of a lot! Recently? Umbrella, suspenders, thick sole flip-flops, pillowcase, notebooks, excess art supplies and equipment, and a tripod. (I’ve been carrying a tripod but haven’t used it since 2005! Considering a monopod, but probably wouldn’t use it, either.)

John, A Farnsworth a Day

What about us? If you want to see what we’ve got rid of in the last few years, see our updated carry-on packing list.

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

What packing mistakes have you made? Leave a comment and let us know!

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

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26 thoughts on What NOT to Pack: 21 Carry-On Travellers Share their Packing Mistakes

  1. Seriously, no one else made the mistake of lugging around a Pacsafe steel net for 3 years before they realised it was just never going to be used? Reassuring to know that ditching the mosquito net is something many of us have had to do alongside hideously unflattering travel wear. I also carried a larger external camera flash for years before eventually dumping it. And yes, mirrorless camera gear was a fabulous move.

  2. Some of these things make me giggle because I would never consider packing in the first place. However, I know I pack things other travelers would shake their head at too. It is all about what is important to you and makes you more comfortable. I got rid of excess clothes. Most people tend to wear the same thing over and over anyways. Traveled Poland with a high school sized bookbag/backpack and crossover purse.

    • That’s so true – everyone has to figure out what’s important to them. The main thing is that you use it regularly. If not, ditch it!

  3. Travelling light…my wife’s forever problem! I will definitely have to show her this, bet after reading this article of yours, our bags would get much lighter and we could absolutely get away with those extra luggage fees lol

    • I too bought some folding ballet pumps, but to be fair the Sky Bar in Bangkok was the only place they wouldn’t let me in because of footwear (& they loaned out shoes & trousers yuk)

  4. Definitely the wet weather gear, we packed first trip! In most countries we visited, it was hot & an umbrella was all we needed (bought locally). Also we find flip flops better in monsoon rains as you don’t end up with smelly soggy trainers.
    I also love Lush solid shampoo (2 bars lasted 7 months, including being used as soap several times). Sarongs make perfect beach towels & dry so quickly & have other uses!

    • We don’t bother with a waterproof anymore either. And the only time we needed to buy an umbrella was when we were back visiting the UK – typical!

  5. Thanks for including me! Lots of good advice here. Interesting about the bug repellent though, I always bring mine to tropical places. If there’s a mosquito within 10 miles, it finds me, and I’ve found that normal bug repellent works no matter where I am. I recently bought solid bug repellent (and solid sunscreen) to further reduce the amount of liquids fighting for space in my liquids bag, and it works pretty well.

  6. oh my god! After reading this post, I understand why my suitcase is always heavy! however, if throwing all of them out of suitcase, I think I must spend more money to buy them at the destinations

    • The idea is that you probably don’t need to buy them at your destination, as you can manage without them. Of course, everyone has different needs.

  7. Another great packing move is to ditch the DSLR camera and bring a compact Micro Four Thirds style camera instead.

    They often fit into your pants pocket and still take very high quality pictures!

    • Absolutely! That’s what I did too. My Olympus OMD EM5 (which I think you also have?) is actually way better quality than my old entry-level SLR.

      • Ha ha no way! Yes I also use the EM5 🙂

        Any lens recommendations? I’m looking for a wider angle prime lens that could double for landscapes and food. I personally LOVE the Olympus M. Zuiko Digital ED 45mm f1.8 for portraits.

  8. It’s very interesting to see what other travelers took and left behind. I see that I’m not the only one finding that a mosquito net is not necessary 🙂
    I don’t use pyjamas either and I’m not sure if I’ll take the tripod in my next trip, since last time I used it only twice. As a low budget traveler I still need a towel, since I stay often in places where it’s not provided, but I have a microfibre towel that doesn’t take “that much” space.

    • A mosquito net was a popular answer! We’ve never travelled with one.

      I don’t need pyjamas, a tripod, or a bulky towel either -I agree a microfibre towel is a good option. I used to travel with a really old (like 20+ years!) threadbare towel. It was as small as a travel towel but dried me much better. As everywhere we stay provides a towel now, I got rid of it and just use my sarong for the beach.

  9. Oh, I love traveling light. Actually I don’t remember how is it to travel with the check in luggage, haven’t done it for years. And since I’ve learned a lot of these by making the same mistake some of the advice is still pretty helpful, even to a long time traveler. Neverthless I think that the towel is actually the item that even a carry on should contain. A lot of budget dorms and accomodations don’t provide one, and every time I forgott to pack it I needed it the second day of my trip.

    • A towel is a bit of a controversial issue! As a couple, we don’t stay in dorms and we find that even budget guesthouses in places like SE Asia always provide a towel. We do carry a travel towel (Simon) and a sarong (me) for the rare case when one isn’t provided, but mostly we use them for the beach. Even if you are staying in dorms that don’t provide towels, I think a travel towel is a better option that a normal towel, as it’s so much smaller and lighter. I wouldn’t choose a tiny one like Sharon did though!

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