How to pack for carry-on

Whether you’re a frequent flyer or are embarking on your first overseas holiday, learning how to pack for carry-on is one of the best travel hacks you can do.

These days no-frills airlines want to charge for anything and everything on top of your airfare. But avoiding those additional luggage fees will leave you with extra money in your pocket for more adventures on the road.

Besides the financial benefit, going carry-on only will give you less stress when you fly. You’ll skip the queue at the baggage carousel, be one of the first to grab a taxi, and know your luggage is right there with you at all times. There’s nothing more frustrating than arriving in a new destination to discover the airline has lost your luggage.

Choose The Right Bag

Airports can be strict with carry-on weight limits (7kg) and dimensions for overhead luggage, so the first step in packing for carry on is to have the right bag.

But a carry-on bag needs to be more than just a certain size. It also needs to make your packing life simple. Does it have multiple internal compartments for organising your gear properly? Is it easy to carry, or does it have wheels to drag along? Is it durable enough to be jammed into an overhead compartment? These are all important things you also need to consider.

It's best to have a bag that is made with soft material as well. This way it can mould its way into tight spaces (think if you're the last person on the plane and most of the overhead compartment room is taken up), and can compress down if you still have some space available.

Variable straps on the side of your bag are great to shrink the total volume, and the smaller your bag looks the less questions you're likely to get from the ticket-checkers. In addition, soft material will generally be lighter, meaning more of your packing weight can go on actual items, rather than the bag itself.

The Federate travel pack is a day pack, a carry-on, and a check-in bag
The Federate travel pack is a day pack, a carry-on, and a check-in bag

Make A Detailed Packing List

Whether you like making them or not, lists help keep you on the right track. Rather than throwing what you think you need into your bag, you can refer to the list and make sure you’re only taking the right things.

Having a list will ensure you don’t forget anything while you’re packing, and will keep you within your limits. Put absolutely everything you need on your list: Clothing, toiletries, electronics, medication, etc, and don’t leave anything to chance. If your list says three t-shirts, only pack three t-shirts. If you’re not keeping track of these things you can easily over pack.

Choose Multi-Purpose, Quick-Dry Clothing

It’s better to take a few high quality pieces of clothing that serve multiple purposes than lots of cheap bits of clothing that only do one thing. Not only is this better for the environment, it’s better for your packing list and budget in the long run.

If you’re going to be doing a mix of outdoor activities and city-sightseeing on your trip, take hiking pants that also look quite smart for day-to-day wear. Rather than taking a very thick winter coat, take a lightweight and waterproof shell that you can use in bad weather, no matter what the temperature, and layer up.

Choose clothes that you can wear with everything else in your luggage. Don’t take a shirt that only matches one set of shorts you want to take. Interchangeable clothing is key to packing light.

A lot of clothing these days are also made from quick-drying material. These are great, because you can take less clothes and do your laundry on the road, knowing that by hanging them up overnight they’ll be dry in the morning. Trust us, nobody will notice if you’re wearing the same shirt a few days in a row when you travel, as long as it’s clean.

If you're travelling somewhere cold, a compressible down jacket is ideal for carry-on packing If you're travelling somewhere cold, a compressible down jacket is ideal for carry-on packing
If you're travelling somewhere cold, a compressible down jacket is ideal for carry-on packing

Don’t Take Too Many Shoes

Choose one pair of shoes that can be used for lots of different occasions; nice dinners, walking around town, nights out dancing, whatever your travels will throw at you. Keep them simple and versatile, and you won’t have to double up on anything.

If you’re planning on doing some hiking, there are plenty of shoes that are not only rugged and waterproof for being in the outdoors, but also look stylish enough to wear out to a bar.

The only other footwear you should always take is a pair of lightweight sandals. These can be worn for all the casual activities you’ll get up to.

Wear your heaviest shoes on the plane and stick the other pair in your carry on.

Use Packing Cells

We think packing cells could be one the best travel packing accessory of all time. Even if you’re not trying to pack as carry on, invest in these awesome items!

They keep all of your gear neatly separated so that you can easily access what you need, when you need it. No more digging to the bottom of your bag trying to find a pair of socks – just grab the packing cell with all of your underwear in it!

They also help you when focusing on carry on because you can pack each cell nice and tight, and with the right bag you can easily compartmentalise the inside. And in case security asks to have a look inside when you’re going through the airport, you don’t need to pull out every individual piece of clothing or electronics.

Packing cells make life that little bit easier
Packing cells make life that little bit easier

Be Realistic, No “Just In Case” Packing

As you’re writing your packing list, be realistic. Do you really need that second fleece? Are you actually going to wear that mini-skirt around town? Do some research on the place you’re going, the dress style the locals wear, and of course the weather you can expect.

There’s no point taking a heavy and bulky snow jacket if there’s no freezing temperatures in the forecast. If you’re only going to a beach destination, pack just for that. It’s very easy to look in your wardrobe and think, “Maybe I’ll take those jeans, just in case.” Just in case of what? Pack smart, and remember, if it turns out you desperately need something when you get there, you can always shop in-country.

The less clothes you take, the easier it will be to stay within those carry-on limits.

Limit Your Toiletries

Another common item that people can get carried away with packing is toiletries. If you wear make-up, you probably don’t need your entire make-up kit for a casual holiday. Choose just one travel-size mascara, lipstick and blush, and leave behind the dozens of different types you might have.

Men, take a lightweight, electric shaver with you so you have no issues taking it as carry on (razors might get taken off of you). Or go grizzly for your holiday.

Remember that airlines will take any liquids off of you that are over 100ml. Just take small items to get you by, like toothpaste or hand sanitiser, and stock up again once you touch down in your destination.

Keep the toiletries as minimal as possible and you’ll have no issues fitting it all in carry on.

Do You Really Need All Your Electronics?

Electronics really can make up the bulk of your luggage weight, so think seriously about what you should and shouldn’t take if you’re trying to pack carry on.

Unless you need to work on your trip, or are planning on editing photos and videos on the go, chances are you can leave your big, heavy laptop at home for your holiday. Your mobile phone can do just about everything you’re likely to need anyway, such as send and receive emails, make hotel bookings, upload pictures to Instagram, etc.

The other thing your phone can do is store movies and e-books on it, so there’s no need to bring a separate Kindle or media device.

When it comes to cameras we understand that for a lot of people they want to take the absolute best snaps of their holidays (we sure do!), but you might be able to leave some of that gear at home. Don’t bring a tripod if you’re not 100% positive you will use it. Leave the portrait lens behind if you’re just planning on taking landscape shots the entire time. Or go completely minimalist and rely solely on your mobile phone for all your travel photography.

If you do need your laptop, keep it safe with a built-in laptop sleeve
If you do need your laptop, keep it safe with a built-in laptop sleeve

Wear Your Bulky Items On The Plane

The last tip for how to pack for carry on only is to wear your big, heavy items when you go through the airport. Some airlines are notorious for charging for even being half a kilogram over, so before you drop the bag on the scales, throw on the things that may push you over.

Shoes, pants, a heavy jumper: all of these can be worn when doing the check-in, then repacked into your bag once you get through security. Don’t get caught out!


Get all your carry-on essentials

Alesha and Jarryd are professional photographers, writers and the founders of Australia’s biggest adventure travel blog, NOMADasaurus. They’ve been exploring the world together since 2008, searching for culture and adventure in off the beaten path destinations.

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