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How to Pack Everything in A Carry-On Bag

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There is something that’s simply freeing about traveling light. When you can stuff everything you need into a carry-on bag and skip past the baggage claim carousel, you’re traveling untethered from worries, cares, or that behemoth metal suitcase without wheels that Great Aunt Sally offered to let you borrow for the trip.

There are a number of reasons to considering packing everything in your carry-on bag. Take convenience; one less thing to lug and drag around airports and hotels is one less thing to forget. (And don’t forget the 73 socks, blazers and belts packed in that one suitcase.) Then there is price, baggage fees that range from the standard $25 fee on most domestic carriers, including Delta and American Airlines, to more than $200 for oversize bags.1

Then there are the time savings of not having to wait awkwardly at the baggage check for your bag to emerge from the Rotating Oval of Chance. That’s right, sometimes when you make your connecting flight to Rochester, N.Y., your bag is sent to Rochester, Minn. Airlines mishandle about 20 million bags each year, or about 7 per every thousand passengers.2

(If you have to check bags and are worried about something going awry, then consider buying a travel insurance policy. Allianz Global Assistance offers travel insurance plans with baggage delay and baggage loss/damage benefits.)3

The benefits of packing everything in your carry-on bag don’t end there. Consider the sense of adventure that comes with traveling light, from having to visit an exotic laundry mat to shopping for your personal care items in a foreign language.

No matter what your reasoning is for packing all you need for a trip in one carry-on bag, from a weekend getaway to a weeklong jaunt around the Australian Outback, we have some tips for fitting your life into 45-ish linear inches of space.

How Much Space Will Your Carry-On Bag Provide?

First off, when we talk about fitting all you need for a trip into a carry-on bag, we’re not necessarily talking about just one bag. That’s because many airlines allow you to bring a personal item on board in addition to your carry-on, which may include a purse, messenger or shoulder bag, laptop bag or briefcase, or backpack.

Now let’s talk about the carry-on bag. The maximum size of the bag can vary, but as stated above this is usually about 45 inches as a linear measurement with a maximum weight ranging from 11 lbs. on Bangkok Airways to 51 lbs. on British Airways. Many airlines break down the dimensions as “Height X Width X Depth;” you can add them together to get the linear measurement. Or you can simply try fitting your bag into the sizing contraptions airlines often place by the terminal gates. (This handy carry-on bag sizing chart provides all the specific dimensions by the airline you should ever need.)4

Structured Carry-On Bag Vs. Soft-Sided Bag

Go to the airport and eyeball the folks who are obviously experienced travelers. (Think of George Clooney’s jet-setting, miles-obsessed character from “Up in the Air.”) These fliers always have the roller bag style of suitcase, which is a structured, often hard-sided bag that offers a protective rectangular shell of storage.

These are popular, reliable bags — but they’re not always ideal for getting the most out of your storage space. Duffel bags and other soft-sided luggage are much more flexible, bending without breaking as you stuff in an extra pair of socks or some last-minute souvenirs. Sure, the protection is inferior to those harder roller bags, but just keep all the delicate items on the inside, surrounding them with layers of clothes.5

How to Pack Your Carry-On Bag for Maximum Space

Once you’ve made the decision to only bring a carry-on bag to the airport, you need to have a better plan that simply throwing everything in the bag and hoping it fits. Here are some tried and true tips for making it work.

  • Skip the liquids and gels, at least as many as you can get away with. Instead, buy trial-size personal care items when you arrive. And toss them before you fly back.
  • Wear your bulkiest, heaviest clothes on the flight. This is easier said than done when it’s August in New Orleans, but it just might be jeans, sweater and blazer weather for you. (A company called Jaktogo designs “wearable” luggage so you can pocket extra t-shirts and belts without sacrificing precious baggage space.)6
  • Try limiting your colors so you have a more versatile wardrobe with which you can arrange multiple outfits with just a few key items.
  • Store items inside items: socks inside shoes, phone chargers inside socks, etc. You get the picture.7
  • Air costs you space. So suck it up. No, seriously. They go by many names, from compressions bags to space savers, but these plastic travel bags allow you to remove extra air from inside them, either manually or with the aid of a vacuum cleaner, to fit more stuff.

These are just a few methods for optimizing your limited storage space when you’re traveling without any checked bags.

At the end of the day, it really comes down to picking the right trip to fly with just a carry-on bag. If you’re getting away for the weekend and don’t want the literal or figurative weight of a checked bag, you can pull it off with a little planning. But if you have a one-way ticket to a destination you’ve never been to that’s halfway around the globe, You’ll probably want to check a bag — or three.

Mike Ward is a copywriter, family columnist and sometimes comic who lives in Richmond, Va. with his wife, two young kids and two mutts. He likes long road trips and rooting for losing sports teams. 

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