Tips for Packing a Carry-On (ONLY)

I travel fairly often. Mostly for work, but I certainly love to see the world whenever I am lucky enough to have the opportunity! This still feels fairly new to my life, as I didn’t even own my own luggage until I was 25 (I’m 33 now, so I guess it’s not that new … but you get it). I rarely check a bag. In fact, I’ve probably only checked a bag maybe five times in my life and I’ve had my luggage lost three times. To be fair, one of those times was 100% my fault (it’s a long story), but that’s still a weirdly high average, right? Since I’m a mostly carry-on only kind of gal, I thought I’d share a few tips I’ve learned over the years to maximize what you can fit in a carry-on size suitcase.

I’m also really happy to be working with Sofft Shoes for this post. Their shoes are ideal for travel and really any situation where you want stylish shoes that are super soft and comfortable. I have two styles—the Somers III and Nalda, and I’ve packed both of them with me this week as I’ve been in Palm Springs for work (and fun!). Also! Through 5/2/19 you can use the code ‘ABM15‘ for 15% off your purchase for their shoes!

First, plan your shoes. I tend to only pack a maximum of three pairs of shoes (wearing one on the plane, of course) and I often travel with just two pairs. Shoes can quickly take up a lot of suitcase space so choosing styles that will go with a variety of outfits you plan to pack is ideal. I also will usually wear the largest pair of shoes I plan to bring on the plane, unless it’s too uncomfortable for some reason. This just frees up more space in your suitcase. So, if you plan to pack a cute pair of boots, wear them on the plane unless it’s just not practical (like wearing heavy snow boots for an 8+ hour flight, I could probably skip that).

Once you’ve planned outfits around the shoes you plan to bring (taking into account the activities you plan to do or types of clothes you’ll need to wear for work, etc.), roll your clothing as much as possible. Not only does this save space, but in my experience it often helps to minimize wrinkles too.

And third, once you have your bag packed, make sure you can easily lift it above your head. This is a little embarrassing for me to admit, but one time I was traveling alone (for work) and I had really packed my carry-on suitcase super full. Once I got on the plane I was trying to quickly put my bag in the overhead bin and get in my seat so other passengers could get on. But I couldn’t lift the bag high enough to get in the bin. I was so embarrassed! Luckily, a kind fellow passenger saw me struggling and helped me out. But ever since then after I finish packing my bag I just give it a quick test lift to make sure I haven’t overstuffed it.

This isn’t carry-on bag related, but I also highly recommend TSA Precheck (This is U.S. only but there may be other versions of the same thing in other countries). It’s not very expensive and lasts five years! I did have to make time to do it, as you’ll have to make an appointment to get fingerprints done and a few other items. But since getting it last year I am now SO sorry I didn’t get it sooner! There has already been one flight situation this year where I certainly would have missed my flight if I hadn’t had TSA Precheck.

Any other carry-on bag packing tips or other travel hacks you’d like to share? I’d love to hear as I am always looking to make traveling an easier experience. I am thankful to have work and vacations that take me fun places, but flights and airports have always given me a little bit of anxiety, and I know a lot of others feel this too. So, always love to hear more travel tips that can make the experience just a little easier. 🙂 xo. Emma

Credits // Author: Emma Chapman. Photography: Janae Hardy. Photos edited with A Color Story Desktop. In case you’re curious, my dress is from ASOS, purse is Rebecca Minkoff, sunnies are Gucci (birthday gift from my sis).

  • Great tips you share on this blog. Your tips are very helpful for me. Packing is very stressful work. Thanks for sharing.

  • I’m leaving for a trip this weekend and I’m super hopeful I’ll be able to just pack a carry-on! Wish me luck!

    xo Sam

  • Thank you for sharing your carry-on tips, Emma! And that you can pack light & still wear fun clothes. Maybe would you share what you pack someday?

  • It is always tough keeping the luggage to a minimum but packing only a carry on saves so much time waiting in the luggage pick up area at the airport! I plan my shoes first too and keeping the selection at a minimum, as you said, is key to keeping it down to a carry on only.

  • Carry-on only has become quite “the trend” since paying for extra luggage can be quite expensive and then you have to wait at baggage reclaim. I don’t usually take that many shoes – one pair in the suitcase and one that I wear. I also like to bring one of those Tide pens for stain removal just in case. Also a couple of times I’ve managed to get away with having a razor in my hand luggage, but otherwise I pack some of the Vert strips and use them to “freshen up” 🙂 I’m also one of those people who hate using hotel towels so I got myself a large size microfiber one, which takes up very little space.

  • Yes! I did carry on for a month in Europe recently with 3 pairs of shoes and limited colour palette outfits. Packing cubes and rolling absolutely. Also I pinch the disposable shower caps from hotels and use them for packing my shoes in the suitcase 🙂

  • Timely post for me! I’m leaving for Palm Springs on Sunday. I’m staying a week and taking carry on luggage. And my shoes include Nalda in carmel too. Love them!
    I’m trying packing cubes for the first time this trip and I think I’m going to love them.
    Enjoy PSP!

  • I too swear by packing cubes! And I just flew yesterday and had to pull out all liuquids, phone, ebook reader, and kids tablets, their snacks and a pack of baby wipes. Such a pain! Love the 2 shoe limit. I did that for the first time yesterday and it made a huge difference!

  • Great post. Perfect timing for my upcoming flight to Mexico!

    Do you have any suggestions on packing a weeks worth of clothing in a carry on? I always overpack and bring clothing I never end up wearing. Would love some versatile outfit suggestions! Thanks!

  • My carry-on super power is to pack old underwear, socks, pj’s, reading material etc which I throw away as I wear /read them. And a little wool washing powder in case of emergency, my travel clothes are easily washable and quick-dry, or I use the laundry service if necessary. I even travel with my own tightly rolled pillow-to-ditch. A comfortable pair of shoes does it, there are usually shoe stores if something happens. Only the most essential products in tiny quantities, one needs very little for a few days or weeks. This leaves plenty of room for purchases!

  • It doesn’t look like you use them but I SWEAR by packing cubes! They help keep your clothes rolled up real tight and quickly put outfits together if you do a cube of shirts, cube of pants, etc etc.

    • Hmm. Never used them! I’m gonna look that up though, sounds interesting.

  • Love all these tips, many of which I use since I travel a lot for work. I also swear by packing cubes, stuffing socks into shoes, and rolling clothes. On my latest trip I took the time to not only pick clothes that mix-and-match, but to plan out exact outfits and make sure each item could be worn more than once. It was a fun (tho a bit time consuming) puzzle and really helped cut down on the amount of clothes I ended up bringing, and for once I didn’t come home with anything I didn’t wear. Another related trick with the mix-and-match is to keep the palette pretty neutral and bring accessories to add pops of fun and color. Scarves and earrings are my faves.

  • I am with you on being a carry-on gal! My only gripe is getting all my makeup and liquids into a quart sized bag. That’s usually the worst part. I try to stick to sample sized mascara etc to keep things as tiny as possible. Sometimes if I’m traveling to a place I know has plenty of stores around, I’ll just take a quick shopping trip with a list on my phone so I don’t forget all that I need.

    As a plus size gal, my clothes take up 1.5 to 2x the space of a petite sized person, so packing cubes have been a lifesaver! I use one for jeans, one for tops, and fit everything else around it. They definitely keep the suitcase from looking like an exploded mess too. I keep a drawstring “hamper” with me for dirty clothes.

    Sometimes on full flights they still insist people check bags, so I always rule of thumb keep 2 sets of undies and socks and top or two in my underseat bag/backpack just to make sure I’ve got something to tide me over.

  • Great post! Where is that red bikini top from? Love the shape and underwire support. Thanks! 🙂

  • A few things you skipped….
    1) Fill your bra cups with underwear to avoid damaging your bra, unless you pack unlined lacy bras.
    2) Stuff socks in your shoes to save space.
    3) Always put your shoes in bags to avoid getting your clothing dirty.
    4) Don’t bother with a blow dryer, most places provide them and you can always call ahead of you are worried.
    5) Compression packing cubes are amazing for saving space. I have the eagle creek ones and absolutely love them.

    • These are so great! Next time you’re writing my post for me! Thank you for sharing.

  • I use all of these strategies too! I almost never check a bag, and even with packing carry-on only, I still usually come home with clothes that I never even took out of my suitcase. So now when I am traveling, especially when I know I am not going to be seeing the same people every day, I try to bring as few clothes as possible and make sure they all match–like 1 pair of pants that I can wear 2-3 on different days, 1 pair of black leggings, a black t-shirt, and a jacket or cardigan. It depends on weather of course, but it’s crazy how few clothes you actually need. I would rather wear the same outfit for 3-5 days than come home with clothes I haven’t worn (and have to wash anyway because they were in my suitcase)… plus, fewer items in the suitcase means more room for souvenirs!

  • Hi Emma! I recently started traveling a TON for work and loved this post! I’ve been on the hunt for the perfect carry on bag and I love the pink one in your post, where is it from? Xoxo

    • I bought it from Target (I am pretty sure) about two years ago. It’s a collab bag from Design Love Fest. I love her site! Since then both Oh Joy and Jungalow have come out with collab bags as well and they are super stylish and great.

      Another spot to check in TJ Maxx, the bag my husband usually packs is from there and was super affordable.

  • These are GREAT tips! I recently started doing carry-on only and if I can help it, will never check a bag again! I had a quick question about the liquids.. I’ve been putting mine in a literal quart size Ziploc but noticed your liquids in a clear bag that seems a little bigger that that? Have you had any issues? Its so hard to get everything in a Ziploc and I have a larger clear bag and wondered if that’s really a big deal as long as the bag is clear… Thoughts?

    • I’ve def done bags (sometimes not even clear) that are larger than a quart and never had problems, as long as the contents are all within the 3.4oz/100mL.

  • My biggest issue is packing all my liquid/creams in tiny containers and then fitting them all in my clear TSA bag. Any advice for this?

    • In my experience, in the last at least five years, I have not had to separate my liquids into a separate bag. I travel a lot (my family is on a different coast and I like to take weekend trips) and keep all of my toiletries in a regular makeup bag. All of my liquids and creams are always in small bottles, but I have never been asked to take them out of my bag. All of this is experience without TSA pre.

    • This isnt advice as to how to fit it all (sometimes I cant either) BUT my experience that for the past 2-3 years I have brought way more liquids than allowed and never been told otherwise. I never put them in a clear bag (i have an ikea zipper pouch that is slightly bigger than the ziploc bag youre allowed. I have everything in a 3oz bottle, but you can have one vag of liquids in your carry on and another in your personal item/backpack/ purse and the ppl from tsa have no idea that they both belong to you. I also never take the liquids out of my bag and have never been stopped. I found this out bc i am TSA precheck which is much more lenient with liquids/laptops/shoes/etc. Whenever i travel with my SO i go through the regular line as he doesnt have precheck, and I always forget to take liquids out- never an issue.

    • i have a larger than normal toiletry bag, put all my stuff in there and always take it out while going through security – have never had a problem with it being too large or opaque! i also always make sure to pack a few items that help me reduce my waste. they’re really not bulky and it’s a small way to help the planet, you can check them out there:

    • A tip someone gave me about packing the liquids, creams, etc is to hit Nordstrom and Sephora and get sample sizes of your favorite products. Both will make small tester samples for free, which will hopefully get you through your trip while still fitting in that quart size ziplock 🙂

    • I find this super difficult too. Once I got my TSA Pre check it became way less of any issue because they don’t require you to open any bags (so I pack more than what is probably OK but they are still all less than 4 oz.). 🙂

      For shorter trips I often skip brining my own shampoo and conditioner and just use what my hotel or Bnb provides. Other than that it’s just a prioritizing game.

      It’s also shocking to me how little my husband packs (in creams, liquids, etc) compared to me. I really don’t feel like I have tons of stuff until I see his bag that only has hair product and toothpaste. Ha.

  • I can never pack a carry-on properly! I always seem to mess up the liquid sizes or forget something, one way or the other. Thanks for these tips. Love your pink luggage! 🙂

    Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog

  • Hi Emma! I am also a frequent flier and never check a bag. It’s surprising how much you can pack and still keep it light. Two tips I would add are 1) packing cubes – I like the slightly see thru ones so I can easily see what is where, and 2) pick a primary palette (brown, black, or whatever goes with your limited shoe options (this is especially true if you have to pack work/dress clothes). I also like to bring along a travel candle and matches to make anywhere I am feel like home. Happy travels!!

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