When it comes to airline travel, luggage space is a luxury. Theoretically, it should be easy to fit everything you need for a weekend away in a carry-on, but in reality, cramming multiple vacation outfits, shoes, cosmetics, and electronics chargers into a 12-by-22-inch bag can induce more stress than sitting next to a coughing stranger on a long-haul flight. Think it can’t be done? We spoke to a handful of travel insiders, from pilots and first-class attendants to seasoned travelers, to find out their top hacks. Follow this step-by-step guide to pack your carry-on like a jet-setting pro. Long weekends, we’re ready for you.
When space is limited, often the first thing to go is unnecessary pouches, bags, and cases. The issue? Carry-on luggage often lacks dividers, so your delicate silk dress ends up thrown in with your dirty mules. Qantas pilot Dane Taylor says the key is to make the most of complimentary hotel items. His top hack puts an end to your dirty shoe dilemma: Use the disposable shower cap provided in your room as a thin shoe bag. Position the shoes sole-down so the cap encases them, making a neat package that eliminates the need for bulky bags or dividers.
You might pack your bag when it’s lying flat on the floor, but as soon as you stand it upright, the contents will shift, so be sure to layer the contents according to weight. Heavier items will fall toward the bottom, so position them near the wheels. Put your shoes in first (now covered in shower caps); then layer in clothing that won’t crease, such as jeans or sweaters. For items that will crease easily, see the next step.
Now, to deal with your garments that need extra attention, let’s first address collared shirts. Autumn Mahar, a moving expert at Upack, advises to “place a rolled-up belt inside the shirt collar.” This will help the collar retain its shape. As for your silk delicates, encase them in a plastic dry-cleaning bag and roll it up gently. The plastic is said to reduce friction and pad the item so it doesn’t get squashed in the suitcase.
Frequent flyers swear by these simple fabric cubes. Opt for two large and one small packing square, each in a different color, so you can quickly distinguish between them at a glance. Next, segment your items in each so that all tops are in one and pants or dresses are in another. Long-term traveler Colin Wright, founder of ExileLifestyle, has been living from his carry-on bag for the past seven years and says rolling each item is key. “I usually roll my jeans, T-shirts, and sweaters,” he says, noting that any folded items are a loss of valuable space.
Travel insiders agree: The biggest mistake you’re making is packing too many tech accessories. “You don't need a USB cable for all three of your devices, and different adapters are a waste of space,” says Wright.
The solution? “Carrying a micro-USB cord with a mini adapter tip uses far less space than a cable for each.” Wright also swears by multi-plug devices that allow you to charge your laptop and other items at once. “There are a few trade-offs, like sacrificing a bit of power for a convenient size, but it’s generally worth it,” he says.
If you're still feeling nervous about parting with your cords and chargers, Cathay Pacific Airways first class officer Brendan Mullan says there’s a simple fallback. “Every hotel always has a spare set of phone chargers or adaptors, so if all else fails, you can just borrow them,” he says. In other words, stress less. There’s always a plan B.
There’s no need to be limited to a carry-on suitcase—most airlines allow a small piece of luggage and a handbag. According to Wright, that’s something travelers often overlook. Make the most of your extra bag by keeping essentials and breakable items close so don’t have to crawl over passengers to access them mid-flight. “This allows me to quickly grab a charging cable during a flight or pull out my little bag of liquids when passing through the TSA checkpoint.” Bonus: You’ll never open your suitcase to find a burst container of shampoo again.
So, what are the absolute packing essentials? Shop a few of our carry-on must-haves:
Next up: the airport outfit our editor wears every time she travels.