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How to Pack the Perfect Carry-On

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I’m a big advocate of traveling using only carry-on whenever you can. I grew up in a family that could take a week-long vacation for 5 people and only use carry-on (thanks, Mom!). Many airlines charge extra fees for checking bags. I’ve also found that the more space I have, the more I pack and the longer it takes. Those are precious vacation minutes! Then there’s the risk that the airlines lose your bag and you’re stuck with no clothes for your trip.

Keep reading below to see the best strategies to pack everything into that carry-on, no matter the length of your trip. Want more? Sign up for our newsletter to receive our Free Packing Checklist.

To Bring or Not to Bring (That is the Question)

Matt always has an easier time with this part than I do – 2 random pairs of pants, 4 random shirts, yeah that oughtta do it, and done. My brain spirals into magical what ifs. What if we go out to a fancy dinner? What if we decide to do 3 wardrobe changes a day? Better bring a pair of heels that don’t go with anything “just in case.” Stop. We’ve got precious carry-on space and no room for what ifs. Breathe and check out the list below to get you heading in the right direction



Mix and Match Outfits

Packing 2-3 bottoms and 4-5 shirts will last you for a 7-10 day vacation with outfits left over. The key is to stick to a color family so everything coordinates and don’t bring several items that look the same. With the list above, bringing 3 pairs of jeans in the same wash is going to look like 5 outfits. If you bring a pair of jeans, a black pair of pants, and a colored pair of pants, now you’ve got 15!

If you have a signature color you love to wear, bring that! I’m guilty of owning mostly gray or black tops, so I usually pack those. Just be sure to pack different styles to avoid looking repetitive. No matter what you decide to bring, make sure it’s something that you love. No one wants to arrive at their destination with something that doesn’t fit right, itches, or doesn’t make you feel like 100%.

Mix and Match Outfits Packing 2-3 bottoms and 4-5 shirts will last you for a 7-10 day vacation with outfits left over.

Related: The 6 Best Destinations for Your First Trip Abroad

Lower Those Numbers

Don’t bring more than 2 of anything (except underwear and socks, of course). If you’re traveling for a month or less, pack enough clothes for 1 week. If you’re traveling for longer than that, pack enough clothes for 1.5-2 weeks only. Don’t be afraid to do laundry on the go. It’s very easy to wash clothes in the sink or bathtub with a bit of baby shampoo. Just make sure you let everything dry before you put it back in that suitcase.

As a general rule: more socks and underwear, fewer shoes and pairs of pants. Before you pack that third pair of shoes, think about what activities you’ll actually be doing. I’ve had several vacations that I packed 3 or even 4 pairs of shoes for a week-long trip and only worn 1-2 the whole time. The most pairs of shoes you will need is 1 pair for walking around, 1 pair of flip-flops or sandals, and 1 pair of dress shoes. Only bring that pair of heels if you know you’re going to use it and try to bring the pair that takes up the least amount of room in your bag. If you’re bringing sneakers or boots, wear those on the plane since they’ll take up the most space.

Toiletries are another area where people overpack. Leave as much of it as home as possible. If you’re staying at a hotel, use their shampoo and conditioner. Are you visiting friends or family? Ask if you can borrow theirs (this can work for clothes, too). If you’re going to be away for a longer trip, buy some basic items once you’re there and save that luggage space.

Pack Smart

You’ve grabbed your clothes for the trip, making sure to only bring what you know you’re going to wear. You look at your suitcase and all your clothes and …. whoa, is that all really going to fit? Don’t worry, we’ve got you. There’s an art to fitting everything into that carry-on, and you may have to rearrange a few times before you get it right. Follow the tips below and we promise you won’t end up sitting on that suitcase trying to get it to close.

Your Friend, the “Personal Item”

Most airlines allow you a carry-on and a “personal item.” Whatever you do, don’t waste this on a tiny tote! Lay that smaller purse flat in your carry-on, and bring a big purse or a medium-sized backpack instead. Inside, put everything you will need to keep handy during the flight and during any layovers. This should include all entertainment, identification, tickets, and chargers for your electronics. You don’t want to look for a phone charger during your connection only to realize it’s packed underneath all your underwear.

With any extra space, fit in any small toiletries or lightweight but bulky items like a jacket. Still have extra room? Pack in an extra change of clothes in case you find you must check that carry-on. And don’t forget a refillable water bottle!

Related: 5 Quick and Easy Ways to Stay Healthy While Traveling

Most airlines allow you a carry-on and a “personal item.” Whatever you do, don’t waste this on a tiny tote!

Packing cubes are great because you can roll larger pieces of clothing then stuff in smaller items while keeping it all contained. You can also use these packing cubes to sort clothes for different days during your trip or keep wet clothes separate from dry.

Fitting it All In

Place everything in from biggest to smallest. Place shoes or other heavy items near the wheels of the suitcase. Make sure you stuff the shoes with smaller items, like toiletries, socks, underwear, accessories, etc. Next, roll all your clothes and place them into packing cubes. Packing cubes are great because you can roll larger pieces of clothing then stuff in smaller items while keeping it all contained. You can also use these packing cubes to sort clothes for different days during your trip or keep wet clothes separate from dry. We use these small cubes and these medium cubes from Amazon. Use smaller pouches for toiletries, jewelry, chargers, or whatever else you have. Next, squeeze any more small items in the gaps and make sure you use all the available space. Layer any flat items on top of your packing cubes. 

Hopefully, you’ve packed everything into your carry-on and personal item. The last step is to check the weight of your carry-on. Most domestic US airlines aren’t picky about this, but some international airlines have strict carry-on weight limits. If your bag is overweight, they may make you check your bag and then all this work was for nothing. Always make sure you check your airline’s website for guidelines before you fly.

Congratulations, you’re packed and ready to go! Don’t forget to sign up for our newsletter to receive our Free Packing Checklist. Let us know in the comments below which tips you found most helpful! 

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I’m a big advocate of traveling using only carry-on whenever you can. Many airlines charge extra fees for checking bags. Then there’s the risk that the airlines lose your bag and you’re stuck with no clothes for your trip. Ugh. Head over to Caffeine and Roses now for our guide on packing the perfect carry-on!I’m a big advocate of traveling using only carry-on whenever you can. Many airlines charge extra fees for checking bags. Then there’s the risk that the airlines lose your bag and you’re stuck with no clothes for your trip. Ugh. Head over to Caffeine and Roses now for our guide on packing the perfect carry-on!

7 thoughts on “How to Pack the Perfect Carry-On”

  1. having travelled for quite a bit, it is so true that the more space you have, the more you pack and the longer it takes! these small cubes/organizers from amazon are life-savers!

    1. Thanks, Gary! The packing cubes were a huge lifesaver when we moved abroad. I’ll be writing a blog post soon about packing for that!

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