The Carry-On Experiment

by Gray Cargill on August 6, 2010

Jetblue airplane

Jetblue airplane

I sat in my comfy leather seat, gripping the armrests nervously, trying not to sweat as the plane began to descend into New York.  I had already unplugged my earbuds from the jack in the arm rest. I couldn’t concentrate on the TV screen in front of me any more.  I looked around me at the other passengers, who seemed not to have a care in the world as they craned their necks to look out the tiny windows at the New York skyline. Does anyone else ever go through this? I wondered.  Or is it just me?

Was it a fear of flying that was causing me such anxiety?  Heck no.  It was a fear of getting off the plane and forgetting my carry-on in the overhead bin. 

Baggage at the airport

Last year, I wrote a blog post weighing the pros and cons of checking one’s suitcase versus going carry-on only for flights.  So many travel bloggers extol the virtues of being able to pack everything you need for a week or a month in a backpack or a carry-on before boarding a plane, so that they can avoid checked-bag fees, have their luggage with them at all times, and skip the trip to the baggage claim. It keeps them light and nimble, they say.   Me, I like my big suitcase.  I can fit everything I need in it–and then some–pass it off at the check-in counter and not have to worry about it again until my plane lands.

It’s just more convenient for me, since I generally have to catch a connecting flight at a hub airport. Have you ever had to run for a plane? I have. . .several times.  Within thirty feet I’m huffing and puffing, my lungs burning, sure I am going to stroke out before I get anywhere near my departure gate.  And that’s just with my backpack on my back.  Imagine me trying to run with my backpack on my back, dragging my carry-on behind me.  I’d miss my flight for sure.

“Traveling light” sounds good, but I’m a big believer in being prepared, too. That means packing a pair of shoes for every occasion, a virtual pharmacy in case I get sick, two changes of clothing for every day (casual for daytime and dressy for nighttime), plus an extra set of clothes in case I spill something on myself, an umbrella in case it rains, a sweater in case it’s cold. . .you get the picture.

But for my two trips this summer, one a 2-night trip and one a 3-night, 4-day trip, I decided to accept the challenge to go carry-on only, getting encouragement from carry-on advocates Janice Waugh (@solotraveler) and Robin Locker Lacey (@MyMelange).  Janice even sent me several videos of different packing methods to try out.  (I went with number five, since it seemed to solve the wrinkle problem better than the rolling method.)

Of course, having never gone carry-on only, I’ve also never used the overhead bins.  My knapsack (stuffed full with camera gear, snacks, water, a change of clothing, something to read, travel documents, and my mp3 player) always goes under the seat in front of me.  My biggest fear during these two trips was that I was going to exit the plane and head for baggage claim on “autopilot,” forgetting my suitcase in the overhead bin. Thankfully, I managed to escape that humiliation.

How did the experiment work for me?  With mixed results. On the one hand, I was extremely proud that I did it!  I actually fit everything I needed for a 4-day weekend into a carry-on. That packing method of layering everything before folding really works at squeezing things in without wrinkling them.  See?

Packed carry on suitcase

Packed carry on suitcase

My carry-on is pretty tiny at 21″ x 13″ x 7.5″.  It seemed to be one of the smaller carry-ons I saw in the overhead bins.  Even using the rockin’ new folding method, I had to make some sacrifices.  Since I was going to have to bear the weight of both my knapsack and my carry-on throughout the entire travel process, I didn’t want to overstuff my knapsack like I normally do, but not everything was going to fit in the carry-on, either.  I decided not to pack my DSLR’s wide-angle lens, since I had my new point-and-shoot to take wide-angle photos.  I only packed one pair of shorts instead of the two I wanted to pack and one fewer pair of shoes.   I brought no reading material.  Hardest of all was my decision to jettison my daily vitamins. But it didn’t kill me.  It didn’t even give me the sniffles.

To save even more space, naturally, I bought travel sized versions of as many toiletries as I could.  I also utilized some stackable MyTagAlongs containers I had received in the mail for free from a publicity agency.  They were very handy for storing tiny amounts of things, like sleeping pills, ibuprofin, and earplugs.

MyTagAlongs stackable packables

MyTagAlongs stackable packables

I was able to avoid bringing a regular container of vaseline by scooping just what I needed to remove my eye makeup into one of these containers.  The containers screw one on top of the other, making storage convenient.  And cute, to boot.

Tagalongs stackable containers

See how small they are?

So as experiments go, it was a success.  I was able to do it.  And yes, it was nice to bypass baggage claim at the airport.  But did it change my mind about going carry-on only? No.  Truth be told, I hated having my luggage with me in the airport.  I feel like enough of a pack mule with my knapsack on my back; the last thing I need is to lug around a suitcase as well.  I disliked the last-minute scramble to dig my ziploc bag of liquids out of my bag to show to security.  I kept getting stuck in the door of the bathroom stall at the airport, because trying to squeeze me, my carry-on and my knapsack through at once was awkward and clumsy.  When I had breakfast at an airport restaurant I couldn’t find anywhere to put the damn suitcase where people wouldn’t trip over it.

Most of all, I hated having to pack fewer clothes than usual. When my Monday night flight home was canceled, and I had to stay in the city an extra day, I had to re-wear an outfit I had already soaked with sweat in the sweltering heat of New York City that weekend.  Yuck.  Fortunately, the guy sitting next to me was in the same boat so we jokingly agreed to sit there and smell bad together.

Having to lift the carry-on over my head to stow it in the overhead bin also posed a problem.  It wouldn’t have been a big deal for me a year ago.  I’ve been lifting weights for years and had pretty good arm strength.  But I injured my shoulder in January, which brought to the surface a whole host of chronic pain issues.  I got a reprieve on that one flight home, when my sweaty seatmate gallantly retrieved it from the overhead bin for me. But on the other flights, I was on my own.

It’s now  a moot point, since my orthopedist has pretty much told me no more lifting weights above my shoulders (forever). So I’ll be going back to checking my luggage in any case.  To be honest, I’m not-so-secretly relieved. Yes, I’ll have to pay the checked bag fees whenever I fly select airlines, which my cheap little heart will hate with a passion. But to me, the convenience of being able to bring as much as I feel I need on a trip and have someone else tote it around from Point A to Point B is worth it, even if I have to pay extra for it.

Tracy Antonioli April 12, 2011 at 1:44 pm

ah–this is the only way in which we are not kindred spirits! i’m a die-hard light packer–on my last trip, my bag only weighed 15 pounds–and 6 of that was the bag itself and my netbook! it’s funny–i just commented on my own blog to someone about how i love only taking a backpack, because it makes using the restroom so much easier (when traveling solo, as you know, i have no one to watch my bags for me!) and i referenced the poor women i see struggling with rolling bags. that stinks! but really, packing style is such a personal thing. do i end up buying things at my destination? frequently. does this more than outweigh the money i save by not checking a bag? usually!

Gray April 12, 2011 at 3:23 pm

Believe me, I wish I could travel lighter, Tracy! But it’s just not in me, I guess.

Anonymous August 12, 2010 at 9:27 pm

Glad to know I’m not alone, Becs. There are pros and cons to carrying on, and the security process is definitely a con. Thanks so much for weighing in on the subject!

Becs August 12, 2010 at 9:00 pm

Great post! Personally, I am a little mix of the two. I never pack more then I can carry in the same trip and most of the time, can squeeze it all into a carry-on, but like you, I hate dealing with my bag while waiting for my plane! With the increase in bag fees (happened while I was overseas and came home to this new development!) I only carry on now and it’s so annoying! Takes longer for security and to load on and off planes because of this. I guess I have been lucky and (touch wood) I have never had a bag lost. Also, how impatient are we, that we can’t wait 20 min for a bag and we gotta hit the ground running like now? Waiting for your bag gives you a chance to organize yourself without the weigh of all your luggage.

When I flew Virgin America last, while waiting to board, the attendants made an announcement asking anything who wanted to check their bag for free and I was the first to run up. Even though I had already passed security, it was still a great load off!

One thing I have to say with this, is that people are getting better at packing and now only taking what they need, which I like, but doesn’t apply to you!

Also, I always fear I am going to forget my bag, so you are not alone in this. As soon as I am in my seat, I write the aisle number it’s above on my hand and haven’t left anything yet!

SoloFriendly August 8, 2010 at 9:45 pm

Oh yeah, so I've heard. I would never put anything fragile in my checked suitcase, that's for sure.

Doug Parker August 8, 2010 at 8:43 pm

When I was a freshman in college I worked at the airport as a ramp agent for a year. Time is of the essence getting those aircrafts turned around. 90 percent of all the luggage that travels in the cargo bins under the plane is rough handled. Unless it's impossible, I always carry on.

SoloFriendly August 8, 2010 at 1:07 pm

Oh ouch! That's always a fear, isn't it? Either hitting someone else in the head with your luggage or getting hit by someone else's. Especially with the way people jockey for position to get off the plane, there's not a lot of room to maneuver.

Spunky Girl August 8, 2010 at 5:12 am

Carry-on can be a challenge. I usually do it when I'm going away for 3 or 4 days and I can fit everything I need into my lululemon gym bag (I pack lite), but I could never do it for longer trips. I always have an interesting time getting it from the overhead bins. In fact I seem to remember hitting someone in the head with mine- by accident.

Good for you for trying it, Gray!

SoloFriendly August 8, 2010 at 12:18 am

You are welcome, Robin–and you are welcome to the overhead bin space, too!

Robin @ My Melange August 7, 2010 at 11:55 pm

Gray, I am so proud of you for trying and succeeding! I can totally respect your decision, because you put forth the effort, tried, and then realized it just wasn't a good fit for you. It happens. I will be happy to take up that space you will no longer be needing in your overhead bin. Thanks for the nice mention in the post 🙂

Globetrooper Lauren August 7, 2010 at 7:23 pm

At least you tried it and realised it's not for you. Each to their own. I'd definitely prefer that extra pair of shoes, but with that mindframe comes an extra shirt, another set of pants, another set of everything really! This all comes to at least another kilo and I don't want to carry the extra weight (physically & emotionally).

SoloFriendly August 7, 2010 at 1:41 pm

Exactly. Look at it this way: If everyone carried on instead of checking bags, there wouldn't be room for everyone's luggage, and some people would be forced to check their bags. By checking my bags voluntarily, I'm making more room in the overhead bins for your carry-ons. 🙂

Melissa Stanford August 7, 2010 at 1:36 pm

Sorry you didn't like flying carry-on! I wrote an article recently on how to get the most of carry-ons, but my method (a lot of stuffing stuff everywhere)! would probably make you feel even more like a pack mule. To each, his or her own, eh? 🙂

SoloFriendly August 6, 2010 at 5:28 pm

Vive le difference! I wish I had your superpower, though. 😉

Geraldine August 6, 2010 at 4:15 pm

Ah, we are SO different, my dear! I never check my bags. Ever. I've fit enough for a week or ten days into a tiny carry-on, and never thought twice about it. I've squeezed two pairs of shoes (for Rand AND myself) and enough for a weekend getaway in the overhead compartment. I've willed the laws of space and time to make my little red bag work for me. 🙂

But I do love hearing about your experiences living life on the other side. And I'm glad to hear that you didn't forget your bag!

SoloFriendly August 6, 2010 at 12:54 pm

Thanks, Teresa.

SoloFriendly August 6, 2010 at 12:54 pm

See, this is what I'm saying–a lot of travelers feel like you do. I'm just not one of them. I don't mind representing the other half. 🙂

SoloFriendly August 6, 2010 at 12:52 pm

I bumped my weight levels up too high, Sabina, and injured myself. But it turns out there were underlying problems there already which would have shown up eventually. I've seen my regular nurse practitioner, gone to PT, seen 2 orthopedists and had a cortisone injection (that only lasted a month). So no, I can't work out my shoulders any more. It's a bummer.

Sabina Lohr August 6, 2010 at 11:30 am

Oh, what did you do to your shoulder? Does this mean you can't work out your shoulders anymore? I would be very unhappy if that were to ever happen to me. Can you maybe get a second opinion? Or just do it anyway?

And I never heard of the layer, then fold method. I might just try that. I'm with you – I never take just a carry-on. The benefits escape me, unless perhaps you're going on just an overnighter. Great post!

Teresa August 6, 2010 at 11:30 am

I asolutely agree with you! Been there, done that and much prefer to check my luggage! I feel free to wander in the airports too. Great article Gray 🙂

SingleOccupancy Blog August 6, 2010 at 11:22 am

Personally, I live and die by my 22″ rollaboard. I'd prefer to spend the $50 in checked bag fees ($25 each way) doing something or having an amazing meal in my next destination. Plus there's the ability to hit the ground running once I land instead of having to wait for baggage claim. I'm cheap and impatient, so that works for me, lol! To each her own.

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