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Packing Lightly: It’s A Suitcase! Not a Closet!

Getting Schooled With A Carry On Only Traveler

Who can pack lightly enough to only travel with a carry-on?  Me.  And I never thought I would be that person.

I love to travel. I love fashion. I love to have options. “Options” usually means a gigantic suitcase that is one pair of socks away from being overweight. It certainly doesn’t mean living out of whatever I can pack into a teeny tiny bag and then feel good about it at my destination. So…what is a clothes horse like me to do when a great opportunity to fly regularly, for free, on STAND-BY comes up that means travelling light, and nimble with a bag that can fit in the overhead bin?  Well, you gotta get serious about curating your packing list. And for me that really means examining the location, duration and purpose of your trip to make sure everything you bring is a thoughtful choice and then packing in a way that avoids hassle and disaster. I have now made weekend trips to Charlotte, New York, Washington DC, Toronto and New Orleans with a carry on, and I have felt prepared and stylish for each trip. Not only that, I have actually had a little room to bring back a few “finds” from our destination. So what have I learned about packing lightly? Here are my tips in a nutshell:

  • Pick the Perfect Case

    Don’t feel you have to spend tons on the perfect carry on suitcase.  Because we were travelling as a family, I actually had to go and find a few cases that were allowable on the airline my husband works for.  TJ Maxx had plenty of choices and I spent a good hour comparing the various ones. A great one, super light with all the bells and whistles was around $70. Overhead bin sizes are pretty uniform but double check the size requirements of your airline of choice before picking one. Take weight into consideration, a light case won’t weigh more than 6 or 7 pounds before you load it up.  Make sure it has four 360 degree wheels and an adjustable handle. Consider whether a solid unit or clamshell design works best for you. I like to have pockets and a divider between the sides. Because we use one carry on for our two littlest kids, (their clothes are really small after all) we like a clamshell design with full zipper enclosure to keep their stuff separate. I also have a couple with exterior soft pockets that fit my lap top perfectly, helping me to access it for security and not have to carry it in my already overloaded purse.

  • Create division within the case

    You can get fancy with packing cubes, like those sold at the Container Store or simply take advantage of the various sized Ziploc bags that are available.  I use washable clear plastic pouches for all of my toiletries, cosmetics and hair stuff.  I keep all my liquids in one clear bag at the top of my bag to take out for security if necessary.

  • Packing lightly means packing for duration, location and events

    Check what the weather will be like. Figure out your planned and possible activities.You do not have to consider every possibility – go with what is likely. Create an outfit for each day and activity, right down to accessories, underwear and shoes. Try to focus around a few colors that can work together and neutrals like denim, black and white.  You will find that you have more outfits than necessary and you can start to trim down.  Particularly with heavy things like shoes.  You generally won’t need more than 3 pairs for a trip of any length. A pair for walking, a pair for going out and then a pair of flip flops or other casual shoes depending on your destination.  I always try to pack a pair of ballet flats or flip flops. They don’t take up much room and are a life saver. Don’t forget pajamas and exercise clothes if you plan on working out. Plan your outfit for the plane, pick some of your bulkiest items, and dress in layers.  You want to be able to manage in security but to also be warm on the plane.  If you are planning on bringing boots, a warmer coat– that should be on your body. I always wear a pashmina wrap as a scarf, it can be used as a blanket on the plane and a wrap with your evening wear. Think of everything being double duty – I often pack my hair accessories in a metallic wristlet purse that I can use as an evening clutch. I pack my shoes in drawstring fabric bags that I can use for laundry or as a daytime tote for the kids or at the gym. One of the best things I have done is invest in some great, basic, fitted knit/stretchy dresses in solid colors like black and grey.  They can be dressed up and down, look great with heels or flats, pack like a dream, are super comfy and one dress is really a complete outfit and can take the place of pants/top/belt combo.

    A jewelry tote that keeps everything separate and organized and that can fit in your purse or carry on is a must. I don’t want my stuff to get tangled or mangled so I use little organza bags for larger items and little screw top watchmaker tins like the ones from Lee Valley Hardware for earrings and necklaces.

  • Lotions, potions and sprays- the travel make-up bag

    When it comes to cosmetics and skin care, check out our feature on slimming down your cosmetic case for travel. Hotels generally have hand lotion and body wash so no need to bring those, and many of them will even bring you a toothbrush, tooth paste, razor etceteras if you want to pack super light. Don’t worry about a hair dryer if you are staying in a hotel – it may not be as good as yours but it will do the trick.  If you are like me, you will need better shampoo than is usually on offer, as well as the rest of your styling products. Buy refillable squeezy tubes for shampoo and conditioner and buy travel items of spray etceteras.

  • To roll or not to roll?

    I wasn’t much of a roller before this requirement to fly with a carry on only. Now, I am a convert.  It does help with wrinkles but as a rule I don’t travel with anything that requires a big ironing job.  Even if you need a crisp white shirt consider a “no iron” version like the ones from Brooks Brothers – the fabric is “heat release wrinkle free” – so a blast with a hot hair dryer will knock any wrinkles out.  Now, I roll just about everything – the only downside is when you travel with clothes of a similar color and fabric it is sometimes difficult to tell them apart in their little bundles. If you unpack when you get to your destination you will be fine. If you have to live out of your suitcase, try to pack the items for particular outfits together so you aren’t digging through trying to differentiate between your black leggings, black t-shirt or black pajamas that all look and feel the same when rolled up.

  • The method to the Carry On Madness

    Shoes go in the bottom, with socks/belts/scarves inside to maximize space. If you have a solid, non-clamshell case, put the ziploc or sealable cosmetic bags with your toiletries, jewelry, hair stuff next. Then on to the clothes. Make your life easy by packing items for each outfit together, in cubes or not, and tuck into the case using all available space. If I am bringing a hat, I usually wear it since it is an awkward thing to pack but depending on its size you may be able to fill the inside with smaller rolled items and wrap a belt around the brim to protect it, packing around it. I have a foldable duffle bag I bring as an extra just in case I buy some stuff that needs some room in the case, then I take all my soft, dirty laundry and put it in the duffle to shove under the seat. Once you have all your basics in, you will likely have a little extra room, this is when you can add a few “wardrobe stretchers” – a scarf or two, a cardigan, a soft hat – or you could just leave some extra room for shopping!

  • The Personal Item

    It has gotten to the point that the “Personal Item” you can bring on board can fit almost as much stuff in it as your carry on. But really, do you want to? It kind of kills the point of packing lightly if your personal items looks like you are heading off to Everest.

    I have tried to steer away from making my purse or tote too bulky but there are some things I always include.  First, make sure any medications, ID, wallet, jewelry etc is in your personal item/purse, not your carry on – now that everyone is travelling with carry on bags to avoiding checking, overhead bin space is at a premium and you could find yourself “gate checking” your carry on.  Sometimes you will get your bag on the jetway when you exit, sometimes they send them out to the carousel with the checked bags. Either way, make sure anything you couldn’t do without or bear to lose is on your person. For the same reason, make sure you have an ID tag on your carry on – if you don’t have one – I know where you can get a snazzy one.  Earphones, chargers, gum or mints, some disinfecting hand wipes and a little Burt’s Bees or Chapstick is the bomb (or balm as the case may be) and should round out your must haves, as well as anything required to keep yourself entertained. Resist the urge to pack all of your kids in the air stuff in your personal item. Pack one separate for them with all their snacks, activities and earphones.  For some tips on what to do to make air travel with kids easier check out our Up In The Air With Kids feature.

    I have become so confident with my carry on packing prowess that I am willing to tackle a week long trip with a carry on only. And I don’t feel any less put together than when I had 3 possible options for every activity.  In fact, planning out my outfits in advance actually means I have a more thoughtful approach to dressing, and avoid have to buy and items to fill gaps at my destination.  Because after all, packing lightly doesn’t mean looking like a schlump.

    Add to my fly travel fashion on the go, the fact that we have added hours to the fun parts of our destination. It is amazing how much time and hassle having a carry on bag only is saving us on our travels.

    Do you think you could change your 50 pounds of luggage toting ways? Take the carry on challenge and let us know how it goes! Do you have some great packing tips we have missed here?  Share them with us on our facebook page or email us at and we will send you a fly luggage tag!

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