Why I Travel Carry-On Only

The Backstory

It all started with a lost suitcase.

I was a college sophomore, on my way back to school from Thanksgiving Break. I had a backpack slung over my shoulders and a plastic grocery bag in hand, filled with the frozen leftover turkey my mother had sent with me. I heaved my big tan suitcase into the cargo hold of a Greyhound bus and climbed on board.

By the time we pulled into my stop hours later, my suitcase was nowhere to be found. The new winter coat I’d bought that morning, the textbooks I needed to study for my finals, my favorite bell-sleeved shirt that I can picture to this day: I never saw any of these again. I was left with a thawing turkey carcass, a mess of bureaucratic claims procedures that never resulted in any recovery or compensation, and the stress of trying to replace hundreds of dollars of textbooks before my exams.

After that experience, I bought a new suitcase — cherry red this time — and diligently picked a window seat above the cargo hold every time I boarded a Greyhound bus. At each stop, I stared daggers at the passengers retrieving their bags, ready to sound the alarm should they take mine instead of their own. To nobody’s surprise, my anxious vigilance never amounted to anything, and I soon tired of this ritual. By the time my college days were behind me, so were my days of traveling with a suitcase.

In May 2011, I carried everything I needed for a two-week trip to Seattle, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas in this backpack and purse. According to my journal, they contained “my laptop, two books, three games, and gifts for five people.”

The Benefits

Of course, there’s why I started, and then there’s why I continue. Even without the traumatic tale of my lost suitcase, I would probably still have found my way to traveling carry-on only, eventually. As I’ve honed this practice over the past decade, I’ve reaped so many benefits from it that, these days, I actually feel grateful that I lost my suitcase so many years ago and started down the path toward minimalist travel. Here are some of those benefits:

Peace of Mind

The first time I visited Florida, my family flew into Orlando on Christmas Day. I don’t remember what year it was, but I was probably in my early teens. What I do remember is that our suitcase didn’t make it to Orlando with us, and we spent Christmas Day wandering around a souvenir shop looking for a cheap t-shirt to buy so that we would have a change of clothes. When I travel carry-on only, I never have to worry about my bags getting lost, stolen, or delayed in transit. I never have to worry that a stranger is going to rifle through my belongings. I never have to worry that I’ll need something and not have it with me. That’s some pretty powerful peace of mind.

Time

Last fall, my mother and I traveled together to Dallas to visit my sister, who had recently moved there. Our flight was at 1pm. I would have been content to walk out my front door at 11am, but my mother insisted that we leave by 10. We took the subway to the bus to LaGuardia, got through security, and were seated at our gate before 11, a full two hours before our scheduled departure. I know a lot of people who like to get to the airport really early, but I am not one of those people. I love that traveling carry-on only means I never have to wait in line to check a bag before my flight or wait at a baggage carousel to reclaim it after I land. Moreover, I’m able to make the most of my time at my destination because I don’t need to drop off my bags at my hotel (or worse, wait for a hotel’s check-in time in order to drop off my bags) before I get started on my itinerary.

In November 2015, this small daypack and purse were all I brought with me on an 8-day trip to Atlanta, Montgomery, and New Orleans. The daypack weighed 13.5 pounds, including a 4.5 pound laptop.
Money

That flight to Dallas last fall was on Spirit, one of a handful of budget airlines that offer low base fares by making customary-but-nonessential services, like in-flight beverages and snacks, extra à la carte charges. One of the hallmarks of these budget airlines is that they generally only allow each passenger to bring one personal item on board as part of the base fare; a full-sized carry-on costs extra. I was able to stuff my purse into my backpack, which I then carried on board as my personal item. Sure, the space was a little tight, but that round trip flight from New York to Dallas? It cost $76/person. I’m also able to save money (and the environment!) by walking and taking public transportation, something that would be a lot more cumbersome if I had a big suitcase in tow.

Mobility

When I limit how much I bring on a trip, I get to be in control of my travels, instead of letting my stuff dictate what I do. Last summer, Lawrence and I flew out of New York at 7 one morning and landed in Minneapolis three hours and one time zone change later at just after 9am local time. We walked out of the airport and onto a train, transferred to a bus, and joined the line outside cult classic greasy spoon diner Al’s Breakfast in plenty of time for an enormous brunch. After that, we went to Weisman Art Museum, got lost and then found again around the campus of the University of Minnesota, walked across the Mississippi River on Stone Arch Bridge, visited Mill City Museum, and meandered for miles before finally arriving at our AirBnB that evening. (That’s what I call a… wait for it… possible day!) Because we had packed light, we didn’t have to wait for our bags at the airport or drop them off at our accommodations. We had the freedom to wander off the beaten path without our bags encumbering us, and we were able to enjoy a full day of exploring on our travel day.

Posing for a photo in my “Connie with Large Objects” series at Mill City Museum in Minneapolis, my backpack and purse still in tow.
Freedom

Ultimately, the biggest boon of minimalist travel is freedom. Traveling light saves me time, money, and hassle. My possessions don’t limit my choices, impede my mobility, or take up mental space, so I’m able to give my full attention to experiencing my destination. Not being reliant on and responsible for so many objects also gives my travels a sense of spaciousness. When I get away, it truly feels like a getaway.

We modify our behavior in countless small ways in order to accommodate our belongings, and we may not notice most of them until we stop. For example, I love being able to wash my hands of the overhead rack competition. Whenever I fly, I notice my fellow passengers lining up at the gate well before their boarding group is called, presumably because they want to make sure they can secure space in the overhead luggage racks for their carry-on suitcases. Meanwhile, I wait comfortably in my seat, make one last bathroom run, stretch my legs before settling in for a long flight, or buy a last-minute snack. I don’t have to worry about lining up early because I know my bags can fit comfortably under the seat in front of me, even on budget airlines. It may be a small thing, but it’s the feeling of freedom.

The backpack I brought on an 11-day trip to Burlington, Montréal, Québec, and Halifax in June–July 2016 fit easily under the seat in front of me on my way back from Canada.

The Exception

In less than two weeks, Lawrence and I are setting off on a three-week trip to China. It will be his first time in Asia and his first opportunity to meet most of my extended family. This week, for the first time in many years, I pulled out that old cherry red suitcase I bought my sophomore year of college. We need it because a trip to China for us necessarily means bringing the culturally requisite gifts for my relatives. The items for our own use will still go in our carry-ons.

My trips to China always feel complicated to me, in a way that can be hard to dissect or explain. I have an American body and a Chinese face, American sensibilities and a Chinese name. I’m embedded in the complex social web of relational give-and-take, but I don’t know the rules of the game. Even as I look forward to seeing my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins for the first time in five years, to introducing my American fiancé to the country of my birth, and to filling my travel journal with new adventures, this visit (like all visits to China) still feels laden with a sense of duty — to the family I barely know and the culture I barely understand, both of whom I must nevertheless do my best to honor.

Sometimes, it feels like part of that weight is embodied in this suitcase I’d rather not carry and the gifts I’m struggling to select, with which I’ll fill it. I genuinely enjoy gift-giving and I take pride in painstakingly picking the perfect present for each person (say that five times fast!), but it’s tough when I know so little about my recipients, there’s a minefield of cultural norms I need to avoid violating, and my desire to minimize is faced with obligatory materialism. Usually the best part of giving is seeing my recipients’ reactions, but this time, I think I might be happiest of all simply to relieve myself of the responsibility of all those possessions so that I will be free to travel lightly across the country across the world.

My attempt at assembling some “American snacks” for my Chinese relatives.

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