The opportunity came up recently, after a very long time on the ground, to do a little air travel. I decided to pack as minimally as possible, using only a personal-item bag that would fit under the airplane seat. Now I'm back, everything's unpacked and washed and I can't show you precisely how it all looked; but the teddy bears are going to help me reconstruct the story.
Now, I hear you asking if you haven't done this recently, what's wrong with regular carry-on? Because an increasing number of travellers don't want to pay for checked bags, or worry that they'll get lost, carry-on is way more popular than it used to be. If you're travelling on small planes (say for shortish flights), there isn't enough overhead space for every single passenger to stow a bag. What will probably happen when you're waiting to board the plane is that, first, they'll ask for volunteers to check their wheeled carry-ons (for free). If they don't get enough volunteers, the last passengers to board will have to check their bags even if they don't want to. Which defeats half the purpose of going carry-on, which is avoiding the search for your luggage at the airport, or (worst of all) hearing that it went somewhere else without you.
So I did a crash course in how to pack extra-light, courtesy of Youtube's "Travel Tips by Laurie" and a free webinar by HerPackingList.com. I do have a backpack that would have fit within the underseat size limits, but it's smaller, like a school backpack, and only zips open partway. Going by online reviews (and a friend who had just bought one), I bought a Cabin Max Mini Metz 30 L pack, which is sized exactly to meet American Airlines' underseat limits. Setting my old and new packs side by side, you might not notice a lot of difference, but I do think the full-zip style and the bigger capacity made getting the new bag worthwhile.
The next thing I had to do, after all this time at home, was to round up any travel equipment I had, especially small containers, pouches, and bags. Several years ago I managed a less-is-more trip by stuffing clothes very tightly into large Ziploc bags, which did work, but this time I wanted to try some alternatives. A daughter had given me a pile of her Shein bags (they're a travel thing right now). I had a few smaller dollar-store mesh bags, similar to the Shein bags; two cloth bags that had held sheet sets; a thrifted child's lunch pack that seemed like it would make a good packing cube; and quite a few zippered cases. Most of the liquids bottles I had used in trips past had been discarded, but I still had some of the small round containers, and a few tiny ones from cosmetic samples.
And that brings us to one key point. What's wrong with just putting your clothes and everything else straight into the backpack? Nothing. Of course you can do that. But there's one reason you might not want to if you're flying: TSA security checks. Although I was (thankfully) not stopped, beeped, or patted down during this trip, it has happened to me before, and sometimes then they want to look in your bags or they ask you to show them a specific item. And if you have things organized in smaller bags, you can not only access them faster, but get them all repacked very speedily as well. Which is much better than having clothes spewing out every which way.
Obviously, part of the very-small strategy is to minimize what you're taking, and to take the smallest and lightest versions possible; but how you fit things in can make a difference too. I ended up using two of the zip-top Shein bags for clothes (one became a dirty-clothes bag during the trip), plus a really great expandable pencil case of my daughter's for non-liquids makeup and things like bandaids; a clear bag for liquids; a large Ziploc bag for in-flight needs; and a small crocheted pouch for jewelry.
A pair of shoes, an umbrella, and a small purse went in by themselves. I kept minimizing the size and weight of things wherever I could. I packed the lightest-weight pajamas I had, mini-pens, a tiny emery board. I even used one of the tiny cosmetic boxes for just a bit of my favourite lipstick colour. I knew that there were going to be some basic soaps and shampoos at the place where we'd be staying, and in any case, we would be near stores, so I didn't need to pack every possible toiletry.
This is where the story turns a little bit funny, packing-wise. I had originally thought it might be quite warm, and had planned out some clothes accordingly, had even thought of sandals, which is pushing it for March, but it could have happened. What is the one other tip that all the travel videos give? Check the weather online for the place you'll be going. So I did, and every time, the destination sounded wetter and colder than before. Some of our planned activities were going to be outdoors, which is another good thing to consider when you're packing. Also, the weather here in Ontario stayed very cold, which meant that even if I wasn't wearing a winter coat, I would need to be well-layered for the going and coming. So, off the list went the sandals, and, eventually, even the springy dress and jersey blazer, in favour of a zip-up fleece jacket and an extra shirt.
And now are you waiting for me to say that the weather was perfect, the temperature went up to 80 degrees and everyone was walking around in shorts? Um, no. It was more like walking by the lake in October: not cold and snowy, but definitely chilly and windy. I ended up wearing almost every layer I'd packed, every time we went out. I was grateful for that fleece jacket which I'd originally crossed off the list, thinking it would be extra weight I didn't need. (As it turned out, wearing it under my coat was also helpful because I could put small valuables in its zippered pockets.) So: check the weather reports as carefully as you check your departure gate, because they can both change without warning. And don't be too committed to what you thought might be nice to wear, because warm enough/ cool enough/ dry enough is more important.
Fantasy vs. reality
One small disappointment was that the crossbody purse I found (at a thrift store) turned out not to work very well for the things I wanted to put into it (it looked like my ID cards were going to fall out). I had brought a lightweight tote bag and ended up using that as a day-bag. As they say: test things out ahead of time. I should also have tested the travel toothbrush that came free with some travel-size shampoo and lotion. If you really need to go mini on the toothbrush, get a decent folding one. Just saying.
The filled backpack (with wardrobe modifications as above) ended up weighing between eleven and twelve pounds, which was quite manageable and fit perfectly under the airplane seat. I didn't make full use of all the little pockets in the front compartment, because I thought it might be awkward to keep pulling the bag out and fiddling with the pockets during the flight. It was easier to rummage in the Ziploc bag for my magazine or an anti-ear-popping stick of gum. I fit my tablet into one of the front-compartment pockets. (I didn't have to show it for the flight out as they were only interested in laptops, but on the way back they asked us to show tablets as well.)
I made sure the clear liquids bag was near the top so that I could grab it quickly, and when I was going through the TSA line, I attached it through the Velcro on the top handle, just to keep things together.
When I got where we were going, I took my rolled-up clothes out of the Shein bags, and hung them up. We did have laundry available, but I preferred to wear everything a couple of times and wash it all when I got home.
And that's my story. Would I go underseat-only again? Yes, and again not so much because hoisting a carry-on into the bin is a problem, as that these days you might not get a carry-on space at all. It's nice to know for sure that nobody's going to try to wrangle your bag away. Plus it's good to prove, sometimes, that you are up to the challenge.