Rachel's Carry-On Packing Guide

Rachel's Carry-On Packing Guide

I am one of those travelers who believes that everything I need can and should fit into my carry-on bags. Avoiding the lines to check a larger bag and then also avoiding the baggage carousels upon arrival at my destination always feels worth it. Understandably, this isn’t always feasible. But I’ve done a pretty good job throughout my career and personal adventures to accomplish this goal whenever I can.

Here are my tips and tricks to fitting an entire vacation’s worth of items in your carry-on bag:

Choose your bags wisely:

  • Each passenger on the airplane is allowed a carry-on bag and a personal item. Maximizing the use of both bags is essential to eliminating the need for a checked bag.

  • For my carry-on suitcase, I travel with a hard case roller bag, similar to this one from Samsonite.

  • For my personal item, I always choose a backpack with ample storage space, including a specific and separate compartment for my laptop. There are so many options out there, so I recommend finding one that feels good on your body when you’re carrying it, one that has a back strap that can attach to your roller bag’s handle and one that holds all your essentials.

Plan to wear your bulkiest clothes on the plane:

  • Wear your big walking or hiking shoes on the plane. Don’t try to fit them into your carry-on.

  • Wearing your coat, jacket or sweater on the plane will also save a ton of room in your luggage. Plus, it’ll keep you warm and cozy during the flight, which can often be chilly.

Scrap the liquids:

  • Pulling out your laptop, tablet and phone while taking off your shoes, sweater and getting everything up on the security area conveyor belt is annoying enough without also having to find all of your toiletries to add to the mix. I prefer to no longer travel with liquids, as this also tends to be the number one reason I’m flagged and pulled aside for further “assistance.” Forgetting that my toothpaste is in a different section than my shampoo and having that raise a red flag on my bag’s x-ray view is just ridiculous to me.

  • Another reason I like to skip bringing my own toiletries is that most hotels you plan to visit are going to supply you with soap and shampoo in your bathroom. I understand you might like your own brand of personal care products, but I don’t feel it’s worth the hassle anymore. Not for one or two weeks.

  • Maybe you’re not staying in a hotel though! If you’re adventure traveling, camping or staying at hostels, with friends or renting an apartment, you might not have those available amenities. If you don’t like to use hotel options for your personal care or you don’t have them available to you, then consider bringing non-liquid toiletries like these:

  • Solid Shampoo and Conditioner

  • Solid Body Wash Bars

  • Facial Cleansing Cloths

  • Antibacterial Wipes

  • Toothpaste Tablets

  • Mouthwash Tablets

  • Solid Perfume or Cologne Sticks

  • Solid Sunscreen

  • Solid Deodorant

  • Non-Liquid Bug Repellent

  • The exception to the rule here is contact solution. My husband wears contacts and I have yet to find a suitable solution for this necessary toiletry when we travel together. In this case we either:

  • Pack a travel-sized Contact Solution in our clear plastic bag for security checking, OR

  • Purchase Contact Solution when we arrive at our destination

  • If you know of any liquid-free contact solution options, please let me know!

Pack your personal item first:

  • My laptop goes into its own, separate pocket in my backpack. Ideally, when going through security at the airport, pulling my laptop out of my bag is quick and easy.

  • If you pack too many other items in with your laptop, you might end up like I did once where all of my papers and notebooks ended up on the floor of the security area because my laptop edge caught on another item and pulled everything out.

  • In another compartment, use the pockets and separators to pack all of the items you’re going to want to use on the plane: headphones, travel pillow, eye mask, antibacterial wipes, book, magazine, tablet, phone charger, snacks and wallet. Make sure this section of your bag is easy to reach during the flight or is easy to unpack into your seat’s pocket before you take off.

  • In a small pocket, pack your Passport (if you need it), itinerary, any other important documents you need, along with your phone. Make these all accessible with a single open and grab for checking into your flight, getting onto the plane and for getting through customs.

  • If you are concerned about these important items being in a pocket that someone could easily get into without you knowing, these items also usually fit perfectly into a coat, jacket or sweater pocket so you can keep them on your body.

  • From here, I like to pack as many of my other items as I can into my backpack.

  • One or two changes of clothes, including underwear, socks and a pair of sandals or the smallest pair of shoes I plan to bring.

  • I always bring a black ink pen, a sharpie marker and a pencil.

  • Small first aid kit, including headache medicine, sleeping aids, indigestion medicine and a few bandaids. If you require regular vitamins or prescriptions, be sure to put them in this small kit as well.

  • Keep going until you feel that the backpack is full, but not too heavy to carry or too large to fit under the seat in front of you on the plane or in the overhead compartment.

  • Leave the side pockets open for a water bottle. I always bring my own water bottle, as most airports now have filtered water fountains. It’s so much more sustainable than buying endless amounts of disposable water bottles.

Now pack your remaining items in your carry-on sized roller bag:

  • My first trick here is to roll all of my clothes. Tightly. I feel like this is an old wives’ tale that I picked up somewhere, but it works for me! Make sure your clothes are laying as flat as possible, and try not to create creases or wrinkles as you’re rolling. This can be a tedious process, but is worth it.

  • If you’re traveling with just a carry-on and a personal item, you’re also going to have to be thoughtful about how much you want to bring in the way of clothes. My general rules are:

  • One shirt and one pair of underwear (please) for each day abroad. 10 of each item for a 10 day trip.

  • If you’re planning on doing a lot of walking or hiking, I suggest packing one pair of socks for each day abroad as well.

  • This may not apply if you’re going on a beach vacation (barefoot in the sand!) or if you’re not going to wear out a pair of socks every day.

  • One pair of pants for every two days abroad. So if I’m going for a 10-day trip, I pack 5 pairs of pants. This may seem excessive to some people, but you never know how hot and sweaty your destination spots are going to be. Sweaty pants can dry and be reused once, several days later. More than that, and I find that pants tend to stretch out and be uncomfortable to wear for a third day.

  • One pair of casual flat shoes or sandals (this went into my backpack though), one pair of heels or dress shoes for nice evenings out and possibly one more pair of dressy flats should get you through every possible situation. (Remember, you’re already wearing your bulky walking shoes on the plane). Choose shoes that will match and go with all of your clothes, so that you don’t have to pack multiples of these!

  • Stuff your shoes with socks and underwear. This utilizes all of that space that your shoes are going to take up in the bag, which you’re going to want!

  • Charging cables and international adaptors now get stuffed into remaining open areas. You’ll need them once you land, but not on the airplane.

  • Last but not least, don’t forget your toothbrush, a small makeup case (if you wear makeup), your hairbrush, glasses case and any jewelry you choose to bring.

I’ve made my way through 10-15 day trips through Italy for work and for personal vacation with just these two pieces of luggage several times before. It is absolutely doable if you’re smart about how much you’re packing. Be discerning and picky about the outfits you think you’ll need. Plan out your itinerary ahead of time if you need to, so that you know what kinds of events, meals or activities you’ll be doing. That can really help you to hone in on the exact wardrobe requirements, so you can eliminate the rest.

Happy packing and traveling! See you out there.

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