How To Pack For A Carry-On Vacation

This article was last updated on April 16, 2022

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It starts innocently enough: You feel like you need more clothes — oh, and accessories, books, gadgets, and doodads — than you expected for your trip. Next thing you know, you’re dusting off that jumbo suitcase from underneath your bed for your weekend trip, checking your 50-pound suitcase at the airport, losing your luggage, and having to do the weekend with one outfit. 

If it’s happened to you once, it’s probably enough to scare you into the carry-on club for the rest of your air-travel life — no matter if you’re going on a weekend getaway or a multi-week extravaganza. And you’re not alone. We’ve been there…several times and, as a result, have become pro-packers. Ahead, we reveal our space-saving tips for doing it carry-on style, every time.


Tip 1: Don’t Pack Outfits. Pack A Theme
People often start overpacking when they start thinking in outfits instead of pieces (in reality, your favorite outfits will usually form Venn diagrams with one another). Find the pieces you wear the most often, and then fill in the holes with versatile separates that’ll do double duty. We like: cropped trousers, A-line dresses, button-up shirts, and textured skirts. As far as ratio, we like to think of a top a day (plus an extra one for good measure) and half that number for bottoms. Never pack something that you haven’t worn in a while — chances are, you won’t want to wear it on the trip, either.


Tip 2: Use Your Shoes As Storage
Packing shoes are a huge pain in the tush — especially stiff, bulky, clunky shoes. However, what makes them annoying also makes them useful. Use them to stash sunglasses and jewelry wrapped in socks and thinner shirts. Got real big shoes? You can easily fit the sole of a high heel in them as well. Shoe inception!


Tip 3: Remember, You’ve Got Two Bags To Use
You’ve got two opportunities to hold your stuff, so don’t stress about fitting everything in a suitcase and then waste space with a tiny crossbody bag. Your “personal item” should be large enough to hold your electronics, your toiletries, and your travel essentials (books, sleep mask, documents, wallets). 

Of course, carry-on rules differ from airline to airline, so make sure that you know their policy and don’t get overcharged. For those flying on super-packed flights, a rolling suitcase might not be the best idea if you’re boarding toward the end, as those are the ones most likely to get checked. A duffle or other soft-shelled case usually helps you sneak by!


Tip 4: Consider Your Wrinkle Priorities
Will you have a steamer or an iron where you’re headed? Will you have enough time and energy to de-wrinkle your clothing when you arrive? If you’re forced to wear a wrinkled item, are you the type of person that would die of embarrassment? Depending on those factors, you’ll want to bring clothing of various degrees of wrinkle-bilty, and sacrifice space for flatness. Rolling, folding, and layering your clothing takes up less to more space, but also produces more to less wrinkles. When you arrive, hang things up if you can so wrinkles can flatten. 

Really want to avoid wrinkles? Layer tissue paper or garbage bags between your clothes. The slipperiness will cause the fabrics to slide around, and everything will come out nice and neat.


Tip 5: Gadgets, Products, And Other TSA Annoyances
For anything you’ll need to pull out during the security line, make sure you’re sticking that all in your personal item. That way, you’ll be able to easily pull it out and place it back without holding up the line. Things getting heavy? Swap your shoulder bag for a backpack to even out the weight.


Tip 6: Don’t Pack Your Entire Medicine Cabinet
If you can survive a few days without using your usual products, consider leaving them at home. If where you’re going has shampoo, lotions, and body washes, definitely ditch them as they take up valuable space (one helpful tip is to go to your favorite skin-care and makeup counters and ask for samples). Only bring your essential products that do double duty. Smudge-able eyeliners, cheek and lip stains, and lotions that work for both your face and body. Pack all liquids in gels in a plastic bag and place it in your makeup bag. Chances are, the TSA won’t stop you for little bottles (as long as they’re undef 3 fl. oz!), but if they’re all in a small bag, it’ll be easy to whip them out if there’s an issue.


Tip 7: Wear The Heavy Stuff
Planes are always cold, even in the dead of summer. Find the heaviest stuff you’re packing — yes, even if it’s a parka! — and layer it up. You’ll save room, stay warm, and free up extra space in your suitcase. Wear the clunkiest pair of shoes as well.


Tip 8: Shoe Bags Are Your Friends
Bring multiple shoe bags to store your dirty and clean clothes (as well as shoes!). The drawstring closure also helps if you’re one of the lucky TSA inspection picks, and you don’t want your dirty underwear flying everywhere.

Photographed by Mindy Best

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