April 15, 2024

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Packing Tips for Carry-On Only

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These packing tips for carry-on only will help you adopt a more minimalistic approach to packing and simplify your travel.

I pride myself on being a minimal packer most of the time. My goal for most trips I take is for everything to fit into a suitcase small enough to be approved for airline overhead bins. Whether I’m flying or driving, I have a more enjoyable, less stressful trip when I’m not trying to juggle heavy bags or pawing through a mountain of clothes trying to find an article of clothing I’m pretty sure I packed. I think minimal is better and I’m sharing my best packing tips for carry-on only here.

packing tips for carry-on only

When you travel light, you usually have a better travel experience. Photo by AndrewLozovyi via DepositPhotos.com

Packing Tips for Carry-On Only

Most of my travel memories are sweet, but I have a few that stand out as not so great. I remember being in the Frankfurt Airport, which is a large, busy, major international hub, and dragging two full-size bags across the terminal while weighed down with a backpack while trying to keep hold of my purse. I hadn’t been able to find a baggage cart at the baggage claim and had to navigate two escalators with my heavy load in order to reach the airport exit. Neither one of my suitcases had wheels, and I remember how my palms burned and having to stop every few feet to adjust my grip on my bags. Not a great start to my adventure. Every time I’m tempted to overpack, I remember that day.

Why Pack Light?

With most airlines charging for checked bags, carry-on only saves money. Most major US carriers charge around $30 for the first checked bag. Flight delays, canceled flights, and tight connections are all things that make me want to keep my baggage close at hand. Saving money and eliminating the wait at the baggage carousel are two more great reasons to carry on only.

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packing tips for carry-on only

If you travel with carry-on only, you can avoid the wait and the crowds in baggage claim. Photo by YAYImages via DepositPhotos.com

I extend my carry-on-only philosophy to road trips. Even though I’m tempted to throw all the things in the car just because I can, I resist. A weighed-down car won’t get the best gas mileage. Playing Tetris with everyone’s suitcases is never fun. Especially when the cooler with your drinks and snacks is behind a wall of bags.

Minimal travel is simple travel. If everyone can manage their own baggage, it’s much easier to move from point A to point B, and these packing tips for carry-on only can help make any trip go more smoothly.

packing tips for carry-on only

Too much luggage can also spoil a road trip. Photo by photographee.eu via DepositPhotos.com

Packing Tips for Carry-On Only—Are You Eligible for Carry-On Only?

If you’re flying basic economy, you might not be eligible to take a bag in the cabin. Make sure you’re paying attention to the limits of that good deal fare category. If you have a later boarding group, the plane may run out of overhead bin space before you board. That’s something to be prepared for if you don’t have status with an airline or are in the C boarding group on Southwest Airlines.

packing tips for carry-on only

Do keep in mind that overhead bins can fill up, so be prepared. Photo by jchizhe via iStock by Getty Images

The rules on budget or low-fare airlines, like Spirit or Ryan Air, might be different. There may be a charge for carry-on bags or the dimensions for an approved carry-on may be smaller. Always check.

Choose the Right Luggage

One of the best packing tips for carry-on only I can offer is to choose the right luggage. Choose the right suitcase that meets your needs for the types of trips you take. I have a hard-sided American Tourister suitcase that is cabin approved for major US airlines. This fits into the overhead compartment on most planes. I’ve had to gate-check it on some smaller planes (regional flights), but it still counts as a carry-on. My suitcase is 5+ years old and still looks great. This current model is the most similar to the one I have.

My bag has two separate compartments and an interior zipper pouch. It’s pretty basic but it meets my needs. If you need more compartments or pockets to align with the way you like to pack, this is definitely something you should scope out before you buy a new bag.

Frequent road trippers might want to consider a soft-sided, more flexible bag. If your bag is going in the rear of your car with everyone else’s bag and whatever else you’re taking (fishing and camping gear, etc.) soft-sided bags can be easy to maneuver.

I recommend buying name-brand, good-quality luggage that will stand up to being handled frequently. I’ve bought no-name luggage to try and save a buck and I’ve had zippers break and interior fabric rip while the bag is still relatively new. Most travelers won’t be sorry they bought a good quality bag and paid a little more. I’ve been very happy with my American Tourister bags but Samsonite, Ricardo, and Away are other reputable brands to consider.

A Word about Packing Cubes

I know a lot of people swear by packing cubes. I’m a little meh on them. I find packing cubes to be more of an organizational tool than a tool to help me minimize how much I pack. Packing cubes take up space and weight in your bag (although not much). I don’t think they work beyond keeping your suitcase looking prettier.

tips to save space when packing your suitcase

Packing cubes are an option for some people. Photo by sasimoto via iStock by Getty Images

I do like to unpack my suitcase when I get to my hotel room. Packing cubes are easy to throw in a dresser drawer. If you buy packing cubes for your family, get each person a different color to prevent them from getting mixed up.

Get Out of the Just-in-Case Mindset

If you pack formalwear and beachwear for each and every trip you take, maybe it’s time to rethink that just-in-case mindset. The temptation to be prepared if the opportunity to attend a black-tie gala pops up is real, but take a hard and realistic look at what your travel plans are actually going to look like.

Life is always uncertain, but you’ll probably have an idea of where you’ll be going and what you’ll be doing on most trips you pack for. If you routinely return from trips with items you didn’t use or clothes you never wore, consider this your nudge.

And, if that unexpected invite to a black-tie gala happens, maybe that’s a sign from the universe that you need a shopping trip.

Don’t Wait Until the Last Minute to Pack

If you leave the packing to the last minute, you’re more likely to overpack. Or forget something you really need. I typically pack two or three days before a trip and set aside a dedicated half-hour to pack. This lead time allows me to get an accurate idea of the weather at my destination and plenty of time to gather my things in an unrushed way.

Waiting to the last minute doesn’t allow a cushion for clothes that might be in your wash pile or that don’t fit, and that sometimes brings on panic and the temptation to just start throwing things in your bag and hoping for the best.

I typically look at my schedule and make a list of what I need to pack. I cross off items as I put them in my suitcase. I’ll close my bag and put it by the door the night before my trip, leaving essentials like phone chargers and a mini toiletry bag to throw in my purse or backpack just before I’m out the door.

packing tips for carry-on only

Don’t try to pack for every what-if scenario and make a list of what you need. Photo by Kostikova via iStock by Getty Images

Choose Double-Duty Clothing

One of the important packing tips for carry-on only is to pack clothing that can serve more than one purpose. If you can get more than one wear or one use out of a piece of clothing, all the better. I have a just above-the-knee black knit dress that can be worn with flats or sneakers and a straw hat for sightseeing or brunch that can be paired with rhinestone sandals and an evening wrap for a dressier look. I’ve also worn it as a bathing suit coverup.

Jeans can be worn multiple times before they’re washed. Darker patterns, such as winter florals, are pretty forgiving and can usually be worn more than once, even if you spill something.

travel must-haves

A simple t-shirt and jeans can be a great travel staple. Photo by Oksana Kilan via iStock by Getty Images

Pack Clothes You Love

Pack clothes you love that you feel comfortable in and that fit you. I have an expensive designer jumpsuit hanging in my closet that I bought for an event and changed my mind about wearing. Since it is expensive and fits me, I have that “I’m going to get my money out of this yet” mindset. I can’t put my finger on why I don’t feel great in this jumpsuit, but I recently packed it for a weekend trip thinking I’d wear it to dinner. Wrong. I put it on and then exchanged it for another outfit for all the same reasons I don’t wear it at home.

If you don’t love something when it is hanging in your closet, you won’t magically fall in love with it at your destination. Pack what you feel comfortable in and what makes you feel great.

Wear or Carry On Your Heaviest and Bulkiest Items

One of the packing tips for carry-on only is to remember that space is premium. If it takes up a lot of room in your suitcase, consider wearing it. If you’re going from a warm climate to a cold one, wear or carry as much of your bulky winter wear as you can. Packing a coat, heavy sweater, and boots will take up valuable real estate in your suitcase. You can shed layers in-cabin if you’re uncomfortable.

essential traveling abroad checklist

Wear your heaviest items and don’t take up packing space for boots or coats. Photo by Gustavo Fring via Pexels

Minimize the Number of Shoes You Pack

This is one of my most important packing tips for carry-on only and the hardest to see through. Don’t take too many pairs of shoes!

The shoes get me every time! My rule of thumb is to wear my heaviest pair of shoes and pack one additional pair of shoes. I succeed at this about half the time—it’s a hard rule to stick to but one that pays dividends in lots of extra space if you can manage it.

packing tips for carry-on only

Shoes are one of the bulkiest things you can pack. Wear the heavy pair and pack one other pair. Photo by DimaBaranow via DepositPhotos.com

The best way to do this is to plan outfits around the shoes you take and pack two pairs of shoes that will work with all of your clothes. This sometimes requires you to forgo the shoes that look the best with a particular outfit and pack what will work. General rules of thumb that works is nude or black heels or dress shoes that go with everything and athletic shoes that can do double duty as fashion sneakers.

Wear your bulkiest shoes on the plane and use the insides of your packed shoes to hold socks or other small items, such as toiletries or charging cables.

Related: What You Should Pack When Traveling to Southeast Asia

Pack for Your Itinerary and for the Weather

I’m all for spontaneity but even the most go-with-the-flow trips have some sort of structure. You’re probably not packing to leave your home without some idea of what you’re going to be doing. If you’re traveling for business or have specific events scheduled (theme park, hiking trip, dinner out) then go down the list and pack weather-appropriate items for those events. Bonus points if you can repurpose parts of those outfits for other days or activities.

You may have an established itinerary if you’re traveling for work. I make my own daily itinerary for family trips in Google Sheets, and this helps me stay on track with how many changes of clothes or what type of gear we need for each day we’ll be gone. If you’re struggling to get away from that just-in-case mindset, this will help you stay focused. If you’ve got specialized activities, such as a formal event or a hiking trip, this will help make sure you don’t forget any necessary pieces and parts.

packing tips for carry-on only

Consider the weather when deciding what to pack. Photo by Ocskaymark via iStock by Getty Images

While weather can be unpredictable, check the forecast for where you’re going and be reasonably prepared. This doesn’t mean packing a parka for a trip to Miami because it once snowed there in 1977.

Consider What You Can Easily Buy at Your Destination

I have been traveling carry-on only or backpack only for many years, even when my kids were small. Traveling with children and babies is challenging on many levels, and one of those challenges is the extra paraphernalia young ones need.

I took a four-day trip from England (I lived there at the time) to Ireland, and I carried everything my two-year-old and I needed for the trip in a backpack and my purse. My travel companions thought I was nuts, but I did it. One advantage was that his clothes were small, and I had committed to washing them in our hotel in case he had an accident and we needed extra outfits.

packing tips for carry-on only

By packing light, you make traveling with little ones less stressful. Photo by MaximFesenko via iStock by Getty Images

I packed enough diapers for one day. I also packed very minimal snacks and just-in-case items, such as medications. Before our trip, I scoped out stores within walking distance of our guesthouse and made a quick trip for diapers, wipes, and snacks. We used everything during our trip, and I had a very light load both ways.

This is a good and doable strategy for all but the most remote locations. Today, services like Shipt and Instacart make traveling light even easier.

Commit to Doing Laundry

If my trip is longer than five days, I plan to do laundry. Most guesthouses and Airbnb have laundry facilities—that is one of the amenities I really pay attention to when booking. Most hotel chains have some sort of self-service laundry facilities, and a quick check of their website will tell you what’s available. Pack detergent from home and take change since the machines aren’t always free.

packing tips for carry-on only

You can use hotel laundry facilities or wash out clothes in the sink. Photo by mariakray via DepositPhotos.com

More upscale hotels may not offer self-service laundry facilities but have laundry service. These tend to be pricey, and your clothes may be gone for two or more days. I personally don’t think this is the greatest option and I might opt to pack a couple of extra changes of clothes or wash a few things in the sink. Knowing what to expect and what’s available and adjusting from there is key.

Travel Size Toiletries and a Pared-Down Cosmetic Bag

Carry-on only means making sure toiletries and other liquids meet the in-cabin requirements. Stock up on items in the travel and trial size aisle at Target or Walmart or grab some reusable toiletry containers to make sure you have your own familiar toiletry products. Makeup subscription box services such as Ipsy or Birchbox are a great way to get small-sized cosmetics.

If you’re not picky about toiletries, use what the hotel provides and save even more space. It’s pretty easy to check online to see what amenities are available. It varies, but most hotels provide soap, shampoo, conditioner, and lotion. I can get by with any shampoo, but I have to have my own brand of conditioner always.

Are you traveling with a companion and comfortable sharing? Look at things you both use, such as toothpaste, and decide what each person will pack to avoid duplication.

Related: A Travel Beginner’s Guide to Seeing the World

Plan Room for Souvenirs

If you plan on shopping or buying souvenirs, make sure you leave room in your suitcase for those purchases. If you stumble upon a find that doesn’t fit, ask about having it shipped to your home. You can also scope out UPS Stores or similar operations before you leave.

This may not work for everyone, but we strictly limit souvenirs altogether. On family trips, my kids are allowed to buy one thing that will fit into their luggage. They always see lots of stuff they want but since they know they’re only getting one thing, they tend to be pretty discriminating.

We favor keepsakes such as magnets, pins, or stamps. These offer us a memento of a place we’ve visited without contributing to clutter.

Articles Related to Packing Tips for Carry-On Only

Packing Tips for Carry-On Only—It Gets Easier but Maybe Not for Everyone and Every Trip

A pared-down approach to packing might feel daunting at first, but it gets easier with practice. Less-experienced travelers may be less comfortable leaving home for an extended period of time without feeling well-prepared for unexpected circumstances. More seasoned travelers may appreciate the freedom that comes with a lighter load.

If you’ve ever lamented the amount of stuff in your suitcase that didn’t get worn or used on a trip or have struggled to navigate an airport terminal when you couldn’t find a baggage cart, give the carry-on only approach a try and see if it works for you. If you’re nervous or skeptical, try it on a short domestic trip and branch out from there.

When you’re ready to try out packing tips for carry-on-only travel for your next road trip or family travel vacation, be sure and let Wander help you pick the perfect destination.

These packing tips for carry-on only will help you adopt a more minimalistic approach to packing and simplify your travel. Whether you're heading out on a family vacation, a road trip, or taking off for an international flight, these simple packing tips can help you pack lighter and travel with more joy and freedom.

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Packing Tips for Carry-On Only

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