How to Fit Your Life in a Carry-on as a Digital Nomad

an open suitcase with a hat and other items.

I’m an Italian content creator and the kind of person that always has a backpack ready to go on an adventure. People normally ask me “Where in the world are you?” before they even ask me how I am. I have been to 70 countries in 5 continents, and planning to be the first Italian woman to visit them all! I like to think about myself as an eclectic volcano of ideas: you will very unlikely find me doing the same thing I was doing 6 months ago.

Before my digital nomad life, I’d say that I was a traveler and a shopping addict. I can easily recall multiple situations where my backpack was heavier than I could lift and had to put it on a chair to be able to have it on my shoulders, or carrying my 25+kg luggage on and off boats in Thailand and really hating myself for having brought 10 dresses instead of one.

When I became a digital nomad and my travels slowed down, I had to completely rethink my way of packing. The turning point happened when I was looking for flights (as usual) and realized that many of the low prices were just for the brave ones that would sacrifice most of their belongings. 

At this point, a few thoughts rose up inside of my head: “Do I really want to spend an extra $100 just so I can carry extra clothes?” And the second one: “I bet I can fit most of my life in hand luggage”

In this way, the hard trade-off between money and possessions was transformed into a challenge… and God only knows how much my competitive side loves challenges!

In 3/4 years’ time, I became a packing pro and developed a method that everyone can apply and make sure not to waste a single cent in extra baggage and not a single minute waiting for luggage to be delivered.

My digital nomad packing strategy is divided into two parts:

  • The philosophical part
  • The practical part

Let’s go through the points together with the goal that soon, you’ll be able to fit all your life in a carry-on and pack lighter for summer trips and winter trips, too.

The Philosophical Part of Packing

We have all heard of minimalistic movements, of people that got rid of 85% of their possessions and felt extremely relieved and freed. But let’s be honest, that can sound more terrifying and drastic than enjoyable. Marie Kondo—forgive me—but too many objects still sparkle joy in my life! Consequently, even if I fit my whole life in luggage and live off of it for 6-9 months (or sometimes more), I still have some of my stuff at my parents’ house back in Italy, where I am from.

But let’s discover how to choose wisely what to pack and how to travel only with just hand luggage. This part consists of asking the right questions…

1. What Do You Need for Work?

Being a digital nomad means you are working remotely and with that comes the need to bring whatever your job requires of you—at all times.

For example, I’m a photographer, content creator and social media manager so my equipment is composed of a lot of objects: my cameras, my drone, a GoPro, a tripod, a laptop, microphones for videos, hard drives (and so many small adaptors), cables, and SD cards. I couldn’t live on the road without them so they definitely gain a ticket on the plane.

2. What Do You Love and Can’t Live Without?

This is a very personal category. Maybe you write in a diary or have a book you always carry with you, maybe some photos of loved ones, maybe a special gift or a token to remind you of someone or someplace where you collected a great memory.

Whatever those things are for you, make sure you don’t leave them home or you will surely regret it and end up constantly thinking about it wistfully. My absolute essentials are books—I always carry way too many but I am happy to sacrifice a couple of pieces of clothing for their space.

3. What Can You Easily Buy in the Location You’re Relocating To?

…and will shopping for it when you’re there cost you more or less than your checked bag?

I always consider where I am moving to. If it’s a city in a very developed place, then I can be sure I’ll be able to find stores that sell the kind of soap and shampoo I like using or that I can find a second-hand store to buy a funny mug or a pair of black leggings.

Normally those things won’t cost you that much and they can be purchased almost anywhere. If it is quite remote or not so developed town, consider doing a bit of research to understand what is available or not before you get there. Facebook groups of expats are really useful for this matter. 

And now the most philosophical of the philosophical section for packing light to live abroad…

 4. Is the Freedom of Knowing You Can Move Anywhere Anytime Worth Having Fewer Things?

Yes, yes, and yes! I had moments where I wanted to reach a friend or move to another place and I was stopped by the fact that my ticket would have been way more expensive because of my heavy luggage. Always choose experiences and opportunities over material belongings and you’ll never go wrong.

The Practical Part of Packing

But now, you have selected your belonging and have them all over the bed and you are probably thinking: “How am I going to fit all of this in my carry-on?”

Get ready for the most extreme packing you have ever done in your life!

A few considerations before sharing my tips and tricks on how to pack light:

– In my experience, almost no airline weights your carry-on luggage. Most of the time they just want to make sure it follows their standards so it won’t have problems fitting the plane storages properly. Make sure the volume is right but do not worry too much about the weight.

– Always enter the plane last, as the clock is ticking their priority of the moment is making sure to leave on time more than if you have a couple of extra kgs or lbs hidden somewhere.

1. Use Packing Cubes

The inventor of packing cubes deserves more recognition in this world! Since I discovered them my luggage is more organized and it is way easier to fit more stuff. The best way to optimize your clothes packing is by rolling them very tightly and laying them in close together until you fill every space in the cube. My trick to keep them that way is when you take a piece of clothing out of the cube and don’t want to have to repack is to use rubber bands.

2. Leave No Empty Space Unclaimed 

Sometimes we think the space in our carry-on is completely full but it is actually not. Ever thought about the inside of your shoes? You can use a plastic bag to fit all your socks & underwear inside there! Do what you can to get creative and optimize every space.

3. Plan Your Outfits in Advance

If you carry a lot of mix-and-match clothes you will always look different even though you are basically wearing the same 8-10 items. For example, I have just one pair of jeans that I match with a lot of super-light tops that can also match my shorts and my skirt.

If you are traveling to cold destinations consider buying heat technology t-shirts & stockings—they keep you warm but don’t waste a ton of space in your luggage.

4. Wear Your Baggier and Heavier Clothes at the Airport

When I go to hot destinations I normally carry only one pair of long pants and one sweater. Those are the things with more volume and weight so I wear them during all the flights and they also come in handy to protect me from the cold air-conditioning on planes.

5. More for Less

There are plenty of solutions to bring more things for less space: e-readers barely use any space and allow you to download unlimited books, and items like solid shampoos, deodorants, and soaps can save you from the 100ml hassle and last way longer. Think about other products that you can possibly downsize.

6. Take Advantage of Your Personal Item

Most of the companies allow a personal item—a little smaller, but still useful space to exploit. There is where I have all my valuable belongings because I know that it will be placed under the seat in front of me and not somewhere random in the plane in case the storage space above me is already full. If you just have a laptop you can fill it with clothes or food for the trip.

To recap these surefire ways to fit your life in carry-on luggage:

  • Always ask yourself the right questions, like: “Do you really need 5 workout outfits when you actually go to the gym once a month?”
  • Find what you really need and love and then fill the rest of the space with more replaceable things
  • Take advantage of every space of your luggage and every kg/lb
  • Enjoy shopping in the new place, you will have one more reason to explore around
  • Plan and research in advance

Now that you learned all my tips and tricks to pack light, it is time to book that cheap flight and go explore a new destination!

Written by Cristina Toscan

Where to next? Find month-to-month rentals across the globe on Anyplace.

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