In Travel

My ultimate guide to packing a carry-on for anywhere in the world

This weekend I’m off on a spontaneous five-day trip to the South of France for a much needed mini-break from the mind-numbing slog of job applications. I can hardly wait! It takes all my strength not to run to the airport now and wait for check-in. My trip is ad hoc and super budget which means it’s cheap airlines (Ryanair) and carry-ons all the way.  

In my opinion, carry-ons are useful as they are hard to get right, especially if you have a tendency to over pack. Yes,you don’t have to pay extra check-in fees and they make any mode of transport easier by being light and portable.

You can simply breeze around instead of being encumbered by towering luggage. But you want to make sure that you have room for all your essentials without splitting the seams. An over packed bag is as bad as a disorganised one and they both fill your trip with excess and stress.

Most European airlines allow a size limit of around 55 x 40 x 20 centimetres, international ones may differ. However Ryanair have recently implemented a new restriction of a measly 40 x 20 x 25 centimetres. Anyone wishing to go up a size must pay an extra £5 each way or risk having their bag whisked away to the hold only to see it again at the baggage carousel.

So now with carry-on packing becoming something of a magic trick, read my ultimate guide to beating those tight airline restrictions without breaking a sweat.

Invest in a good quality carry-on rucksack

My first and probably the most important tip I can offer when packing a carry-on is to make sure you have the right bag. Invest in a carry-on that’s the right fit, style and shape for your body because nothing ruins a trip like a rucksack that cuts into your shoulders and gives you the mother of all headaches to deal with.

Make sure you’re as happy as this when you choose your carry-on.

It’s important to look after your body because you don’t want to end up incapacitated in a hostel by a bad back when you should be out making the most of your travels.

The best way to avoid such nightmares is to go out and try a few rucksacks on before you settle on your choice. Find an obliging (or slightly long-suffering) shop assistant to put weights in your bag and adjust the straps until you feel comfortable with your choice.

Don’t be afraid to deliberate on it. I put my shop assistant through quite an ordeal when I picked mine. I just couldn’t decide! The poor man was forced into a circus of strap adjustments and running to the stockroom to get a different style, unboxing and boxing up until I was finally happy. To be honest though, it was worth it.

Use packing cubes

Amazingly, the packing cube market is a booming business an it wields a power that promises the transform your travelling game. There’s a whole dizzying range out there from state of the art zip up compression bags to double compartment organiser packing cubes. You’re really stuck for choice.

Eagle Creek are one of the biggest names in the game and not without reason. Hundreds of travellers swear by them. They have the magic ability to shrink the contents of your bag to a size that would fit a doll, but they come with a hefty price tag. It’s not ideal if you’re on a budget and don’t want to splash out on such extravagance.

Carry-ons make travel liberating.

Luckily, you can get a set of decent packing cubes that have nearly the same set of tricks. You might not be able to compress them or organise your clothes into different compartments but they are great for keeping your bag tidy and well-ordered on the road. Alternatively, a set of self sealing vacuum bags work wonders if you have a problem with space. The best part is they’re super cheap too!

Make a list of all your essentials

Collect all your essentials from cosmetics to toiletries and label them as your packing priority so you don’t accidentally leave them behind. Take a moment to think about if you necessarily need to bring all of them. Yes, you may need a razor but you could always pick one up at your destination.

It depends where you’re planning to go of course, but some items like razors and moisturiser are pretty universal across the world. You can afford to leave them behind and pick up their equivalents on the other side.

It depends how long your trip is. If you’re planning to go away for a long time then waiting until you get to your destination to pick up your essentials may be more beneficial as you’re then not confined to the size limit of your liquids and you don’t have to waste money on miniatures.

If you’re only travelling for a couple of weeks then it’s the opposite. Make sure you take a fraction of your favourite toiletries with you in refillable miniature bottles to help you save money as well as the environment.

Pack a capsule wardrobe you can mix and match

To be honest, I find the clothes the hardest part of a packing list. It’s a struggle to resist the temptation to bundle up all your favourite outfits and that top that you never wear but you think might strike you with a sudden bout of fashion inspiration on your trip (yeah, right).

Capsule wardrobes are always coveted. It’s a dream really, having only a few stellar pieces that interchange with each other seamlessly like a super efficient wearable jigsaw. I’ve never had much luck at it, nevertheless, it’s a handy technique to get to grips with for your packing list because choosing what to wear while travelling is just so much easier, and it guarantees a lighter carry-on.

Having an efficient packing system limits chaos.

Capsule wardrobes are a doddle when packing for warmer climates. You only really need a handful of interchangeable t-shirts and shorts and you’re good to go. Colder climates are a lot more challenging and the clothes carry more weight. The key is to build up layers. Pack leggings to go under your jeans or thermal vests under long sleeved tops and top it off with a pair of lightweight fleeces.

Top tip: Instead of folding your clothes, roll them. You will be amazed at how little space a pair of jeans and a jumper take up!

Marie Kondo your packing list

Once you’ve formed your packing list it’s time to get critical. Much like Marie Kondo’s slogan ‘does it spark joy?’ taking Netflix and social media by storm, the same principles can be applied to packing a carry-on. Look at every item you’ve compiled an ask yourself if it sparks joy and most importantly, is it useful to your travels or will it only serve as an added weight to your bag.

If it makes you happy or you know it will serve to enhance your trip then make that item a priority. If not and you feel like you’ve just added it to the list as a just in case but probably won’t use it then don’t be afraid to put it back on the shelf.

You can take a carry-on anywhere. Literally.

I have a tendency to nearly always over pack no matter what bag I take as I usually fall for the mentality that I might just need it so just in case. There’s always something you can take out of your bag if you think hard enough and if the worst comes to the worst you can usually find a replacement abroad.

My ultimate essentials that make travelling a breeze

(Or, tiny things you can squeeze into any available corner and they don’t take up much room).

  • Earphones
  • Earplugs
  • Neck pillow
  • Eye mask
  • Comfy shoes
  • Big socks
  • Snacks, snacks and snacks
  • Refillable water bottle
  • Book / tablet / iPod
  • Hand sanitiser
  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste

Happy travels!


Thanks for reading,

F x

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