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Five Tips for Fitting it All in a Carry-on Bag

I’m packing my bag (a carry-on) and preparing to head off to New Zealand for two weeks. The challenge: I’ll be arriving on the first day of spring and traveling to many different regions (including a beach and a glacier), so I’ve been advised to pack for “every season.” I have a short connecting time and a change of airline on my international flight, plus a domestic flight from New Zealand’s North Island to their South Island, so it makes the most sense to do carry-on only. How am I going to do it? By following these tips for packing everything I need into just a carry-on.

Maximize Your Bag. I didn’t realize just how small my normal carry-on bag is until I bought one that comes close to the maximum carry-on dimensions for U.S. airlines. Consult your airline’s website for dimensions, and you may be able to get a bigger bag than you thought. I’ll be taking this expandable Briggs & Riley suitcase, which fits both Air New Zealand’s and United’s carry-on allowances.

Personal Item. Forget wasting my personal item allowance with a tiny purse. I’ll bring a larger tote bag that I can stash under the seat, but will still give me extra storage space. This will come in handy for keeping all of the things I’ll need on hand during the flight within arms’ reach as well. It’s also a good idea to separate essential, irreplaceable items, like money and passport, into the personal item, just in case the plane is full and you’re forced to gate-check your main carry-on.

Zip-Lock Bags. Getting everything for a big trip into one suitcase means that it will be jam-packed. Rather than having my suitcase explode all over the hotel room every time I open it, I like to keep everything separated in zip-lock bags or packing cubes. One bag will hold socks, one bag will hold a few t-shirts, etc. The clear bags make it easy for me to find things, will help keep everything wrinkle free, can save space (if you compress all the air out), and makes it easy for the TSA to root through my belongings if they have to do a hand-search. It can also be handy to pack an entire outfit, from top to underwear, in each bag, so you just have to grab one bag in the morning and you can be dressed in a snap. Another great tip is to put a dryer sheet in each bag to keep clothes smelling fresh. Same goes for small items like chargers and medicines—keeping them in bags makes them much easier to find. I use small sandwich-sized bags as well as the larger gallon-sized variety, and keep them in my suitcase between trips for reuse. I also pack empty bags for dirty laundry.

Roll Clothes. I roll rather than fold clothes in order to create more space. Rolling makes items more compact and can reduce wrinkles. The heaviest rolls, like jeans, go on the bottom of the suitcase; smaller rolls go on top or crammed into extra spaces. Small rolls in bags can fit in shoes, for example.

Liquids. The 3-1-1 rule is my personal carry-on nemesis. From contact solution to sunscreen, I need to pack a lot of non-solids. Since I’ll be staying in hotels, I plan to leave behind most of my toiletries and will use the in-room ones provided instead. I also look for alternatives, like face-wipes instead of liquid face wash, to replace my liquid beauty products in solid form. Other essentials, like the giant bottle of SPF 100 I imagine I’ll need in New Zealand, I plan to buy in duty-free. Contact wearers, did you know that saline solution and eye drops are not included in the liquid ban? You’ll still have to separate out the bottles and declare them during screening, but you can have a bigger bottle than 3.4 oz. I plan on printing out that rule from the TSA webpage, just in case my screener is unaware.

One piece of advice I won’t follow, however, is wearing my heaviest items on the plane. I’ll sacrifice the extra space and weight in exchange for not having to wear hiking boots and a jacket for close to 20 hours of flying.

What tips did I miss? Tell me how I can save even more space in my carry-on!

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