How to Pack for 10 Days in a Carry On

I wrote this article for Away.

With most airlines charging $20-plus per piece of checked luggage, packing everything into a carry-on is one small thing you can do to keep travel expenses under control. It’s also the only way to ensure that your bag doesn’t become one of the estimated two million bags lost worldwide each year by the major airlines. While it can be tempting to approach packing with a “just in case” attitude, don’t do it. “It’s really satisfying to not load yourself down with a bunch of stuff you don’t need,” says Kim Lemaire, who was a flight attendant for ten years and is now a professional photographer based in Carmel, California. Use these tips to pack light for your next trip. Your wallet, and your back, will thank you.

Picking the bag
What qualifies as a carry-on on a Boeing 737 might be too big to stow on a 44-seat CRJ-440, but the maximum size of a carry-on bag for most domestic air travel is 45 linear inches (the height plus width plus depth of the bag), or a bag that is about 22 inches tall by 14 inches across and 9 inches deep. Carry-on bags cannot weigh more than 40 pounds. And remember that some airlines have different carry-on allowances for domestic and international flights. “If you want a guarantee that your bag will meet the restrictions, always check airline websites,” advises Stasia Raines, public relations manager at Eagle Creek, a luggage manufacturer based in Carlsbad, California. Be especially vigilant if you’re flying internationally. Though checked baggage is usually gratis on international flights, weight and size restrictions vary widely for carry-ons, especially for regional flights internationally. “The ‘international’ carry-on limit is 21 inches tall, but in Asia it’s 19 inches,” says Raines.

If you don’t already own a carry-on bag that you love, or if it’s time to invest in a new piece of luggage, remember that there is really just one essential feature to consider: carrying capacity. That swiveling handle and those indestructible skateboard wheels might be cool, but what really matters is how much stuff the bag can hold. Some people love hard-sided luggage but, for carry-on, soft is better because it generally weighs less and can more easily conform to—or be crammed into—an overhead storage space.

A bag that is rectilinear in shape—with straight sides and 90-degree corners—also generally provides more cubic inches of storage space than a bag with rounded corners. “A rectilinear duffle has more than 27 percent more space than its rounded counterpart, even if the bags have identical length, width, and height,” notes Doug Dyment, founder of OneBag.com, a website that’s devoted to traveling light.

Once you’ve found the perfect bag, it’s time to decide what to put in it. Choosing what you’re bringing will ultimately decide whether all the stuff you want fits, or whether you’re forced to wear six coats through security on the way back. Lay out your clothes before packing, and keep these tips in mind:

  • Knits (cotton or wool) resist wrinkles. “You might love that silk or starched shirt, but once it’s wrinkled, it’s done,” says Lemaire. Also consider wrinkle-free clothing or linen, which looks fine even with a few folds.
  • Choose a color scheme. A mix of clothing in complementary colors lets you mix and match, stretching your wardrobe. For women, accessorizing with colorful jewelry can keep you looking sharp without the extra outfits. Here, black is always the new black.
  • Look for clothing that does double-duty. T-shirts and tank tops, for instance, can be worn alone during the day and under a sweater in the evening. For women, a wrap dress is casual when paired with flip-flops but can be dressed up with a sweater, evening sandals, and jewelry.
  • Sorry, Imelda: four pairs of shoes—max!Shoes are space hogs. One pair of loafers, sturdy sandals, or boots (which you wear on the plane); one pair of athletic shoes; and one pair of evening shoes/dressy sandals cover most scenarios (and guys can typically get away with less). Place the shoes you’re not wearing on the plane in one-gallon-size sealable plastic bags to keep street grime off of your clothing. Don’t forget to stuff your shoes with socks before you pack them.
  • Layer up for the trip. Save space in your suitcase by wearing your bulky garments—jeans and a sweater with your heavier shoes or boots—on the plane.

Sample packing list for a ten-day trip
“I try to plan ahead, day by day, what I will wear,” says frequent flier Lemaire. “I know I might change my mind once I’m at my destination, but it helps me be efficient.” Here’s what she packs as a general rule:

  • 6–7 T-shirts or tanks tops
  • 5 pairs of jeans/slacks (guys can get away with less)
  • 2–3 lightweight sweaters (guys can get away with less)
  • For women: 1 wrap dress or skirt for evening
  • For men: 1 tailored jacket, worn on the plane
  • 2 sets of exercise clothing (hand wash so you can wear more than once)
  • Exercise/walking shoes or boots
  • Dress shoes
  • 1–2 nightgowns/pajamas
  • 5 pairs of socks (hand wash so you can wear twice)
  • 5 undergarments (hand wash so you can wear twice)
  • Swimsuit and sarong
  • Compact accessories such as jewelry and scarves
  • Toiletries (see carry-on restrictions below)

Seasonal extras
Where you are going, and the season, might require a few extras, such as the ones on this list. Using the bundle-wrap or rolling method (for details, see “Don’t Fold …” below) should leave you with plenty of space:

  • Small clutch handbag
  • Flip-flops
  • 3 pairs of shorts
  • Gloves/hat
  • Rain jacket
  • Umbrella

Standard carry-on restrictions for liquids in the U.S.: Remember 3-1-1
The rules about how much and what kinds of liquids, gels, and pastes passengers can pack in carry-on luggage might seem to change with the weather, but as of December 2010, the Transportation Security Administration allows passengers to carry 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters) or smaller bottles of liquids that fit into one quart-size clear plastic zippered bag; each passenger is allowed just one such bag. Medications, baby formula/food, and breast milk are allowed in “reasonable” quantities that exceed 3.4 ounces, but passengers must declare these items at the security checkpoint. International restrictions may not match, but none will be more stringent than those of the TSA.

Don’t fold: Bundle up … or roll away
“Individually folding and then stacking clothing is the worst thing you can do from a packing perspective,” says traveling-light guru Dyment. Not only is it inefficient, it causes wrinkles and creases in clothing, he says. Two better options are bundling or rolling.

Bundle wrapping
To bundle wrap, start by taking a core object such as a nylon organizer pouch that measures about 11 inches by 16 inches (SeeEagle Creek’s) filled with soft items such as socks, underwear, a swimsuit, etc. The pouch becomes a pillow of sorts, around which all the other clothing is wrapped. In general, the larger and more tailored garments—the ones most likely to wrinkle—form the outside of the bundle.

Button all your clothing. Lay out your clothes in a specific sequence, starting with items most likely to wrinkle: formalwear, skirts and dresses, long-sleeved shirts, short-sleeved shirts, slacks, sweaters, and shorts. Start with the formalwear and lay an item face down on your bed. Now add the remaining items, all face up but alternating direction to keep the bundle even. For example, the collar of the first item faces left, the collar of the second faces right. Alternate pants the same way to keep the stack relatively even. When all the items are layered, place the “core” item—your pillow—on the stack, right in the middle. Now work your way back to the bottom, folding the top item over the core item. Wrap the final item around the core and bundle. Place it in the center of the suitcase, and stuff shoes along the sides.

Rolling
“As part of the flight-attendant training program, we were actually taught how to pack our small bag efficiently by rolling our clothing,” says Lemaire. It’s as easy as it sounds, though not quite as wrinkle-reducing as bundling. To roll, just lay the garment out and roll from one end to the other, making the roll as tight as possible. Pants are easy; for shirts, fold the sleeves in first, then roll. Place shoes along the edge of your bag and then put the heavier items—jeans and pants—in along the bottom. Add lighter-weight clothing on next, and finish with the lightest garments and accessories.

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