I’ve always been a notorious over packer. I think it’s because I’m picky about what I wear and I also am somewhat of a “mood dresser,” and by that I mean that need to be “in the mood” to wear it. I’ve needed to learn how to pack a carry-on bag for a while now.
I usually check a bag for these two reasons: 1) I live where there are very few direct flights and I hate carrying my luggage between gates and 2) I find it challenging to get all my toiletries into a small enough bag to get through airport security.
For those that love traveling with just a carry-on, they do it for a variety of reasons. They save the money they would pay to check a bag, and they have the assurance that their bag won’t be lost. They also have the security of keeping their bags with them at all times, which might be less stressful.
I’ve encountered trips where I couldn’t check a bag (or I knew that I’d be unpopular with my coworkers if they had to wait with me at baggage claim) so I focused on learning this packing skill. In this blog post, I’m sharing tips and tricks on how to pack a carry-on bag. (Oh, and these tips can be useful even if you just want to check a smaller bag.)
6 tips on how to pack a carry-on
- Plan for optimal mix and match options
- Get double duty out of most pieces
- Coordinate colors
- Bring a variety of accessories
- Wear bulky items on the plane, if you can
- Remove 2-3 items from your suitcase
1. Plan for optimal mix and match options
Approach packing with a mix-and-match mindset. I like to layout my clothes on the bed before packing them. I also try to approach packing as if the items I’m bringing are building blocks for great outfits, not just specific outfits.
Typically, I will find the bottoms (pants, skirts, leggings, shorts) that I want to bring and lay them on the bed. I then select at least two tops (blouses, tees, tanks, sweaters) that will match each of the bottoms. To plan more mix-and-match options, then check if each of the tops also can be paired with one of the other bottoms.
Finally, add a few outer layers, such as jackets or cardigans, that will look great with the outfits you’ve laid out. By adding an outer layer to an outfit, you can easily transition it from one event to another for a fresh look. And, if you like to have a dress along, now would be the right time to pack that also, keeping in mind that you might want to wear it with one of these outer layers.
As an example, using the 12 items shown on the left, you can create so many outfits. On the right are just eight examples of outfits using these pieces.
Now add the undergarments you need, as well as shoes and socks. Because shoes are bulky, try to pare it down to just a more comfortable “flatish” shoe that you’ll use for active days, and a dressier shoe that can be worn for dinner or when you need to dress up.
Tip: The pants or shorts (or other bottoms) you wear on your traveling day can be worn in as part of second outfit sometime during the trip, if you plan ahead.
2. Get double duty out of most pieces
It’s fun to challenge yourself with how you can use a clothing item in more than one way. Here are a few examples to consider for inspiration.
- Reversible leggings – These leggings are true double duty. On one side, they are a print or pattern but when you turn them inside out, you magically get a second pair of leggings in a solid color. It’s like packing two pairs of leggings with just one pair.
- Double-duty pieces — Lately, I’ve been seeing designers do some tricks that help you get more style out of a top or a dress. This 4-in-1 dress, for example, gives you the choice of a scoop neck or a crew neck AND reverses from solid black to a black hibiscus print. Many tops and tanks also feature two necklines, depending upon how you wear them. Finally, this popular style of flowy cardigan can be tied or knotted to give you options for styling it, including as a fitted top when the cardigan is worn backwards.
- Swimsuit cover-up – you can use a variety of clothing as a swimsuit cover-up, include a sundress, a loose-fitting t-shirt, flowy pants or joggers, shorts, or skorts.
3. Coordinate colors
One of the best ways to ensure that your items will mix and match easily is to standardize on a color palette for the trip. A color palette is a group of three to six colors that look great together and will give you many options for pairing those colors together into. With thousands of color shades available, the options for color palettes are unlimited.
To pick a color palette for your trip, you might:
- Pick out your favorite patterned top and use that for inspiration. The colors in the top can provide you the various colors you’ll use for most of the items you pack.
- Pick two neutral colors and three accent colors that complement the neutrals. Examples might be black and white plus your favorite shades of blue, yellow and pink or brown and tan, plus coral, light yellow and sage.
Tip: Check out my blog called “How to standardize your fashion color palette” for more ideas on coordinating colors for your trip.
4. Bring a variety of accessories
When packing light, accessories are one of your best tools to add variety and pizzazz to make your outfits fresh and unforgettable. They are typically small and easy to pack plus they don’t add much weight to our suitcase, so give yourself permission to pack a few extras. Bring metallic jewelry pieces that can easily be paired with our outfits and pack a few statement jewelry items in the color palette you’ve planned.
Scarves are another way to add interest to an outfit but take up a small space. Not only can they be worn around your neck, they can be tied as a sarong over our swimsuit for a quick trip to the hot tub, or knotted as a cute vest.
Tip: I brought in my friend Ann Marie to give you even more tips on “How to Travel with a Carry-on Bag: Don’t forget to pack your accessories.”
5. Wear bulky items on the plane, if you can
When space matters, you may need to think strategically. Once you’ve looked at all the clothing (and shoes) that you plan to bring, notice the bulky items. Maybe it’s a pair of great wedge sandals (but they have that awesome chunky heel that takes up so much space). Or it’s that black blazer that you know you’ll wear several times on the trip but it does take up a lot of space."When space matters, you may need to think strategically." Click To Tweet
Consider wearing a few of the bulkiest items instead of packing them. I mean, that black blazer will be so cute with a white tee and jeans, especially when paired with those wedge sandals. By using this tactic ou free up a bit of extra space in your carry-on.
6. Remove 2-3 items from your suitcase
When you’ve finally packed your carry-on, here’s a final suggestion that might feel painful but I bet you won’t regret it. Look through your bag and remove two or three items. They can be anything. Maybe you decide that you can remove a pair of shoes (be still my heart, I gotta bring all my shoes) or possibly you can get by with one less long-sleeve top. You get the idea.
What I find, is that when I travel, I almost always bring home a few items that I never wore. I suspect that you have a few of those in your bag too. If you pull out a few things now, you can travel a little lighter.
Tip: If you’re concerned about not bringing enough clothing items, don’t forget that nearly all hotels offer same-day laundry service.
More help with how to pack a carry-on
With a little planning, you can pack a carry-on easily and never lose your bags again. Keep these six tips in mind as you get ready to travel on your next vacation or business trip.
I mentioned above that one of my concerns about taking a carry-on as m only bag is that I need to meet airport guidelines on skincare, makeup and haircare. To ensure you have all you need to pack a carry-on, I partnered with these bloggers to help you pack everything you need for the trip.
- Check out Brooke’s perspective on “How to pack your makeup and skincare in your carry-on.“ She has some great tips.
- If you need help on “How to Pack Your Haircare in a Carry-on,” Carla has you covered.
Want to learn more about how to get dressed effortlessly and stop worrying about what you’re going to wear? My “Formula for Dressing Effortlessly” ebook will change the way you look at your closet and it’s free. Get your copy here.
Products and photos used in this post are from Peach.