Whether you’re preparing to fly halfway across the world on an international adventure or taking a short flight for a regular work trip, knowing how to pack the perfect carry-on can be a mystery–even for seasoned travelers.
To crack the code, we asked several expert globetrotters for their tips and tricks on packing the essential travel carry-on bag. Regardless of destination, season, or trip length, our experts shared some crucial tips for ensuring that you have everything you need. Just grab your go-to suitcase–we’re partial to the versatile, tech savvy and eye-catching ones from SteamLine–and get ready to pack the most efficiently organized and plane-friendly carry-on you’ve ever taken with you on your travels.
Organize Clothing With Individual Packing Cubes
There are two main types of carry-on luggage: the one and only suitcase responsible for holding all of your belongings, and the accessory suitcase that accompanies a larger bag checked into the belly of the plane. Whether you’re relying on your carry-on for all of your necessities, or using it to supplement a larger bag, you’re going to want packing cubes. These small, individual bags are perfect for separating your clothing from other loose items. One expert likes to use them to organize outfits into separate bags, so that when you arrive at your destination you can unpack one cube at a time. Another expert swears by using the individual bags to sort clothing by category, like keeping shirts in one, shorts in another, etc. If you’re going on an extended trip, you can also use these packing cubes to separate dirty laundry from clean clothes as you progress along your travels.
Using packing cubes for clothing is also a great way to consolidate your packing list ahead of time. Whether you choose to use the packing cubes to organize your clothing according to category or outfit, plan out which clothes you want to bring, and which you can leave behind. Prioritize clothing according to flexibility, space and comfort. Versatile items that can be worn across various climates and occasions will best suit your travel needs. Plus, items that take up less space and are easily packable will leave valuable space in your carry-on for additional travel essentials.
When it comes to finding the right packing cube, Flight 001 is a one-stop shop. Stock up on a few of these that will fit nicely in your suitcase, or check out their smaller packing bags, if space is limited. Alternatively, Aloha collection makes a water-resistant packing bag that you can use as a dry bag for water adventures.
Use a Dopp Kit for Toiletries and Medication
The origin of the Dopp kit goes back to the early 20th century, when Charles Doppelt, a leather-smith from Germany, invented this small leather carrying case for gentlemen to carry their grooming supplies, including razors and shaving cream. Today, men and women use Dopp kits of all varieties and sizes to organize and carry their essential toiletries. Dopp kits are particularly useful during plane travel when the recycled air dries out your skin and you suddenly become desperate for Kerstin Florian’s rehydrating neroli water or that super-soft Le Labo hand lotion.
Pack all of your travel-sized toiletries in one kit, like this one from Le Labo, but be sure to exclude any items unsuitable for carry-on travel, like scissors or liquids with a volume that exceeds 3.4 fluid ounces. And if you travel with medication, keep them separate from the rest of your small items by placing them in the Dopp kit, too. If an attendant asks you to check your bag last minute, you’ll be able to easily find and remove the Dopp kit in order to keep the medication on your person at all times.
Be Picky With Outerwear and Shoes
Regardless of your travel plans, if you’re bringing a carry-on suitcase, you’re going to want to keep it light. Since outerwear and footwear take up the most space and often add considerably to the bag’s overall weight, it’s a good idea to practice being as picky as possible when it comes to these items. Whether this is your one-and-only suitcase or not, limit yourself to one pair of shoes and one piece of outerwear. If you can get away with the shoes and outerwear you wear on the plane, even better! If not, give this packable jacket a try. Its lightweight material and foldable design make it an ideal choice for carry-on travel, plus it will keep you warm and insulated in temperatures 0⁰C and up. For easy traveling shoes that are suitable in all-weather conditions, check out Allbirds, whose lightweight sneakers are made of wool. They’re incredibly comfortable and will fare well during hiking, biking, city walking and airport travel.
Consolidate your Travel Documentation
Whether you’re headed overseas or to the next county over, you’ll want to ensure that your travel documentation is safe, secure and readily available when you need it. To keep travel stress at a minimum, our experts recommend using a travel organizer or wallet. Carry your passport, phone, photo-ID, boarding pass and travel friendly credit cards in a durable wallet like this one from Paravel. It’s sleek and low-profile design won’t add extra bulk to your carry-on, while its removable straps can easily convert the wallet into a cross-body bag once you arrive at your destination. For a more versatile aesthetic, try this Passport Wallet designed and handcrafted in Canada by Roots. Made of premium leather, the Passport Wallet holds your passport, boarding pass, foreign currency and a pen, giving you easy access to the essentials when traveling. If you need to carry additional documentation, like printed itineraries or reservation confirmations, consider these tear and water resistant document sleeves from the Container Store.
Keep Entertainment Options Handy
You never know what to expect when it comes to in-flight entertainment. Systems break-down, individual monitors break, and the quality of services vary from airline to airline. To keep your options open, plan to bring at least one personal entertainment device on board. Be it a book, an e-reader, a fully loaded iPad or a portable gaming device like the Nintendo Switch, you’ll be glad to have a back-up when your flight is delayed or your personal seat screen isn’t loading. And don’t forget to pack a pair of reliable headphones, either. Whether you’re watching movies or listening to a podcast, a good pair of headphones will help you tune-in to your selected entertainment and tune-out the travel noise.
Prepare for Onboard Comfort
When packing a carry-on bag, it’s common to focus on what you’ll need at your destination and easy to forget about the items that will help improve your experience in flight. Though many regard air travel as the necessary nuisance that bookends a trip, adding just a few items to your carry-on can significantly enhance the hours spent sitting on board. First, invest in a travel wrap or blanket, like these from White + Warren. Climate controls on the plane are funky at best, which is why dressing in easily removable layers and packing a versatile wrap will ensure that you stay warm and comfortable when the onboard temperatures drop. Secondly, if you’re settling in for a longer flight and hope to sleep the travel hours away, make sure to bring a sleep mask and ear plugs along to keep out the sounds and sights of the plane. If you like a little extra support while you sleep, try one of these inflatable travel pillows.
Treat Yourself with Snacks and Calming Essentials
Let’s be honest, traveling is stressful. Even the most frequent travelers among us have experienced an unplanned delay or boarding scuffle. It’s no surprise, then, that several experts suggested doing your future-self a favor, and packing a treat or two inside your carry-on bag. One expert swears by the snack bag, a small bag of pre-selected snacks that keep your energy and spirits up (we love the Paleo Snack Mix and Brownie Coconut Macaroons from Thrive Market). Another traveler loves to bring a small pouch filled with calming essentials, like Saje Arrive Revived Jet Lag oil and Moon Juice’s Dream Dust, a sachet full of Ashwagandha, Chamomile and other relaxing herbs, that helps to settle anxiety during turbulence and other tense travel moments.
Learning how to pack the perfect carry-on bag will open up a world of stress-free and well-prepared travel. Just be warned, packing the perfect carry-on may illicit jealous glances from fellow travelers and passers-by.