Learn how to travel light, and you'll have more time to enjoy your vacation. It's easy to stop checking luggage with these simple carry-on packing tips!
This post contains affiliate links.
Are you a heavy packer or do you pack light?
I used to cram as much as possible into my suitcase ... I even went over the weight limit a few times. My bag held multiple shoes, full size beauty products, and more outfits than I could possibly wear. I mean, who doesn't want to look good on vacation, right?
Of course, I ended up packing way more than I could possibly wear and hauling around that heavy luggage was annoying. Plus, paying to check bags and then waiting for them to show up (when I'd rather be hitting the beach) was a major drag.
These days, I prefer to travel light. It's usually a carry-on and a small tote bag only for me. No more checking bags, paying fees, or waiting for luggage at my destination. There's nothing better than breezing in and out of the airport ... especially when you catch a glimpse of a packed baggage claim area!
How to Travel Light
Are you ready to leave that heavy suitcase at home, too?
Then, keep reading! I'm going to show you how to pack for a trip and travel light. We'll start by figuring out what to pack (and what to leave behind), then move on to straightforward luggage packing tips.
Try these easy suggestions, and you'll waste less time at the airport, save money on luggage fees, and spend more time on vacation! And don't worry, you can travel minimal and still look good in all your vacation pics ... I promise!
Create a Travel Itinerary
You need a game plan when packing light, so start by creating a travel itinerary. This one simple step will help you choose activity and weather appropriate outfits, all while helping you leave behind anything you'll won't actually wear.
The itinerary doesn't have to be super detailed. Simply make a note of your plans for each day of your vacation. You can do this on a piece of paper or in a note on your phone.
Then, check the weather. This step is so important, so don't skip it!
True story ... when I lived in San Francisco, half the tourists always seemed to be wearing shorts and (just purchased) San Francisco hoodies from Walgreens. I think they thought it would be warm because they were in California. Well, San Francisco weather is reliably in the fifties and sixties for most of the year.
Don't be that person!
Choose a Color Theme for Your Wardrobe
If you're traveling for more than a day or two, it helps to have a color scheme for your outfits. That way, you can mix and match everything in your suitcase.
You can choose a color theme based on what you like to wear or your destination. If you're traveling to a city, you might want to wear grey, black, or other neutrals (add a pop of color with accessories). If you're hitting the beach, you might want to wear brighter colors.
Either way, when you streamline your color palette, you'll have more outfit options. Yet, you won't need to pack more clothes.
Plan Out Each Day's Outfits
Now that you have an plan, it's time to start choosing outfits.
Based on your itinerary and the weather, select an outfit for each day. I like to start with tops, then pick out two to three pairs of bottoms that go with everything. Depending on the temperature, I'll take along one or two cardigans that can be paired with multiple outfits. Select your shoes and accessories for each outfit, too.
If your trip will last for more than a few days, you'll probably need to repeat tops and pants (no one will notice, I swear!). That's where the color theme comes in ... simply mix and match tops and bottoms, and you'll have a whole new outfit.
Lay out each outfit in the order you plan to wear it. Put your undergarments on top of each outfit. And don't forget anything else you'll need, like pajamas, swimsuits / cover ups, hats, and other accessories.
Minimize the Number of Shoes
Shoes were the one thing that always used to put me over the limit when traveling. I love shoes, but they sure do fill up a carry-on fast!
Two to three pairs of shoes should be enough for most trips.
Look for shoes that can be dressed up or down, like a pair of ballet flats or strappy (yet comfy) sandals. If you're planning to wear sneakers, choose a more stylish pair (like Chucks) so you don't scream tourist ... unless you'll be doing something athletic, of course.
Things to Skip
Just as important as what to pack is what to skip!
If you're traveling minimal with a carry-on only, here are a few things to leave at home:
- Travel books. Download ebooks (Lonely Planet has a great selection) or use your phone to look things up. TripAdvisor is also a great source of info ... the reviews are so helpful!
- Regular books or magazines. Download these to your phone or tablet instead. Did you know that an Amazon Prime gives you have access to FREE books and magazines each month?
- Any liquid over 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters) if you're traveling in the US. Restrictions may vary in other countries, so always check ahead.
- Multiples of anything bulky, like jackets or boots.
- Laptop. Unless you have work to do, consider leaving your computer at home. A lightweight tablet may be a better option.
- Multiple outfits for each day. Mix and match instead.
- Anything that doesn't go with something else. Again, maximize your wardrobe by mixing and matching.
How to Pack a Carry-On Suitcase
Now that you've picked out your clothes, let's talk luggage packing tips. I'm going to show you what luggage I use, and how to pack a carry-on like a pro!
Choosing the Best Carry-On Luggage
Does your luggage need an upgrade?
I recently got a new carry-on, and I'm in love (not exaggerating). Before purchasing the suitcase, I did my research. I needed a lightweight carry-on that would stand up to lots of travel (one to three times a month), and I wanted a spinner. It also couldn't be crazy expensive.
After looking around, I settled on a TravelPro suitcase. TravelPro was created by a pilot, and a lot of flight crews carry it ... so you know it's going last. It was a bit more expensive, but it's worth paying more when it comes to luggage.
Before purchasing any luggage, make sure to review airline restrictions. Each airline has slightly different bag size limits, and there's nothing worse than having to check a bag at the gate.
Looking for New Carry-On Luggage?
Here's what I recommend:
- Carry-On Bag - Look for a lightweight spinner (four wheels). They are so much easier to navigate than two-wheel suitcases ... they'll literally glide through the airport. And if you have shoulder or back issues (like I do), they're a lifesaver! I have a 21-Inch TravelPro Flightpath Spinner, and I love it! It's super sturdy, yet lightweight, and such an upgrade from my previous bag. You can also find TravelPro on Amazon, although I don't see my exact bag.
- Tote Bag - For my personal item, I carry a tote bag. The Dooney & Burke Claremont Editors Travel Tote shown above is similar to the Dooney bag I use. I love the short handle, because I can set the tote on top of my suitcase and grasp the tote and suitcase handles at the same time. This bag isn't cheap, but mine has been shoved under more seats than I can remember, and it stills looks great five years later. It's also perfect for using as a larger purse during the trip, if needed.
- Small Crossbody Bag - If you like a larger bag, you can use the tote as your purse. I prefer to use a smaller crossbody bag however. This Juicy Couture Bag is almost identical to the one I have. It has a soft structure which means you can smoosh it into the tote with no problems.
- Clear Plastic Bag for Liquids - If you're traveling in the US, you'll need a clear ziptop bag to take your liquids through security. I used to use a good old ziplock, but I've since upgraded to these TSA Approved Toiletry Bags, and there's no going back! They hold way more than a ziplock, and I've never had a problem getting one through security.
- Toiletry Bags - I carry non-liquid products in a toiletry bag. Keeping everything together makes getting ready in the morning much easier. I love a Hanging Toiletry Bags ... it's so easy to find what you need. Want something simple? This Canvas Dopp Kit is perfect for men or women. Right now, I prefer to use a Makeup Bag that opens on top to hold toiletries. It makes it so easy to find exactly what you need without any digging.
How to Deal with Liquids
Okay, you have your bags, now it's time to start packing. Let's start with liquids, which are the biggest pain when flying with a carry-on only ... a quart-size bag just isn't a lot of space for a product junkie!
Here are a few tips for packing liquids:
- Hit up the travel-size aisle of your local drugstore for basics like toothpaste, hairspray, and contact lens solution.
- Use empty contact lens containers to hold face/eye creams and hair styling products. Label the contents with a sharpie.
- Rely on your hotel for basics like shampoo, conditioner, soap, and body lotion.
- Not staying in a hotel or don't have space for all the liquids you want to pack? Stop at a drugstore when you arrive at your destination (or borrow from a friend). It's not worth checking a bag just to bring shampoo!
- Experiment with non-liquid products ahead of time to find a few you love. I use Olay Daily Facials and Biore Baking Soda Cleansing Scrub every day, whether I'm traveling or not. And this bar shampoo gets great reviews!
Whatever liquids you do end up taking, they need to fit in a sealed, clear, quart-size bag (I use these awesome TSA Approved Toiletry Bags, which have more space than a standard quart-size ziplock). Keep these liquids in your personal item (not your carry-on), because you'll need to pull them out when you go through security ... unless you have TSA Pre✓, then they can stay in your bag.
Pack Your Toiletries Smarter
For the rest of your toiletries, staying organized is key.
I like to group similar items together, then pack them in ziptop bags. That way, I can grab the bag I need when I'm getting ready. It helps keep me organized while traveling.
For example, I put all of my jewelry (use a jewelry organizer to keep things untangled, if you prefer), hair ties and clips, and nighttime products (cleansing cloths, lip balm, etc.) in separate ziptop bags. Cosmetics go in a small makeup bag.
All of these smaller bags (plus larger items like combs, glasses, toothbrush, etc.) then get packed in one larger toiletry bag that I can take to the bathroom when I'm getting ready in the morning or at night.
How to Pack Your Carry-On Suitcase ... Step by Step
Okay, it's time for the trickiest part ... packing a carry-on!
A 21-inch suitcase is not a lot of space, so you need to maximize every square inch. Here's how I do it:
- Shoes go in first. Pack larger shoes in the back left. Stack smaller shoes on top of each other in the front left. Try to place shoes with soles down (or in shoe bags) so your clothes don't get dirty.
- On top of the smaller shoes in front, place extra underwear, swimsuits, and hats. Fill your hat with these items to save space and to help the hat keep its shape. If you have any socks, pack them inside your shoes.
- Stack your clothes in the order you plan to wear them, with the first day's outfit on top and the last day's outfit on the bottom. Put your pajamas on top of this stack, then place your clothes in the right side of the suitcase. This way, your clothes are packed in the order you plan to wear them!
- Wedge your toiletry bag (remember to keep liquids separate) in the back left corner.
- Add any larger items, like your blow dryer, on top. (Yes, I travel with my blow dryer ... hotel dryers are usually total crap, in my opinion.)
- Secure everything with the suitcase straps.
Easy right? If you packed light enough, everything should fit. If not, do a little recon and start removing things you don't need!
What to Pack in Your Personal Item
Every airline has different rules, but on most US flights, you can bring a small suitcase (your carry-on) and a personal item (a bag/tote that's small enough to fit under the seat in front of you) onto the plane.
The personal item is kind of a bonus. And if you need to, you can actually fit quite a bit in it.
I like to pack my personal item with everything I need to get through security and onto the plane (ticket, passport/ID, and liquids), plus anything I may need during the flight. A tote bag is the perfect size for a personal item, and I love my Dooney tote!
Here's what I pack in mine:
- Liquids, phone (with a paperless-plane ticket), and passport for getting through security. If you have TSA Pre✓, you don't need to pull out your liquids when going through security, but I still like to keep them in my tote (just in case).
- Cardigan, scarf, and/or light jacket (depending on the weather) to keep you warm on the plane.
- Small purse that fits inside the tote.
- Phone / laptop chargers and portable charger. I recently got a portable charger so I can charge my phone on the go, and it has made my traveling life at least 75% more pleasant ... no more searching for non-existent outlets!
- Headphones so you can listen to podcasts and music during your flight.
- Ear plugs just in case you need to block out engine noise or a screaming baby.
- Laptop for workaholics ... only bring it if you really need it.
- Book to pass the time. Download an ebook on your phone or tablet to save some space.
Don't pack your personal item too full (or choose one that's too big), otherwise you won't have any leg room!
If you carry a smaller bag in your personal item, like I do, make sure to empty it out first.
I like to bring the bare minimum. You probably only need one lip gloss, a small wallet, etc.
Remove excess credit cards, keys you won't use, and old receipts, and you'll save a good chunk of space.
More Tips to Help You Pack Light
I hope these luggage packing tips have given you ideas for your next trip!
Of course, certain vacations are harder to pack a carry-on for than others ... especially anything over a week and winter trips (where you're more likely to wear bulky clothing). Luckily, I've got a few more tips for packing a suitcase to help you out in these situations.
How to Pack in Winter
When you vacation in winter, it can be especially hard to travel light ... all those bulky sweaters and boots!
Here are a few tips to minimize what you need to take:
- Don't pack a different sweater for every day. Instead, mix and match a couple sweaters with different base layers (like long sleeve t-shirts) and a few pairs of pants to create different outfits.
- Rely on a few well-chosen accessories (like scarves and jewelry) to change up your look each day.
- Avoid packing more than three pairs of shoes. Two is ideal and will give you more room to pack those sweaters.
- Wear your bulkiest items (boots, winter coat, etc.) on the plane instead of packing them in your suitcase. You can always strip down when you're in your seat, but you'll probably need them to keep you warm during the flight anyway.
How to Pack Light for Longer Trips
Long trips are especially tricky to pack for!
Try these tricks to pack light and make your wardrobe go further on lengthy trips:
- Instead of packing (and having to check) full-size toiletries, purchase anything that doesn't fit in your bag when you arrive. Even if you buy a few things, it's probably cheaper than the baggage fee would be.
- Roll your clothes instead of folding them. When you roll clothes tightly, you'll gain more space in your carry-on. Plus, your clothes will have fewer wrinkles (if you're careful).
- Wear each item of clothing more than once. Mix and match your clothes to create different outfits.
- Do laundry if you run out of clean clothes. You can either pay to have your hotel launder you clothes, stop by a laundromat, or use a friend or family member's machine.
Okay, I'm out of tips. I hope you found some ideas to help you travel light on your next trip!
Are you a bag checker or do you try to fly carry-on only?