10 Tips for Packing in a Carry-on

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People always seem amazed that I can live out of a carry-on for a month. At first, I didn’t think it was possible either, but now, it’s kind of a badge of honor. I love packing in a carry-on!  I find it so liberating to get off the plane and head straight through customs to the connecting flight or simply walk out of the airport without waiting on my over-sized suitcase. 

I’ve had my checked bag accidentally taken by another passenger and it was a hassle trying to find that passenger and get it back in a foreign country.  I prefer to have my bag in hand when exiting the aircraft… not to mention it saves us some $$$.

Between Africa and Peru with just a carry-on!

My first experience packing for a month in a carry-on was one month after we got married. We were planning to visit Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Peru. I knew it might be chilly, and I didn’t see how I could pack jackets, sweaters, scarves, and jeans into a carry-on.  I even purchased those self-vacuuming bags that are supposed to make your clothes shrink down in the bag. In my opinion, they were a total waste of money!! With everything in sealed bags, it was so much work to find anything in my suitcase, and the bulky bags barely fit into my carry-on….so much for “shrinking.”

A few tips:

1.Use the Big Rocks Philosophy – You know the science experiment where you have to fill a jar with sand, water, pebbles, and large rocks, but the items don’t actually fit into the jar unless you put them into the jar in decreasing order of size. I think the same rule applies for packing. Get your tennis shoes, jeans, and snorkel gear in first. Your t-shirts and undies will squeeze in anywhere (around the big rocks)!

2. Lay everything as flat as possible! Most people say to roll things up.  My engineer husband disagrees and I think he has finally convinced me! If you lay everything as flat as possible in your suitcase, it seems like more will fit.  For example, fold your shirt in half and then stack them in your suitcase. Then, you can fill in the crevices with little things like goggles, swimsuits, ball caps, and undies.  It goes against the common trend of rolling your clothes and your suitcase might not look as cute and organized, but I’m pretty sure it can hold more this way. 

Laying it all flat.

3. Use the 50% rule! Lay out everything you want to take with you and leave half of it at home!  That sounds a little extreme, but I try really hard to follow it! My goal is to pack just right so that I won’t ever carry something that I never wore the whole trip.  You can mix and match tops and bottoms. I usually pack about twice as many tops as bottoms. 

The husband’s suitcase always looks so much neater!

4. Wear your layers.  Yes, you need layers, but don’t pack them; wear them.  Wear a shirt, a sweater, a hat, and your rain jacket on the airplane. It gets chilly on the plain anyway and people are wearing all sorts of stuff, so there’s no shame in a few extra layers!

5. Wear your heaviest, bulkiest clothes.  That doesn’t sound too comfortable, but if you were planning on wearing it on the trip, you might as well wear it on the airplane. I wear jeans a lot, so I typically get on the flight wearing jeans and my tennis shoes or chacos (both of which are bulky shoes).  

Waiting for the KL transit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia with just a carry-on.

 6. Don’t plan your outfits. Mix and match.  If you have a scarf that goes with all your tops, pack that one and only that one. If you have black shorts that you can wear with all your tops, take those.  If you have a gray cardigan that you love, wear it and don’t pack a different cardigan for each outfit. Don’t take the pink flats you’ll only wear once. Take the black flats you can wear every day. Chances are you’ll never see the same people on two consecutive days, so no one will remember what you wore yesterday!

7. Aim for multi-functionality.  I have some cute summer dresses that can be worn on a day around town but they can also act as a swimsuit cover-up or a lounging dress for the evening (especially if I’m too sunburned to put anything else on). I have some dressy flip flops that can be worn to the beach, but they also don’t look bad paired with a dress at a nice restaurant.

Adding our carry-ons to our friend’s boat as we hitched a ride to Vieques, Puerto Rico

8. Get those refillable 3 oz. bottles at Walmart! Buying travel-size of anything is so expensive. I always need lots of sunscreen so I have two travel-size bottles that I refill with sunscreen before every trip. In fact, I keep a little travel tub of my travel-size liquids, lotions, and gels, so I can grab them and go whenever. I also save those little trial-size toothpaste tubes from the dentist so I can save a few bucks on toothpaste!

9. Take two quart-sized bags of liquids and gels! Shhhhh! Don’t tell anyone I told you this. It’s against the airlines’ rules, but I’ve never had any issues before. If you put one quart-sized bag in your carry-on and one quart-sized bag in your backpack or handbag, you probably won’t be questioned because they’ll assume the bags belong to two separate passengers. And, if you are asked to remove your liquids and gels, you’ll be removing the qt-sized bags from two separate bags which hasn’t gotten anyone’s attention yet. Another trick is just to leave a few small bottles of liquids in your suitcase that don’t fit into the quart-sized bags (like you forgot them). As long as the bottles are really small, they go through the scanner without any issues (Two things I never put with my liquids because they are in small bottles that I always forget: hand sanitizer and foundation)

10. Use contact lens cases! These little containers are great! You can put some facial cleanser or moisturizer in there. Or, I love to use them to pack my earrings, so I’m not left digging for my earrings in a messy suitcase.

The most important thing is to remember you are going on a trip to have a fabulous time and will probably meet people from all over the world who you’ll never see again. There is no need to dress to impress. Dress to have a great time and feel comfortable and confident. A smile is the best thing you can wear so be YOU (no other accessories needed)!

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