Note: All travel is subject to frequently changing governmental restrictions—please check federal, state and local advisories before scheduling trips. This article was updated October 2020.
Packing for carry-on travel isn’t a science, it’s an art. We’ve partnered with adventure travel expert, and minimalist traveler, Jeremy Scott Foster from TravelFreak, as he talks about some of his best packing tips for traveling carry-on only.
Is less really more?
When it comes to packing for a trip or vacation, you bet it is. Experienced travelers will tell you that the number one mistake most rookies make is overpacking their bag. Sure, we want to make sure we’re prepared for any weather or situation, but that doesn’t mean packing our entire life into a suitcase.
In order to make your your journey less stressful, I’ve curated a list of the top packing tips for traveling carry-on only.
1. Pick the right carry-on bag
Not all carry-on luggage is made equal. Many travelers overlook the practicality of their bag and just purchase any ole’ carry-on that manages to fit in the overhead bin. However, it’s important to take several factors into consideration when choosing the best type of luggage for carry-on travel.
First, you’ll need to decide on the size of your bag. Size limitations vary from carrier to carrier, so you should always double check with your specific airline to confirm your carry-on fits the bill. It’s not uncommon for domestic airlines and international airlines to have different size restrictions. Fortunately, Travelocity lets you see luggage limits, as well as size and weight restrictions, while you’re choosing your flight.
Second, you’ll want to choose the right type of bag for your journey. Backpacks are easier to carry if you’re on the go, like island hopping through Thailand or riding trains through Norway. You won’t have to worry about hauling a heavy suitcase up several flights of stairs or through cobblestone alleys.
Backpacks are also soft-sided which means you can squish and squeeze your things into every nook and cranny—especially in the overhead bins. That said, you should try not pack more than what your back can carry, and be sure to not to overstuff it for fear of breaking the zipper.
On the other hand, rolling suitcases are more durable and cause less strain on your body. Although hard suitcases keep your items tidy and organized, they’re often heavier than soft backpacks. If you choose the wrong suitcase, a significant chunk of your luggage weight limit might be taken up by the bag itself.
2. Take advantage of the airline’s personal item allowance
Most airlines allow you to take a smaller, personal item onboard along with your overhead carry-on bag. This item should fit nicely under the seat in front of you and be spacious enough to hold your valuables, electronics and passport.
It’s best to choose a personal item that can be used as a daypack during your trip. Small backpacks, messenger bags or laptop bags are ideal. Remember that this isn’t an excuse to pack a second heavy carry-on since you’ll be lugging it around with you wherever you go.
Ladies, don’t waste your personal item on a small purse that only holds a few things. Instead, think about bringing a small backpack or large tote since you can always tuck your purse inside.
3. Pack clothes for a week
If you’re traveling for just a few days, you probably won’t run into issues fitting your clothes into a carry-on. However, packing the right items for a trip longer than a week might be more difficult.
A good rule of thumb is to pack just one week’s worth of clothing. Maximum.
If you’re traveling for an extended period of time, simply plan on doing laundry during your trip. Unless you’re blessed with access to a washer or dryer, you might end up washing dirty clothes in the sink. For this reason, clothes that can be washed and easily air-dried (i.e. quick-dry underwear) should have first priority on your packing list.
4. Bring clothes that can be layered
Since you’re traveling with just a carry-on, you’ll need to be selective about what type of clothes to bring. The secret to packing light is to bring clothes that can be layered. Not only will multiple layers take up less space in your bag than one giant coat, for example, they will also keep you warm in a variety of situations and give you more outfit options to work with.
This is especially true if you’re traveling to different climates. You can wear your lighter layers like tank tops or T-shirts when it’s warm, and layer up with sweaters and mid-layers when it’s cold.
Leave those chunky knit sweaters and heavy coats at home. That’s where they’re most useful.
5. Choose the right toiletries
Many travelers know that bringing a full-size shampoo or a large bottle of lotion in a carry-on bag is forbidden, and now you have even more reason to make sure the contents of your bag are all above board: With the advent of COVID-19, travelers now may be directed outside of the checkpoint area to remove prohibited items or repack. That aside, there are several other tips of which even the most experienced travelers will want to take advantage.
If you’re staying in a hotel, then using the provided shampoo, conditioner, and lotion is a no-brainer. Most hotels also have toothbrushes, toothpaste, razors and shaving cream for free if you ask at the front desk.
Another option is to bring solid toiletries like solid soap, sunblock, and laundry detergent. They are usually compact in size and don’t fall into the TSA liquid category. Fellas, you can even get solid cologne bars so you don’t have to carry heavy glass bottles with you when you travel.
And if you’re really tight on space, just leave the toiletries behind. As long as you have your necessary medication, contacts, glasses, etc., you can purchase any other basic items when you arrive, at least in most destinations.
6. Be selective about footwear
Let’s face it—packing the right pair of shoes isn’t easy. Not only are the majority of shoes bulky, but they also take up large amounts of space in your carry-on.
The key is to bring shoes that are versatile and comfortable. I know, it’s easier said than done. But trust me, nothing is worse than getting blisters on your first day and not wearing that specific shoe for the rest of the trip.
Two pairs should do the trick. One comfortable pair for walking or hiking, and another pair that can be dressed up or down. If you’re jet setting somewhere tropical or warm, swap the second pair for flip-flops or sandals.
As a side note, you should always wear the bulkier of the two pairs on the plane in order to free up extra space in your bag. We’ll get to more of that in a little bit.
7. Use compression bags or packing cubes
Even if you’re diligent about packing only the bare necessities, you still might find that space is a little tight in your carry-on. Don’t fret, because compression bags and packing cubes are here to save the day!
Compression bags allow you to squeeze more into every inch of usable space. You place your clothes inside the plastic compression bag and deflate all the air out until the bag is flat and compacted. This saves a ton of space (upwards of 80%!) and allows you to fit more into your carry-on.
Packing cubes work a little differently. Unlike compression bags, packing cubes are durable, fabric containers that stack neatly in your suitcase or backpack. When you arrive in your hotel or hostel, you’ll have all your shirts, pants, socks and underwear separated into individual cubes. While they can save a little space, their main function is to keep your bag organized and your clothes wrinkle-free.
8. Roll instead of fold
It’s the great packing debate—should you roll or fold your clothes?
If you’re traveling carry-on and want to fit more items into your bag, then rolling is definitely the way to go. Expert travelers like myself swear by the rolling method for packing more items into tight spaces. Clothes that are rolled are more compact and space-saving than clothes packed in the traditional folded way.
It’s worth the extra time and effort to fit everything neatly into your carry-on. The rolling method also avoids those pesky creases that you get from folding. Rolling leaves you (and your clothes) happy and wrinkle-free. Yay!
9. Wear what you can during check-In
One of the biggest space-saving carry-on tips is to wear as much as you can while in transit. Whatever is on your body doesn’t count towards the airline weight limit! By wearing your heaviest jacket, bulkiest shoes, and thickest sweaters, you can free up tons of space in your luggage.
You can always peel it all off once onboard, though don’t forget: Airplanes are famously cold, so this trick does double duty.
This tactic is especially handy when you’re traveling to a colder climate and want to bring a large parka or coat. Save yourself the struggle of jamming a puffy jacket in your suitcase and wear it on the plane instead.
In a pinch, you can also free up space from your smaller, personal item. Stuff small valuables like sunglasses, books and phone chargers into your coat pockets.
By now, you should be a packing pro ready to take on the world of lightweight, carry-on only travel! By following these space-saving tips and rules, I know you’ll have no problem traveling with just a carry-on. Not only will you be free from the burden of a heavy bag, but you’ll be free to roam the world wherever your journey decides to take you.
Remember, you’re not packing less, you’re packing more efficiently.
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