How to Pack the Perfect Carry-On in 20 Easy Steps
I've been a travel journalist for more than a decade, which means I've had a lot of time on the road. And one thing I've learned is how essential it is to pack wisely — and lightly.
I've traveled in all seasons and all kinds of weather and often get asked how I do it. Here, I'll let you in on the tips I've learned to pack the perfect carry-on.
1. Start With the Right Bag
None of our tips will help if you don't have the right-sized bag. With so many airlines charging for checked luggage, more and more people are attempting to bring their bags onto a plane — and airlines are cracking down.
The standard size for a domestic carry-on is 22 inches in length by 14 inches in width by 9 inches in height — including the handle and the wheels.
All the bags pictured here are 22" x 14" x 9" or smaller, and appropriate to bring on board. Many different styles, from shoulder-strap bags to rolling suitcases, can work.
2. Buy a Pair of Travel Shoes
There are many manufacturers creating comfortable shoes meant for travel. These can handle walking miles across cobblestones while touring a European city, yet remain stylish enough to pair with a dress or nice pants for an evening ensemble.
The best travel-footwear brands include Born (pictured here), ECCO and Clarks. Invest in shoes from a trusted company like this and make them your trusty travel go-to. Then...
3. Eliminate Shoes
Shoes make up the bulk of a suitcase, so when traveling with a smaller one, you need to stick to the basics — even if you really love your shoes and want to show them off.
Wear your bulkiest shoes, preferably the new travel shoes you've purchased, on the plane. (This could also be sneakers if you're choosing to bring them for workouts.)
In the suitcase, pack a single pair of lighter, smaller shoes, such as flip-flops or heels.
And...that's it. Bring just two pairs total.
4. Create a Color Scheme
The secret to traveling with just a carry-on bag is to stick with a set color scheme. If you pack all black and white items, for instance, you can mix and match the clothing to create new outfits throughout your trip.
This also makes it easier to pack just one color of shoes. (No need for brown kicks if all your clothing is black and white.)
To get even more leverage out of your color scheme, bring lightweight accessories that you can use to change up your looks.
Scarves, ties, hats and jewelry are particularly great for this, allowing you to transform even the exact same outfit. Don't worry, no one will be able to tell in the pictures!
6. Use These Cheat Sheets
So you think you have all your clothing picked out and ready to pack? Think again. Use the following cheat sheets to guide you, based on the number of days you'll be traveling.
Packing for a 3-day weekend? Bring 2 pairs of bottoms and 2 shirts OR 2 dresses.
Packing for a 5-day trip? Bring 2 pairs of bottoms and 2 shirts OR 2 dresses PLUS accessories
Packing for a 10-day vacation? Bring 3 pairs of bottoms and 3 shirts OR 3 dresses PLUS accessories.
Just because it's a longer trip doesn't mean you need to pack way more. Sticking to your color scheme and accessories will help you create up to 10 days worth of clothing out of very little, even during the winter.
7. Pack for What You'll Do, Not for the Number of Days
Serious travelers can manage even long vacations with a carry-on — trust me, I've done it! — by packing outfits that meet the needs of the itinerary rather than the length of the trip.
If you'll be very active, for instance, make activewear the majority of what you pack, with just a couple of outfits to be worn when you're not climbing hills.
8. Don't Pack Different Outfits for Day and Night
Travelers also tend to pack different looks for day and night. But this is definitely not necessary.
If you need a dressier look in the evening, pack an outfit that can start off casual and be dressed up with a few accessories and a change of shoes. Remember that a woman can never go wrong with a versatile LBD (little black dress)!
9. Choose the Right Materials
The best materials for packing are those that will keep wrinkles away. Avoid cotton, silk and linens and opt instead for clothing made with spandex, polyester, wool, nylon and rayon.
Wool items are particularly ideal. They can keep you warm and dry, and also dry quickly if you need to give them a wash in the sink.
For the summer, you can even find stylish wool-blend T-shirts, available at stores like L.L. Bean.
Athleta, know for making women's sporting wear, has created stylish dresses using spandex and nylon, also perfect for packing. These can be rolled into a ball but keep their shape.
10. Ditch the Full-Size Toiletries
Now it's time to think of your toiletries.
With a carry-on, you are only allowed to take on liquids and gels in containers measuring 3.4 ounces or less — plus they all have to fit into a quart-sized clear bag. This is where the travel-size versions of common toiletries — sold at any grocery store or pharmacy — come in handy.
For perfumes and expensive creams, you can collect sample sizes to use on your journey.
You can also avoid packing hair and body products altogether by making do with what's available at your hotel, or by purchasing items upon arrival.
11. Seal Up Items That Spill
It should go without saying that any product that could leak — shampoo, makeup, lotion — should be sealed extra tightly.
This doesn't just mean giving the top an extra twist; it means putting anything that could leak into a sealed plastic bag.
Your carry-on is about to go for a bumpy ride and there is nothing worse than arriving somewhere new and discovering you'll need to spend your first hours at a laundromat.
12. Roll Your Clothes
Not only will rolling your clothes help eliminate wrinkles, but it will take up less space.
Don't believe us? Fold your clothes and place them into a suitcase, then roll them and do the same. You'll be shocked to see the difference.
After rolling your clothing tightly, place the items around the edges of your suitcase, saving the center for smaller items.
13. Keep the Air Out
Much of the space in your suitcase is taken up by the air in your clothes, particularly when you are traveling with sweaters.
Purchase space-saving compression bags and roll your clothes as they are inside the bags. The air will come out as you roll and give you even more space.
Special vacuums and pumps tout air-tight storage and travel, but these aren't really necessary. Compression bags should do the trick.
14. Consider Packing Cubes
Lightweight, sealable packing cubes allow you to place your rolled-up clothes into separate cubes, sometimes with different colors to tell them apart. By using these, you can pack an entire day's wardrobe into one cube, making it easier to find what you're looking for while reducing the need to unpack and repack often.
Packing cubes also allow you to keep dirty clothes away from clean ones!
15. Make Use of Wasted Space
Tuck your clothes into every nook and cranny of your carry-on, including your shoes. That's right: You can pack items like socks directly into your shoes, so that space doesn't go wasted.
This also applies to Dopp kits and toiletry bags: If you use one and it has room for additional items, load it up!
16. Steal from the Kids
Kids require a lot of stuff when they travel, but much of it is quite small. Yet they still get the same size carry-on as adults. Rather than giving your child a pint-sized suitcase, use a full-size carry-on and utilize the extra room for your own items.
My two children are 15 months apart. I had one carry-on for their clothing, one for mine and one for anything that didn't fit in either.
17. Utilize Your Second Bag Wisely
Passengers are allowed a carry-on and an additional bag, like a laptop bag or purse. Get as much leverage out of this second bag as you can by being sneaky.
For instance, if you are traveling and leaving your laptop behind, you can use your laptop bag to stash items that don't fit inside your carry-on. This bag can also be used to store items you want at your feet during a flight, like a tablet or book.
Another option for the second carry-on is a purse. But this doesn't have to be a small handbag; it can also be a backpack that holds the contents of your purse plus a laptop, tablet, noise-canceling headphones, sweater, scarf or any other item you need to stay comfortable on your flight.
Having a backpack rather than a shoulder bag also makes it easier to maneuver with a carry-on bag.
While not extremely stylish, I live by the Stowaway Day Pack by LL Bean. It has easy-access pockets where I can place a phone, wallet, keys, passport and small items, and inside is roomy enough that I can hold my quart-sized bag, medications, a blanket, electronics, a book and my purse. When I land, I simply repack my purse and the lightweight backpack slips right into my carry-on.
18. Bulk Up
Not only should you wear your heaviest and biggest shoes that you want on your trip, but you should be donning the bulkiest of your clothes for your travel day. A T-shirt and a pair of leggings take up less space than your jeans and a sweater — wear your layers and heavy clothes on the plane.
Planes get cold, so you won't mind that extra layer when you're 35,000 feet in the air!
19. Never Pack a Coat
And on that note, when traveling in the winter, save your luggage space by wearing or carrying your coat onto the plane, then placing it above your carry-on in the overhead bin. (This can also double as a blanket or a pillow in a pinch.)
This will also make it easier to depart the airport, throw on your coat and wheel your carry-on right to the exit.
20. Don't Pack Valuables
You may think that if you're keeping your bag with you at all times that it is safe for carrying jewelry, electronics and medications. But just because you follow the airline rules with your carry-on doesn't mean they will have space for you. Your perfectly packed bag may wind up at gate check — and sometimes get checked through full baggage.
Keep items you must have and cannot afford to lose with you at all times. (In your aforementioned purse, backpack or laptop bag.)
Keep these tips in mind and you'll never have a packing woe again. Promise.
Want more advice? Check out some additional tips here.