Have you ever lost your luggage, or had it get rerouted and show up well into your vacation? Are you fed up with spending extra money on baggage fees with the airlines, or having to leave a huge tip with the porter for all the bags you need carried to your hotel room?


There is a way to free yourself from a lot of the hassles of luggage; travel with just your carryons!

No need to faint in disbelief. For now, just consider carryon-only travel as an ultimate or extreme goal; one that takes some discipline and adjustments (but surprisingly doable for most people). For now, let's just look at how we can minimize our luggage headaches when traveling on a Disney theme park vacation.

Why pack lighter in the first place?

There are many reasons why packing lighter is a good thing:

  • Cheaper to travel – You can avoid paying check-in luggage fees, and pay less to the cab driver or porter (who typically expect $1 per bag)
  • Less worry – You have fewer bags or suitcases to worry about getting lost in transit
  • Easier to get around – You can stack your bags on your main check-in bag and wheel everything around yourself
  • More bag space for your trip home – You get more room for souvenirs on your flight home
  • Friendlier to the planet – you literally have a smaller footprint (fewer bags, lighter total weight of each traveler with their stuff, etc.)

There are various ways to avoid paying those pesky luggage fees when you fly. For example, you can:

  • Fly on Southwest Airlines, which doesn't charge for your first two check-in bags
  • Have a United Airlines Mileage Plus Explorer Visa (or other frequent flyer) card, which lets you waive luggage fees
  • Fly business or first class, which typically doesn't charge extra for checking in luggage
  • Have elite status with your frequent flyer program

Start with the luggage

Figuring out how to lighten your load starts well before you actually start packing your luggage. If you're on the market for new luggage, consider how easy it will be for you to use them. These days, even the larger check-in bags take the form of a rolling upright. That makes moving them a snap, but how easy is it to maneuver when they're full of clothes and weigh 50 pounds? Will the luggage fit in the trunk of your car? Can you lift and carry the case when it's fully loaded?

Some of the large models are extremely huge. My recommendation is to avoid going with the largest cases, and instead picking moderately sized ones that are easier to handle. One test: At the luggage store, ask the clerk if you can weigh the case down (with other merchandise; do it in front of the clerk), then try to navigate what is surely going to be narrow pathways and aisles inside the store. How easily does the case turn when it's heavy? Does the case try to flip over? How sturdy does the telescoping handle feel? Does it lock into place, and slide up and down with ease? Does the case have grab handles so it's easy to hoist without using the handlebar? Can you lift it when it's full?

Tip: Pay attention to the wheel mechanism and telescoping handlebars on rolling uprights. If the bag is recessed to accommodate these, you will have a big hump inside the bag that will affect how much you can pack. On the flip side, you'll have more room if they are on the outside of the case, but these stick out and may make them harder to put into a car trunk.

"Garanimal"-ify your wardrobe

If you're like a lot of people, your trip to Disneyland or Walt Disney World means packing "vacation clothes." Forget all that frumpy office stuff; you're packing your T-shirts and shorts! But before you toss a bunch of your favorite Mickey shirts in your luggage, take time to put together your packing wardrobe. For me, this usually means grabbing everything from the closet I think I want to take, and laying them all out on the bed. Then comes the "Garanimal"ification exercise. Garanimals are a brand of children's clothes that are tagged with different animals. As long as you match animals for your top and bottom, the colors and styles are guaranteed to work together. You can do the same thing with your vacation wardrobe. What this means is that, as much as possible, every item of clothing should match everything else. Sorry folks. That means your striped shirt should probably not go with your Minnie Mouse polka-dotted skirt.

The easiest way to coordinate your wardrobe is to pick a theme color. Neutrals are the easiest to match, so consider colors such as tan, cream, brown, khaki, navy, or even black. So aside from your blue jeans, try to stay within the same theme color for all of your clothes. You can still pack that favorite purple T-shirt, but it should still match the pants or shorts you've chosen in your theme color.

By coordinating around a theme color, you should be able to mix and match every single item in your wardrobe. This allows you to pack fewer garments because you aren't having to pack multiple sets of clothes. Instead, you can have some overlap, and what you wear will depend more on what's clean, rather than whether something matches or not.

Dont' forget, most resort hotels have coin-operated washers and dryers, so you only need to pack for a handful of days and do some laundry once or twice during your trip.

Tip: If you plan to pick up some souvenir T-shirts, count those as part of your vacation wardrobe by leaving one or two T-shirts at home.

Leave your cosmetic case at home

My husband has a running joke; every time I go to the store, he says I'm compelled to check the skincare aisle to find out if there are any new lotions I can buy. While I don't think I'm that bad, I confess to using at least four different kinds of lotion everyday (I mean, you need one for your face with sunscreen, one just for your heels, another for your hands, one to go to bed in... right?). The challenge with having all these skincare (or hair care) products is that they take up a lot of space, and certainly it's not possible to fit everything into those itty bitty, teeny tiny, quart-sized resealable baggies, right? Wrong! It's much easier to pack all of your toiletries into the TSA-mandated 3-1-1 bags by making a few simple adjustments:

  • Save those sample-sized bottles and decant your own products into them (or find your products in travel-sized bottles).
  • If you travel with others, spread out the toiletries among those in your party. For example, men might only carry deodorant and toothpaste in their 3-1-1 bags; consider packing your extra tube of lotion in his baggie. Children get the same 3-1-1 bag allowance, so you can even pack some items in their 3-1-1 bags.
  • If you rent a car (something you might not do if you're using Disney's Magical Express shuttle service), you can easily swing by a supermarket or drugstore to pick up any items you couldn't pack.
  • Usie a second baggie to hold onto any medical liquids, such as contact lens solution. These do not need to meet 3-1-1 requirements and you can still take them in your carry-on.
  • Consider a switch to a non-liquid form of some of your products, such as mineral foundation in place of your liquid foundation. Lush stores sell bars of shampoo, and there are stores that carry bars of "shaving soap."

If you're unsure about how much product you'll need, here's a great little test: A few weeks before your trip, decant your products into the travel-sized containers you plan to use. Rather than packing them in your 3-1-1 kit early, leave them in your bathroom at home, and use them until you use everything up. If it helps, put a little sticky-note near them to jot down how often you used them. This will give you a good idea of how long the small containers will last. If your hair is very dry and you go through the conditioner after two uses, you might consider finding a thicker conditioner, or take two small bottles of conditioner with you. As you use up the bottles, it's OK to toss them out (thereby lightening your load some more).

Don't forget that all of the Disney resort hotels offer basic toiletries, like soap and shampoo. If you're staying on-property, you can save space by using the toiletries they provide. If you're like me and you like to take them home as souvenirs, however, consider tossing your own bottles at the end of your stay to make room for the Disney versions. If you don't have enough space in your 3-1-1 kit, toss the extras in a big Ziploc baggie to put in your check-in (the Ziploc baggie will reduce spillage disasters should any of them leak).

One huge plus when you don't put your toiletries in your check-in luggage, though: You never have to worry about busted lids or broken bottles messing up the contents of your luggage. See if you can reduce the amount of liquids you take on your next trip.

Tip: Although you're allowed up to 3 ounces (or 100 milliliters) in a bottle, consider the more manageable 2-ounce bottle. And you can get those anywhere, including those "energy shot" drinks! Just remove the label and voila. Your own travel-sized bottle.

Take a carryon even if you're checking in your luggage

Even if you don't like the hassles of carrying anything with you onto your flight bigger than your regular purse, I encourage you to consider taking a carryon bag. Even if you've managed to get most of your things neatly packed into your check-in luggage, there are some important things that could spell disaster (or at minimum, a big inconvenience) for your trip should your check-ins get lost. These include:

  • Any prescription medication, as well as copy of your prescription from your doctor. The prescription becomes helpful if something happens to your medicine and you need to get a refill.
  • Reading glasses, prescription glasses, contact lens case and solution.
  • One day's change of clothing, in case the airline sends your luggage to Maui instead of Orlando (or just as likely, that you made the tight connection but your bag didn't, and you're told the bag will arrive "in a day or two"). The airlines may provide you with a basic amenity kit or some money to buy some clothes, but have you looked at what's available at the resort shops? Consider packing your swimwear in your carryon as well (especially if you're going on a Disney cruise, since your luggage won't arrive to your room for a few hours, and you can spend that time poolside.
  • Any valuable jewelry or electronics that may get taken by less-than-honest baggage handlers. Although this isn't commonplace, you hear about airport theft rings opening luggage and making off with valuables. You might not be able to avoid it from happening to you, but you can make sure there's nothing in your luggage worth stealing. You might consider taking your electronic chargers in your carryon as well, so you can easily recharge when you get to your hotel.
  • Your 3-1-1 toiletry kit with your make-up, toothpaste, toothbrush.

In my opinion, every person in your travel party should take a carryon, each packed with these items. If you're traveling with kids, you will want to take some toys for the flight (or drive)... but you should still consider packing their own 3-1-1 bags in their own carryons (since this multiplies the amount of toiletries you can take).

Tip: A lightweight backpack makes a great carryon, and can serve double-duty as your day bag during your visit to the parks.

Manage your souvenirs

When you're traveling light, you have to mind what souvenirs you buy. You have to make sure that you can fit your souvenirs in your luggage. Fortunately, you have some options:

  • Consider buying items that are small and can pack easily in your carryon or check-in bag. While you can add an extra check-in with just your souvenirs, you can avoid the risk of losing it or having it stolen if you can just pack everything into the luggage you brought with you. Examples include refrigerator magnets, pressed pennies, postcards, and Disney pins.
  • Buy flat items, like calendars or notebooks. These can also pack easily into your luggage.
  • Ask that they ship an item back for you. This is especially true if you purchase fragile items. Disney cast members know how to pack these up really well, and it's possible to have them ship these items home for you.
  • Buy souvenir T-shirts and other pieces of clothing that you start wearing during your trip, and which you can easily pack along with your other clothes in your bag. Remove tags, toss out the shopping bags they came in, and just treat them like part of your travel wardrobe.
  • Rather than buying "stuff," consider collecting memories in the form of digital photos and videos. Take snapshots of everything, and don't forget to include members of your party in the photos as well. These days, you can easily share them with your friends through social media, allowing them to enjoy your vacation vicariously. All of these take up no extra space in your bags.

You don't have to take everything with you

Travel can be exciting—but it can also cause anxiety. Our insecurities start to creep up, and we start to second guess ourselves. Did we make all the arrangements? Did we forget anything? What if we hit bad weather—shouldn't we pack our rain boots and umbrellas? It's easy to make the mistake of packing for contingencies; doing this usually results in taking way too much stuff. It's OK to pack fewer items. Just be smart about what you pack. If you're a Disney Vacation Club member and you always spend a week at Saratoga Springs, you can even get yourself a locker service (like Owner's Locker) to hold onto things you know you only use when at the resorts. If you find that you forgot to pack something, relax! Most things are easily purchased at a nearby store.

You don't need to completely change up the way you pack. But with just a few minor changes and an awareness about how you pack, your adjustments can help you become a lighter packer.


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(Send an email to Lani Teshima)

A Hawaii ex-patriate, Lani, our managing copy editor, works as a technical writer/editor in the San Francisco Bay Area for a German software company. When Lani is not managing the copy desk here, she's out running and training for marathons. After decades of fits and spurts in running, she completed all the runDisney half-marathons in 2013 and the inaugural Walt Disney Marathon Dopey Challenge in January 2014, and hopes one day to qualify for the Boston Marathon. She is also the publisher of the mostly retired Travelite FAQ, with tips on how to pack and travel lightly. In the occasional spare moment, Lani and her husband, Alex, attend baseball games, drive down to Disneyland, fly to WDW, or take a Disney cruise.