Carry It With You: 7 Expert Packing Tips

Learn how to pare down to a carry-on suitcase with these smart, easy-to-follow packing tips.

Woman packing a suitcase while sitting on her bed

by NEA Member Benefits

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When your next itinerary includes everything from museum hopping to cocktail hour to yoga class, traveling with just a carry-on suitcase might sound impossible—until you try it.

There are plenty of reasons to pack light: No checked-bag fees or long check-in lines. No waiting by the baggage carousel or worrying about lost luggage. And once you’re at your destination, you can hit the ground running.

These packing tips will get you on your way to a nimbler, more relaxed vacation.

1. Leave “just in case” items behind.

Be realistic about what activities you’ll actually take part in on your trip and what clothing is required for them. If you plan on beach bumming, you may not need a formal dress or pair of khakis. And while it would be nice to read each of the four new books you bought for your trip, you may only have time to get through one or two.

2. Pack versatile clothing.

Choosing clothes in colors you can mix and match could reduce your load considerably. Leggings can serve a variety of functions—from regular pants to pajama bottoms to yoga pants. And packing shoes that are both comfortable and stylish could free up valuable space in your suitcase for other items.

Also, consider packing lightweight accessories such as jewelry or a scarf. They can dress up almost any outfit and spare you from having to pack more formal attire.

3. Choose the right carry-on bag.

Domestic airlines typically allow a carry-on suitcase that measures up to 22 inches by 14 inches by 9 inches. Shop carefully, however. Some bags that claim to meet the size restrictions don’t include wheels and handles in the dimensions. Your expandable carry-on may turn into a checked-only bag when fully loaded. (Check your carrier’s website for details about carry-on restrictions.)

Also, look for space-saving features. For example, while most cases have narrow internal straps to secure the load, others contain wide straps that let you squeeze a bit more into your bag, such as the Travelpro Platinum Magna 22 Expandable Rollaboard Suiter. Briggs & Riley International offers a full-blown compression system that it claims lets you squeeze in 34% more clothing.

The Wirecutter and Gear Patrol offer helpful reviews of the best carry-on luggage, and Consumer Reports provides an overview of what to look for when shopping for a new suitcase.

4. Roll or bundle it up.

The packing techniques of rolling or bundling clothes are both great space-savers.

The rolling method simply involves smoothing, folding and tightly rolling individual pieces of clothing to reduce their size before packing them.

The bundling technique is more complex, but it’s effective at preventing wrinkles. Here’s an example of how it works: Lay out a jacket and place a shirt on top in the opposite direction, with the sleeves overlapping. Add a pair of pants at a 90-degree angle to the jacket and shirt, another pair of pants on the opposite side, and then tuck a small bundle of T-shirts, socks and underwear in the middle. Fold the pants over the bundle, and then the shirt and jacket.

Visit websites such as RealSimple.com and Primer.com for step-by-step bundle-packing instructions and helpful visuals.

5. Limit your toiletries.

Keep in mind that items such as shampoo, soap and toothpaste will be available to purchase at your destination or provided by your hotel. Consider leaving these toiletries behind to make room for contact supplies, medications and other necessities that are more difficult to replace.

6. Wear your bulkiest clothes on the plane.

Think hoodies, jackets, jeans and other large garments. If you have clothing made from lightweight materials such as Tencel or polyester (which are also wrinkle-resistant), pack them rather than wearing them on travel days.

7. Pack items inside your shoes.

If you have shoes or boots in your suitcase, stuff them full of socks and underwear. Sure, those aren’t large items, but every inch counts. 

Travel-related benefits for NEA members