How to Pack in a Carry-on

Nowadays I’m more willing to check my bag, but if you can swing it, try to pack light! You’ll save time and can also save money. I really learned to pack light in order to literally have a lighter bag, as I’ve gone on a few trips where you have to haul your own bag around several flights of stairs or bumpy cobblestone roads.

Lay out all the clothing you want to bring, then eliminate a bunch of it

Be honest with yourself – what do you really need to bring versus what you want to bring? For most trips you only need 1-2 pairs of shoes and 1 jacket. Bring items you can rewear (especially pants/bottoms) and items that you can easily mix and match, so you aren’t wasting space on “single-use” clothing. There are situations where this may not be avoidable, such as traveling for a wedding or business trip.

Wear your largest items

When possible, wear your heaviest, bulkiest clothing to save space in your luggage. Typically this is your largest pair of shoes, and your jacket (you don’t have to keep it on, I sit on mine on the plane). Wear a hat or scarf, or tie it onto your personal item for the plane.

Put odd-shaped items in your personal bag

I don’t personally do this, but my husband typically puts his toiletry bag in his backpack to free up space in his suitcase. This tactic works well for anything lightweight that is difficult to pack around in your suitcase.

Maximize every space

I pack my socks inside of shoes so there is no dead space in them and to keep them from getting crushed. My suitcase also has some uneven hollow spaces where the handle rods are attached, and I make sure to tuck my pajamas into those spaces so I don’t leave empty space there either.

Packing methodology

I have these packing cubes and have gifted them twice. I roll nearly all of my clothing inside them for travel. I will fold pants and things like PJs into the hollows of my suitcase. Delicate or wrinkle prone items can be rolled or folded around other clothing. I think I could actually fit slightly more into a bag without using packing cubes, but they are really helpful for organization. If you’ve ever had to open your bag at the airport or somewhere public to find one thing it’s so much less embarrassing to move a few cubes around than to empty everything. Other people use color coded packing cubes for different kids or different days of the trip.

How to Pack for a Trip

Make a Packing List

I recommend making an actual packing list, unless you like to live in chaos. I typically use the Microsoft To Do app (formerly Wunderlist) for packing as well as my normal grocery list. You can sync the list to a desktop or share with other people, and it has a satisfying check off with sound options. For a short trip, I typically use this list to jot down items I cannot pack until the last minute (e.g., makeup, glasses) or things I absolutely do not want to forget. If you haven’t nailed down your basic necessities, a template packing list is a great place to start! You can download free templates online, make your own in a Google doc, or use a paper version.

For longer trips or special events, I will use either a Google doc or piece of paper to plan out my clothing as well as any specialty items needed, such as formalwear, hiking shoes, etc. Be sure to note destination-specific items, such as extra sunscreen and a swimsuit for the beach.

Choose Your Clothing

Narrow down the clothing you need to bring by asking yourself a few key questions:

  • What is the typical and forecasted weather of your destination?
  • How long is your trip? What portion is travel time?
  • Which items can you wear multiple times? Will you have access to laundry?
  • Do you need any special types of clothing? E.g., formalwear, athletic wear or hiking gear, waterproof gear, head or shoulder covering for religious sites, etc.

Keep in mind that shoes, jackets, and other bulky items will take up the most space in your luggage. Mentally walk through your normal day and add everything to your list you will need, such as underwear, socks, jewelry, or sunglasses.

Try to pick items that are either neutral or in a similar color family so you can mix and match everything you bring on your trip. Layers are also great to adjust for different temperatures as well as get more wear out of sweaters and heavier layers. It’s much easier to pack an extra t-shirt to wear under a sweater than to pack multiple different sweaters.

Prepare “Travel-ready” Items

If you can, prepare and store travel-specific items so they are easy for you to toss in your bag. After I forgot a toothbrush one time, I started keeping my travel-sized toiletries ready to go in a zippered pouch complete with a spare toothbrush, contact case, mini hairbrush, and razor that always stay in that bag. I don’t have to worry about forgetting anything. I don’t usually bring my own shampoo, conditioner, and body wash, but also have refillable travel containers of these that I’ll add in if needed. I even have one that acts as all 3 plus soap or laundry soap – REI or camping products are great places to look for space-saving or multipurpose items.

I store my other travel accessories in one plastic bin in my closet so when I go to get one item, I can quickly see if there’s anything else I might want to bring. This includes an inflatable neck pillow, waterproof phone bag, jewelry holder, extra TSA lock, and more.