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pack light

The Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time


After years of traveling, I’ve learned the many advantages of bringing only a carry-on: avoiding baggage fees, not having to worry about the airlines losing my luggage, and being less encumbered by heavy bags while navigating a new place. And while other flyers are waiting at baggage claim watching the belt go round and round, I’m breezing past them to hop in a cab and get on with my day.

I’m often asked how I manage to squeeze everything into a single carry-on and personal item, even for trips as long as a few weeks. I’ve put together advice for three tricky packing scenarios, as well as a list of general carry-on rules of thumb. (I hope readers will add their own tips in the comments, too.) Some travelers are happy checking a bag or two, and that’s great. But for folks who want to pack light but don’t know how—this one’s for you.

Challenge No. 1: A Long Trip Through Multiple Climates

Not sure how to pack light for your epic South American journey from the chilly mountains of Patagonia to the sunny beaches of Rio de Janeiro? Worry not. Even this can be done solely with a carry-on.

First off, if you’re going for much longer than a week, resign yourself to doing a little laundry. (Your shoulders and back will thank you when you’re not lugging 17 days’ worth of clothes.) You can pay your hotel to do it for you, look for a nearby laundromat—think of it as a glimpse into the local culture!—or simply wash your dirty duds in your bathroom sink.

Second, get creative. This is the time when all those clever dual-purpose travel garments are actually worth the money, like pants that can be turned into shorts by zipping off the legs or jackets that have a gazillion pockets for all your odds and ends. (See The Best Convertible Clothing for Travelers for more garments that do double duty.) It’s also important to choose your carry-on wisely. Make sure that it has enough pockets and compartments to help keep you organized, and that it’s as roomy as possible without exceeding your airline’s size requirements.

The secret to dealing with multiple climates is layering. The same lightweight T-shirt that you’d wear when strolling around the humid streets of Buenos Aires can serve as a base layer during your hike in the snowy Andes. Keep your heavy layers to a minimum—you can wear the same sweater or fleece every day as long as you keep changing the lighter shirt closest to your skin. And be sure to bring your jacket on the plane with you so you don’t have to stuff it into your suitcase.

If your trip starts in a wintry climate and ends in a tropical one, consider mailing your cold-weather gear home so you don’t have to lug it around for the rest of the trip. This can get expensive depending on where you are in the world, but if you have several weeks left in your trip, the lightening of your load could be worth the price. An alternative is to bring along older clothes that you don’t mind donating or leaving behind along the way.

Challenge No. 2: A Week on a Cruise Ship

Shorts, bathing suits, and tank tops are easy enough to pack, but the most common sticking point for cruisers is formal night. How can you get a tux or an opulent ball gown into that teeny little carry-on?

Luckily, these days you don’t really have to. Many cruisers opt to skip formal night altogether and head to the buffet or order room service instead. But if getting gussied up for formal night is as much a part of your dream cruise as ocean breezes and fruity cocktails, you’ve got options. Men can pay to rent a tuxedo on some ships if they want to dress to the nines—but on many cruise lines you can get by with nice slacks and a jacket (a tie is preferred, and easy to squeeze into a carry-on). Bring multiple ties to change your look if there’s more than one formal night.

For the ladies, think little black dress. If there are a couple of formal nights on your cruise, save space by wearing the same dress twice with different scarves, shawls, jewelry, or other accessories. Choose shoes that can also go with sundresses or other less formal outfits at dinner the rest of the week.

Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor at SmarterTravel’s sister site, Cruise Critic, offers the following tip: “Bring tops that can be dressed up or down. I change into a fresh top for dinner that I pair with a skirt, and the next day I re-wear the top (still mostly clean) out touring in port. That way, I’m not bringing two entirely separate outfits for each day. And I re-wear the skirts, shorts, slacks, etc. with different tops throughout the cruise. Travel-size Febreze or similar is great when you want to re-wear a not-all-that-dirty piece again.” For more help, see Top 10 Cruise Packing Tips.

Challenge No. 3: The Business Trip

Business trips pose two primary challenges for light packers: looking professional without toting half your wardrobe, and bringing only the most essential gadgets to get the job done.

Unless it’s a particularly lengthy trip, you can usually get by with a single neutral-colored suit that can be mixed and matched with different shirts, ties, and/or accessories. For example, a woman can wear the same pair of black suit pants for a daytime meeting (pair with a button-down shirt and jacket) and for dinner out (substitute a flowing wrap for the jacket and add earrings or other jewelry to dress up the look). By sticking to neutral colors, you should also be able to keep yourself to a single pair of dress shoes. If you’re bringing a blazer or jacket, wear it on the plane to free up space in your carry-on.

The advent of the iPad and other tablets has helped lighten the load of the business traveler considerably by providing an alternative to bulkier laptops. Don’t have a tablet? If it’s a short trip, you may be able to get by simply with a smartphone and a trip or two to your hotel’s business center or computer kiosk.

A note for business travelers attending a conference: Forget about lugging all those folders and freebies you received on the trade show floor. Go through them the night before your departure and pack only what you really need or want. If you still don’t have room in your carry-on, have your hotel mail the remaining goodies back to your office.

Pack Light: Cardinal Rules of Carry-Ons

There are no hard and fast standards that can apply to every imaginable trip, but here are a few rules of thumb that have served me well when trying to pack light:

1. Limit yourself to two pairs of shoes and two pairs of pants, and wear the heavier items on the plane. (Bonus points if you can pull your trip off with just one. For help, see One Shoe Trip? These Are the Best Pairs That Do It All.)

2. Don’t pack more than a week’s worth of clothes. For longer trips, plan to do laundry along the way.

3. Pack only garments that can be color-coordinated with everything else in your travel wardrobe. If it doesn’t work in multiple outfits, leave it at home.

4. Every little bit of space helps. Clean all those old grocery store receipts out of your wallet, swap your pile of paperbacks for an e-reader, and forget about those “just in case” items you could easily buy in your destination. See What Not to Pack for more help whittling your list down to the bare essentials.

5. Many travelers swear by compression bags (also known as Space Bags) to help save precious space—but keep in mind that they won’t help you stay within airline weight limits. (Some airlines, particularly outside the U.S., do weigh carry-ons.)

6. Maximize your personal item. In addition to a carry-on bag, airlines allow you to bring a personal item such as a purse or laptop bag. I generally bring a small backpack, which can hold a lot more than a purse but will still fit easily under the seat in front of me. (If I need a purse during my trip, I fold it up inside a larger bag.) See 8 Pieces of Personal Item Luggage That Make Great Day Bags.

7. Maximize your space by filling in nooks and crannies with small items (including stuffing socks and underwear into your shoes). For a few other recommended methods, see Packing Tips for Travelers.

Travelers, what advice would you add? Leave your best tips in the comments below.

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

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