Only a carry-on for extended trips: 4 tips to pack like a pro | Cruising Altitude

One of the best marks of a frequent traveler is being able to pack quickly and efficiently. It’s likely part of the reason that people who fly a lot are so eager to get on the plane as soon as possible because the faster you board, the more likely you are to secure convenient overhead bin space and not be forced to check your carry-on bag. Most frequent flyers, myself included, avoid checking a bag whenever possible.

It may seem daunting to take a 10-day trip with just a small rollaboard, but I promise it’s possible. I talked to Wilson Santiago Burgos, founder of and regular contributor here at USA TODAY, who is currently on a three-month trip with only a backpack.

We compared notes on how we economize our packing, and while we don’t use all the same strategies, between the two of us we hope these four tips can help you in your own travels.

Pack like a pro, travel like an expert.
Pack like a pro, travel like an expert.

1. Lose the shoes

This is my biggest advice to almost everyone who’s trying to reduce their luggage. Shoes are probably the bulkiest items you’ll pack, and if you can manage to bring one or two versatile pairs, you can save a lot of space in your suitcase.

On his current trip to Central Asia, Santiago told me he only brought sneakers and a nicer pair of shoes for dinner and city activities. For warmer weather, you might only need flip-flops and dinner shoes.

“One technique I use always to save space in my luggage is I always wear the biggest shoes I bring when I fly,” Santiago told me.

And that’s something I do as well. Of course, I’m not wearing my snowboarding boots on the plane for a trip to the mountains, but I’ll wear regular snow boots while I travel and pack a pair of sneakers if need be for that kind of trip.

2. Don’t be afraid to do laundry

I’ll confess I don’t usually travel long enough for this to be an issue, But Santiago told me he often travels for months at a time with only a backpack, and the key to that technique is not being afraid to do laundry while you’re away.

“When I’m traveling too long I have clothes for 7-10 days so I wash my clothes at the hotels,” he said.

“Last week I washed my clothes in Uzbekistan and it was $14, it was so cheap,” Santiago added. “If you do the math, it’s probably cheaper to wash clothes than to pay for a checked bag every time you have to take a flight in a trip of three months.”

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3. Make a list

This was a big point of difference for us. I pretty much never make a paper list for packing. I have my own routine and usually know what I need to bring. I often just pack a few hours before I leave, especially if I have an evening flight, and count out the items I’ll bring by day.

Santiago, on the other hand, told me he makes a list every time.

“The list for me is very important: you save space, but you won’t forget anything important like medicines, technology, passport,” he said.

In his defense, he may be right. On a recent trip, I forgot to pack toothpaste for the first time in my life. Maybe it’s time for me to start getting more organized, too.

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4. Do a post-mortem

You don’t have to feel like a failure if you don’t manage to pack light on your next trip, but if that happens and you want to travel lighter on the one after that, you can do some reflection when you get home.

“Ask yourself one question: In the last trip that you did, did you use all the things that you have in your bags? If the answer is no, you know you have space to improve your packing,” Santiago said. “My experience is 70%-80% of the people, they will tell you they didn’t use all of the things they packed on the last trip.”

Now listen, I’m not a purist here. I think it’s a good idea to bring a few extras: maybe you’ll need a change of underwear or you’ll spill something on your shirt and want to swap it out. But honestly, when you’re packing you should ask yourself: how many times in your regular life do you do multiple outfit changes per day? You can avoid overpacking by bringing only what you’d use on a normal day, so long as you don’t need any specialized gear.

Zach Wichter is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in New York. You can reach him at

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cruising Altitude's 4 expert packing tips