Tips for Packing Light: Airplane Travel With a Carry-On Bag
Tips for Airplane Travel - How to Use Only a Carry-On
I assume if an airport employee touches my bag, it will end up lost or the contents broken. Is this true? Probably not, but I've had enough bad experiences in my life to be wary of checking baggage. Today's increased check baggage fees offer an additional incentive for planning ahead and packing light with only a carry-on.
Conventional wisdom states that carry-ons are for a spare outfit or weekend trips, but it is possible to travel using only carry-on luggage, even if you're taking a week-long trip. Follow these basic tips to save yourself money, time, and hassle by traveling only with a carry-on. These packing light tips are applicable for any type of trip and are easily adaptable to suit car, bus, train, or even boat travel. Even the TSA rules regarding liquids are useful guidelines for anyone who wants to minimize space devoted to toiletries.
The basic steps for packing with only permitted carry-on items are:
- Plan your outfits
- Pack in layers
- Research carry-on restrictions
- Take advantage of your 'personal item'
If you're interested in learning how to follow these steps to save money and hassle, read on!
It's amazing how many outfits you can create with a simple pair of slacks and a shirt. Wear them plain, add a jacket, wear with a scarf, or add a statement necklace to create four different looks with two basic wardrobe pieces!
Plan Your Outfits
Don't just throw a lot of extra clothes in your bag for no reason. Think about your trip and what you are likely to wear. If you're taking a beach vacation, a fancy suit or dress and accompanying shoes may not be necessary. If you're taking a business trip, multiple casual outfits might not be needed. If possible, coordinate your outfits to take advantage of the same piece multiple times. Does one bottom work well with three different tops? Can you pack multiple outfits that go with the same pair of shoes?
I like to begin planning at least a week ahead of time. I mentally, or physically, set aside the clothes I want to bring. Each day, I look through them and ask myself "Will I really wear this?" If the answer isn't an absolute yes, I move it off the list. How many times have you returned from a trip with clothes you never even wore? While it is nice to have a backup change of clothes, remember that you can always find a way to do laundry. Whether you have to use a hotel laundry service, laundromat, or wash something in the sink, you can always get clothes clean while traveling.
Even if you are not traveling by plane, or if you decide to use a checked bag, planning your outfits is useful. By eliminating unneeded clothes, you can free up space for other necessities (or souvenirs!) and can reduce the frustration of digging through an over-stuffed, over-sized bag for that one shirt you simply must wear right now.
Pack in Layers
Do not throw everything into your carry on haphazardly. This makes it more difficult for security scanners to see your luggage and can lead to hold-ups, particularly if agents decide they have to check your baggage by hand. Place clothes in a layer, lay electronics and coiled cords out evenly, and then place additional clothes or shoes on top. If you are a fan of rolling clothing to save space, you can still pack in layers. Packing in layers refers specifically to separating clothing, electronics, shoes, and other items within the bag to make it easier to scan. By keeping bag contents organized and electronics neatly packed, and together, you make your bag easy to scan, which reduces the time you have to spend at security checkpoints. Plus, more organized bags are easier to unpack and neatly folded clothing takes up less space. It's a win-win situation.
If you've pared down your outfits and still have just a little too much to fit, consider using vacuum or zip-lock bags. By putting your clothing in a zip-lock bag, you can press the extra air out of the garment and seal the bag. Vacuum bags allow for even greater compression. For a demonstration of how much space you can save by packing in zip-lock bags, take a look at the photos to the right. I used regular, gallon-sized freezer bags and dramatically decreased the amount of space taken up by clothing. My two dresses, folded and stacked, were almost 4" high. By placing them in a zipper bag and removing as much air as possible, I reduced their combined height to an incredible 1.5"! Purpose-built travel vacuum bags offer greater convenience and even better space savings.
Liquids in containers up to 3.4 oz in size are allowed in carry-on luggage, but all liquids and gels must fit inside one single quart-sized, zip top bag. Liquids do not have to be in their original, labeled container.
Research Carry-On Restrictions
Research prohibited items, liquid restrictions, and luggage size restrictions. Common wisdom is that, in the United States, you have to carry only 3 oz bottles (or smaller) of liquids and all bottles must be contained in a single, quart-sized zip top bag. This is called the 3-1-1 rule: 3 oz, 1 bag for each person. This is only partially true. The regulation actually permits liquids up to 100 ml, which is 3.4 ounces. This is an important difference - many personal products already come in 100 ml, or smaller, sizes. This means you do not necessarily have to run out and buy all new 'travel size' toiletries to fly. Over 70 countries currently comply with TSA carry-on liquid restrictions, so unless you know for a fact you don't need to follow the 3-1-1 rule, follow it.
To be safe, place anything you might possibly consider a liquid in your quart bag. Technically speaking, stick deodorants are allowed without restriction in carry on luggage, but the existence of gel and semi-solid deodorants means some TSA agents require deodorants meet the size and containment regulations, too. Check yours - it may actually contain less than 3.4 oz and be acceptable without purchasing a travel size. Disposable razors are allowed in carry-on luggage, as are all medically-needed liquids or liquid medicines. Baby formula, liquid medicines, and even beverages are permitted if needed, just make sure to declare them at the TSA checkpoint. To answer any questions about specific items, check the TSA website.
Make sure to check your specific airline's carry-on size restrictions, but pay special attention to the largest plane's restrictions. Smaller planes have less room for carry-ons, but airlines understand that you may be taking a commuter plane to a larger airport and longer flight. Many permissible carry-ons do not fit in the overhead compartments on smaller planes, but airlines allow you to 'gate check' these bags for free. You simply leave your tagged bag on the walkway before takeoff and pick it up on the walkway after arriving. As long as your bag meets the larger plane's carry-on restrictions, you are good to go.
Take Advantage of your 'Personal Item'
In addition to your regular carry-on, you are allowed one 'personal item.' This can be a purse, laptop bag, or diaper bag. We all know how much ladies can carry in their purses! I never carry a huge purse in 'real life,' but when I travel, I keep my laptop, iPad, quart bag of liquids, and more in my extra-huge purse. Men can take advantage of a laptop case, large shaving kit bag, or rucksack to carry an extra shirt and/or pair of pants - just think of it as extra padding for your electronics.
Wear Slip-On Shoes
Ok, so technically this doesn't have to do with packing, and some people may disagree with wearing slip-ons for air travel. Years ago, women weren't supposed to wear heels on planes because they would allegedly rupture the aircraft's hull. Then people said to wear sneakers or something easy and safe in case of an accident. Today, I think wearing slip-ons is the best plan. This doesn't necessarily mean sandals - slip on athletic and dress shoes exist, too. You have to remove your shoes at the TSA checkpoint. Wearing slip-ons helps you quickly prepare for screening and get redressed without holding up the line. When choosing your slip-on shoes, you might want to choose a pair that allows you to wear socks - unless you like standing barefoot on the airport floor!
If wearing slip-on shoes leaves you needing to pack a bulky pair in your carry-on, don't forget to pack items in your shoes! If you're worried about cleanliness, wash or douse them a deodorizing/anti-microbial spray. Bulky shoes are the perfect spot to pack socks, and even rolled-up shirts
How well do you Know TSA Regulations?
view quiz statistics
Why Pack Light with Only Carry-on Items?
Packing light is a sure way to make your life easier. You can save money on checked bag fees, reduce the amount of weight you have to lug through the airport, and eliminate waiting waiting at the baggage carousel instead of starting your vacation. Even if you aren't ready to travel with just a carry-on, packing light is still beneficial. Many airlines today charge extra for overweight bags, or simply won't accept heavy bags. Reducing the amount you pack also makes it easier to carry your bags, especially if you have to take airport shuttles or taxis.
While it wasn't a carry-on, I backpacked in New Zealand for 5 weeks out of a single bag. I even managed to fit my sleeping bag inside it! Planning ahead and careful packing are key. By being honest with yourself about clothing and items you really need, packing with zip-lock bags (if necessary), and following current airline restrictions, you can easily take only a carry-on along for most trips. Just think of it as a puzzle to be solved and allow yourself to be proud of your packing results and prowess!
If you feel like you're got packing down pat, but are looking for advice on how to make your airport and airplane experience more relaxing, check out my air travel tips on how to get through security quickly, prevent deep vein thrombosis while flying, and ensure you can catch an in-flight nap.