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Picture yourself at the airport. You’ve just gotten off the plane and are ready for a two week vacation in your dream destination. Walking through the terminal, you pass the baggage carousel just as that atrocious honking sounds, signaling the conveyor belt of bags is about to start. But you don’t pay any attention to it. Why? No, not because you have a handsome assistant to carry it for you. Not because you’re ready to buy all new clothes instead of packing your own. You’re not worried because you used all my carry on packing tips and didn’t need to check a bag. You’re ready to start your vacation knowing you have everything you need.
Think I’m making this up? Think again. I haven’t traveled with a checked bag since my 2012 semester abroad. (I wasn’t an experienced enough traveler at the time to attempt one bag for four months.) From long weekend trips to two weeks traveling through the Middle East, there’s no trip my carry on packing tips and tricks can’t handle. Are you now thinking that this is great and all for me, but definitely not practical for you? Not so fast, I’m not convinced. I would bet that, by the end of this post, I’ll have you ditching that huge suitcase for a regulation sized carry-on. And not only will this post help you decide which one to get, we’ll also discuss what to bring and how to pack it, so the only tough choice you’ll have to make is where to go next.
This decision is all about personal preference, but I can offer some perspective to help you make the right decision for you. There are two basic options, either a suitcase or a backpack. Full disclosure, I recently switched from a suitcase to a backpack and I am never going back. Since I love my new, purple hiking/travel backpack so much, let’s start with that option. (And, let’s be real, I only use it to travel – you guys already know I don’t hike…)
The hands-free nature of a backpack is its best feature. I cannot overstate this. Whether you are going through security at the airport, walking down the street in a strange city, or attempting to navigate public transportation, not having to juggle a bag just makes everything easier. A backpack also balances better on your shoulders and distributes the weight evenly on the two (hopefully) padded straps, which makes for a more comfortable trip. My backpack (which I got on sale at REI) also has a mesh net and plastic insert that conforms to my back and helps to ease any potential soreness. (I will admit that I originally saw this mesh/plastic combination as nothing more than a waste of space, but after wearing it walking down the streets of Dublin as we attempted to find our hotel, I was so grateful.)
The trickiest thing about a backpack is packing it. I swear by packing cubes (as you’ll see later), but I haven’t yet mastered the art of organization that doesn’t lead to me taking everything out and then having to put everything back in. I do put my toiletries and computer bag at the top and my extra pair of shoes and dirty clothes bag at the absolute bottom, but, besides that, I’m still figuring out the optimal packing arrangement.
A suitcase is a much more familiar option and, before getting my backpack, is what I used exclusively as a carry-on. If you’re getting a suitcase, I would highly recommend one that has four wheels, for ease of movement. I like one with a front pocket so I can keep things like tickets and documents within easy reach. The most important thing is to ensure it is carry-on regulation size. I have seen too many passengers get busted at the terminal gate for trying to carry on a suitcase that is too big. Other than that, choose whatever suitcase your heart desires.
The one option I personally don’t like is a duffel bag. To me, that takes the worst facets of all the other options and combines them. Since (most) duffel bags don’t hold their shape, you’re almost guaranteed to end up with a scrambled bag and wrinkled clothes. Most of them have some combination of hand straps or one long strap, which means that either your hands are occupied (not great for ease at the airport) or that it’s going to hang heavy on one should or the other (not great for walking comfort).
This is somewhat airline dependent, but I just want to touch on it quickly. Make sure the bag you buy complies with carry on guidelines. Most airlines have similar sizing requirements, unless you are flying a budget airline. Even if you do get a compliant bag, I always double check the luggage regulations of the airline anyway. Usually you can take a carry on plus a personal item (think a purse or small backpack), but that will also be listed in their luggage requirements.
Most international airlines also have weight limits for carry ons. I hate these rules, and if I was queen for a day, this is the first thing that I would abolish. I understand that the planes have weight limits that need to be met, but I’m not convinced that the difference between my bag being 7 kg and 8 kg is that big of a deal. (Obviously the counter argument if everyone had one extra kg it would amount to a bunch of extra weight, and, to that I say, just let me have this one thing to complain about…)
Over the years, I have had mixed experiences with weight limits. Sometimes they weigh your bag at the check-in desk. I’ve seen them check size and weight requirements at the gate. I’ve seen nobody even bother checking weight. This is the only true gamble of a carry on. If your bag gets weighed and the airline staffer decides to be a stickler, they could force you to check it. Which is super annoying, because not checking a bag was the whole point. It’s even more annoying if they force you to pay for that checked bag. In an attempt to deter people from overstuffing carry ons and trying to get away with it, some airlines force you to pay more if a bag has to be checked at the airport or at the gate. (The cheapest is usually to pay for a checked bag ahead of time online.)
My best trick for avoiding an issue with an overweight carry on is to put any empty tote bag or small backpack inside your carry on, but within easy access. If the attendant says your bag is too heavy, pull out the tote bag, and transfer some stuff from your carry on to your (newly deemed) personal item. (Obviously this only works if the airline allows a personal item plus a carry-on.) This is certainly not the most glamorous way to avoid checking a bag, but I’ve done it. Another trick is just to politely ask if they can make an exception and let the bag go on overweight. This has happened to me multiple times. The only time that neither of these tricks worked was coming home from Indonesia, where the attendant at the Bali airport said no to both. However, she was kind enough to waive the fee and let us check our bag for free.
Now that you’ve chosen what type of carry on you’re bringing, it’s time to decide what goes in it! Since you’re here, I’m assuming that you already realize I am not a fashion blogger. I pack for functionality. My favorite pieces serve multiple purposes and can be mixed and matched with other pieces. Obviously I try not to look like a total train wreck, but carry on traveling is more about ease than aesthetic.
I take two and half pairs of shoes. Yes, I said two and a half.
Pair One – You need comfortable walking shoes. This is nonnegotiable. For me, this is a tried and true pair of sneakers. (I love my Tropicfeel monsoon sneakers, but any sneakers will do.) If you’re anything like me, you’re going to be walking all over the place and the last thing you want is foot pain. Will your feet be tired and a little sore at the end of the day? Hopefully – as it means you had a great day of adventures! But you want to minimize the pain, good sneakers will leave your feet tired, but not traumatized. If these are your heaviest pair of shoes, I recommend wearing these on the plane.
Pair Two – You need a pair of shoes that matches the weather. Obviously this is dependent on where you’re going. When we went to Iceland, this was a pair of boots that could endure up to fifteen degrees below. When we went to Bali, this was a comfortable pair of sandals. Whatever you pick, these should be shoes that are also comfortable to walk in. Besides being weather appropriate, a second pair of shoes ensures that if, for some reason, your other shoes are out of commission, your day isn’t ruined. I mostly think of this in terms of rain. If I’m out and my sneakers get soaked, will my second pair of shoes suffice until the sneakers dry? If your second pair of shoes is heavy (like my winter boots), I wear these on the plane to save the weight from my backpack.
Half pair – I consider my shower shoes to be a ‘half’ since they are just plastic flip-flops that weigh basically nothing (and fit both Alex and I, so we only need one pair). I can almost hear you wondering if I’m still in college, otherwise why would I have shower shoes. Maybe calling them that is a little misleading, but this trick has never led me astray. I don’t care how much research and review reading you do, sometimes an accommodation just isn’t what you thought it’d be. Which is where my all-purpose flip flops come in. Don’t want to walk on the carpet to go the bathroom in the middle of the night? Flip flops. Think the shower looks a little skeevy? Flip flops. Need to walk down to reception quickly? Flip flops. The best trips are the trips where these never come out of my suitcase. But when I need them, I am so glad to have them.
There is truly no formula for picking the rest of your clothes. It depends on what you are most comfortable in and how long your trip is. If my destination is going to be warm, I pack with the assumption that at least one or two days will be unbearably hot and I will want to change my outfit halfway through the day. Normally I’ll pack a light sundress or a light tank top so I can put on something breezy and actually feel like a person again, instead of just one giant sweat blob. (Bali was really, really hot, if you can’t tell. We changed clothes almost every afternoon.)
If you are looking for more specifics, here’s an example. (I’m not judging – I always like an example to model off of.) Currently I’m packing for a fourteen day trip in a mid-70s climate. Three of those days are travel days. (We’ll get into travel outfits later in the post.) So that leaves eleven days of outfits. Because I have more tops than I do bottoms, I always pick my shorts/pants out first. For eleven days I’m taking two pairs of shorts and a pair of capris – plus I’ll have the pair of pants I’m going to wear on the plane. If I wore each twice, then I would be set for six days. I’m also bringing two sundresses – one that is short and breezy, and one that is longer and a little thicker. Because I don’t really like wearing dresses on vacation (I’m always afraid of a wardrobe malfunction), I’m also bringing two rompers. Just like the dresses, one is lightweight and one is a little bit heavier.
With all the bottoms chosen, now all I have to do is pick tops. I try to pick a good mixture between light and heavy, with special attention to how many have sleeves and how many will leave my shoulders bare. (Nothing can put a damper on your vacation faster than sunburnt shoulders.) This trip I am also bringing a plain black cardigan, just in case it gets a little cooler at night. This is based solely on the spring weather forecast. I would never bring it to a place like where it stays hot and humid both during the day and at night.
No matter when or where you see me at the airport, I will be wearing one of two outfits. If we’re headed to a cold destination, it’ll be my thermal black leggings, my winter boots, and a lightweight, down feather jacket. If we’re headed to a warmer destination, it’ll be cotton black pants, sneakers, and a light teal windbreaker. When going on airplane you should have on long pants, shoes that require socks, and a light jacket with a hood. You will never convince me otherwise. Think I sound wildly particular, even compared to my normal sensibility? Let me explain…
No matter how warm it is at your departing city or arrival city, airplanes get cold. Layers are key. But, even more than temperature, let’s just think for a moment about how many people cycle through airplanes. Do you really want your bare skin on those seats? Ok, let’s not think about it too hard – its gross. But, you get the idea. Long pants ensure that you are both warm and don’t have bare thigh on that sticky leather seat. My sneakers are easy to take on and off, which is good for going through TSA and for my time on the plane. I have read some controversial takes about whether or not it is rude to take your shoes off on the plane, but I legitimately cannot fathom keeping my shoes on. Which is why I always wear socks. I may want to take my shoes off, but I will never be someone who goes barefoot. That is too much and, to me, is rude. If you absolutely do not want to wear shoes that require socks, then, for the love of the humanity, at least bring a pair with you.
My teal windbreaker (which my mom found on sale in 2016 – thanks mom!) is my essential piece of travel clothing. It is water resistant, lightweight, and able to scrunch into the smallest spaces in my backpack/suitcase. It is also my savior on plane rides, as it has a hood. Let’s be real, you’re probably going to nap on the plane. I’m right there with you. But do you really want to put your gloriously clean head on either the head rest or those thin white pillows? I know they claim that they clean them (and maybe they actually do), but I am a skeptic at heart. My darling windbreaker’s hood means that I never have to worry about my head sitting up against anything but the inside of my own jacket. (My black, down jacket also has a hood and serves the same function. The only difference is it meant for destinations too cold for simply a windbreaker.)
Packing cubs. Packing cubes. Packing cubes. Do I need to say it again? Stack them. Slide them. Scrunch them. These are the key to any travel plan, but especially one that involves a backpack. Have I over packed them a few times and ended up with slightly wrinkled clothes? Absolutely. Do I care? Not in the slightest. Having everything in some sort of smaller bag makes a packing one huge game of Tetris that you can easily repeat every time you need to repack.
If you’ve gotten this far in the post and are still skeptical I have two things to say 1) Thank you for reading this far and 2) I’m sorry you’re so stubborn. Just kidding. The carry on life isn’t for everyone, so if you fall into this category, then I have one big piece of advice for you. Make sure that your carry on has one important thing: a change of clothes. Plenty of people go on about the likelihood of the airline losing your luggage and the amount of time you can be stuck without the basics, like a change of underwear and your toothbrush. This is great advice, but my reasoning is far more important and immediate than potentially having to track down new toiletries and clothes.
Let me set the scene. It was 2016. I was on a fourteen hour flight from Moscow to New York, the second flight of the day as I had started my return trip in Yerevan, Armenia. As I sat in the Moscow airport, waiting to board, I started to feel funny. As someone with a normally finicky stomach and is also a nervous flyer, I shrugged it off. Three Harry Potter movies later (which is roughly nine or so hours?) I had begun to realize that I probably wouldn’t win this battle against my stomach. I had been having cramps every half hour or so and they were getting more intense.
Sparing you the details, let’s just say that I exited the plane in different clothes than I boarded in. Had I not had my bag with a change of, well, everything, I don’t know what I would’ve done. It would’ve been a crappy situation, that’s for sure. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist one poop pun…) All of which is to say that if you find yourself getting violently sick on a plane, you’ll be happy to have a change of clothes. (You can thank me if you ever have the misfortune of this happening to you…)
There you have it, friends. Everything I know about packing and all the tips and tricks I use before every trip. What do you think? Are you willing to try the only carry-on travel style?
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Hi, I'm Dylan, a photographer in the Philadelphia Metro Area. I love iced coffee, red wine, and am always up for binging Gilmore Girls or Parks and Rec..