How to plan for carry on only travel in SE Asia for short trips

Carry on only travel is our new obsession. We first tried it on a trip to Malaysia and now that’s how we want to travel from now on! For slow travelers like us, it offers a lot of freedom and we want to share with you how we do it so you can adapt to your reality and do it yourself.
In this quick guide, you will be able to learn about what is carry on only travel, its benefits to you and see what you can pack for a short trip in South East Asia. You can use this guide for any trip from one week to fifteen days (or longer) in hot weather.

Disclaimer: Please note that there are affiliate links in this post – if you click on them and make a purchase we might get a commission. Your support is greatly appreciated and helps keep this free resource up and running.

What is carry on only travel

Carry on only travel is when you bring the luggage with you onto the airplane’s cabin, as opposed to checked luggage that goes to the plane’s cargo area. Since there are usually size and weight restrictions in place for this kind of hand luggage, there is also a limit to the number of things you can carry with you inside the plane, so it’s a great opportunity to experience a kind of minimalist travel.

The benefits of traveling carry-on only

You may be asking why should I travel with hand luggage only? Here are some obvious benefits of traveling carry-on only:


You save time and money at the airport: no need to check-in, pay for extra luggage or to claim it (plus, no danger of losing it!)

You travel lighter: taking only what you really need, you avoid unnecessary weight and worries; great for short trips of a few days to two weeks.

You can keep your bag with you: no need to stow it away in the luggage compartment, risking losing it or getting something broken, plus, you have all your belongings handy, in case you need to pull out your computer or an extra piece of clothing for a colder bus trip.

Since we moved to Thailand, we have to do a visa run every so often, so we decided to use that as an opportunity to travel around South East Asia. Check out our international travel checklist for border crossing for more info on how to do it properly.

Rules for carry-on only travel

Nevertheless, there are some basic things to remember when traveling carry-on only. Make sure you remember these before you travel:

#1 Check the size and weight requirements of your airline before you pack

Make sure you visit your airline’s website before you travel and check the allowed dimensions and weight limit for your carry on backpack. Budget airlines are usually much more strict with their baggage requirements, so make sure you buy a suitcase, backpack or duffel bag that fits their requirements. You don’t want to waste the money you saved on checked-in luggage with a fee for an oversized hand luggage.

#2 Carry on liquid size for safety check at the airport

For all your liquids, gels or aerosols, follow the 3-1-1 rule:

maximum 3 oz. (= 100mL) containers

they need to fit in a 1-quart (1L) resealable plastic bag

1 ziplock bag per person


  • liquid medications or special dietary requirements, including baby food
  • duty-free liquids purchased at the airport or plane, as long as properly packed and with proof of purchase.

For more information, check TSA liquid limits for carry on only travel or the European Commission website.

#3 Other objects

What about food? Can I bring tweezers? Well, it depends. TSA’s website has a very useful search tool and list of all the items that are allowed in your carry-on. Please, check it before you travel.

Toiletries that fit the carry on liquid limits.

TIP #1: Laptops and other electrical devices are required to be screened separately. Carry your laptop or tablet inside its own pouch, for protection, and put it in the laptop compartment of your backpack for easy access.

What to pack in a carry on backpack – a minimalist backpack how-to guide


I usually travel with my 44L Osprey backpack and João with his slightly bigger 46L Osprey backpack (we bought them back in 2010 and never had to replace them ever since) and a smaller backpack that works as our daypack. For this trip, we just converted our daypacks into our carry on luggage.

Our minimalist backpacks were just the right size for us, we needed no more for one week in Malaysia.


I travel with a small 18L Lowe Alpine backpack, and João uses a sturdy 20L Over Board roll-top waterproof backpack.

Most airlines allow a personal item per passenger. What is a personal item? Well, it’s a second bag, purse or laptop bag that you can take with you inside the cabin, as long as it fits below your seat. Some airlines define the size and weight limits for it, others don’t, so always check your airline’s website for more information.

Tip #2: How to choose the best carry on backpack?

  • buy the appropriate size: an average size for carry on luggage is 22″x14″x9” (55cm x 35cm x 20cm). Make sure you check the airlines you usually travel with and make your purchase according to that size limit.
  • comfort is important: make sure your backpack has padded shoulder straps and a waist strap. Buy the size that fits you better and, if you are a woman, buy a backpack adapted to your body shape.
  • easy to organize your stuff: choose a front-loaded backpack instead of a top loaded one. It will allow you to quickly see what is inside and make it easy to remove any item you need to show during TSA screening, like your electronic devices or the 3-1-1 ziplock bag.
  • waterproof: make sure your backpack can withstand a downpour, especially if traveling in SE Asia. Also, look for durable and tough material that can make it last longer.


For tropical weather, such as in Kuala Lumpur and the island of Penang, in Malaysia, it was easy to pack the minimum. Traveling carry on only also pushes you to travel with a minimum. Have a look at our minimalist clothing list:


Sara’s minimalist clothing list:

  • 3 (or 4) tops: a T-shirt for more conservative places and 2 tank tops. My Twelveways convertible dress also works as a strapless top for a chic outfit.
  • 2 bottoms:
    • harem pants
    • TwelveWays long or short skirt, so I actually had more than 2 bottoms
  • 1 summer dress
  • 1 large scarf: this worked as my top layer for air-conditioned rooms or to cover myself up while visiting the National mosque in KL
  • 1 pair of socks: I just used them to keep my feet comfortable during the flight
  • 4 pairs of undies: made of quick-dry and moisture-wicking synthetic fabric, although I like to wear cotton on a daily basis for health matters
  • 2 bras: choose what is most comfortable for you, hopefully, breathable and quick-dry
  • 1 bikini: my bandeau bikini top allowed me to double it up as a bra and to wear it with my strapless top
  • accessories:
    • hat
    • sunglasses
    • pair of hearings, a bracelet, and a necklace. Choose golden or silver tones depending on your skin tone (golden for darker tones and silver for lighter tones), and simple jewelry.


João’s minimalist clothing list:

  • 5 (or 6) tops: he carries a mix of technical and cotton T-shirts. Technical travel clothing is clothing made of a synthetic fabric with quick-dry properties, very useful for doing laundry on the go. Nevertheless, he prefers to have a few cotton T-shirts for the nice feel and look, as the others usually look less fashionable.
  • 1 light wind jacket
  • 2 bottoms:
    • travel pants that convert into shorts by removing part of the legs
    • board shorts for the beach and pool
  • 2 pairs of socks: one for the flight and another as a backup
  • 3 pairs of underwear: the famous ExOfficio Under Armour briefs  purchased in 2010 are still in a great shape
  • accessories:
    • hat
    • sunglasses

Remember, before you buy anything try to research for ethical brands for your purchases. You’ll find a library full of such brands over at the Conscious Lifestyle blog NewDsign.


Only one pair! Yes, you heard it. Comfort and versatility was important, as well as the fact that we wore them so we saved space in our backpacks.

My Teva sandals have been with me since our trips in Latin America in 2012. João loves his Keen sandals for their comfort and versatility.


all-in-one Castile soap: we love Dr. Bronner’s Pure Castile soap bar because it’s chemical-free and you can use it as

* body soap and shampoo

* toothpaste

* mouthwash

* shaving cream

* laundry wash

  • hair conditioner/leave-in: I have very dry curly hair so I use my conditioner as a leave-in to moist and define my curls
  • sunscreen
  • bamboo toothbrush: our biodegradable brushes are inexpensive and eco-friendly.
  • menstrual cup: a woman’s best friend, replaces pads and tampons, reusable, hygienic and eco-friendly
  • deodorant
  • shaving cream or razorblade: disposable razors are fine for the safety check
  • moisturizer/makeup remover/shaving oil: I use sweet almond oil or coconut oil as my go-to moisturizer and make-up remover. Joao tends to use a small beard but when he shaves, he uses these oils. Sesame oil is a great option too, due to its anti-inflammatory properties. Make sure you use a dark glass container to preserve your oil and place it in a cool place once you arrive at your destination
  • reusable makeup remover pads: made of organic cotton, these pads are washable so you don’t have to buy any more disposable ones! You can even DIY yours if you are in the hang of it.
  • nail clipper
  • tweezers
  • hairbrush
  • insect repellent: for this part of the world, especially if you are traveling to malaria-affected countries, make sure you insect repellent that is actually effective.
  • makeup: I seldom use it but make sure you pack makeup inside TSA’s limits. Go for multi-use items – a foundation can work as a concealer; a lipstick can double up as a blush or eyeshadow; an eyeliner can work as a smokey eyeshadow.

Tip #3: Opt for solid toiletries, like bars of solid shampoo and soap, deodorant stick, and sunscreen stick. There are plenty of options out there but check out this article for solid toiletries for travel for more ideas.



  • laptops + chargers + case: we are devoted fans of Apple products so we both carry MacBooks.
  • iPhone/camera + Lifeproof case with extra battery + cable: we currently use an iPhone 6. It doubles up as our travel camera.
  • iPad + case: our iPad Air 2 is useful for watching movies in long trips, to read (iBooks and Kindle apps allow you to adjust the screen options to reduce eye-straining) and doubles up as a camera too.
  • mini-mouse
  • headset: for teaching English online. For us, this is the best online job of today for traveling and living around the world. Check out how to land an online tutoring job and start traveling now!
  • portable solar charger: a foldable 15W solar charger capable of charging any power demanding device on the fly.
  • AmazFit: Joao’s smartwatch for health measurements and to keep his smartphone far away.
  • portable speakers: A brandless power speaker because our Mac computer speakers are both gone
  • headphone splitter: so that both of us can watch movies during our flights

Tip #4: We learned the hard way that the best way to carry your electronics is inside your carry-on luggage and not in your checked-in luggage. Why? You never know the type of handling your checked-in bag suffers, like when Joao’s MacBook came out with a broken screen. If only we had known before…

Also, make sure your devices are ensured. True Traveller travel insurance offers an affordable travel insurance and you can also add your electronics for a reasonable price.

Documents & Money

  • passport
  • national driver’s license and international driving permit: to be able to legally use your driver’s license abroad, some countries demand an international driving permit issued in your country of origin. It’s basically a translation into several languages of your national driver’s license.
  • vaccination and yellow fever vaccination cards: some countries in SE Asia demand that you have yellow fever vaccination and they could stop you from entering at the border if you don’t carry the vaccination card.
  • travel insurance copy
  • paper copies of all the documents listed above
  • passport photos (for visa applications)
  • a copy of our bank statement: for visa applications as well, some places make you show that you are financially independent to stay over for longer periods of time.
  • emergency cash: we always carry a few hundred dollars for emergencies and extra visa fees
  • Revolut pre-paid credit card: these are Mastercard pre-paid cards that come with no fees for international use. Revolut is free and allows for $200/month withdrawals plus you can check your balance live in their app.


  • collapsible daypack: anything from a tote bag to a foldable daypack. It can be useful to carry your essentials or it works as your personal item during flights.
  • refillable water bottle
  • travel kit: we both have a small bag where we carry some basics to make our trips more comfortable
    * eye mask
    * earplugs
    * inflatable travel pillow
    * anti-motion sickness wristbands
    * handkerchief
    * alcohol gel
    * 1 pair of socks
    * headphones
    * chapstick
  • zero-waste kit: a must-have if you want to reduce your disposables use. We carry our kit everywhere we go and make the most out of it!
Our zero-waste kit being used while trying some delicious street food.


Here’s a checklist for you to travel carry on only with little to no effort.

  1. Check luggage weight and size limits requirements for your airline
  2. Follow the 3-1-1 rule for all liquids
  3. Check forbidden items list for carry on luggage
  4. Pack multi-purpose clothes
  5. Take only a pair of shoes and wear them
  6. Opt for solid toiletries instead of liquid ones
  7. Bring copies of all your travel documents
  8. Don’t forget your Zero Waste kit for an eco-conscious trip

Want to learn more about packing light? Subscribe to our newsletter below.

Our Society is becoming Nomad again. Learn here how to become a World Citizen and live borderless

With more power, comes more responsibility. Learn here how to travel with a Zero Waste lifestyle