Pack Your Carry-On Bag Like a Pro

Tips for packing carry-on luggage for air travel

Packing your luggage is an essential part of every trip. What kind of suitcase-packer are you? Do you make meticulous lists of items to pack weeks in advance, or do you throw things into your bag moments before you leave for the airport? Are you the type of traveler who takes pride in managing a three-week trip with a single carry-on bag, or do you take three wheeled suitcases for a long weekend? Is your luggage a matched set of designer suitcases, or a beat-up backpack you’ve been dragging around since college? No matter what your packing style may be, we bet you’ve got a few clever tricks… and we bet you’ve made a packing mistake or two!

Our friends in the travel industry have shared their best advice for packing for a trip. This week, we’ll be considering the task of packing carry-on luggage for air travel.

The carry-on bag is an essential for plane travel. Most airlines allow you to bring on one carry-on suitcase that will fit in the overhead bin, as well as one “personal item” such as a purse, laptop bag, or small backpack. With airlines charging more and more for checked baggage, many travelers are perfecting the art of fitting everything they need into their carry-ons!

Security Regulations for Carry-Ons

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will be screening your carry-on bags before you board. Remember that you can’t carry any liquids, gels, or aerosols in containers larger than 3.4 ounces (100ml), and you’re not allowed to bring any knives, scissors, guns, or other objects that could easily be used as a weapon.

The ban on large containers of liquids is often the most troublesome for travelers. If you have special shampoos, lotions, or other toiletries you want to travel with, you can purchase travel-size containers, or empty out the little bottles from your last hotel stay and decant your favorite toiletries into them! This also means that you can’t carry bring your Diet Coke or grande Starbucks latte with you through airport security. Wise travelers will wait to buy their drinks until after they have cleared TSA! You can also bring an empty water bottle with you, and fill it from a fountain before you board your plane.

Packing Items for Your Comfort on the Plane

Personal item bag to access your frequently used travel essentialsMake sure that anything you want to use during the flight is packed into your “personal item” bag, which you can keep under the seat in front of you, and not into your larger carry-on. Travelers are discouraged from opening the overhead compartments while the plane is in flight, so it’s best not to plan on being able to get items out of a bag stored overhead until after you land.

What types of items should you consider bringing for use on the flight? Savvy travelers will be prepared with snacks, gum, and mints, even for flights on which a meal is served. If your flight doesn’t have meal service, you may even want to purchase a meal in the terminal and carry it on to enjoy in the air! You can even bring your own meal from home, or from a restaurant outside the airport, so long as it doesn’t include any items that would violate the TSA’s liquids rule. Bring entertainment items for yourself, such as magazines, books, and your tablet or smartphone. (Don’t forget to charge your electronics before you board! Many airports now have dedicated charging stations at the gates.) If you’re lightly dressed for warm weather outside, keep in mind that airplanes are often heavily air-conditioned, so you’ll be glad to have a light jacket, sweatshirt, or shawl. The air in the cabin is also quite dry, which you can combat with lip balm and hand lotion.

Many travelers also have special items that they like to have with them for their flights. Some carry neck pillows or eye masks to help them sleep on the plane. Others bring compression socks, to help avert the threat of blood clots from sitting for a long time. One of our friends in the travel industry tells us that she likes to travel with a small container of perfume or essential oil. “I’ve been on too many planes that have started to smell bad during the flight,” she says, “especially when I’ve been seated in the back near the restrooms! I’ll put a drop of essential oil on my wrist or on a napkin, and sniff that when things get stinky.”

Making the Most of Your Carry-On Luggage

There are a lot of good reasons to try to use only carry-on luggage for your trip. You might want to avoid paying additional fees for checked bags, or to avoid the delay of waiting for luggage at the baggage claim carousels. You may be concerned that your bags could get lost if you check them, particularly if you have to make connecting flights. Perhaps you’re just traveling for a long weekend and don’t feel the need to pack a large bag! No matter what your reason, you’ll want to make the most of the space available inside your carry-on bag.

Travel professionals tips for packing carry-on luggage

Our panel of travel professionals have offered up these tips to fit a full vacation’s worth of stuff into a small suitcase.

  • Wear your largest items. Instead of taking up valuable room inside your suitcase with a bulky sweatshirt or those fabulous knee-high boots, wear them when you travel. You can always peel off that sweatshirt on the plane if you get too warm!
  • Choose your wardrobe strategically. Select clothes you can mix and match to make different outfits. Clothes that are wrinkle-resistant and easy to hand wash are ideal. There’s a reason many travelers like to wear black clothes – black is easy to coordinate with any color, and it doesn’t readily show dirt!
  • Don’t waste the space inside your shoes. In a small suitcase, every square inch counts! You can stuff your shoes with small items like socks and underwear.
  • Roll it or bag it. Instead of folding, try rolling your clothes into tight tubes to take up less space. Another popular method is to place your clothes into large zip-top plastic bags and squeeze the air out to make the bag as flat as possible.
  • Consider bringing clothes you can throw away. One of our respondents told us her trick to make room in her carry-on luggage for souvenirs. She brings her oldest underwear and socks on her trips, and throws them away when they get dirty. This idea might not be for everyone, but we thought it was too clever not to share!

What are your favorite tips and tricks for packing your carry-on bags? Share them in the comments!

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