Carry-on Packing Tips: How to Pack Light

Packing light and traveling with carry-on luggage only is a great way to go. When you pack light, you never have to worry about your checked bags making it to your destination. Or waiting at the baggage claim carousel. Try it for yourself and learn how to pack light

I love having my luggage in my control at all times. I also love that at the end of my trip, I get to just grab my things and go. No waiting at the luggage carousels for me! I’m already on my way to enjoying my trip or heading home by the time you see your checked luggage. 

So, consider forgoing the ritual checking of your bags and start packing carry-on only. Keep reading for the best packing tips for carry-on luggage.

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Key takeaways

  • Organize your carry-on packing list into categories to maximize space and ensure you don’t forget essentials.
  • Make sure to check the carry-on policies of each airline you’re traveling with.
  • Use a luggage scale to make sure your carry-on is within the airline’s weight limit (if applicable). Don’t forget that the weight of your bag itself is included in that total weight, so choose a lightweight bag if you can.
  • Do a carry-on packing dry run to ensure everything fits and is under the weight limit.
  • Maximize your outfits by choosing coordinating separates to create multiple outfits with fewer items.  
young woman with a carry-on bag in an airport
With the best carry-on packing tips, you can just grab your bag and go.

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#1. Get your carry-on packing list organized 

Packing carry-on only requires discipline and organization, but it’s so worth it. 

Picture yourself flying through the airport on the way to starting your amazing vacation while all of the others on your flight are standing around waiting for their checked bags to come out on the carousel. Sounds nice, right? 

I keep myself as organized as possible when I plan my carry-on packing list so I maximize my available space and don’t forget anything I need. 

I get organized by breaking down my packing list into four categories

  • What I’m wearing on the plane 
  • What I’m packing in my rolling carry-on bag 
  • What goes in my personal item (I love my backpack)
  • TSA liquids bag

This is just a suggestion. It’s what I do. Use whatever categories or lists work best for you.

Tip: use a digital and editable packing list to stay organized and make quick adjustments to your list as you pack for your trip.

#2. Watch your size and weight! 

I cannot overemphasize how important it is to check the carry-on (or hand luggage) policies of each airline you’re flying with on your trip, not just the airline through which you bought your tickets.  

European-based airlines can have especially strict weight and/or size limits for carry-on bags. 

And don’t neglect to check on any restrictions to the size of your personal item bag as well. Some airlines, limit the personal item to something small like a handbag or a thin laptop bag. Large, overstuffed backpacks are a no-go as a personal item sometimes. 

Some airlines also include both your larger carry-on bag and your personal item in their weight limits. Don’t get caught off guard.

#3. Use a luggage scale and take it with you 

Using a luggage scale can be a lifesaver while you’re packing to make sure you’re staying within the airline carry-on weight limits. And when possible, give yourself a buffer of about a pound just in case. You never know when your scale and the airline’s scale might be calibrated differently. 

One time I was checking in for a Swiss Airlines flight on my way home and my bag was a little over the weight limit. They let it slide, but I was already trying to decide what items to pull out of that bag and stuff in my travel purse or jacket pockets.  

The weight buffer on the outbound trip also helps with planning for bringing souvenirs back with you. 

Which reminds me, you need to take your luggage scale with you if you plan to go carry-on only on your return trip.

Open suitcase packed with clothing and things for a short trip

#4. Don’t forget to consider the weight of your carry-on bag itself 

When thinking about what you’re going to pack it’s also crucial to remember that the weight of your luggage itself counts. 

I know, it seems self-evident, but larger rolling carry-on bags can weigh more than you think. I have an old one that weighs 9 pounds!

If you’re flying on an airline that limits you to 8 kilograms (17.64 pounds), using that bag would leave you with only 8 pounds for your actual stuff. More than half your total allowed weight would be taken up just with the weight of your suitcase. No thanks. 

A great way to cut down on your overall luggage weight is to buy the lightest bag you can afford. Hubby loves his Rick Steves rolling backpack that weighs just over 5 ½ pounds.

#5. First-timer? Do a carry-on packing dry run 

This carry-on packing tip is especially for those first-timers out there: do a carry-on packing dry run

Once you’ve made your packing list, it’s time to actually pack everything to make sure it all fits and is under the weight limit (if applicable). And when I say everything, I mean everything. All of the actual things you’re taking with you. An approximation won’t cut it. 

Then weigh it. (You’ll be shocked to discover how much a simple thing like a hairbrush weighs.) Then figure out what needs to go and weigh your bag again. Do this until you’re one pound under your weight limit. 

Grab your travel partner and set aside an evening or a Saturday afternoon if you need to. It’s totally worth it. 

#6. Maximize your outfits when packing carry-on only 

You’ve probably read about or at least heard of a capsule wardrobe, right? Well, they work for packing light also! The idea is that you downsize the number of garments you have with you while maximizing the possible number of outfits you get from those garments by making sure that they all coordinate. 

My favorite way to do this is to pack separates and make sure I use a lot of neutrals. I introduce pops of color in cute tops that coordinate with all of (or at least the majority of) the bottoms I’m bringing with me. And it’s okay to repeat outfits. Seriously, I won’t tell if you don’t. 

woman sitting on a wooden bench in a garden
One of the most important packing tips for carry-on is to bring separates that all coordinate. Photo: Plan, Ready, Go.

#7. Minimize your toiletries 

When packing carry-on only, figuring out how to get my liquids into a one-quart plastic bag is the thing I struggle with the most. I’d love to take three lip gloss options with me in addition to every single skincare product I use regularly, but I simply don’t have room in my little plastic bag. 

At the same time that you check the carry-on luggage policies of your airlines also make sure to note airport security carry-on liquids and prohibited items policies.

While your experience may be that the domestic carrier you use to make trips to visit family doesn’t consider lip gloss or mascara to be a liquid, the international airline or airport you’re going to be using just might. 

When I pack my liquids, I go low-tech and just use a quart Ziploc bag. I’ve read too many stories of travelers buying “TSA Approved” toiletry bags only to go through security in European airports and be told their bag was too large.

To me, it’s not worth the risk…And what’s cheaper or lighter than a Ziploc bag? 

Read my full post about packing toiletries for carry-on for all my best toiletry packing tips and tricks…plus a packing list 

Open suitcase with clothes and personal things packed for an overnight trip

#8. Look for accommodations with easy access to laundry facilities 

Booking accommodations with access to laundry facilities makes packing light a bit easier since you can do laundry partway through your trip.

It also makes it easier to repeat outfits if perhaps you’re a little bit of a messy eater. Or maybe you’re prone to dribbling your coffee if you try to drink it while you’re walking. I’m not saying I do that…but I have friends who do. 

We frequently use Vrbo to book accommodations when we travel and make it a point to only book homes or apartments with laundry facilities to make packing light easier on ourselves. 

You might have to make a small investment in laundry detergent while you’re there, but in my experience, people frequently leave behind the leftover detergent they purchased for the next renter to use. Nice! 

If you won’t have the opportunity to do laundry wherever you’re staying, take the extra step of making sure that the clothing you pack all works well together to create several outfits. (See #6 above.) 

#9. Wear your weight on the plane with you 

Sometimes on planes, I get quite cold and then sometimes I get too hot. The same goes for me at airports.

So, for me, it works out great to wear as much of my packing weight as I can in layers that I can easily remove or put back on as needed to keep myself comfortable. 

I usually wear the only pair of jeans that I take on my trip (jeans are heavy!), my heaviest shoes, a short-sleeved T-shirt, a cardigan (again, heavy!) and the warmest (and heaviest) jacket I will need. 

Traveling to a cold-weather destination or planning to do some hiking? Wear that heavy coat and hiking boots on the plane. 

#10. Don’t forget to think about your return trip 

Planning to bring back souvenirs with you? Then make sure to account for that when you pack your carry-on. 

Some avid souvenir buyers opt to bring an empty tote bag with them to fill with souvenirs to carry on the plane with them and then check their other bag for the return home. This is a valid option. 

If you’re like me and you limit your souvenir purchases so you don’t need to check a bag on the way back, then make sure you give yourself a buffer under the carry-on weight limit for your airline or airlines. Or make sure that they’ll fit in your personal item

One of my favorite souvenirs I ever bought was perfume from Florence, Italy, so I had to make sure I could consume or dump items from my liquids bag to accommodate my fragrance purchase for the trip home. Totally worth it. 

#11. Don’t be ashamed to use your traveling companion to carry some of your stuff 

Traveling with a companion who doesn’t use as much of their allotted space or weight as you do? They may be willing to help you out by carrying some of your items in their luggage. 

My husband travels with me, and his liquids bag will hold his shampoo, a small tube of toothpaste, and some antibiotic ointment, rarely more.

He’s happy to take on my shampoo and toothpaste to give me a little more room for the makeup and skincare products that I really want to take with me. He also often packs our guidebooks when we travel with paper copies since they can be heavy.

Woman kneeling on bulging suitcase trying to get it closed

Should you use packing cubes or compression bags?

While I personally don’t use either packing cubes or compression bags when I travel light, there are many who do and swear by them.

Packing cubes have some benefits:

  • Keeping small items together and not just floating around your luggage
  • Keeping your pairs of shoes separate from your clothing
  • Keeping outfits organized for longer trips

Compression bags:

  • Help bulky items take up less space in your baggage
  • Help you get items that would normally take up a lot of space into a smaller bag
  • Help you pack for a long trip in a bag you would normally use for a short trip

One thing you need to keep in mind if you decide to try packing cubes or compression bags is that they do add weight. Maybe not a lot, but some.

If you are traveling carry-on only with severe weight limits, fitting more into your carry-on isn’t going to help you. In fact, you will be making it easier for yourself to go over your weight limit.

If you are traveling without a carry-on suitcase weight limit and want to try packing cubes to help you stay organized, I think you ought to try them out to see if you like them.

Why pack light and travel carry-on only

I started traveling with carry-on luggage several years ago, and I can’t imagine going back. The first time I tried it, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to make it work. Here are my top five reasons to pack light and travel with carry-on luggage only.

top view of a carry-on bag packed for a week

Carry-on only travel means that all your luggage stays with you while you travel

I never have to worry about my bags making it with me to my destination.

And other than the occasional leg of your trip on a plane with limited or small overhead bin space requiring you to valet check your bag until you deplane, all of your luggage will be in your control at all times.

Save money on baggage fees

If your preferred airline charges for each suitcase that you check, you can save a good amount of money with each trip if you fly with carry-on luggage only.

Of course, not all airlines charge baggage fees. And if you prefer to fly basic economy, overhead bin space may not be included in your fair, so make sure to check carefully before you purchase your ticket.

No waiting in baggage claim

This is a big plus for me. I love that at the end of my trip, I get to just grab my things and go, no waiting at the luggage carousels for me! I’m already on my way to enjoying my trip or heading home by the time you see your checked luggage…I mean, assuming it’s there.

It’s easier to be mobile

Imagine rolling into Florence on the train and walking through the pedestrian-only historic city center with heavy suitcases the size of a trunk. I wouldn’t recommend it.

If you travel with a carry-on only, you can toss your bag in the overhead rack on your train and be on your way.

Packing carry-on only forces you to think about your packing list…in a good way

How many times have you packed one…or several…garments that you didn’t wear once on your trip? But you told yourself you might wear it, so you needed to take it.

Don’t! You don’t need it. You only need to pack what you definitely will wear…and, unless it’s for a special event, wear more than once. There’s nothing wrong with repeating an outfit or two on your trip.

Woman sitting on a balcony with arms outstretched

Packing light gives you the chance to focus on your experience rather than your things

After all, that’s why we travel, right? To experience new places and people and cultures, to perhaps step out of a materialistic mindset wrapped up in the accumulation of things? There’s nothing wrong with caring about your appearance. I certainly do, but I care in the sense that I pack one favorite lipstick and 8 outfit options for a one-week trip rather than 20.

I have found that traveling with fewer clothes and fewer things takes a load off my mind as well. When my suitcase is decluttered so is everything else. Truly.

There is no downside to packing light and traveling with carry-on luggage only. Give it a try. I think you’ll find it’s a good idea and a great way to travel.

Final thoughts on tips for carry-on packing 

Though traveling with a carry-on only can be challenging, it’s well worth it to travel light. If you follow the tips laid out here, you’ll be well on your way to being a carry-on-only travel pro. 

Do you like to travel with carry-on luggage only? What are your top packing lights tips for carry-ons?

Related articles with more carry-on packing tips 

Free Packing Lists. Get the 5 essential packing lists that every traveler needs. Download today.

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9 Comments

  1. Jam Jenny says:

    I love with all these beautiful and useful information. Very comprehensive and informative! Thanks for sharing this helpful content. Excellent Explanation.

    1. Darcy Vierow says:

      Thanks so much for reading!

  2. Long Beach says:

    Very Helpful for travllers like me.

  3. Darcy Vierow says:

    Thank you for your kind words. And thanks for reading!

  4. PackersMovers05 says:

    Awesome content.

    1. Darcy Vierow says:

      I’m so glad you like it. Thanks for reading!

  5. Nice tips for packing light while traveling. I love traveling with less luggage with only a single bag. But I don’t what to pack all will be useful when we go on a trip. Thanks for sharing tips!

  6. Nice tips for packing light while traveling. I love traveling with less luggage with only a single bag. But I don’t what to pack all will be useful when we go on a trip. Thanks for sharing tips!

    1. Darcy Vierow says:

      I’m so glad you found this post helpful. Thanks for reading!

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