Ever wondered if you could travel to the beach with just a carry-on? I bet you can. Here's a step-by-step approach that you can use to pack for your next minimalist beach getaway. You'll also find a timeline for when each step needs to be completed, as well as how to pack for a beach vacation in just a carry-on (packing list Included!).
Packing light is always a good idea. It lets you walk straight off the plane, through the airport and make your way directly into that warm sunshine. You can get to the hotel faster and start enjoying your beach time right away.
Holidays are too short. I don't want to waste mine waiting around for my luggage. Traveling carry-on only is the best way to start enjoying my beach vacation the moment I step off the plane.
And if I'm taking a road trip to the beach, packing a smaller suitcase saves enough room in the trunk to fit a portable cooler, my favorite beach chairs and a collapsible beach umbrella. Not to mention room to bring home souvenirs and all the seashells I collected.
While this step-by-step plan may seem like a little bit of work, it's not that much planning when you know what you need to do. And following this simple plan makes it easy to pack all of your beach essentials.
Have I convinced you?
Here's the step-by-step approach for how I travel light to my favorite beach destinations. You'll not only learn how you can travel in just a carry-on, but also when you should start packing and what you'll need to pack for your next beach vacation.
Download your free printable beach packing list here.
And then all that's left to do is go on vacation!
Step 1: Choose your luggage
When: As soon as possible
This is the first (and possibly most important) step in traveling carry-on only to the beach. Your carry-on luggage will make or break you so it's important to carefully consider your options.
Whether or not you've booked your trip, you'll want to double check the size and weight of luggage you're planning on bringing with you against your baggage restrictions. Of course, this isn't absolutely necessary if you're road tripping to the beach, but this is especially important if you're traveling by plane.
Airline carry-on requirements differ depending on a variety of factors (ex. destination, ticket tier, type of plane, etc.). You'll want to know the maximum dimensions and weight on your flight and if your current luggage will fit the bill. Make sure to get this information directly from your flight carrier's website.
If you find yourself without carry-on luggage, here are a couple of recommendations:
If you're traveling on a plane, a soft bag or backpack offers you a little more flexibility when you're traveling. This convertible backpack is a good choice for its flexibility in shifting between a duffle bag and a backpack, as well as its easy-to-organize interior compartments. Typically, soft bags are lighter and easier to fit in the airline luggage check as well as in the overhead bins.
Meanwhile, a structured suitcase is a great option if you're looking for a rolling bag. When you're choosing your luggage just be sure to choose a piece that's smaller than your airline's limit or you risk it not fitting in the luggage check (and could result in you being required to pay for checked luggage at the gate – not ideal!).
If you're not traveling by plane, you typically have a little more flexibility, so choose a bag that suits your travel plans. I've found that traveling with a backpack is easier any time I head out on a beach camping trip or think I might encounter cobblestone roads or walkways.
Step 2: Gather your carry-on packing accessories
When: As soon as possible
While many carry-on bags have great interior compartments, sometimes you just need a little extra organization in your life. If you're anything like me, you might just find yourself a new favorite travel accessory in these packing cubes.
These handy little organizers have made packing so much easier – I won't pack without them! I like that it's basically like traveling with a mini-dresser. These bag organizers act like drawers – there's no need to unpack and repack (unless you want to). They also keep your items contained, so you'll make better use of your limited space!
You might also want to pick up a slim toiletries bag (I have this one and love that you can hang it up when you get there to save counter space) and a clear TSA-friendly liquids bag (more on that in Step 3).
Step 3: Prepare your travel size liquids and first aid kit
When: As soon as possible
Of course, this step could be done later in the packing process, but I like having these two pieces pre-packed because it makes the overall packing experience a little easier. It also makes me feel more confident as I head through security – I know that my liquids won't be dumped because I've taken the time to properly prepare them.
Here are some general guidelines to follow when you're packing your carry-on liquids:
- Get yourself a bag that's 3-1-1 compliant. (I like this one). Whichever one you choose, the important thing is it can't be any larger than a quart.
- All liquid containers must by 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters) or less. Remember, this isn't evaluated by the amount of product in the container but by the size of the container itself.
- Choose reusable travel containers or travel-size products. Travel-size products are a great idea if you can find your favorite brands and they certainly deliver on the convenience factor. On the other hand, packing your own travel containers allows you to always have your favorite shower and hair products on hand while really only traveling with what you need (I like these ones for soaps and these containers for hair and makeup products).
- If you're in the mood to try a new product, look for solid product formats. This is another clever way to cut down on the total liquids you're carrying. Why not try a shampoo bar or a sunscreen stick?
My liquids bag is always packed for two weeks of travel. When I come home I top up my product containers and I'm ready for the next time I hit the road!
As for my small first aid kit, there's nothing special there. I carry the essentials only – enough to patch up a small cut or battle motion sickness. Despite the simplicity of my kit, I keep this packed and ready to go as well. It's one less thing to worry about as I get ready for my vacation.
Both my liquids and first aid kit packing lists are included in Step 5.
Step 3: Start planning your capsule wardrobe
When: 7-14 days before departure
This is the key step that makes it so much easier to travel with just a carry-on (and I think this is the most fun of all the steps too!). It's time to get to work planning your capsule wardrobe!
If you're unfamiliar with the term, a capsule wardrobe is essentially a mini collection of versatile clothes that mix and match into a bunch of different outfits.
Of course, as you might have guessed, the key here is versatility. My travel capsules for warm weather destinations usually have only 6 to 10 core pieces of clothing plus bathing suit (I bought this one for my last beach trip and love it!), workout gear, underwear, and sleepwear, so it's essential to choose every piece carefully.
How to plan your capsule wardrobe for the beach
As a general guideline, if your beach vacation is less than four days you can travel with six core items. If you're away for 5 to 14 days, you'll be looking at about 10 to 12 core clothing items. Of course, you'll also want to consider the activities you have planned during your trip and whether or not you have access to laundry facilities.
My 6-item capsule for a beach getaway typically includes three tops, two bottoms and one dress that can double as a beach coverup. Assuming that all items go together, I would have at least 7 different outfits to choose from during my trip.
Likewise, my 10-item capsule for a week-long vacation would include five tops, three bottoms, and two dresses. Assuming that all items go together, I would have 18 different outfits to choose from during my time away.
Here are a couple of my favorite tips for planning your capsule wardrobe:
- Choose one color story and stick with it. Your wardrobe will be made up of neutrals mixed with one accent color. Because I always travel with a scarf, I usually use this as the base for my color story.
- Every item must mix and match with the other items. This tip goes hand-in-hand with the color story rule and helps you get the most mileage out of your travel wardrobe. The only reason you should choose a single-use item of clothing is if there's a specific activity or event you need that item for, like a wedding. Even then, you should do your best to choose a piece that does double duty.
- Easy multi-use items are your friend. For example, the scarf you wore on the plane can likely also be used as a sarong and a pashmina (if the evenings get cool). A rash guard can double as a shirt or coverup for sun protection. A classic one-piece can work as a tank top.
Many carry-on travelers like to plan their travel capsules using a visual closet app. I don't typically plan my travel wardrobes like this (I prefer a Google spreadsheet), but you might like this approach.
Step 4: Check the long-term weather forecast
When: 7 days before departure
Simple but necessary. In order to feel confident in knowing you're properly prepared, you'll need to know what sort of weather you should expect while you're away.
Are you packing for hot sunny days, cool nights, or rainy season? Check a week ahead of departure for a rough idea of the forecast.
Step 5: Write or print out your packing checklist
When: 7 days before departure
So now it's time to actually get packing. I've broken down the general categories and guidelines you're going to want to consider when packing your carry-on. If there's a personal item you can't live without, be sure to add it to your list.
I would recommend getting your list together a minimum of a week in advance. This gives you a little bit of time to grab items that you may not have on hand.
While you may want to skip this step and save it until the night before, I've found that having a written packing list helps me fly through the steps that follow. It also makes the 24 hours before departure a little less stressful. And packing up at the end of the vacation is way easier because I know exactly what I've brought with me, so it's far less likely that I'll leave something behind.
Use this carry-on packing checklist to make sure you don't miss anything the next time you head out for a beach vacation:
These are the things you absolutely should not leave home without. Some of these may not be necessary if you're traveling inside the country, but this should be the base for your essentials list.
- Boarding pass - I save space by using a digital wallet
- Itinerary - This also goes in my digital wallet (unless I'm taking a multi-country trip and think I may need to supply it at customs)
- Immunization records
- Credit cards
- Drivers license / alternate form of ID
- Emergency contact info
- Travel insurance
- Passport-size photos (visas) (if necessary)
- Visa approval (if necessary)
- Foreign currency (if traveling out of the country)
- Copies of all the above-mentioned travel documents* - I travel with these stored on a USB thumb drive tucked into my first aid kit
Here's a sketch of what you'll probably need clothing-wise for your beach vacation. By now, you've planned out your capsule wardrobe, so it should just be a matter of packing up your items into your packing cubes.
- Tops x 3-5
- Bottoms x 2-3
- Dress x 1-2
- Sleepwear x 1-2
- Workout wear x 1-2
- Underwear x 1-10
- Bras x 1-3
- Swimsuit x 2
- Socks x 1-3 (optional)
- Outerwear (optional)
You won't need socks unless you're planning on wearing sneakers. And the outerwear is unnecessary unless the forecast looks like you might encounter cool weather (I usually pack a scarf that I can wear as a pashmina just in case).
You're heading to the beach, so you'll probably spend most of your time barefoot in the sand! Only bring what you need. Count on your first pair of sandals as the beach shoes you'll wear for the majority of your trip.
When choosing your second pair, think about the activities you'll be doing on your trip. Fancy dinner? Bring a dressier pair of sandals. Ziplining through Tulum? Bring sneakers. Kayaking? You may need water shoes. Depending on your trip you may be able to get away with only one pair of shoes.
- Sandals or flip flops - casual for a beach day
- Second pair of footwear - dressier sandals OR sneakers (if necessary, otherwise skip!)
I've actually found myself traveling with fewer accessories since I started traveling carry-on only, but here's what you'll find in my bag:
- Wide-brimmed sun hat
- Purse - Day
- Sunglasses Case
- Purse - Night (optional)
- Watch (optional)
- Jewelry (optional)
Skip the watch, jewelry and second purse unless you know for a fact that you'll use them. I usually travel watch and jewelry-free to the beach anyways – fewer valuables to keep track of!
(Plus how many times have you packed jewelry only to never wear it? I found that this was an easy place to cut down on items.)
I keep these items ready to go at all times in my 3-1-1 travel bag. You don't need to do this, but if you're traveling often you'll probably find it helpful, whether or not you're heading to a beach destination.
- Soap/Body wash
- Body moisturizer
- Face moisturizer
- Reef-safe sunscreen
- Hair styling product
- Contact solution (if needed)
- Lipstick or lipgloss
- Tinted moisturizer with SPF
- Hand sanitizer
- Travel size bug spray (optional)
These are the first aid items I always keep on hand when I'm traveling:
- Prescription medication
- Pain relievers
- Digestion tablets
- Allergy pills
- Motion sickness tablets
Here's what I keep packed up in my toiletry bag:
- Shower cap
- Travel-size sewing kit
- Bronzer - I also use this as eye shadow so that's one less thing to pack
- SPF lip balm
- Eyebrow pencil
- Hair ties
- Bobby pins
- Travel-size hairbrush
- Mineral sunscreen stick
(You'll notice that my bag is light on makeup, but I really only bring the essentials on beach vacations.)
I keep it simple in the electronics department. We're going to the beach after all! Here's my essential electronics list:
- Cell phone & phone charger
- Camera, camera charger, camera battery & camera memory card
- e-Reader - this one is waterproof! Don't forget to download a good book.
- e-Reader charger
- Travel adapter (if necessary)
Finally, here are a couple more items that you might like to include on your packing list:
- Language guide
- Passport holder
- Slim reusable travel mug - fill it with cold water once you're through security!
- Packable beach bag or day trip bag
- Extra plastic bag
- Microfiber beach towels
- Eye mask
- Travel pillow
- Dry bag
- Travel-size umbrella
Step 6: Test-run your carry-on packing
When: 5-7 days before departure
Now that you have your carry-on packing list pulled together, it's time to do a test run. This is an optional step but definitely advised (especially if this is your first time traveling carry-on only).
Set aside an hour to run through your packing list, pack it up into your packing cubes, and make sure that you're not missing anything and that everything fits in your bag. Once everything is packed up measure and weigh your bag to confirm that you're meeting your airline's carry-on regulations and won't incur any extra cost.
Why take the time to do this? It gives you a chance to catch any glaring issues in your packing plan. You'll spot if you're overpacking or if you're still missing items on your list. So there'll be no need to rush out to the pharmacy at 11:30 pm the night before your flight!
Step 7: Double-check the weather forecast
When: 24-48 hours before departure
This is a quick – but very important – step. All you need to do is double-check the weather forecast for your destination 24-48 hours before you leave.
You'll use this information to confirm that your packing list will have you covered weather-wise. If there are any big changes, you'll still have enough time to adjust your carry-on before your departure.
Step 8: Finalize your carry-on bag
When: 24 hours before departure
This is it! You're so close to your beach vacation that you can practically feel your toes in the sand.
Ideally, you'll finalize your carry-on packing at the same time you double-check the weather forecast. This is when you'll make sure that all of your packing items are properly stored and ready to travel.
If you're like me, you'll also want to double-check that you're still okay with baggage measurements and weight. Better safe than sorry!
I recommend doing this final packing check 24 hours before departure simply because it removes the stress from packing. You're not in a hurry. There's no need to rush. You have time to think through everything in your bag and feel confident that you've done your due diligence.
When preparing for a flight, the final thing I'll do is make sure that my liquids bag and electronics are easily accessible in the outer pockets of my carry-on luggage. This helps make passing through security a piece of cake.
Step 9: Go on vacation!
That's it. You're ready to head to the beach! This may feel like a lot of planning, but traveling carry-on only is really easy once you get the hang of it.
Now all that's left for you to do is order a frozen drink, stick your toes in the sand and enjoy the sunshine and wind in your hair. Have fun!
Did you find this post helpful? Or do you have more questions? Let me know in the comments below.