How to Successfully Pack a Carry On Bag

posted in: Organizing 4

Image from of a woman holding a backpack and the phrase, How to Pack a Carry On BagAre you traveling by airplane this holiday season?

Do you want to avoid checking your bags?

Maybe you’re traveling by car, bus, train, or boat, and want to eliminate the amount of luggage you’ll be carrying.

In this post, I offer some noteworthy tips when it comes to assembling, and packing, a small carry on bag.

Why a Carry On Bag?

Carry on bags have become quite popular over the past several years.

There’s several good reasons to pack a small bag, versus a large and unwieldy one:

  • There’s less to carry. No more juggling five pieces of luggage and having your cafe latte spill down the front of your pants leg. Yuck.
  • It takes less time to pack. That’s right, you can throw items into your bag and head to the airport in record time.   
  • It might save you some money. Why pay for your luggage to be stored in an airplane hold?
  • No waiting for your bags at the luggage carousel. You can easily grab your bag from under or on top of your seat, and proceed to your final destination.

Hopefully, those are some compelling reasons to convince you packing a carry on bag is a good idea!

Before we get started to the actual packing procedure, you should keep these other pointers in mind:

A carry on holds a finite amount of items.

It’s extremely important not to force a carry on bag (or any bag, for that matter) shut.

While you might fit in one more shirt, you run the risk of straining, breaking, and ultimately damaging the zippers, clasps, hooks, ties, snaps, and integrity of your bag.

You should use everything within your bag.

Everything you pack into your bag should be used on your trip. That being said, pack with a plan.

On what specific days will you wear specific pieces of clothing?

Don’t just throw pieces of clothing in for “just in case” or “if I feel like wearing it.”

Remove items as necessary until you’re left with the absolute basics.

You’re not headed to the ends of the earth.

Chances are, you’re traveling to a place with hot and cold running water, electricity, food, and stores where you can pick up spare or forgotten items.

You don’t have to pack food rations to feed a small family for a week, or twenty shirts, and five pairs of pants for a weekend trip.

You can always do laundry.

Want to carry less stuff? Pack fewer items and do a quick load of laundry while you’re away.

It’s certainly not glamorous, but it is quite practical.

Okay, it’s time to get packing. Follow the below tips to pack the perfect carry on bag:

Inspect your bag.

It’s a good idea to check whether the dimensions of your bag indeed make it a “carry on bag” as designated by your airline, carrier, or other mode of transportation.

Be sure to throughly clean out the pockets, flaps, and compartments, and make sure all of the fasteners on the bag are in good working order.

Layout all items to be packed.

You’ll want to know exactly what you’ll be packing, so lay everything out on a freshly-made bed, or a cleared off table or counter.

Don’t skip this step! You’ll probably want to make a packing list as well, so you can easily keep track of everything.

Here are some basic items for a short weekend trip*:

  • Two to three pairs of shirts
  • One pair of slacks or a skirt
  • A warm sweater
  • Three changes of underpants and undershirts (extra brassiere and/or tank for women)
  • Three pairs of socks or tights
  • A pair of pajamas
  • Small travel toiletries (comb, brush, razor, toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo/conditioner, lotions, medication, etc.) and personal items in a large plastic zippered bag
  • A couple of accessories, such as a scarf, tie, costume jewelry, etc.

*These are just basic items to get you started. It’s implied you will: wear one complete outfit that day, will carry a coat or jacket, and will wear the same pair of shoes for the whole trip. Feel free to edit items as necessary for your trip.

Prepare items for packing.

Now comes the challenging part; making everything fit! There are several camps when it comes to packing.

Over the years, I’ve used a combination of techniques to successfully pack bags, namely folding, rolling, and bundling items.

Rolling and Folding Technique

  • Fold slacks and shirts, and then roll them tightly into a long tube shape.
  • Lay each of these tubes, side by side, at the bottom of your bag, and then layer other items on top, either in rolled, or folded fashion.
  • Repeat the process until the bag is filled.

One could envision this as stacking Lincoln Logs amongst a stack of Post-it Notes, or vice versa.

Another way to do this is to start with neatly folded shirts in a short stack, place it in the bag, and then place rolled items on the side of the stack.

Lastly, be sure to fill up space on the ends and sides of the bag, that is, don’t just pack your bag vertically, go horizontally as well, with tightly rolled items.

Bundling Technique

  • Lay several items of clothing flat on top of one another, and then either place rolled or folded items in the center (small items such as undergarments, work well).
  • Wrap the outside layers around the smaller center until you’ve wrapped everything into a tight bundle.
  • Place the entire bundle in your bag.

Remove extraneous items.

Still having trouble fitting things into your bag? Re-fold, re-roll, repack, and/or nix a couple of items from your bag until everything fits comfortably. Repeat as necessary.

Be brutally honest with yourself about what you’re packing, and when you will wear it. This is a short trip; you don’t have to take your entire wardrobe with you.

How about you? Will you be traveling this holiday season? Do you have any tips for packing a carry on bag? Join the conversation and leave a comment below!

Follow Rashelle:
Rashelle Isip is a New York City-based professional organizer and productivity consultant who helps people get organized so they can stress less, have more fun, and be happier at home. Her work has been featured in Good Housekeeping, Fast Company, Cosmopolitan, The Washington Post, Business Insider, and The Atlantic. Get access to her free guide, 10 Simple Ways to Make Your To-Do Lists More Effective, by clicking here.

4 Responses

  1. Betty Winslow

    Weigh your bag when it’s packed, to make sure it comes in under the weight allowance in case you end up having to check it. Keep your valuables, medicines, and electronics/charger cords handy and in one easy-to-grab bag, so that you can remove them if need be. I did not do this, and when my carry-on was grabbed at the airplane door and checked, due to tight quarters on board the plane, my camera was broken in the process. Keep all your toiletries under the amount allowed (3 oz.) and in a quart Ziploc bag. Stick an empty water bottle in the outside pocket, to fill once you are beyond security – much cheaper than buying a beverage in the airport.

    • Rashelle

      Those are some excellent tips, Betty! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Faylinn

    I just got asked to fly out to New York City for a job interview, and so I now have to pack my bags. Because I am planning on taking a couple pairs of slacks and nice shirts, I definitely appreciate your advice about folding and rolling them. However, does that keep them from getting wrinkled? I’m asking, because I’m not sure if I’ll have access to an iron once I get to my hotel.

    • Rashelle

      Hi Faylinn, that’s a great question. One of the best methods I’ve found for keeping a dress shirt neatly pressed while traveling is to iron it at home and package it up as follows: carefully fold the shirt into a rectangle (like you see dress shirts folded in a clothing store), and place it in a large gallon-sized (or larger) zippered plastic bag, like Ziploc. Make sure you let all the extra air out of the bag before sealing it. You then place the package neatly into your carry on. I haven’t tried it with slacks, but I think it would work well. Thanks for your comment, and best of luck on your job interview!