Managing liquids and gels with carry-on only

This item appears on page 42 of the June 2011 issue.

Barbara Glavish of Incline Village, Nevada, wrote, “Many readers have mentioned that they travel all over the world with just one carry-on bag. I do wonder how they cope with the rule prohibiting carrying greater-than-three-ounce containers of liquids, gels and pastes.* Do they carry lots of little bottles of body lotion, shampoo, face cream, toothpaste, etc? Do they purchase toiletry items on the go? I’ve found that in many places, even generic-type lotions, shampoos, etc., are much more expensive than others at home and, frankly, I can’t be bothered with hunting down these items while I’m traveling. Some of these travelers go camping or stay in small pensions, and occasionally even quite upmarket hotels do not supply amenities in the bathrooms. Can any of these travelers tell me how they manage on a long trip?”

We asked all you who never check a bag to give up your secrets. We printed a number of responses last month, and more appear below. If you have something to add, write to Liquids in Carry-ons, c/o ITN, 2116 28th St., Sacramento, CA 95818, or e-mail (Include the mailing address at which you receive ITN.)

*With its guideline “3-1-1 for Carry-ons,” the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) asks that, in airline passengers’ carry-on baggage at US airports, any liquids, gels and aerosols be in containers not exceeding 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters) by volume and that all these containers fit in a one-quart-size, clear, plastic, zip-top bag, with a limit of one bag per person. EU countries and dozens of others maintain similar restrictions.

The TSA continues to permit in carry-on baggage all prescription and over-the-counter liquid, gel or aerosol medications and other such products (in reasonable quantities) needed by persons with disabilities and medical conditions. Such products that are larger than 3.4 ounces may not be placed in the quart-size bag, must be kept separate from other property and must be declared, verbally or in writing, to the TSA officer for additional inspection. Among the many such products that are allowed are baby formula, petroleum jelly, eye drops, saline solution and liquid nutrition for medical purposes. Frozen-solid items are allowed, but if they are slushy or even partially melted when presented for screening, they must meet the 3-1-1 requirements.

I have yet to find any accommodation that doesn’t supply shampoo, but, since I have never stayed in a rented villa or backpackers’ place, I can’t vouch for the amenities in those.

I wash my hand laundry with the supplied shampoo. I do carry a small bottle of conditioner if I am going to a hotel or with a cruise line for the first time and am not sure what they have.

I save my empty little lip balm and eye cream containers (approximately 15ml-30ml, or 0.5 to 1 oz.) to fill later with hair-styling cream, facial sunscreen, makeup foundation, etc.

I take a foil packet or two of individual facial masks. Drugstores, such as CVS, carry these. I buy the Greek brand APIVITA at C.O. Bigelow’s in Columbus, Ohio, although I have seen it all over Europe. As some spas do, APIVITA sells one-time-use hair masks and energizing leg gel in tiny packages as well. I like being able to pamper myself in a hotel room after a nonstop day of sightseeing.

I use the facial serums that come in the individual-dose capsules. A two-week supply of 30 capsules takes up almost no room in the bottom of my plastic bag.

One or two small tubes of toothpaste and a tube of lip gloss round out my kit.

I even have room for two bottles of nail polish. My nail polish remover is in single-use foil packets.

My best trick is to use my son’s allotment for carry-on liquids. The only hitch was, in coming back from Buenos Aires in November 2010, the TSA agent wanted to know why my 20-year-old had several bottles of nail polish. He just pointed over to me and it was okay.

My one-quart bag is jammed, but since it all fits, TSA doesn’t protest.

Nanci Scheithauer
Santa Fe, NM

My wife, Barbara, and I did a three-week trip to China in 2009 and spent two weeks in France in 2010 with carry-on only. Each trip included a cruise with Viking River Cruises (Woodland Hills, CA; 800/304-9616).

We packed microfiber undies that could be washed in the sink and would be dry by morning. Our outerwear was mostly nylon and could be washed in the sink as well. I lived in my Eddie Bauer shirts (long-sleeved and could be rolled up and secured with a tab) and the pants that become shorts by unzipping the legs off at the bottom.

We also packed silk long johns for layering. They take no space and are a lifesaver when you get to the cold parts. We went from warm autumn in Shanghai to snow on the Great Wall. It worked.

We managed this, in part, by using Laundry Soap Sheets from Magellan’s (800/962-4943). They come in a small plastic container and are solid sheets that dissolve in hot water and become suds in your sink. It takes three or four soap sheets to do a few pieces, so buy lots.

The beauty of this is that they are viewed by the TSA as nonliquid (as they are).

Finally, this all worked because the cruises of Viking River Cruises are casual. We never had to dress for dinner. And even though they offered laundry service, we didn’t need it.

Now that we’ve figured out carry-on packing, it’s unlikely that we will travel any other way, at least in the temperate climes.

I’m happy to answer queries from ITN readers; e-mail c/o ITN.

Norm Snyder
Granbury, TX

At age 82, I am a retired TWA captain and a retired travel agency owner and 20 years retired from the military (which gives me Space-A on most military aircraft), and I have been a backpack traveler for many years. I’ve used all systems to max out my travel opportunities and have, indeed, been very fortunate.

My present health problems are forcing me to exchange my rather heavy backpack for a wheeled suitcase, one that fits easily into the overhead compartments on planes.

Water is the most important carry-on item. Years ago it was discovered that drinking water on many airplanes was refilled around the globe from, sometimes, questionable sources. Here in the USA, I have no problem with carrying an empty one-liter bottle through inspection barriers and then refilling it at the first water fountain.

Most stores are aware of the three-ounce TSA restriction and they have tubes of toothpaste, shaving cream and even empty three-ounce bottles for your liquid stuff. If you are careful, a three-ounce container of almost anything should carry you through almost any vacation of a few weeks. The thing you may use the most of is shampoo.

Carry a few extra one-quart-size, zip-top plastic bags.

Arriving in Guam in 2002, we were advised, “All medications should be in their original packages,” which, for me today, would take up a good part of a cubic foot of space. (My general practitioner advises me that one new pill prescription per decade of life is about what can be expected.) I think my advanced age got me off the hook that time.

Prescriptions come in various-sized bottles. If you need to carry the labeled containers, you can ask your druggist to put a one- or two-week supply of each in the smallest bottle and to squeeze another week’s worth in to cover any emergency delays. However, on my most recent trips, I preferred to carry pills in a seven-day a.m/p.m. plastic dispenser. I carried no prescription literature, but it was never questioned.

Lastly, don’t smart off to the inspectors! In fact, don’t smart off to anyone wearing a uniform. You may gain instant fame, but you could miss your flight and pay a 10,000-dollar fine.

Jim Schmitt
Forest Grove, PA

Here are my tips for using items in a one-quart zip-top bag for a month.

Get a short haircut that can dry in five minutes and be finger styled. 100 milliliters of shampoo will last a month. Conditioner is redundant if you take conditioning shampoo.

Visit your dentist and get a sample-size toothpaste; you should be able to brush once or twice a day for a month. Or take a pill bottle full of baking soda (a nonliquid).

Find the smallest stick of deodorant at the dollar store and use it up.

Buy a big hat. Unless you are going to a beach exclusively, the hat plus a multipurpose shawl/scarf take care of most sun exposure.

If you’re going to a destination that mandates it, go to the sporting goods store and get concentrated insect repellent. I have actually stopped carrying it, since I have not used it on any trips for years.

Also, sporting goods products are available (usually advertised in camping catalogs) that, with just one bottle, can be used for all washing — clothes, hair, body, dishes and hands.

I have never been in a hotel that didn’t put out soap of some sort, but if you want your own, take a small moisturizing bar (or cut one to size) and wrap it in your facecloth.

Last, “slum it” a bit. You don’t really need moisturizer, face cream, mouthwash, hand lotion, body wash, etc., even if they are available in small sizes. You have three to five essential items. Put in ample hand sanitizer and you are done.

Marilyn Jestes
Roulette, PA

Properly packing liquids in carry-on bags just takes a bit of planning. To start, instead of gels or liquids, use solids, which don’t have to satisfy the 3-1-1 rule.

Use the sample sizes of products rather than regular sizes. You may not find your favorite brand in a sample size, but you will probably survive a few weeks with another brand. Shop around; not all stores carry the same brands of sample-sized products.

Stay away from aerosols, whose containers tend to be larger than those of liquids and gels.

If you are a couple traveling together, remember that men tend to not have as much of this sort of thing as women do. Small makeup items may find room in the male traveler’s quart bag.

Toiletry products are easy to purchase in most countries, especially at airports. It can actually be fun to shop for some of these products in another country.

If you really just can’t do without your favorite cosmetics and they all won’t fit in a quart-size bag, it would be better to simply check a bag.

Russ Crum
Canton, MI

Many of us solve the problem simply by eliminating liquids. There are few items that do not have solid equivalents, from shampoos to moisturizers, toothpastes to perfumes, mascara to foundation, sunblock to insect repellent and more.

By getting rid of all that (heavy) water, not only are you avoiding security concerns, you are reducing leakage, bulk and the most important thing of all: luggage weight!

I travel extensively, and the only liquid I pack is a quarter-ounce bottle of shaving oil that is smaller than my thumb.

Doug Dyment
San Francisco, CA

I routinely travel for one to four weeks at a time and use one carry-on bag that is actually smaller than the maximum carry-on size. Ms. Glavish asked how those of us who travel with one carry-on cope with the rule about carrying liquids, gels and pastes. The short answer is I carry none of these.

The toiletry items I carry are as follows:

  • one regular-size bar of J.R. Liggett’s solid shampoo (Jojoba & Peppermint, since it helps with odors and doubles as a conditioner);
  • one bar of Dove body soap (if you use this, you don’t need lotion or face cream);
  • one Mitchum SmartSolid clinical-strength deodorant stick (quite strong);
  • one bottle of DailyCare mint toothpowder (works better than paste), and
  • one bottle of Scent-A-Way body powder. I put Scent-A-Way on my body, in my shoes and on hotel bedding where there may be some residual smoker’s odor. I also mix it in with the rinse water when washing clothes (see below). Scent-A-Way is made by Hunter’s Specialties (Cedar Rapids, IA; 319/395-0321), and I purchase it at Bass Pro Shops (800/227-7776), but any store that sells archery and/or hunting supplies should have it.
  • Ms. Glavish did not ask about laundry, specifically, but I also carry an eight-ounce bottle of Scent-Be-Gone (now known as Scent Killer) laundry powder for washing clothes, because if you travel four weeks with one bag, you do laundry every night. Scent Killer is made by the Wildlife Research Center (Ramsey, MN; 800/873-5873 or 763/427-3350), but I get it, too, at Bass Pro Shops.

Scent-A-Way and Scent Killer are products used by hunters and wildlife photographers to eliminate body odor and allow them to get closer to wildlife without being smelled by the animals. It is designed to eliminate existing odor, stop new odor from forming and work under difficult physical conditions — all similar requirements of someone traveling for weeks at a time with only one bag. (The theory is if a deer can’t smell you, then the person in the seat next to you can’t smell you.)

That is all I pack. I don’t carry shaving cream because the Liggett’s works great for that. I have found that the above items work so well for me that I use them at home as well as when traveling.

If anyone is interested in traveling with just one carry-on size bag, I recommend two awesome websites: and

Dann Halverson
Houston, TX