How to become a one-bag traveler, or else

8 March 2024
How to become a one-bag traveler, or else

Are you one of those travelers who has relied on fanny packs, concealed backpacks, and hacks like ‘pillows’ stuffed with clothing to get your stuff on the plane? 

Well, things are changing, unfortunately.

Airlines are increasing luggage fees while simultaneously cracking down on those carry-on items that boarding agents weren’t batting an eye at before. Gate agents now require things like small cross-body bags to be stuffed into your backpack.

Essentially, the airlines are making it trickier and more difficult to travel economically with your stuff:

  • Delta increased checked-bag fees to $35 for the first checked bag, and $45 for the second (an increase of $5 for each).
  • American increased the cost of the first bag fee to $40 (an increase of $10).
  • Alaska, JetBlue, and United also issued $5 per bag to their existing fees. 

Southwest, the largest domestic carrier in the US and the lone hold-out, still allows two free checked bags, but they’re cracking down on extra carry-on items too.

Traveler suitcase

Why the rate hikes?

Carriers say they’re countering rising operating costs and declining airfares, but the truth is they love baggage fees. It’s a real money maker for them.

The airlines collected over $33 billion in luggage fees in 2023—more than pre-pandemic levels—and that was before the new rate increases.

Why you should stick to one bag

If you can pack light, you’re safer and in control:

  • You can walk a distance and even take stairs without a problem.
  • You have fewer lines at the airport on both ends.
  • You save money (not only on baggage fees but also porter tips because you can carry the bag).
  • Thieves can’t target your luggage as easily (it’s always with you).
  • You save time (no waiting at the baggage carousel).

If you can stick to a suitcase and one other—backpack, over-the-shoulder bag, briefcase, whatever you choose—you’re better off. 

A packing list that works for everyone

I’ve traveled with a single suitcase and backpack for years and yet I have all the travel essentials I need for work and play. Yes, it takes some planning and some judicious choices, but I believe you can do it too.

The following packing list works for every traveler.

In your suitcase:

Put these items in your carry-on-size suitcase (check the airline for exact measurements and weight limits):

  • Shoes – wear your heaviest on the plane and try to limit yourself to one other pair
  • Clothing – every item should go with many other items, and use packing cubes to contain everything
  • Light jacket or sweater – something you can dress up or down
  • Accessories – belt, scarf, smooshable hat (if needed)
  • Bathing suit (if needed)
  • Foundation items: pajamas, underwear, and socks
  • A plastic zippered bag (great for dirty laundry and wet swimsuits on the ride home)
  • Larger (but still under 3.5 ounces) beauty kit with only the essentials
  • travel medical kit (see our list of what to pack in this)

Worried about the weather? So maybe you really like having an umbrella – that’s OK, but know that you can probably buy one where you’re going if you’re short on space. Same for gloves and rain jackets.

Our most popular article: See how to check the weather before you travel.

In your second bag:

Put these in your second bag, your personal item:

  • Adapters and chargers
  • Sunglasses
  • Phone
  • Wallet
  • Passport (if needed)
  • Techie things: e-reader, laptop, tablet, headphones, etc.
  • Prescription meds, vitamins, over-the-counter meds, and supplements
  • Reusable water bottle
  • Sanitizing wipes (to germ-proof your seats)
  • Travel-sized essentials: deodorant, toothbrush, toothpaste, hand sanitizer, face cream, brush/comb, razor, etc.
  • Scarf or travel blanket if you are typically cold on planes (bonus points if you wear this instead!)

If that doesn’t sound like a lot – it’s not! That’s the point. You only need what’s necessary to be safe and enjoy your trip. Who cares if you’re wearing the same three outfits over and over? If you’re traveling solo, who would even know?

Keeping things clean and fresh

I typically wash the socks and underthings each night and hang them to dry. Wear the clean dry ones while you wait for the others to dry. You don’t even need detergent—use the soap in your hotel room! 

Roll the clean wet items in a towel and step on it to wring out the excess water. Then shake the items out and place them on hangers or the radiator to speed up the drying process. 

Put larger items on hangers from the closet and hang them over the shower bar or curtain rod with plenty of airflow to help them dry.

What happens if it doesn’t all fit?

In some cases, you may have to make tough decisions or get really creative:

  • If you travel with large, expensive camera equipment, for example, you may want to get a bigger bag and use that as your personal item.
  • If you need presentation materials when you arrive, you may want to ship it far in advance so you can confirm it arrived before you leave instead of dragging them with you.
  • If you need sporting equipment for your trip, you may have to check that and pay up, unfortunately.
Damian Tysdal

Damian Tysdal is the founder of CoverTrip, and is a licensed agent for travel insurance (MA 1883287). He believes travel insurance should be easier to understand, and started the first travel insurance blog in 2006.

Damian Tysdal is the founder of CoverTrip, and is a licensed agent for travel insurance (MA 1883287). He believes travel insurance should be easier to understand, and started the first travel insurance blog in 2006.