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how to pack in a carry on

How To Pack in a Carry-On Bag for Every Trip

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It doesn't matter where you're going or how long you'll be there: Almost anyone can pack in a carry-on bag. We mean it.

It may seem daunting, but just think of how many times you've packed a large suitcase only to come back from your two-week vacation with a third of your clothes and shoes untouched. The whole Thrifty Traveler team packs in a carry-on every time we travel and if we can do it, you can too.

During peak travel seasons like the upcoming holiday season, opting not to check a bag means you won't have to worry about the airline losing your luggage. While it might be hard to squeeze what you need into just a carry-on bag the first time, that's much better than showing up to your destination only to find that your bag hasn't arrived. Sure, throwing an Apple AirTag in your checked bag can help … but avoiding checking luggage altogether is the only 100% bet you can make.

There are plenty of other reasons to skip the big luggage and pack for your trip in a carry-on bag:

  • It's almost always free to bring a carry-on bag … while checked bags can cost $30 to $75 each way.
  • Save time by not having to wait in line to drop off a bag or wait for it at baggage claim.
  • It's easier to get around with smaller luggage in rental cars, on trains, or walking down the street.

Sounds great, right? But where do you start? The biggest hurdle for most travelers is the fear you won't have everything you need – and the certainty that a carry-on is out of the question.

But if you follow these tips, you'll be a freewheeling, carry-on packing pro in no time.


Get the Right Bag

First things first, you need a good carry-on bag.

We've highlighted some of our favorite carry-on bags, but our list is by no means exhaustive. There are plenty of great carry-on bags out there that will suit your needs.

away carry-on bag 

Decide whether you want the lightweight bonus of a soft-sided bag or the extra protection of a harder polycarbonate or metallic carry-on. Look for the extra features you want like a fold-out laundry bag, zippered compartments, and more.

Here are a few of our favorite options:

You'll want to keep the size in mind. Most major U.S. airlines require carry-on bags to be no larger than 22 inches by 14 inches by 9 inches. Most carry-on bags you can buy today fit that bill – including some larger versions. Just keep in mind that some European airlines have slightly smaller requirements, and bigger carry-on bags may not fit in the overhead compartments of smaller regional jets in the U.S.


Check the Weather at Your Destination

Knowing what weather to expect can drastically cut down on the items you need to pack. Sunny skies, warm weather, and a super low chance of rain mean you can leave your rain jacket and bulkier clothes at home. Pack one or two light sweaters or a thin jacket for cooler nights. If it is going to be rainy most days, leave the warm weather clothes at home.

By packing specifically for the weather ahead, you can cut down on the items you just won't need.


Pack for One Week at a Time

You're on the road for two weeks or more and you're convinced there's no way you can pack all the clothes you need into a carry-on bag. There's a solution for that.

It's called laundry.

Stay at an Airbnb for at least part of your stay and make sure it has a washer and dryer. Or take advantage of the wash and fold laundry at your hotel. Even if it's $10 or $20, you're still likely saving money on checked bag fees. Worst case scenario: Look to see if there's a laundromat near your hotel, then find somewhere to grab lunch or a drink while you wait for your laundry to finish.


Pack Versatile Clothing

Don't get caught up thinking you need different outfits for every day and evening of your trip. Most of the time, you probably won't end up going back to your hotel to change for dinner.

Do some research beforehand on restaurants and have an idea of the kind of places you'll want to eat at. If you have a fancier restaurant in mind, pack one nicer outfit for that evening. If you end up going to another nice restaurant you can always wash and wear that outfit again.

Pack tops and bottoms that are versatile and can be worn for most of the activities you choose to do. While it might be hard if you enjoy changing your outfit up and being fashionable, lean on small accessories like jewelry to change up your outfits.


travel clothes mountain


Keep Your Clothes Fresh

The last thing you want to do is put your dirty clothes, wet swimsuit, or muddy shoes in with all of your clean clothes.

Use shoe bags to keep your shoes nice, but also separate the dirt from getting on your clothes.

Waterproof bags are stylish and extremely useful. I use one for clean clean socks and underwear, and another for my dirty clothes. The extra pocket also comes in handy for a wet swimsuit.

Always bring along a Tide To-Go pen or Shout wipes for immediate use on stains. And if you use dryer sheets at home, throw one in your suitcase to keep your clothes smelling fresh.


Pack Strategically

There are a couple of schools of thought on packing. Two of the top methods are rolling clothes and/or using packing cubes. I subscribe to the rolling method, where you roll each individual item of clothing instead of folding them. It saves space, reduces wrinkling, and makes it easier to see your items at a glance.

Others on our team are packing cube converts. Packing cubes keep your clothes neatly organized and are easy to grab – less rummaging in your suitcase for the one item you need. We recommend spending a little extra for nice, light, and breathable packing cubes like these ones from eBags.


ebags packing cubes
Photo courtesy of Ebags


Wear Your Bulkiest Clothes Onboard

Wear your jacket and a sweater on board. You can fold up your jacket and stick it in the overhead bin. And you may want a sweater to be comfortable on your flight anyways.

If you've got boots or bigger shoes, wear them on the plane, too. But there's an even more important thing to keep in mind when packing shoes.


Cut Down on Shoes

If there's one way to save space, cutting down on the number of shoes you pack will do it.

Do you really need that enormous pair of boots or three pairs of high heels? Stick to versatile shoes and pack the minimum amount you will need. A smart pair of tennis shoes can work for hiking and the average night out. If you need a nicer pair of shoes, stick to one pair at most that can work with almost any outfit. Throw a pair of flip-flops in if the weather and destination warrant it. And again, wear the bulkiest shoes on the plane to save space.


travel shoes


Repackage Your Toiletries

Stop packing full-size bottles of shampoo or body wash. They take up too much space and can't get through TSA.

Instead, bring small versions of your toiletries like toothpaste and deodorant. And when you can't find 3oz versions of your favorite products, use reusable bottles like GoToobs to hold your shampoo, conditioner, lotion, and more. They’re made of soft silicone and won't crack as some other travel-size bottles will.

Focus on packing the invaluable toiletries that you can't leave home without – that specific conditioner brand, or any special creams or medications. Then rely on your accommodations for what you're not as picky about.

And remember: If something doesn't fit, you can buy most things you need at your destination. When heading to a beach destination, I rarely bring sunscreen but stop at a supermarket to buy some. Members of the team bring a small bottle of contact solution and then buy another if need be. It adds some cost, but it's often cheaper than any checked bag fees you'd pay.

Thrifty Tip: Don't pack a hairdryer. Almost every hotel will have one in the room. Or when choosing an Airbnb, you can select ‘hairdryer' as one of your must-have amenities. As for flat irons or curling irons, you can buy small travel sizes, but I find it's easy to find a little extra room for one.


Maximize Your Personal Item

Finding the perfect personal item can be a game-changer for sticking with a carry-on bag. Think of it as a second carry-on bag, and that daunting task of packing everything you need will seem easier.

We're big fans of laptop backpacks like these with dedicated space for a laptop, tablet, electronics, and more. And even after all that, there's often still space for a change of clothes and your toiletry bag. But no matter what bag you use, make sure it keeps you organized while giving you some extra space to pack what you need.


passenger waiting for a flight


What should you pack in your personal item? I always start by thinking about what I will want to grab throughout the flight. For me, this includes a small bag with medicine such as antacids, Advil, and melatonin to sleep on the plane. Having your toiletries handy is also helpful on a long-haul flight. Noise-canceling headphones, a battery pack, a sleep mask, and a change of clothes might also be on your list.


Give the Carry-On a Shot

This is really what it boils down to. You just need to try it.

Maybe you've been packing in 50-pound suitcases your entire life, no matter whether you're leaving for a few weeks or just a few days. It's convinced you that you need that enormous bag.

But the reality is that you'll fill whatever space you have, whether it's a small backpack, a carry-on, or a massive trunk. Use our strategies and you might just find out how much easier it is to travel with a carry-on.


Bottom Line

Once you join Team Carry-On, you never go back.

We get it, it's daunting. If you're used to packing in huge checked bags, the prospect of downsizing to a 20-inch carry-on bag seems unreasonable – if not impossible. But with these tips, it can be done.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

13 Responses

  • This is SO true!!
    I worked for a company for a while that had me traveling every week, and their policy was no checked baggage (so we were never delayed by waiting for it to come off the plane). Packing smart in a carry-on & a backpack is my fav way to travel now!

  • Wondering, though, when traveling with a little one is checking a bag a better idea than wrangling a toddler, 3 carryons, 3 smaller backpacks/purses, a stroller and a car seat? I’d love to avoid the checked bag fees but has anyone been successful when traveling with little ones and not checking a bag?

  • I’m almost 6’ tall and decently built, so it’s a small challenge for me to squeeze all I need in a carry-on and a backpack, as L/XL shirts, 36+ pants/shorts, and shoes/flops size 11+ add heft really quickly. I’d say 4 out of 5 times I travel I make it work, though, and it’s a no-brainer if the trip is less than 4 days. If you’re below 6’ / 220 lbs and not traveling to an Arctic climate, this should be a breeze.

  • As someone who travels for work and leisure, I really had to start doing this. Brining a checked bag is usually not needed unless you are on a very long trip or going to an ethnic wedding. Otherwise mak we it work. Packing cubes are a life saver.

  • Packing cubes are great. Carryon only for over 30 years, no problem for even a 4 week trip, wash clothes in sink, roll in towel, then use in room hair blower to finish drying, works great. Pack all neutrals, 1 dress, 1 dress shoes, several scarfs to change looks, 2 slacks, 5 tops, 3 socks, 4 undies, 2 bras, 1 slip, 1 windbreaker plus what I’m wearing on the plane which includes a jacket. I roll clothes. I’m a size 3x and have no problems. Carryon is the way to go.

  • We have travelled in Europe for three weeks with only carryons, no real backpacks, and laundry detergent. We were younger then. Now one of us needs to schlep a CPAP machine (fragile) so that is much of one chunky backpack. And if we are touring different areas of a country or region, we need to pack for more than one type of weather. So we more and more need to bring along at least one checked bag, and if one, why not two (credit card allows free even if we are not traveling business class) and enjoy the ineffable lightness of no carryons at all. A dilemma.

    I would appreciate an article on options for sending a bag ahead to one’s destination. Any Thrifty Tips there?

  • Pro’s and Con’s to everything. I travel a lot and have tried both. Con to carry-on is a FULL PLANE and no overhead bin space for your carry-on so it gets checked anyway WHOMP WHOMP! Very stressful when they say “hey the plane is full, anyone want to volunteer to check their carry-on bag?” It’s also VERY NICE to not have anything with you when you get on a plane. If you have a checked luggage and just walk on the plane empty handed it’s a nice feeling. Nothing to wheel around the airport either. But, it is also nice to not have to deal with baggage claim. For me, depends on the trip, where I’m going, boarding priority etc. So many factors to determine which way to go.

  • We took the Thule Landmark Travel Backpack on a recent safari and loved it. The weather was pretty variable, so we needed a light rain jacket as well as warm weather clothes, for example, and we needed it to be soft-sided for the bush plane. It worked perfectly. We were able to hook together our backpacks when making our way through the airport, and then separate them when boarding and we had our carry-on and personal item. It wasn’t perfect, but it did work really, really well. It looks like it’s been updated since we bought them, too.

  • I joined team carry on about a year ago. I must say I hope I never have to go back. I also take a laptop backpack. As I’ve traveled, I’ve learned what I forgot that I needed, to add it to my PackPoint essentials packing list for every trip. We have a 3 week vacation with a land tour and cruise later this year. I plan on sticking to carry on and laptop bag only. A friend turned me on to washing sheets (look like dryer sheets, but soap) and I’ve already used “pieces” of them to get a stain out of my husbands shorts. Use 1/2 a sheet (t pieces per sheet) for a small load. There are always laundromats in most cities around the world. If not, hotel service if they charge by the bag of clothing. I can do my intimates in a bathroom sink with the laundry sheets. I know I can do the 3 week trip with no checked bags and am feeling GREAT about it.

  • I bought a windbreaker from Magellan years ago with detachable sleeves and like ELEVEN pockets. So, this is a stealth extra carryon. Room for iPad, headphones, and much more.

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