My 10 tips for packing carry-on luggage

How to save your sanity (and your back) by packing light when traveling

I’ve been preaching the carry-on-only gospel for some time—and yes, it’s more difficult now that we’re traveling with a baby, but it’s still entirely possible.

These days, we share our carry-on luggage with Eliza so it means there’s less space for us, but it has made us even more meticulous with our packing. As we’ve traveled around the world these past few months, I’ve given thought to the ten packing tips that guide my travels. (Sean may have some tips too, but I suspect his would be rather brief: bring clothes, not too many.) :

1. Question everything you attempt to pack. For example, do you really need to bring the heels that you might wear on a night out, or will utilitarian black flats suffice? Can your facial lotions fit into smaller containers? Can you wear your sweatpants day and night? (The last one might apply to new parents only.) Packing fewer items, ironically enough, can make you feel like you have more to wear if you plan them well.

2. Only pack items of clothing that pair well with at least two others (or are outfits unto themselves). Another blog I love, A Cup of Jo, suggests packing clothes in the same color scheme, though this could mean you’ll end up shopping more than you’d like beforehand. If you’re on a longer trip, remember that you can do laundry along the way, so don’t be afraid to pack fewer items than you’re used to.

3. Have a photo of all the clothing you’re packing in your suitcase. You might think that when you’re traveling light, you’ll remember what you brought and what you left at home, but it’s funny how quickly you can forget—especially any smaller or lesser used items. By looking quickly at a photo of what’s in my suitcase, I’ve been able to avoid unpacking everything to figure out my outfit inspiration. For extra credit, you can take photos of how you plan to combine different items to make outfits.

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Here’s the photo I took while packing for almost 3 months in Europe

4. Bring something versatile in case you need to dress up. My favorite example is a piece I bought at Uniqlo that folds up to practically nothing, but unfolds to be exactly what I need for dressier occasions or just regular travel days. (Photo below). I’ve had it for years and still bring it with me on pretty much every trip.

5. Wear your heaviest footwear and clothing during the flight. This advice is especially applicable on airlines that have strict weight limits for carry-on baggage. You might love your comfy flats, but if you’re bringing clunky tennis shoes, leave the flats in the bag and keep the clunkers on your feet. The same goes for sweaters, jeans, coats, and scarves. Your luggage will be lighter and easier to manage.

6. Bring your must-haves on board with you. Even if you’re traveling somewhere warm, keep a sweater, hoodie, or pashmina on hand while flying in case it gets cold. Likewise, have some snacks, reading material, lotion, earbuds, earplugs, and an eye-mask accessible in your carry-on bag. This way you won’t be searching for the little things you need, and they’ll go a long way when dealing with the many variables on your flight.

7. Use contact-lens cases for your lotions and creams. Use a Sharpie pen to clearly label what’s inside. Saving even an ounce or two of weight here and there will help keep your luggage lighter, especially if you’re only bringing a backpack.

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Not exactly a work of art but it’s highly functional

8. Pack your toiletries into Ziploc bags. No matter how tightly bottled something may seem, just one spill can ruin all the other items you’ve brought. (Also, if you’re in the U.S., this will make you TSA-compliant.) Be sure to bring a few extra bags in different sizes as well. If you’re traveling with a child, there are numerous ways they can help you when there’s a spill or, alas, something worse.

9. Be strategic with your makeup choices. If you’re packing makeup, keep it light—both in terms of weight and maintenance. You’ll be grateful to have a lighter makeup bag to carry and only things you need when on the go. I pack a bold lipstick, mascara, and a tinted daily moisturizer with SPF to protect against the UVB rays of the sun. Redirect the minutes you save off a more exhaustive makeup routine to savor a morning coffee instead or to get more sleep.

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My power trio (though I admit that I bring more items for longer trips)

10. If you have extra space in your luggage, leave it unclaimed! It’s tempting to try to cram a few more items into your bag before you go, but resist the urge. Think about what you’ll likely acquire when you’re away. You might buy a few gifts or keepsakes on your trip and end up appreciating the extra space. (Also, somehow everything I pack has an inexplicable knack for not fitting as well when packing for the return home.)

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All packed for another trip: two months and a variety of climates (starting in South Korea, down to New Zealand, and ending in New Orleans). Backpack, diaper bag, and excited smiles not pictured.

For all you carry-on-only travelers out there, what did I miss?!

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