I like to travel light. So much so that I’m known for never checking a bag. I’ve even been interviewed about it in the New York Times and the Metro, one of London’s popular newspapers. People always tell me I should write a blog post about how to pack with just a carry-on, so today I bring you 5 tips that will help you master the art.

How to Pack with Just a Carry-On

How to Pack with Just a Carry-On

I’ve been traveling with just a carry-on for over a decade. It’s made traveling easier, checking in for flights faster, and leaving the airport when I land a breeze.

I’ve traveled for up to 3 weeks with just one small bag (doing laundry once), and I regularly travel for a week without extra luggage (and without wearing the same shirt twice).

I’ve gotten so used to it that I have a hard time imagining how I could fill an entire suitcase. If you follow these 5 steps for how to pack with just a carry-on, you’ll be able to do the same.

A Lady in London with a Carry-On

1. Get the Right Carry-On Bag

If there’s one thing you take away from this blog post, it’s that you should get a Lululemon bag for your travels. I’ve had three of them over the last 10 years and they’re the most useful things I own.

With padded laptop pockets, waterproof shoe bags, and other storage areas of various shapes and sizes, they’re easy to pack and keep organized.

Unlike many other travel bags, they hold their shape so are great for packing fragile items, electronics, and anything else that needs extra protection.

They also have long handles, making them easy to throw over your shoulder. If you’re in the UK, you can get one here. If you’re in the US, they’re here.

2. Travel Size Everything

Now that you’ve got your bag, it’s time to focus on what you’ll put in it. Or better yet, what you won’t.

The things that waste the most space in my bag are toiletries and accessories. When I first started traveling a lot, I learned the value of saving space by getting travel-size everything.

I have a tiny hairbrush, mini deodorant, small toothbrush, and itty bitty toothpaste. I buy all my make-up in sample sizes in addition to regular ones, and whenever I see a diminutive version of something I use daily I buy it for my travels.

I also keep a supply of travel-size bottles that I fill with sunscreen and other liquids when I fly.

It allows me to save space and make sure I’m within the allowed liquid limit, which is a key element of how to pack with just a carry-on. If you’re in the UK, you can get them here. If you’re in the US, find them here.

Best of all, keeping these items in a grab-and-go toiletries bag at home makes packing for my next trip fast and easy.

3. Conserve Space in Your Carry-On

But there are some things I can’t miniaturize. Clothes, for example. For those, I roll.

When I first heard that rolling clothes saves space, I didn’t believe it. Then I tried it and was overwhelmed by how much extra room there was in my bag. Now I roll everything.

I know a lot of travel bloggers who also swear by packing cubes. I’ve never used them, but they’re certainly worth a try if you need more room. If you’re in the UK, you can find them here. If you’re in the US, you can get them here.

Carry-On Bag

4. Only Pack What’s Necessary

Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you to bring one pair of underwear for a two-week trip. But I am going to tell you to bring one pair of shoes. And one jacket. And for goodness sake, leave the hairdryer at home.

I used to travel with full bottles of shampoo and conditioner, a hairdryer, and other bulky items I never used.

It was as if I was afraid there was no shampoo in all of Hawaii, or that Italians didn’t dry their hair. But eventually I learned these things are rarely missing from a hotel room.

Above all, I leave the “just in case” items at home. When have I ever needed them anyway? And if I do end up requiring them, most are easy to purchase in whatever destination I’m traveling to.

5. Plan a Travel Capsule Wardrobe

To that end, capsule wardrobes are essential for packing with just a carry-on. When I first started traveling, I brought different outfits for every day.

Then I realized that if I planned my outfits to coordinate with one another, I could cut down on extraneous shoes, scarves, and other accessories. Suddenly my bag was much lighter and I didn’t miss the things I left at home.

So plan on bringing one pair of shoes, the more versatile the better. If you read my summer packing list for London, you’ll know I swear by French Sole flats.

I can dress them up or down depending on what I’m doing, which frees up space in my bag. If you’re in the UK, you can get them here. If you’re in the US, they’re here.

And plan to dress in layers. There’s no need to bring three jackets of varying thickness when traveling somewhere with an unpredictable climate. Just bring one and layer your clothes according to the weather.

Packing with Just a Carry-On

I hope this guide helps you travel light and save time (not to mention effort—luggage is heavy!).

If all else fails, put everything you plan to pack on your bed, then put half of it back in your closet. It can be difficult in the beginning, but you’ll be a pro in no time.

How about you? Do you have tips for how to pack with just a carry-on?

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How to Pack with Just a Carry-On

34 Comments on Lady’s 5 Tips for How to Pack with Just a Carry-On

  1. I have a set of small vacuum bags. I throw one in my bag empty, and put all my dirty clothes in there as the trip goes along. Helps keep other clothes fresh and then I can squeeze out all the air for the trip home. Also makes unpacking and laundry a breeze after travels.

  2. Great post! One thing to add – carry on suitcases (with wheels) are fantastic but out of the last 4 flights I’ve taken, I’ve been asked to check mine at the gate twice due to it being a full flight and there being space restrictions in the cabin. It’s free, but it does add time at the other end so that Lululemon bag looks perfect (although not currently in stores in the UK?).

  3. I used to be a chronic over-packer but I just came back from a long term travel stint and I think I’m cured! I find it much easier now that I pack a few essentials and mix and match. I also tend to stick to neutral colors and usually pick up a bright accessory, like a scarf or a necklace, as a souvenir in my destination!

  4. My last few trips have been carry on only and it makes life so much easier.
    I stick to a small wheeled suitcase as I have a bad back and can’t carry much weight for long periods of time.
    I’m heading to Budapest in November and I’m interested to see how I manage my packing for my first Winter trip.

  5. Great tips! We love our Lululemon here in Canada! Great bags are a must for frequent flyers✈️ Just got an amazing expandable Lululemon bag that I used on our recent cruise and Disney World holiday.

  6. The Lululemon bag isn’t quite up my street, but I totally agree that finding the right bag is essential. I managed to pick up a superb Roncato wheeled carry on – 4 wheelers are absolutely the best – and traveling is honestly more enjoyable now I’ve got a great bag to travel with.

  7. I never check a bag either! It’s such a hassle dealing with fees… But boy, do you have to make sure you get the dimensions right! There’s nothing more annoying than having the flight attendants take your bag at the gate. Thanks for the tips!

  8. The rolling tip is great. I’ve been using it for years too and I recommend a lot. Now my 13 year old son rolls too 🙂
    I’ll definitely check out the lululemon bags.
    Happy travels!

  9. Great tips. I also use the rolling clothes trick and it sure helps! I’ve also been doing the travel size toiletries for a while. I’m going to check out the Lululemon bags and see if any of those work for me. I think I’ll stick with my converse as my one pair of shoes as they’re so comfy. haha! I’m impressed you’ve managed three weeks with a carry on.

  10. The 5/4/3/2/1 plan works. 5 tops (that includes a jacket), four bottoms, three accessories, two shoes and one bathing suit or scarf. Wear from this selection when you travel.

  11. Love your blog! I have been traveling for years and use your strategies. I use shampoo to wash undies and carry silky ones as they dry quickly. I do wear one pair of shoes and pack another. I carry pants to wear 2 or 3 times and different shirts to match. I also carry dryer sheets to keep my shoes and clothes smelling fresh! I have a easy to fold tote in case I buy items that can’t fit in my bag for the return home!

  12. I also travel with only a carryon. One great space saver for me is to leave the bulky cosmetic organizer at home. Instead I use 1 quart ziplock bags. I usually have 4 or 5 of them, to keep all my small items organized and easy to see. They can be stuffed into all the odd little spaces in my carryon.

  13. Great column. I’m a big user of ziplock bags. One for bathing suit and coverup, one for undies and socks, extras for whatever comes up. Easy to press all the air out. My only vice is my stick-style hair dryer. Can’t live without it.

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