a beginner’s guide: packing a carry-on for any vacation

Last week, I wrote about how packing a carry-on can make your vacation more enjoyable. But how exactly do you go about packing less stuff?

Below I’ve compiled my favorite tips for flying with a carry-on. Whether you’re going on a month-long trip overseas or just taking a weekend getaway, these tips will get you — and your stuff — from Point A to Point B, hassle-free.

1. Make sure your bag meets the carry-on requirements for your airline.

First thing’s first: You have to make sure your suitcase can actually make it into the cabin with you! Before your trip, check your airline’s website for the approved dimensions of carry-on luggage. Don’t forget that many airlines also have a max weight for carry-ons (40 lbs for most U.S. carriers), so consider weighing your bag at home to avoid an embarrassing scene at the check-in counter.

It’s also worth noting that airlines will occasionally gate-check carry-ons, especially on full flights. For this reason, I recommend packing a carry-on that can fit under the seat in front of you, if you can swing it. Overhead bin space can fill up fast; small carry-ons are always guaranteed a spot in the cabin.

2. Know what can and can’t fly in your carry-on.

I think most people are clued in to the fact that you cannot pack a flamethrower or a rocket-launcher in your carry-on suitcase. However, there are other items (especially bathroom items) that are allowed in checked baggage but not allowed in carry-ons that can occasionally trip up travelers.

Swiss Army knives, self-defense weapons, and blades longer than 4 inches are a no-no. So are snow globes, unless you can fit them in the plastic bag with your other liquids. Nail clippers and shaving razors are almost always fine, although I once had my cuticle clippers confiscated in an Australian airport — so if you’re not sure something can fly, it’s often best to leave it at home.

Remember there are liquid constraints for carry-on baggage (no bottles over 3.4 oz in the U.S.), so you’ll need to pack your toiletries in travel-size bottles. Although anyone packing a full-size bottle of shampoo when they travel is doing it wrong.

3. Invest in refillable travel-size bottles for your toiletries.

I swear, these are a life-saver. I bought a three-pack for my shampoo, conditioner, and body wash a few years ago — you can buy them anywhere. In the long run, they’re cheaper than the travel-size bottles you buy at the store, and most are soft-sided, so they’re not under pressure at higher altitudes (and therefore won’t explode when you unwittingly open them).

Don’t forget to pack all your liquids in a sealable baggie, and keep it at the top of your carry-on so you can easily pull it out at security.

4. Roll your clothing.

I touched on this briefly in my “moving like a minimalist” post — rolling your clothes comes in handy in all sorts of situations. Rolled clothing takes up less space than folded clothes (and way less space than clothes haphazardly stuffed in your bag — just saying). They also pack snugly, so the contents of your suitcase will shift less during your flight.

5. Rewear or wash clothes on your trip.

No matter the length of your trip, I recommend packing only a week’s worth of clothes. Pants and some shirts can usually be worn a few times, depending on the situation. You can also opt to wash your clothes on your trip — look for local laundromats, hotels with laundry rooms, or do it the old-fashioned way and wash your clothes in the sink.

Although this can take a bit of effort, it’s far better than the alternative, which is dragging around 40 pounds of fabric in an already-heavy suitcase. Packing fewer clothes and shoes is the easiest way I’ve found to save space in a suitcase — and when you pack less, it means you’re less likely to leave something behind.

6. Only pack clothing that matches everything else in your suitcase.

You should not have a separate shirt, pair of pants, and shoe for every day of your trip. All your shirts should match all your pants should match all your shoes. You should be able to pull three of these items out of your suitcase at random and get dressed in the dark with complete confidence that your outfit matches.

A bonus: This method also makes it easier to pack for a trip in multiple climates, where the tank top you wear one day at the beach is perfect for next week’s rainy day when paired with jeans and a sweater.

7. Wear your bulkiest items on the plane.

Wearing your winter jacket and snow boots on the plane, rather than packing them away, will save you valuable space in your carry-on. Plus, airplanes are always cold, so dressing in layers for your flight is a smart way to go!

8. Need more space? Pack a second bag.

In addition to your carry-on, airlines also allow you to bring a personal item, like a purse or laptop bag, into the cabin with you. If you’re taking a long trip and need all the space you can get, pack a backpack that can fit under the seat in front of you.

What if you can comfortably fit everything in your carry-on, but you don’t think you’ll have room for the souvenirs or other items you want to bring back from your trip? Consider packing a soft-sided bag, like a gym bag, in your carry-on. Unroll it and fill it with your goodies on the return flight.

Additional tips:

  • Put a luggage tag on your carry-on. It’s better to be safe than sorry, especially considering your bag could still be gate-checked (see #1).
  • If your airline charges a fee for a carry-on (like some budget airlines do), pay it online in advance — it saves you time at the airport and it’s much cheaper.
  • If you can manage it, leave your laptop at home. It’s big, bulky, and most of us need a detox from it anyway. It frees up space and weight in your bag, not to mention it’s one fewer thing you need to take out at the security checkpoint.

    To make this easier for long trips, make sure the critical functions of your laptop — like email, your calendar, and important documents — can be accessed on a portable device, like your smartphone or tablet.

There you have it — my favorite tips for packing, so you’ll spend less time staring into your suitcase and more time enjoying the views on your (hassle-free) vacation.

Have any great travel tips that I missed? Drop them in the comment section below!

4 thoughts on “a beginner’s guide: packing a carry-on for any vacation

  1. Thanks for the tips, and generally congratulations an a great blog, what a joy to read!

    I’m allergic to most detergents/shower gels/Shampoos and the like, so buying them at my destination is not an option. The liquid limitations all go towards sun screen (allergies, sigh).

    Curd soap is my go-to alternative for washing clothes and body. You can even brush your teeth with curd soap — I’ve tried it and it is, quite surprisingly, not disgusting at all. Just make sure the curd soap is without EDTA, which is, as far as I know, both genotoxic and cytotoxic (if you can’t be bothered with chemistry, read: bad for you and the environment, i.e. other people and nature). For my hair, I use a hair soap bar (is that what they are called?). I only need small amounts and these soap bars are solid.

    Leo Babauta and his family only travel with a bag pack each, and I must say that they are on to something.

    On a side note, maybe also reconsider traveling by plane. Climate change is real, and plane trips mess up the environment for all of us. In another post, you talk about opportunity costs, which is great. There are also external costs, i.e. my actions evoke costs that a third party has to bear, be it other people now (also in more distant regions, and poorer people who cannot buy their way out of discomforts) or later (future generations, or current younger ones). I guess being aware of that is a great first step to acting upon that knowledge. This is not about blaming anyone, please don’t get me wrong. It’s just that we don’t have a second earth we can resort to once we‘ve messed up this one for good. And the sooner we realize that, the better for all of us. Like decluttering, tiny changes in habits already have an impact. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply, Anne! I agree with your comments on climate change; my own ecological footprint is something I’ve grown more aware of over time. I recently moved to San Francisco, and I’m so heartened by the increased environmental awareness present here (composting, recycling, conservation, etc.). I hope these are good habits that will continue to spread to others!


    1. So true – I never realized what a difference it made until the first time I tried it. Now I’ll never go back!

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!


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