The Ultimate Travel Companion: How to Find Your Perfect Carry-On Travel Pack

Female shopper looking at backpacks

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Isn’t it time to lighten your load? In this article, we will delve into the advantages of traveling light and provide expert tips on how to choose the ideal travel pack for your needs – whether you’re a seasoned traveller or planning your first adventure. Get ready to revolutionise the way you travel – with your ultimate (carry-on) travel companion.

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This list for women and men was created as a result of more than seven years of full-time travel around the world in all seasons with only carry-on luggage. This is the packing list we have used as we embark on our adventures into 2024.

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Why a carry-on travel pack is the way to go

I have stopped counting how many travellers we see on the road every day, lugging around ginormous travel packs that precariously sway over their heads. We wish we could talk to every one of them there and then, and try and convince them to travel light next time.

We’ve been there: We travelled with our big 70-litre travel packs during our three-month trip in 2012. These past 7+ years though, we have only travelled with carry-on travel packs, and we would never go back.

Sandra and her big backpack in 2012

Sandra and her giant backpack in 2012

Paul and his big backpack in 2012

Paul, the double-sided tortoise, in 2012

So, what are the benefits of travelling light? Here are three of them but there are way more…

It makes arriving a breeze

Ever waited for (what seems like) an eternity at the luggage carousel? The conveyor belt seems to be the most popular place on earth. You can’t see a thing as everyone else has claimed their spot right next to it. As the place slowly empties, you wonder what happened to your luggage. And then finally, half an hour after you went through security, it makes an appearance, and you breathe a sigh of relief.

Now imagine travelling with a carry-on: You grab your travel pack out of the overhead locker and swiftly walk past fellow travellers (who have somehow managed to take the kitchen sink on board). The lines at security are still short. A few minutes after you landed, you’re out of the airport and greet your friends/family and/or grab that train/bus/taxi into town.

Recommended ultralight packable daypack options

Need an ultralight packable daypack for your everyday needs AND your travels? Find the one that’s right for you with our buyer’s guide.
Baggage claim

No need to wait for your luggage if you have carry-on only

Your luggage can’t get delayed, lost or stolen

How many times was your luggage delayed, or even lost or stolen?

  • One year, I arrived in Berlin on Christmas Eve without even a winter jacket (since we flew in from Sydney where it was summer). My check-in luggage finally arrived four days later, damaged and unusable. A strike combined with bad weather (and Christmas) had made Heathrow Airport a giant luggage warehouse.
  • Paul almost missed out on competing in a half marathon in Italy a few years ago, when our plane was delayed in Dubai, and Emirates wasn’t fast enough to get our luggage from one plane to the next. In that instance, we were reunited with our check-in luggage (including his running gear) less than 12 hours before the race.

I’m sure everyone who has ever travelled with check-in luggage can tell similar stories. Not much fun.

If you travel solo, how many times did you wish you had a travel buddy to look after your 70-litre pack while you quickly popped into the bathroom (or elsewhere)? Well, a carry-on travel pack is small and light enough to take with you – wherever you go. We even did a food tour once in Berlin with our carry-ons on our backs.

Baggage in cargo hold

Travel with carry-on only and you won't have to worry about your baggage getting damaged or lost

It may just save your travel plans

Imagine you wake up late. You have 30 minutes to catch your train. The train station is a good 20 minutes walk away. The morning traffic is horrendous. If you want to make your train you have to run.

Now imagine you have a (check-in sized) wheelie and a day pack or a 70-litre backpack. You gather your gear as quickly as you can, but it still seems like an eternity until you’ve made it down the stairs and out onto the streets. The streets to the train station are cobble-stoned and full of people heading to work. Good luck making that train.

Now imagine grabbing your carry-on travel pack. It’s packed and ready in a flash. You run down the stairs and along the streets, shouting apologies as you zigzag between people. You only carry 10 kilograms on your back, so even moving on cobble-stone is not too difficult. What are your chances now catching that train?

Wheeling luggage in street

Finding it difficult to navigate busy city streets with wheeled luggage? Use a travel pack instead.

What is considered carry-on?

Size and Weight

Unfortunately, every airline has its own carry-on luggage rules, especially when it comes to weight. Some allow ten kilograms, others only seven. And it’s often those with a lower limit that enforce the rules (to make some extra money for the airline’s shareholders).

How much you are allowed to bring into the cabin also depends on whether you travel domestically or internationally, and what class you’re seated in. So, do check the rules (on the airline’s website) before you book your flight.

The most common dimensions are 56 x 36 x 23 cm | 22 x 14 x 9 in – with height, width and depth adding up to 115 cm | 45 in. By pure maths, this gives you about 46 litres – the (maximum) luggage size you are looking for when it comes to finding your perfect carry-on travel pack.

Hand Luggage vs Personal Item

Most airlines allow one piece of hand luggage (up to the weight limit they impose) plus one personal item (which does not usually count towards the weight of your hand luggage but must be small enough to fit under the seat in front of you).

When we encounter airline staff that takes the weight limitations (too) seriously, we put

  • my sling bag (my usual personal item) and whatever makes my travel pack too heavy into my Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Shopping Bag (usually used to carry groceries or laundry), which then becomes my personal item; and
  • Paul’s laptop (and whatever else makes his travel pack too heavy) into our Matador Freerain22 Daypack, which then becomes his personal item.
Putting bag away in cabin

A soft-sided carry-on travel pack is easy to store in the overhead locker

How to choose the carry-on travel pack that’s right for you?

Before you go shopping, think about and write down your requirements. They may not be as obvious initially, but the more you look at the options out there the clearer they’ll become. To help you get started, here is the list of criteria we’ve developed over the past 7+ years of carry-on only travel:

Close to maximum carry-on limit

At the beginning, we weren’t sure how much we’d need but the more we looked at different sizes, we realised that less than 40 litres would be a bit of a squeeze for me and less than 45 litres a squeeze for Paul – even as a practising minimalists.

Apart from the volume, also check the actual dimensions of any pack in question. A tall and narrow travel pack (similar to a hiking rucksack) might be 40 litres, but if the dimensions are (way) off, you may still be forced to check it in.

Ultra-lightweight yet super strong

The lighter your travel pack is the more stuff you can carry in it until you reach that 7kg or 10kg carry-on weight limit.

On the other hand, it needs to be super strong to withstand the daily (ab)use on your travels. The last thing you want is for your travel pack to burst open at a busy intersection in Hanoi or when you’re jumping on a chicken bus in Guatemala. Look for light-weight rip-stop material (the material will stop a small puncture turn into a giant tear, hence the name), and especially check the zippers (ideally YKK) and seams (best if they are multi-stitched) – notorious weak points on any backpack.

Proper hip belt to distribute the weight evenly

That’s an absolute must (and I’m surprised how many carry-on travel packs don’t come with one). Your full travel pack needs to sit comfortably on your hips to take the weight off your shoulders/back. So, if your health is important to you, make sure your carry-on travel pack has a proper hip belt.

We prefer hip belts that are attached to the pack but can be stowed away when needed (for example, on those rare occasions you do have to check in your travel pack).

Female with red backpack

To distribute weight evenly, a carry-on travel pack should have a sturdy yet comfortable hip belt

Stretchy side pockets that fit a water bottle

Staying hydrated is important when travelling. For that reason, we travel with a Klean Kanteen 27 oz Wide Water Bottle with Loop Cap. Whatever water bottle you travel with, it needs to go somewhere. You don’t want to (have to) carry it in your hand all the time. Trust me. That’s what side pockets are for.

Make sure the side pocket is wide and deep enough to fit your water bottle. If your water bottle fits, but the pocket is a bit shallow (making it easy for the bottle to fall out), look for ways to secure it to your pack (for example, by looping a compression strap through or around its cap).

Laptop compartment at the back

This goes hand in hand with the former. A laptop is likely the single heaviest item you carry in your travel pack. So, the best place for it is right against your back. \

You also want to be able to easily access your laptop (even when the travel pack is full) – for example when you go through security. Thus, a separate, zippered laptop compartment you can access from the outside is best.

Easy access compartment for your toiletry bag

Speaking of security: another item you’d want to have easy access to whenever you go through security is your toiletry bag. A toiletry bag usually also weighs a bit (at least mine does). So for my toiletry bag, I prefer to have a separate zippered compartment (at the bottom or top) that can be accessed easily from the outside.

Water bottle in red backpack

Hydration is important: Make sure your travel pack has at least one side pocket to fit your water bottle

Clamshell design (ideally not split case)

A travel pack that opens like a suitcase (rather than from the top) makes (un)packing and accessing an item on the go a breeze. Fortunately, most carry-on travel packs these days have such a clamshell design.

Like suitcases, some clamshell travel packs have just one large main compartment on one side of the clamshell (plus several outside compartments for easy access). Others feature a split case design – which means there are storage compartments on either side of the clamshell. These splits are mostly 50/50 (same-size zippered compartments on either side). But we’ve also seen 70/30 and 80/20 splits, and travel packs that further compartmentalise each side of the clamshell.

We prefer to use (removable) packing cubes rather than fixed compartments for our clothes and shoes, and would therefore steer clear of split cases.

Lockable zips

Travelling with a carry-on, you’ll have your luggage on you most of the time. But if you do have to check in your luggage (for example, if the bus is too crowded or your plane too small) lockable zips come in handy.

Clamshell design by Anete Lusina on Unsplash

Clamshell-design travel packs make (un)packing and accessing items on the go a breeze

Want to know what we pack as full-time location-independent explorers?

We research and document every item that we carry as travellers, whether during van life in our backpacks or as digital nomads, earning a living on the road. These packing lists are all based on our own experience. If you travel (and who doesn't) and you have something to add as recommendations for the items to carry, please feel free to contact us.

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Fairly priced

Good quality luggage is not cheap – that includes carry-on travel packs. There are a lot of Chinese-branded travel packs available online that are insanely cheap. While we have no experience with them, we’d be concerned about their quality (see above) and doubt that they are made ethically and sustainably.

Good warranty

Many carry-on travel packs on the market these days come with lifetime guarantees and/or repair programs – a sign that the company stands by the quality of its products. So, if you’re undecided between two models, maybe the warranty terms will help you make the call.

Water repellent and/or with (built-in) rain cover

This is more of a nice-to-have requirement (at least for us) as there are other ways to protect your gear from a downpour – for example, a rain poncho (which not only covers your luggage but you as well).

Water repellent fabric by Dan Gold on Unsplash

If you want your travel pack to be water repellent, make sure its materials are PFC-free

Sustainability

Last but not least, it’s important to ensure the manufacturing of your travel pack is done as sustainably and ethically as possible:

  • Most materials used in light-weight durable travel packs (at least for now) are derived from petrochemicals. Thus, give preference to a travel pack that’s made from recycled materials. For travel packs made from virgin materials, check if the materials are bluesign®-approved and/or the manufacturing process adheres to the bluesign® Restricted Substances List to ensure strict ecological and toxicological standards are met.
  • If you want your travel pack to be water-repellent, give preference to models that use perfluorochemical(PFC)-free methods to achieve durable water repellency (DWR).

If nothing else, check the sustainability credentials of the brand you buy from. If you can’t find anything (of any substance) on their website, chances are they don’t really care.

paul with pacsafe venturesafe exp45 travel pack

Our Top 10 Carry-On Travel Packs include: the Pacsafe Venturesafe EXP45

paul with peak design travel backpack 45l

... and the Peak Design Travel Backpack 45L

How do carry-on travel packs compare?

We have done a lot of research and checked out more than two dozen different travel packs from different manufacturers before arriving at our top 10 list below.

For our comparison (in alphabetical order), we have considered travel packs that retail between USD150 and USD350, and

  • offer a minimum volume of 40 litres;
  • weigh less than (approximately) 2kg / 4lbs 7oz;
  • come with a (proper) hip-belt; and
  • have at least one water bottle side pocket.

Click on the name of the model you are interested in to reveal more detail and find one that ticks all (or at least the most important ones) of YOUR boxes:

  • Cotopaxi Allpa 42L Travel Pack

    Cotopaxi Allpa 42L Travel Pack

    $220.00
  • gregory border carry on 40

    Gregory Border Carry-On 40

    $189.95
  • lowe alpine escape flight pro 40l cabin pack

    Lowe Alpine Escape Flight Pro 40L Cabin Pack

  • Matador Globerider45 Travel Backpack

    Matador GlobeRider45 Travel Backpack

    $350.00
  • MEC Pangea 40 Carry On Travel Pack

    MEC Pangea 40 Carry On Travel Pack

    $199.95
  • pacsafe venturesafe exp45 anti theft carry on travel pack

    Pacsafe Venturesafe EXP45 Anti-Theft Carry-On Travel Pack

    $279.95
  • Peak Design 45L Travel Backpack

    Peak Design 45L Travel Backpack

    $299.95
  • topo designs global travel bag 40l

    Topo Designs Global Travel Bag 40L

    $229.00
  • Tortuga 40L Travel Backpack

    Tortuga 40L Travel Backpack

    $350.00
  • zoomlite road warrior travel carryon backpack

    Zoomlite Road Warrior Travel Carryon Backpack

    $152.00

What did/would we choose (based on our needs)?

We started our minimalist journey in 2016 with the Osprey Ozone 46 (Sandra) and the Tortuga V2 (Paul). Both of them are no longer being manufactured.

Paul’s Tortuga lasted seven years. The fabric was not rip-stop, and it started to fray along the seams – an area difficult to repair (multiple times). He now travels with the Matador GlobeRider45 Travel Backpack. It’s at the higher end of the weight spectrum but otherwise met all his requirements.

I still use my original Osprey Ozone 46. It’s lighter than any other comparable travel pack I’ve come across in seven years, and it’s super sturdy. So why change something that works well? That said, if I had to purchase a new travel pack tomorrow, it would be the MEC Pangea 40 Carry-On Travel Pack. It suits my needs (almost) perfectly.

Minimalist Journeys Carry-on Travel Packs November 2023

We currently travel with an Osprey Ozone 46 (no longer manufactured) and a Matador GlobeRider45 Travel Backpack

Want to learn more with our buyer's guides?

Are you heading overseas for your next big adventure? Or away for the weekend and need to replace your luggage? We can help you in selecting the right travel pack and daypack with our useful buyer’s guides – all based on our years of being location-independent.
Author: <a href="https://www.linkedin.com/in/sandrarosenau/" target="_blank">Sandra Rosenau</a>

Author: Sandra Rosenau

Sandra Rosenau is a Gen X gal from Germany, born and raised behind the Iron Curtain, with an unquenchable thirst to learn. Self-starter. Multi-lingual. Minimalist. Environmentally conscious. Financially and location independent. Energised by connecting with others and helping people succeed.