This post may contain affiliate / compensated links. For full information, please see my disclaimer here.
Last Updated on 18/07/2021
Packing a carry-on is an art form. It takes a bit of practice to get it absolutely right. Once you’ve done it a few times, you’ll start to know exactly what you need. Most importantly, it’ll make travelling so much easier.
My carry-on packing routine is more or less the same wherever I go in the world. I always make sure I have all my essentials for a smooth and comfortable trip.
Want to know the secret? Here’s how to pack a carry-on bag for anywhere in the world:
First, the benefits of a carry-on bag
Photo by JESHOOTS
- Carry on bags are so much easier than checking luggage for the simple reason that you have way less to lug around with you. All your belongings are packed neatly away so you’re ready to just grab ‘n’ go. It’s the perfect solution if you’re a backpacker and moving about a lot.
- They provide much more security than checked luggage. For one thing, there’s less to get lost and you have fewer items to watch over.
- Carry-ons make flying so much easier and cheaper. You can breeze right past the check-in desk and you don’t have to wait anxiously for your bag in the arrivals hall. Most airlines have a luggage allowance and fee. If you take a carry-on then your fee will either be cheaper or you won’t have to pay anything extra at all (this depends on the airline, of course).
- Flying with a carry on is actually a little greener than taking checked luggage. You’re bringing less weight onboard which means that the plane burns less fuel. Fewer carbon emissions then end up in the atmosphere. It might not seem like much but when it comes to reducing your carbon footprint, a little can go a long way!
Why packing a carry-on bag can be tricky
Carry-on bags are as useful as they are hard to get right, especially if you have a tendency to overpack (guilty!). It’s true they have multiple persuasive benefits that make travel easier but you still have to figure out how to pack all your essentials without splitting the seams.
Take it from me, an over-packed bag is as bad as a disorganised one and they both fill up your trip with excess stress. The key is to find a good system so you can be comfortable and happy no matter where you go.
Most European airlines allow a size limit of around 55 x 40 x 20 centimetres. However, Ryanair have recently implemented a new restriction of a measly 40 x 20 x 25 centimetres – pretty much the size of a laptop bag.
Anyone wishing to go up a size must pay an extra £6 each way or risk having their bag whisked away to the hold only to see it again at the baggage carousel.
So now that packing a carry-on has become something of a magic trick, I’ve put together a roundup of easy carry-on luggage tips to help you beat those tight airline restrictions without breaking a sweat.
Choose the right carry-on bag for you
Photo by Josiah Weiss
My first and most important tip I can offer when thinking about what to take in a carry-on is to make sure you have the right bag. It seems like a painfully obvious no-brainer but you would be surprised how much of a difference a good bag can make. Not to come across as dramatic here but a bag can make or break a trip!
Invest in a carry-on bag that’s the right fit, style and shape for your body. Nothing ruins a trip like a backpack that cuts into your shoulders and gives you the mother of all headaches to deal with.
You also want to look after your body because the last thing you want is to end up incapacitated in a hostel by a bad back when you should be out making the most of your trip.
The best way to avoid such a nightmare is to go out and try a few bags before you settle on your choice. Carry-ons come in all shapes and sizes from duffles to backpacks. They each have their pros and cons. For example, little wheelie suitcases can be pretty nifty but they’re also a bit cumbersome when you’re on the go.
Try before you buy
Photo by Andreas Chu
Personally, I prefer carry-on backpacks because your hands are free and the weight is evenly distributed. Before settling on a backpack, it’s a good idea to try a few out first. To do this, you will need to go to a shop like Decathlon, Osprey and Blacks (in the UK) rather than order online.
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’s worth all that just to find the right bag. Your bag is your most constant companion on the road so make sure it’s your ally too.
Use packing cubes when packing a carry-on
The packing cube market is a booming business which wields a power that promises to transform your travelling game. There’s an enormous range to choose from and finding the right one for you can be a bit of a mind-boggling challenge.
When you’ve got state of the art zip-up compression bags, simple pockets and double compartmented organisers, it’s a hard choice to make.
Eagle Creek are one of the biggest names in the game and not without reason. They have the magic ability to shrink the contents of your bag to a size that would fit a doll. Hundreds of travellers swear by them but they come with a hefty price tag. It’s not ideal if you’re on a budget and don’t fancy splashing out on such an extravagance.
Luckily, there are decent packing cube sets out there that have nearly the same set of tricks. It’s true, they might not have all the bells and whistles but they get the job done. Your bag will be kept tidy and well-ordered when travelling, which is the main thing!
Alternatively, a set of self-sealing vacuum bags like these work wonders if you have a problem with space. They’re also super cheap too. I actually used them during my 3-month backpacking trip in New Zealand.
Make a list of all your essentials
Bring all your essentials together 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 your collection and whether you really need to bring all of them. Need some inspiration? Here’s my complete sustainable travel packing list.
Things like razors could be considered essential but you can always pick one up when you arrive at your destination if necessary.
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.
Choosing your essentials when packing a carry-on depends on how long your trip is. If you’re planning to go away for a long time then buying your essentials at your destination may be more beneficial. You’re not confined to the size limits 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.
Pro tip: Make your packing list even more sustainable with these eco-friendly travel products.
Pack a capsule wardrobe that you can mix and match
Photo by Arnel Hasanovic
Deciding what clothes to bring is the hardest part of packing a carry-on bag. It’s all too easy to be tempted into bundling up all your favourite outfits and that t-shirt you never wear but might become the source of fashion inspiration – it won’t.
Having a capsule wardrobe makes life so much easier. All you need is a few stellar pieces that interchange with each other seamlessly like a super-efficient wearable jigsaw. It’s a challenging technique to get right but it’s essential if you want to pack a carry-on. It will guarantee a lighter and more organised bag and it will make choosing what to wear so much easier.
Capsule wardrobes are a doddle when packing for warmer climates. You only really need a handful of interchangeable t-shirts, dresses 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. Add a few lightweight fleeces instead of bulky jumpers to help keep the weight down.
Pro tip: Instead of folding your clothes, roll them. You will be amazed at how little space a pair of jeans and a jumper can really take up!
Marie Kondo your packing list
Photo by Tucker Good
Once you’ve put together your packing list it’s time to get critical. Much like Marie Kondo’s slogan ‘does it spark joy?’ that took Netflix and social media by storm, the same principles apply when you pack a carry-on.
Look at every item you’ve compiled and ask yourself if it’s useful to your travels or will it only serve as an added weight in your bag?
If it makes you happy or you’re adamant that it will enhance your trip then make that item a top priority. If not, don’t be afraid to take it out of the pile and put it back on the shelf where it belongs. There’s always something you can take out of your bag if you think hard enough.
It’s hard to be strict with yourself on your packing list. I always struggle to say goodbye to my non-essentials but if the worst comes to the worst I know I can usually find a replacement abroad.
Pack small alternatives to all your favourite items
A useful way to save space and weight when you pack your carry-on bag is to use smaller alternatives. Instead of a towel, choose a lightweight travel towel (like this one), take a Kindle instead of a stack of books and earbuds instead of headphones.
Shops that specialise in outdoor wear are well-equipped with this sort of gear. You can usually find a good selection of lightweight and functional items that are designed to squeeze into any small crevice in your bag.
Pro tip: If you’re going somewhere cold, wear your bulkiest clothing while you travel. That way you won’t have to have a wrestling match with your bag every time you pack it.
Swap toiletries for liquid-free alternatives
Pack solid toiletries instead of miniature bottles. If you’re flying with a carry-on you won’t have to worry about fitting all your 100ml liquids into a tiny zip lock bag and you won’t need to ration them during your trip.
Liquid-free toiletries like shampoo bars and solid moisturizers last longer and they save you money. They’re also much better for the environment because they don’t contain any single-use packaging.
My ultimate essentials that make travelling a breeze
Photo by Anete Lūsiņa
No matter where I go in the world, I always take these essentials. They just make life so much easier. It’s not an extensive list of everything I take but I always make sure that these items are in my carry-on bag. Luckily, most of them don’t take up that much space:
- Neck pillow
- Eye mask
- Comfy shoes
- Big fluffy socks
- Snacks, snacks and more snacks
- Refillable water bottle
- Book / tablet / iPod
- Hand sanitiser
- Big scarf to double as a blanket
- World travel adapter
- Portable charger (fully charged)
- First aid kit
- Reef-safe sunscreen
Flying long haul on an economy flight? Here are my packing tips and essentials to get you through.
Packing a carry-on for anywhere in the world takes practice but once you get it right it will make your travels so much easier. Hopefully, these tips will point you in the direction.
Don’t hesitate to reach out in the comments if you have any questions about packing, carry-on bags and packing cubes.
In the meantime, this excellent video by Nomadic Matt tells you what to look out for in a backpack. And if you want to save some time, Tui can create a bespoke packing list for you at a click of a button! Check out Tui’s Holiday Checklist here.
Pin me for later!