5 Tips for How to Pack Carry On Only for Your Next Trip

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I'll admit it: I used to be a chronic over-packer.

No matter how hard I tried, I could just never limit myself to just the essentials. I'm generally an indecisive person, and I found it nearly impossible to plan what I was going to wear a few days or weeks ahead of a trip. What if I changed my mind? What if I really did end up needing that extra pair of shoes or sundress?

If you've ever had a peek into my closet, you'll know that I like options when it comes to my clothing.

But, the more I've traveled, the more I've learned the benefits of packing light.

When you pack light, there's no fear or overweight baggage fees, or how you'll drag your bag around when you get to your destination.

Packing for a river cruise in Europe

And the best way to ensure you pack light? Pack carry-on only!

It can be a challenge, yes. But it definitely can be done.

How, you ask? Here are all my best tips:

5 tips to pack carry-on-only for your next trip

Know what you really need

This is probably the most important thing to think about when it comes to packing. Where are you going? What season will it be there?

Obviously, if you're going somewhere tropical, you probably can leave the winter coat and fuzzy socks at home. In fact, if it's going to be hot and humid, you can probably leave the jeans behind, too. Not only are they uncomfortable in hot weather, but they also really weigh down your luggage.

Conversely, if you're going somewhere cold, you probably shouldn't bother with shorts, and your flip flops should probably be reserved for hostel bathrooms.

Simply knowing what sort of weather to expect can do wonders for your packing list, and is the easiest way to decide what things you really need.

Take enough for one week

Whether I'm traveling for 5 days or 5 weeks, I stick to packing roughly the same amount of clothing: enough for about one week. That means enough tops and bottoms for a week, and one week's worth of underwear (sometimes I'll take enough undies for 2 weeks if my trip is really long, but I stick to my one-week rule for everything else!).

You can always find laundry services abroad, whether it's at your hotel or at a local laundromat. So there's really no need to pack a top for every single day you'll be gone.

(And don't forget that it's easy to hand wash things like underwear and socks in the sink. I travel with quick-dry undies that will dry overnight when I wash them.)

Pick one color palette and stick to it

Packing for a river cruise in Europe

I know it's often tempting to pack all your favorite pieces for a trip, but when you're trying to pack light this isn't always going to be possible. Stick to mostly neutral colors that you can mix and match, with one accent color or pattern.

When you pack like this, it's easy to turn a small amount of clothing into multiple different outfits simply by pairing things up differently.

Add in some fun scarves and necklaces if you're worried about your color palette being too boring.

Roll your clothes in packing cubes

I'm a huge, huge proponent of using packing cubes to organize my suitcase. I use one for tops, one for bottoms, and one for dresses/skirts or sweaters, depending on the trip. I roll my clothes in them, which helps both to save space AND to keep my clothes from getting extra wrinkly.

The packing cubes help me keep everything neat and organized, making it easier to find things once I get to my destination (not to mention easier to re-pack everything when it's time to head home).

Pack solids instead of liquids

If you're packing carry-on-only, that means you won't be allowed to take any liquids larger than 100 ml with you on the plane. For shorter trips, this is fine travel-sized bottles of shampoo will be plenty. But if you're going on a longer trip?

Instead of trying to pack 12 little bottles of shampoo and body wash into your carry-on bag, consider getting yourself some solid shampoo/conditioner, and reverting to solid bar soap. Not only are these things more eco-friendly (you'll save quite a few tiny plastic bottles), but they'll take up less room in your bag. (AND you won't have to worry about that shampoo exploding in your bag!)

These are just the most basic tips for traveling carry-on-only, but they really can help you go from an over-packer to someone who breezes through the airport!

Are you a fan of carry-on-only travel? What tricks do you use when trying to travel light?


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Tips for packing carry on only


"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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44 Comments on “5 Tips for How to Pack Carry On Only for Your Next Trip

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  1. Very useful tips, I’ll be going on a trip next week, so I’ll have a field to apply all them! I’m know as the messy packer of the family, so hopefully this will be a big surprise for some people around me.

    On each of my trips i have managed carry-on-only. I have found that a rolling backpack works GREAT! Also, one of my purses is large enough to count as a carry on, so i pack it flat in the bottom om my backpack (for anything i buy while on vacation), and i use a convertable purse backpack as my “personal Item” it it goes all my liquids, make up, and other purse items. The rolling backpack has duel full size adjustable compartments, in one goes my shoes and my dresses that can get wrinkled while in the other goes everything else. On the return trip my convertable purse gets packed and out comes the larger one. That way, nothing has to be done without. and, if I get tired, the back pack can be pulled behind and on it i can rest the larger carry on sized purse. I love it! I have never had to wait in line at baggage claim, i walk off the plane and head straight for the rental car!

    Oh for those who like to rewear clothes, two liquids that are a MUST :Downy wrinkle release …&… Gain with febreze. Both are small travel size sprays and they both work WONDERS. If my flight is rather long and i dont have time to change before dinner once off the plane, i go to the restroom, spray my shirt, give it a little shake and i’m good to go!

    Another trick i learned, go to the perfume store, get a sample of my favorite scent, now i can take it on the plane,… in a little pot or bottle put your oderless lotion and mix in some of your perfume. this way your moisterizing, and your perfume scent will last longer! (this is a trick i use everyday)

    Another thing that happens if you don’t typically wear close toed shoes, your feet realy stink when you get to the hotel and take your shoes off. Place a dryer sheet in the toe of your shoes so when you take them off, its not as bad.

    One last thing i learned and would like to share, If traveling in a dress or skirt…. or even a low-ish cut blouse… hairspray the back of your legs, and the cleavage of the blouse. It keeps your skirt from rising up and revealing anything on the plane, it also keeps the blouse from accidently opening up while your curled up asleep. using a water based hairspray on your face (after aplying makeup) will also keep your makeup from smudging on the plane. spray it in to the air infront of your face and just lean into it.

    sorry, just one more helpfull tip. white tooth paste (NOT GEL) works like magic on dark under eye circles. When i wake up the morning after a flight, i put a layer on my under eyes.. do my morning ruitine, wash away the paste and the circles are virtuly gone.. On an occation it hasn’t worked well enough, so I reaply a smooth thin-ish layer, let it dry, and cover with my liquid foundation. nobody even knows 😀

    Happy travels!!

      Thanks for sharing so many fantastic trips!

      I totally agree with you on the little bottles of Downy wrinkle release and Febreeze! I always travel with those, too!

    I am used to carrying on my luggage and bags so I’m fine with all of these. Especially the way of putting your clothes into the bags, roll the shirts to have extra spaces inside your bags and etc. I find it more convenient if I have my bags on a stroller to make it a rolling bag but then I need to be practical, so I still carry my bags. Thanks for the packing tips you have given!

    Ooh! Some great tips!

    I’m such a packing geek. I got such a thrill out of travelling hand-luggage only to Cyprus last year. It was only a 10 day trip and it was warm and sunny for the whole thing, which always helps. The one drawback to the hand luggage only travel is not being able to take razors, tweezers and nail files on board. I end up spending a fortune on some rubbish tweezers when my wonderful ones sit neglected at home. Still… these eyebrows can’t go a week without plucking. Hello, Yeti!

      Nothing wrong with being a packing geek! It feels good to be able to pack everything you need into a small little bag, doesn’t it?

      On this latest trip, I actually did pack my razor and tweezers, and they made it through the security checkpoint just fine! So there’s something to think about.

    I used to be a terrible overpacked but have since mended my ways. My trick is to pack clothes that work together and don’t get too wrinkled (that always eliminates so much of my closet!) This year I’m travelling with a 60L pack for the whole year. I don’t know if that is light, but it was the best I could do. It doesn’t hurt my back, that’s all I know =)

      Wrinkle-resistant clothing is ALWAYS a good idea! And hey, as long as it doesn’t hurt your back, who cares what size backpack you have, right??

    I swear by carry-on-only travel and here are my tricks:

    – invest in a good suit bag with lots of compartments, you can pack more in than it looks. I like tumi
    – balance the suit bag over a laptop trolley, again Tumi is my top pick
    – remember things like toothbrushes and razors are not liquids and need not be squeezed into the ziploc
    – ditch the ziploc, instead find a good see-thru toiletry bag. Even if it’s slightly larger than the traditional ziploc, many airports let you thru.
    – call ahead and ask hotel what brand/range of body/bath/hair amenities they use. Then you know not to overpack
    – invest in an adaptor with USB ports, then you can pack less wires
    – pack a three way multi plug (for UK appliances) so one adaptor can charge up to three appliances
    – use reversible belts. I have a good one by dunhill (check out their contemporary designs)

      These are all really great tips! I like the idea of the adaptor with USB ports. I just bought an all-in-one electronics charger that charged both the battery for my camera and video camera, and has a USB port so I can also use it to charge my phone and iPod. Great investment!

      Using reversible belts is also a smart idea!

    I’m another who always over-packs. I love to travel but I also love my home – the result, I try to take as much of it with me as I can! I never use half the things I take and typically take things that can be bought at my destination if required. Shall certainly apply our packing tips for my next journey.

      That’s a good way of putting it, Dawn – that you like home so much that you want to take it all with you! If only we could, right?

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