Carry-on luggage — ‘The only way to fly’

By Philip Wagenaar

Nostalgically, my hands hold the genuine leather of the old travel wallet, which, for years, has held my essential travel documents. It still looks as good as it did 51 years ago, when my aunt surprised me with it as a going-away present.

I reminisce about the olden days, when friends showered you with gifts each time you left on a journey, the era when airlines cherished their passengers and when the term “cattle” applied only to animals and not travelers, the time when one didn’t have to worry about the contents of suitcases.

And now, as I am preparing for an upcoming trip to New Zealand, I bemoan the inconveniences and hassles that the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) imposes on the hapless traveler. As I am gathering my salves and creams, I lament the constraint on the amount of liquids and gels allowed in my cabin baggage.

Today, restrictions such as these make it difficult to travel with only carry-ons, something my wife, Flory, and I have done for years.

The major advantage of taking only cabin baggage is, of course, it avoids the exasperation of a bag’s being lost, misrouted or stolen. In addition, if our flight is suddenly canceled or changed, our luggage is right with us. As another plus, we can leave an airport forthwith after passing through Immigration without fretting whether or not our suitcase has arrived.

Which type of suitcase?

As U.S. and foreign airlines frequently place different limits on the number, size and weight of carry-ons, we may vary the quantity and type of our bags accordingly.

Currently, most U.S. airlines have a fairly uniform cabin baggage policy, which, except for small planes, consists of the following:

1. A carry-on bag must fit under your seat or in the overhead bin.

2. Its dimensions should not be more than 22"x14"x9" (length + height + width) or 45 linear inches (the length, height and width added together).

3. You also can bring a so-called personal item, the equivalent of a small backpack.

In addition, most airlines (double-check with the carrier) allow articles such as coats, cameras, canes, collapsible wheelchairs, child safety seats, a briefcase, a handbag/purse, a laptop (in a bag), an umbrella and a reasonable amount of reading material for the flight.

The above regulations allow each of us to use one 21-inch wheeled suitcase plus a small backpack, if all of our overseas travel is on a U.S. airline.

However, when flying overseas carriers, which frequently mandate ridiculously low weight limitations — sometimes as little as five kilograms, 10.4 pounds — we have to resort to wheelless bags, since a wheeled suitcase typically weighs a minimum of about seven pounds when empty.

The best of the wheelless breed is the convertible carry-on, which allows you to either haul the suitcase by its handle or don it as a backpack by using its normally hidden straps. Alternatively, you can lug it over your shoulder by using the included shoulder strap or, if desired, roll it on a collapsible luggage carrier. (While most of these carriers are heavy and bulky, I found a very small and light one, made by Samsonite, at Sears. (Unfortunately, it was somewhat unwieldy.)

Where to buy?

Convertible carry-ons are available from several companies.

  1. Rick Steves’ Europe Through the Back Door (130 Fourth Avenue North, Edmonds, WA 98020-2009; 425/771-8303,
    • Rick Steves’ Convertible Carryon weighs less than three pounds. Its regular size is 21"x14"x9" (there is a 20-inch version for short people). The cost is $99.95.
  2. Patagonia (various retail locations plus mail order at 8550 White Fir St., Box 32050, Reno, NV 89523-2050; 800/638-64641, offers two bags that may be of interest:
    • Patagonia’s “One Bag,” No. 48092, weighs 2 lbs. 6 oz. and measures 15.5"x9.5"x12.5". It sells for $128.
    • Patagonia’s “MLC®,” No. 48104, weighs 50 ounces and measures 22"x 9.5"x13". It sells for $148.

Beware of any advertised carry-ons that are above the legal limit.

Our routine on a foreign airline

Besides weight, international airlines may also restrict the size of your carry-on, and on light aircraft you can expect further limitations.

While it is most expedient for each traveler to carry one wheelless suitcase, on occasion I have to carry three pieces of luggage (for both Flory and myself), in which case I use the following setup.

The first piece is the soft-sided, wheelless convertible bag, mentioned above, which I carry as a backpack. The other two I arrange in piggyback fashion. This combination consists of a 21-inch wheeled carry-on with a backpack hanging from a hook that comes with the suitcase (other suitcases have a loop instead of a hook).

Sometimes, I will change this routine and carry the wheelless by its handle, don the backpack and roll the 21-inch wheeled suitcase.

If the three pieces exceed the weight or number allowed by the airline, I will check one bag, which I will retrieve and subsequently recheck at the transfer point each time we have to change carriers to reach our final destination. This lessens the chance of its being misrouted.

I divide our belongings in such a way that, even if the checked luggage gets lost, each of us will have all of the journey’s essentials.

Of course, before every trip I remove all old labels and write our flight number(s), name, destination address and phone number on the inside of the checked suitcase.

For easy identification at the carousel, I attach 12 distinctive yellow or orange self-adhesive half-inch cloth strips to the outside of the bag. (To avoid confusion, I hope you will not travel on the same plane as I do.)

The TSA and its 3-1-1 rule

With the above arrangement, I can waltz through the airport until I come to security, where the new TSA’s 3‑1-1 regulation is king.

The TSA's 3-1-1 rule

This directive, which concerns liquids that you bring on board, states the following:

  • You can bring on the plane 3-ounce or smaller containers of liquids, creams, gels or aerosols, such as shampoo, toothpaste and makeup, etc.
  • You must use a 1-quart-size, clear-plastic, zip-top bag to hold the 3-ounce or smaller containers. (Take extra zip-tops along, in case the bag tears.)
  • 1 zip-top bag per passenger is allowed; this must be placed in the security bin.

With the 3-1-1 decree clearly in my mind, I succumb to the TSA-imposed annoyances.

Having made sure before entering security that my pockets are empty, I bend down to take off my shoes and dump them in the proper bin. In another basket, I carefully place our two zip-tops and position the 4-ounce bottle of contact lens fluid next to it. (To prevent leakage, I always place a thin piece of film wrap between the top and the cap of each bottle containing liquid and enclose the container in plastic film.)

In case you’re wondering about the 4-ounce bottle of contact lens fluid, the TSA explains on its website, under the heading “Travelers with Disabilities and Medical Conditions,” that you may bring all prescription and over-the-counter medications (liquids, gels and aerosols), including KY Jelly, eyedrops and saline solution for medical purposes, in any amount, but you MUST declare them to one of the security officers at the checkpoint for further inspection. For details, go to or call 866/289-9673.

Next, and importantly, I hold my breath, hoping that I haven’t placed anything in the wrong bag and that the TSA “officer” has been there long enough to know all the rules. After all, she has the final say in determining whether the dirt under my boots is liquid or solid and whether the makeup on Flory’s face is over three ounces. She even might require her to take a shower to wash it all off.

I surreptitiously wipe my nose, afraid that the drop hanging from it would prevent me from boarding the plane.

While I was still at home, I had checked out all of the bureaucratic rules on the TSA website. I even called the TSA to find out whether toiletries and creams that go in the zip-top must have a factory label. The answer was that the website doesn’t require it, but the airport TSA officer at his sole discretion may refuse articles that don’t have factory labels.

Nonprescription medication must be in the original container or in a daily-dosage dispenser, which is one of those rectangular or round plastic medication holders with separate compartments for each pill.

Prescription drugs must be in their original containers, with the name on the label corresponding to the traveler’s name.

If, despite all your precautions and preparations, the TSA agent removes an important object from your luggage, you will have to replace it overseas. Plan ahead so that you know which store carries the needed substitute. If you are on a tour, make sure you will have sufficient time to do this and that the appropriate shops (and also tourist offices) will be open.

I carry a list of each item in the two zip-tops for use on subsequent flights.

Arranging items inside our suitcase.

To prevent articles from being scattered inside the soft-sided suitcase, I use the Organized Traveler Cube Set from Eagle Creek (800/874-1048,, available at outdoor and travel stores. The set consists of three zippered, colored, nylon pouches of graduated sizes with mesh lids, called the Pack-It® Cube, Half Cube and Quarter Cube, which I fill with items from the Master Packing List residing on my computer.

Besides many other sets and individual bags, Eagle Creek also offers Pack-It® Compression Sacs, which work as follows. First, place a bulky garment inside the sac. Next, using only your hands, simultaneously compress and roll up the sac/garment ensemble. This removes the surplus air, which escapes through a one-way valve, leading to a reduction in volume of up to 80%. The sacs can be reused a number of times.

Lightening our load

To stay within the limits required by the carrier. . .

1. We consider the weight and volume of each object we pack, choose thin fabrics over bulky ones and select color-coordinated clothing.

2. We look for wrinkle-resistant, hand-washable and quick-drying materials, such as nylon/cotton and polyester/cotton. Specialized wrinkle-resistant clothing, such as that made by ExOfficio (800/644-7303,, is available at outdoor companies.

3. I do the laundry every night in the sink (you may want to carry a sink stopper or, as an alternative, use a plastic bag or a sock to prevent the water from draining out), preferably as soon as we arrive at our abode.

To dry, I place the washed, wrung-out garment flat inside a towel (I ask for extra ones), roll up the combination, twist the ends in opposite directions, remove the garment and hang it in the bathroom.

If the hotel doesn’t have enough towels, I wring our clothes out in the sink and hang them up wet. Clothes that are suspended soaking wet will collect water at their bottoms. To get rid of the excessive moisture, I squeeze the garments periodically. On occasion, I have asked permission to hang the wash on a line in the sun.

If the laundry is not dry the following morning, I put it in a waterproof bag and hang it up when we come to our next overnight stop. Over the years, we have had very few occasions where clothes were not wear-dry in the morning.

4. If necessary, we each wear a sweater and jacket instead of packing them until we have passed the airline check-in. At that point, we stuff the items inside our carry-ons, where we have left space for them.

5. We carry the books we plan to read on the plane inside a pocket of our jackets.

6. If crucial, we wear our boots.


It goes without saying that the following items always should go inside the cabin baggage.

1. All medications needed for the whole trip.

2. Guidebooks or their excerpts and reading material for the flight.

3. Important papers. (Passports and other vital documents belong inside the money belt you’re wearing.)

Although worldwide security restrictions have made it more difficult to travel solely with carry-ons, in most cases it is still “the only way to fly.”