Budget travel will often call for JUST a carry-on.
If you’re on the cheapest flight possible, chances are you’re only allowed this no-strings-attached bag. But even if you’re able to bring more luggage, you may want to consider packing lighter.
Not only will a carry-on save you time and money at the airport, but the right one will also save you from trekking a suitcase or two across cobblestone paths, or up and down subway/bus/hostel stairs.
You should, accordingly, skip the suitcase, and learn how to pack a carry-on like a pro.
Both your wallet and your body will thank you.
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How to Pack a Carry-On Like a Pro
Find the Right Carry-On
Before you can pack the perfect carry-on, you have to find the perfect carry-on.
This will depend on your travel needs, as well as airline restrictions.
(For more info on proper carry-on dimensions, head over to 12 Ways to Find the Cheapest Flight Possible.)
I recommend that you purchase a backpack instead of a smaller suitcase. While mini suitcases can satisfy the dimension requirements for a carry-on, they still pose a struggle if you’re walking on uneven paths and/or using stairs.
Not to mention, when a flight is too full and the employees need to load some carry-ons in with the checked baggage, these little suitcases are the first to go.
Although you don’t have to pay an extra fee in these situations, you will have to wait for your carry-on at baggage claim, along with all the other checked baggage.
You can avoid all this time-consuming nonsense by using a backpack.
I personally use my Tortuga backpack from 3 years past. It looks like a normal backpack, and you carry it like a normal backpack, but it functions as a suitcase.
The zipper goes all the way around, so you can open it like a butterfly. One side has buckles to strap in your clothing (we’ll get to that later), and the other side has a zipped compartment for whatever your heart desires.
And when it’s all zipped up, there are even more compartments on the outside: a front pocket with its own interior sections, a hidden laptop compartment at the very back, and a hidden pocket at the top for valuables.
Although my specific backpack is outdated and discontinued, Tortuga is still selling high-quality carry-on friendly bags, which I 100% recommend.
Make More Outfits with Less Clothing
We all want to look good when we travel. Or at least, we want pictures that make people think we look good when we travel.
But with just a carry-on, you’re going to have to be very selective when it comes to your closet.
And when it comes down to it, you should choose functionality over fashion ALWAYS.
Before you start, ditch anything you’re afraid that you’ll lose or that will be stolen. I usually never bring fancy jewelry, because that falls into both of those categories.
Next, calculate the number of days you’ll be traveling. This number will dictate how many outfits you’ll need.
Also be sure to research where you’re going. Find out the answers to questions like, “What is the average temp?” and “Are there any local customs that will dictate what I wear?”
Now, the fun part: outfit time.
Instead of making a different outfit for every single day, you should find several pieces within the same color palette that can be mixed and matched into multiple outfits.
For example, if you’re gone for 9 days, make 3 outfits with separate pieces that can all be intermixed with one another and…voilà! Now you have 9 outfits.
Throw a couple of scarves into the mix, and boom. Now you have 18 possible outfits.
Go Minimalist with the Shoes
Shoes are heavy, and they’re hard to squish into spaces where they just don’t fit. Save yourself lots of trouble, and go minimalist.
You will want to make sure you bring a pair of comfortable walking shoes that go with anything (I usually default to Converse or black combat boots, depending on the weather).
And as badly as you want to bring those amazing wedges or heels for a night out, don’t do it. The amount of space they take up is just not worth it.
If you really can’t bare to part with them, just do what I do: Find a store like H&M in whatever city you’re in, buy a pair of going-out-worthy shoes, and return them the next day.
Also, if you’re staying in a hostel, don’t forget a pair of flip flops for the showers.
(You can abandon these before you come back home, thus freeing up more space in your carry-on.)
Since you will be wearing the same clothing pieces over and over again, be prepared for them to start stinking. If you don’t have access to a washing machine, go prepared with a few essentials:
While this doesn’t exactly clean your clothes, it takes away the stink, and it’s TSA approved! (This means you can bring it on the plane, no problem.)
This saved me from having to deal with a very angry host mom in Argentina when I accidentally wiped purple lipstick all over her white towel.
3. Plastic bag for dirty clothes
When I travel, I always ALWAYS forget that at some point, I will have dirty clothes, and I will have clean clothes, and I will not want them to touch.
Bringing along a plastic bag is an easy fix.
(For an even more extensive list on what to bring in your carry-on, especially on an overnight flight, head over to 15 Essentials to Survive Long Flights.)
Check Airline Rules
Since your carry-on is coming on the plane with you, it’s very important that you follow this step.
We all know not to bring anything that can be seen as dangerous, and it’s becoming common knowledge that you can’t even bring things like hairspray.
But what about scissors? Batteries? Razors?
These are all items that I always look up beforehand, because no matter how many times I ride a plane, I never know if they’re TSA-approved.
By the way: Yes, if less than 4 inches. Yes, if not lithium. Yes, if disposable.
When in doubt, check.
You’ve picked out your outfits, you’ve pared down your personal belongings, and now you’re finally ready to pack.
Be prepared to wear your heaviest shoes at the airport, and as many layers as possible. (It’ll be cold on the plane anyway, especially if it’s an overnight.)
If any of your remaining shoes have laces, tie them to the outside of your carry-on. This is totally allowed, and will save you space inside.
(You should do the same with a neck pillow, if you have one.)
If your remaining shoes don’t have laces, stuff them with your socks and underwear (and anything else that’s squishy), if possible, and place them at the bottom of your bag.
Next, you will roll (NOT FOLD) any clothing items you’re not wearing while traveling. You should already be planning to wear your bulkier items, but if there are a few left over, put them in first.
(It’s much easier to squish shirts and scarves into tighter spaces than it is to do the same with jeans.)
As for your toiletries, you should pour them into clear, TSA-approved containers, and place them all into a clear, TSA-approved bag.
Pro Tip: To avoid spillage, put a little piece of cellophane over each bottle before screwing the tops on.
You will want to place this bag in an easy-to-reach area in your carry-on (I always put it in the front pocket of my backpack) for easy access at security.
The same goes for electronics, as you will more often than not be asked to place laptops and tablets in separate bins at security.
Don’t forget about your personal item
When you’re packing, you should try to account for everything to fit in your carry-on. This way, you can use your personal item for things like food, water, and future souvenirs.
Still, if you simply can’t fit everything into your carry-on, then by all means, use that personal item.
I always bring a large tote bag to maximize on space.
Pro Tip: I put my important items (phone, wallet, passport) into a small cross-body purse, and place this bag in my personal item.
When I’m past check-in, I then take out my purse and wear it to be sure that my most important items are on my person, usually concealed by several layers of clothing.
And if you CAN fit everything into your carry-on without the help of your personal item, stick that into the carry-on as well. It may come in handy during your trip or on your return flight.
To pack a carry-on like a pro:
- Buy a backpack that fits the carry-on dimensions of whatever airline(s) you’re flying with
- Pack versatile pieces of clothing that can be worn in multiple different outfits
- Bring comfortable walking shoes and flip flops ONLY
- Pack a Febreze To Go Fabric Refresher, a Tide To Go Stain Remover Pen, and a plastic bag for dirty clothes
- Don’t bring anything prohibited by the airline
- Maximize space in your carry-on by tying shoes and a neck pillow to the outside, rolling instead of folding your clothes, and wearing as many layers as possible while traveling
- Place liquids in clear bottles, place bottles in clear TSA-approved bag, place bag in easy-to-reach area for security
- Use your personal item for food, water, and souvenirs, or pack it in your carry-on for future use
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