Travel bag packing tips – how to get everything you need in a carry-on bag

In 2021, we flew in business class to Buenos Aires. It took forever to clear customs and immigration. And by the time we got to baggage claim, our travel bag was long gone.

Although we recovered it quickly – someone had picked it up by mistake – spending our first two hours in Buenos Aires at the lost bag desk wasn’t an ideal start.

In 2022, we flew from Los Angeles to Rome via JFK. Although we made the connection, one of our bags didn’t. And it took over a week for it to catch up to us.

Since then we’ve limited ourselves to carry-on bags. And it’s made our trips easier, more enjoyable, and even less expensive. The benefits of traveling with a carry-on bag are compelling – but you’ll need some advance trip planning to pull it off.

Here are our steps for getting everything you need for two weeks in one small travel bag:

1) Buy a travel bag that you can actually carry on. Domestic carriers let you carry on bags that total 45” – usually 22” x 14” x 9”. International airlines sometimes are more restrictive. So check their website for details.

2) Create a packing list based on where you’re going, what you’ll actually be doing, and the weather. You can use one from a travel website or guidebook as a starting point, but tailor it to your specific trip.

3) Figure out the shoe situation. This is far and away the hardest part. If you can, wear your biggest shoes on the plane. If you can’t, stuff them with socks, underwear, and other small items wrapped in a plastic bag. Try to limit yourself to three pairs – one for walking around, one for nice dinners, and a pair of flip flops or sneakers. Waterproof them before you leave, and make sure they’re broken in. Pack some moleskin anyway.

4) Wear your coat, jacket, or sweater on the plane. Cabin temperature being what it is, you’ll probably want it anyway.

5) The only way to get everything you need for two weeks into one small travel bag is to wear each article of clothing several times. Instead of taking 14 days’ worth of outfits, take three or four. This necessitates doing laundry, which is easy if you stay for two or three days at a hotel with laundry service.

6) If not, you’ll need to do two things: 1) take clothes made of synthetic fibers that will dry quickly, and 2) take laundry supplies. We like the little individual packets of Woolite. They’re phosphate-free and biodegradable, and they rinse clean. You’ll need a stopper for the sink and a clothes line, although these days, many hotels – even nice ones – have them above the tub. Don’t wring your wet clothes. Blot them with a dry towel, and then hang them. That way, you won’t need to iron them. And if the bathroom window opens, so much the better.

7) Take clothes that all go with each other. If you take one pair of brown pants, then you need brown shoes, a brown belt, etc. But if all your clothes are black and navy, you can mix and match to create more outfits. Plus, they’ll stay cleaner longer than white or khaki.

8) Choose clothes that are versatile and can do double duty. A scarf or wrap can provide warmth and also dress up a plain outfit. Choose a nightshirt that makes an acceptable pool cover up. You can wear a nice quilted jacket almost anywhere.

9) Don’t take anything inexpensive and unwieldy that you could just as easily buy there. You can probably pick up a snorkel, mask, and fins at your destination for less than it would cost at home anyway.

10) Books and magazines weigh a lot and take up a tremendous amount of space. Leave the guidebooks at home and bring along photocopies or digital versions of the information instead.

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