Packing can be overwhelming no matter where you’re going, but it’s especially stressful when you’re prepping for an extended vacation or one where you’ll need different outfit options. Many of us have a tendency to overpack, which makes the process that much more burdensome. You might prefer to check a bag or two to make sure you can take everything you need, but given long waits at baggage claim and the number of lost bags skyrocketing, you should consider swapping your larger bag for a smaller carry-on. Even if you think there’s absolutely no way you could pack for a two-week trip with such a petite piece of luggage, travel experts insist it can be done. Read on to find out the seven hacks they recommend for flying with just a carry-on, no matter how long you’re going away.
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Packing cubes are all the rage these days. Not only do they keep you organized when packing—they also simplify unpacking.
“Packing cubes allow me to organize my clothes in neat cubes that fit snugly in my carry-on,” Suzanne Casamento, author and digital nomad, tells Best Life. “Cubes are labeled with a shirt or pant icon so I know exactly what’s in each cube. [They] zip up and allow me to squeeze much more into my carry-on than what fits if I pack ‘normally.'”
But you’ll need to pay attention to something else when picking out your packing cubes, Mikkel Woodruff, professional photographer and blogger of the travel sites Sometimes Home and Sometimes Sailing, explains. “Everyone talks about packing cubes, but they’re missing the mark unless they have compression packing cubes,” he says. “They compress the clothes in the cube after you pack it, so they take up less room.”
If you’ve already got regular packing cubes, fear not—you can easily invest in compression bags to put inside the cubes.
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Within your packing cubes—and even if you decide to go without them—you’ll want to roll your clothes instead of folding them.
“This takes up less space and also has the advantage of reducing creases in your clothes,” Jessie Moore, founder of the luxury travel brand Pocket Wanderings, says. “Start with larger items and then use smaller items, such as socks and underwear, to fill in all the gaps, including the inside of shoes.”
If you’re planning a getaway to a wintery destination, John Hubbard, founder and CEO of the outdoor travel blog Urban Dare, says that you need to take advantage of every inch in your carry-on. “If you are going on a ski trip and need to take bulky items, I’ve got three words for you: roll and stuff,” he explains. “Fill all the empty spaces in your luggage and between your gear with clothes. Use your ski boots as socks and underwear holders. Stuff your helmet with your puffiest jacket. Shove layers of clothing items between your skiing gear.”
Moore suggests making use of your jacket pockets, too. They are the perfect home for smaller items like phone chargers or hats.
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Travel experts recommend packing less and instead doing laundry at some point, especially if you’re taking a longer trip. Laundry detergent sheets are a must-pack, according to Alisha McDarris, travel writer and blogger for Terradrift. These sheets are eco-friendly options, as they have concentrated levels of laundry detergent in them, and the paper dissolves while in the wash.
“They take up no space in your bag and weigh virtually nothing,” she says. “Plus, you won’t have to run to the store to buy expensive single-serve detergent every time you want to wash a few items.”
When you’re booking your trip, you can also take steps to make sure you’ll have access to a washing machine that’s not in a laundromat. “If you’re going on a trip that’s more than seven days, try to book an accommodation halfway into your trip with a washer and dryer,” Emily Cuneo, full-time travel blogger and owner and author of Emily Embarks, recommends. “Airbnb is great for this, and saves you the hassle of having to pack enough clean clothes for a week or more.”
You can also wash your clothes by hand, but in that case, Woodruff recommends also tossing some clothespins into your carry-on.
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We’re all guilty of tossing an extra sweatshirt, pair of shoes, or about five extra pairs of underwear into our bags when packing. But if you’re trying to maximize space in your carry-on, you’re going to have to show some restraint.
“Packing in just a carry-on requires you to get out of the mindset of ‘just in case’ items,” Veronica Hanson, full-time “slowmad” travel agent of Nomad Veronica, notes. “So many items get packed in the event of possible situations and those items take up a lot of space. For example, you might pack a first-aid kit because you’re going hiking, but you leave the kit in the hotel room, and when you get hurt, you have to figure out a solution out in the world anyway. Bringing that ‘just in case’ item had no point.”
Also, remember that unless you’re going to a fully remote location, you’ll likely have access to purchase these items if you need them. “If some perfect sequence of events happens and you are able to do the improbable thing, you can get items in the location you are visiting,” Hanson says. “Don’t pack as if the travel destination has no products available for your ‘just in case’ scenarios.”
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Deciding what to bring is challenging enough, but travel experts say that you should actually aim to underpack. Opt for neutral clothing items that can be mixed and matched.
“Pack a capsule-type wardrobe in which multiple pants and tops complement each other, allowing you to not have to pack a full outfit for each day,” Jaimie Michaels, editor of Magic Guides, suggests. “For that matter, don’t forget that on most trips you won’t see the same folks day after day; likely nobody will notice you wore the same shirt two days ago.”
This also improves your travel wardrobe’s versatility, as basic leggings can be worn on their own or underneath pants to keep you warm, McDarris explains—think “light layers.” Fashionistas can treat this as a challenge, and remember—you’ve already packed your laundry detergent sheets, so you can wash anything that you need along the way!
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While you’re curating your capsule wardrobe, you should consider the type of fabrics that you’re packing. There are some that are more lightweight—making more space in your carry-on—but will still keep you warm in chilly temperatures.
“Spend the extra money to get quality clothing that is insulated but thin,” Woodruff says. “We have really thin Patagonia Nano Puff coats that take up very minimal space in our bags. We can layer this with other clothing in the fall, for example, so we don’t need a huge fall coat.”
McDarris also recommends opting for synthetic fibers like rayon or spandex, as opposed to the more tempting natural fibers like linen and wool. “Not only do they take up less space—they often resist stains and rain, don’t wrinkle as badly, and can be worn several times before they need a wash,” she says.
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If you’ve whittled down your pile of clothes and still can’t make any cuts, travel experts say you might need to be a bit crafty. “For those really desperate for some extra packing space, one hack that went viral on TikTok recently is to remove the stuffing from your travel pillow and stuff it with clothes instead,” Moore says. “It’s a bit extreme, but does the trick!”
If all else fails, you might be forced to pile on your bulky clothes for the flight, she says.
“There isn’t really a restriction on how many layers you can wear, so make use of this! This goes for shoes too–wear your bulkiest pair of shoes on the flight and avoid bringing any you really don’t need, as shoes tend to be one of the biggest space takers in luggage,” Moore adds.