If you’re new here, hi, my name is Jas and I’m a professional Tetris packer. Having travelled to numerous countries around the world, I have developed a fail-proof system of packing that will save you hundreds of dollars on check-in baggage fees. But of course, just because you’re living out of a small suitcase doesn’t mean you can’t look like a million bucks. Without further ado, here are my top secrets on how to pack light in a carry-on and still travel in style!
Quick disclaimer: due to the fact that myself and 80% of my blog readers are ladies, this guide is designed specifically for women. If you’re a gent and have landed on this post via Google or other social media channels, share this to your wife or girlfriend instead 😉
1. Start with the right bag/luggage.
Believe it or not, I once travelled with a Longchamp Le Pliage Size L tote. It was a short weekend trip to LA and I managed to fit all of my clothes, makeup, toiletries, drone, AND laptop inside. Not only are their totes light like a feather, they are water resistant as well. For those with a little more baggage (not the emotional kind), I recommend the XL Travel Bag.
Whether it’s old age or I’ve gotten too lazy to lift heavy objects, I am definitely more of a suitcase gal these days. Keep in mind that most airlines have a maximum weight allowance of 22lb. (This includes Air Canada, All Nippon Airways, IcelandAir, Japan Airlines, Norwegian Air, and Virgin Atlantic just to name a few. Airline regulations are constantly changing though so I would double check on that.) A lot of budget airlines may even limit you to as little as 15lb. (Ahem, yes, Air Asia, talking about you.) Hard shell suitcases typically weigh much less than fabric ones. While there are many advantages of using a soft shell (such as being able to stuff more clothes in), I have completely phased out all fabric suitcases due to the weight factor.
Monos Carry-On Plus in Desert Taupe next to Check-In Large (Olive Green) for size comparison.
A recent favorite I have been loving is the Monos Carry-On Plus. It weighs a total of 8lb and its wheels! Oh. My. Gosh. They roll so effortlessly and make little to no noise at all. It features a TSA-approved combination lock, anti-microbial laundry bag, two shoe bags plus a vegan leather luggage tag. For more information, head on over to their website.
2. Have a rough itinerary.
The key to packing carry-on only is knowing what to prepare for. You don’t need to have every minute of your trip planned out. However, do have a rough idea of what kind of weather or terrain you will be travelling in.
Make no mistake, packing light ≠ under-packing! The absolute worst thing to happen on the road is being underprepared – especially if you are in colder parts of the world.
3. Create a packing checklist.
Once you have a rough itinerary, create your very own custom packing list. (Or print out mine above!) I like to start brainstorming from head to toe. This ensures you don’t forget anything and that you’re not going through your closet wasting time getting distracted by clothes you don’t need to bring.
4. Invest in timeless pieces that never go out of style.
Fashion fads come and go. It’s the classics that stand the test of time. Below are a few of my favorite items.
White is great since it matches literally everything. This can be as plain as a v-neck tee or as dressy as an Italian silk blouse. Simply throw on a pair of jeans for a casual day trip or style with a cute printed skirt for a chic, romantic look.
Tip: Layer a white tee underneath an off-the-shoulder or spaghetti strap dress when visiting temples or any place of interest where you are required to dress modestly.
A must-have if you ask me. Did you know, denim jackets actually provide great insulation. Not to mention, they make for the ideal layering piece throughout the four seasons.
No, blazers aren’t office-only attire. If I’m visiting fashion capitals like Paris or New York where I want to appear more put together, I make sure to bring a blazer with me. However, I do avoid wearing plain black trousers or anything that screams “I’m here on business. Don’t mess with me.” An easy solution is to wear jeans on the bottom. Alternatively, you can even opt for an oversized fit and complete the look with some jean shorts.
Wool or Cashmere Blend Pea Coat
Wool is your best bet when it comes to battling cold winter weathers. Now a wool coat can easily go up to $300, but trust me, it’s an investment worth making. You’ll get your money’s worth in no time!
A Little Black Dress (or White)
Wearing my LBD as a beach coverup (left) versus wearing it as my birthday dress (right). This is doable if the material of your dress is cotton or lightweight.
This classic is a wardrobe staple. From brunch date with the gals to sophisticated cocktail parties, it’s a one-dress-fits-all. In recent months, I’ve started replacing my LBD with LWD (little white dress). Again, white compliments everything and it’s perfect for spring and summer months when you’re ready to say goodbye to dark winter hues.
5. Layer, layer, layer!
Another trick for how to pack light in a carry-on is to layer. By mixing and matching different pieces, you can pretty much create an infinite number of outfits.
A few essential layering pieces are: a white top in the summer or a plain (turtleneck) sweater in the winter, a plaid shirt, a neutral color hoodie, a denim jacket, and a cardigan. For those warmer days where a tee is enough on its own, you can bring a light plaid shirt in case the nights get cold. If the day is a little chillier, you can layer those two items inside of a hoodie or cardigan then wear a denim jacket on top.
6. Double up swimsuits as real clothes.
This hack works the best if your swimsuit is a one piece. That way you can wear it as a regular bodysuit paired with denim shorts or a floral skirt.
In the case that your swimsuit is a two-piece (i.e. a bikini), do be careful as certain countries are more conservative than others. I often get away wearing my two-piece by choosing a bikini top that looks like an actual top – rather than a bikini top.
This off-the-shoulder piece from YesStyle is my absolute fave. I’ve worn it as a “top” and gotten compliments on it!
7. Bring a maximum of two pairs of shoes.
You’re not a centipede. You don’t need a hundred shoes.
Mime et Moi Shell Black with Stiletto 10cm and Super Block 7cm heels.
I personally used to struggle with this a lot because I would want to pack heels for those fancy night outs. Except during the day, I obviously couldn’t walk five hours in stiletto heels so I needed a separate shoe to match my sun dress, etc. Eventually, I would end up with way too many shoes that I sometimes didn’t even wear. For my ladies out there who are like me, good news is there’s a shoe to fix this dilemma!
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If you’ve read my “Unique Travel Gifts for Every Type of Traveller in Your Life” guide, you should be familiar with with this shoe brand. Mime et Moi is a European company that specializes in making shoes with interchangeable heels. Yes, you read that right. Each shoe comes with a 3cm flat heel and can be switched out with 7cm block heels, 7cm stiletto heels, 10cm stiletto heels, and more. Instead of bringing sandals for the day and pumps for the evening, you now only need one pair of shoes. Best part is they have a wide variety of eye-catching designs and vibrant colors. Your new dilemma will be picking which shoe to buy!
Shop their collection here.
After you’ve sorted out your first pair of shoes, the second will be determined by the type of your trip. Meaning, if you know you will be hiking, pack runners or hiking boots. If you are going on a sun vacation to a beach resort, bring flip flops that you don’t care to get wet or dirty. Regardless of the purpose of your trip, always keep the magic number at two.
8. Roll or fold – the million dollar question.
Majority of carry-on packing tips probably tell you to roll your clothes to conserve space. While this is generally true, I’ve realized that it heavily depends on the fabric of your clothes. Chunky sweaters, for example, take up a quarter of your suitcase – no matter if you roll or fold. The trick is to use Ziploc bags or vacuum seal bags. I prefer the former since this is something that I usually already have at home (and you probably do too). Plus, vacuum seal bags are more of a hassle because a) you either need to find a vacuum to repack all your bags at the end of your vacation or b) bring the mini pump that comes with the bag, which of course takes up more unnecessary space.
Before you think “plastic bags are bad for the environment,” relax! Unless you are rolling around in dirt like a carrot (I don’t know why you would, but hey, you do you), your clothes should be pretty clean. That means you can simply reuse the baggies over and over again. If you really need to clean it, you can rub a dab of liquid soap on then rinse in cold water followed by patting it dry with a towel.
9. Make packing cubes your best friend.
The best way to pack a carry-on is to use packing cubes.
Besides helping you stay organized, packing cubes make things much easier to find. More importantly, their shape is excellent for stacking. They fit seamlessly into each corner of your suitcase thereby optimizing every inch of space. Additionally, because packing cubes are zipped fabric containers, they can also compress clothes a little.
Tip: Place your heaviest cubes on the bottom for better weight distribution. Your suitcase will roll better with ease.
10. Do you really need toiletries?
No, I’m not saying to leave your toothbrush at home and have your dentist scold you for not brushing your teeth for an entire week straight. However, I am saying yes to ditching the unnecessary bottles of shampoo and conditioner. Most luxury hotels carry designer brand toiletries. (I’ve used Bvlgari, Bottega Veneta, and Diptyque just to name a few.) Unless you have curly hair or hair that is a little harder to manage, hotel toiletries in general work quite well.
If you really need to bring your own, consider sharing with your travel mates and splitting the burden. The same goes with soap/shower gel, comb, cotton pads, Q-tips, blowdryer, etc. Check what your hotel carries and if anything, you can purchase new toiletries or replenish on the road.
Tip: Get yourself a TSA-approved clear toiletry bag. Whatever you can’t fit in this bag, don’t allow yourself to bring it on your trip.
11. Limit how much makeup you bring. Palettes > Singles.
I’ve seen girls who use five or six different products for contouring and highlighting alone like they’re a professional makeup artist at Mac. Well if that’s you, forget those luxuries because we’re sticking to the basics!
Whatever your makeup routine is, choose palettes over single compacts. Similar to packing cubes, palettes usually have a square/rectangular shape that’s much more manageable than individual round pans. (There are round palettes too, which I’m not crazy about considering its shape isn’t ideal for maximizing space. Regardless, one round palette is still less painless to pack than five different round containers.)
Another thing I love about palettes is most of them come with brushes. The less you have to pack, the merrier!
12. Opt for a Makeup Eraser instead of multiple bottles of makeup remover.
Raise your hand if you have a bottle of makeup remover for eyes and lips, a separate bottle for face makeup, and a third bottle for general cleansing. Aside from the impracticalities, talk about plastic waste!
A Makeup Eraser is basically a face cloth that removes waterproof makeup with warm water alone. It is made with a woven polyester-blend and can last up to 3-5 years or up to 1,000 machine washes. Having personally tried it myself, I can attest to the fact that it’s not a marketing gimmick. It definitely does work!
13. Use travel-sized bottles and containers.
Never in my life have I had to purchase travel-sized containers. Why waste that money when you can walk straight into Sephora and ask for samples in mini containers. Moreover, Sephora has a fantastic rewards system where you can redeem products for “travel” use. Now I actually shop online more and the reason is that I can freely browse through their selection. (Points are redeemable in person, but what you can redeem depends heavily on what’s in stores.) I like to also pick containers that are reusable. Once I finish the original product in the jar, I can wash it then store whatever else I want inside.
Another alternative is using old contact lens cases. According to the American Optometric Association, you are supposed to replace your case every three months. What do you do with the old ones? Put your moisturizer, eye cream, foundation, or concealer insider. Anything goes!
14. Be realistic with what you really need.
Let’s be honest here. I can’t be the only one who has packed gym clothes thinking I would work out on my vacation and end up never even taking them out of the suitcase.
Be realistic! Ask yourself, “do I really need this?”
Sometimes what I’ll do is I will pack my suitcase then put it away. The next day, I will re-examine everything and ask myself over and over again to make sure I only bring items that I truly need. If your answer is a maybe, maybe you don’t need it!
15. Wear your heaviest garments.
Forget looking cute like those celebrities who get papavrazzied at airports because you’re going to be showing up as Mr. Snowman.
Make no mistake. I’m NOT telling you to model 100% after Joey. For winter travel, I suggest wearing your heaviest coats and cardigans + boots. It can get quite cold on the plane and if anything, you can always take off your coat and store it in the overhead bin. For summer vacations, I recommend putting on any flowy maxi dresses. (You’d be amazed at how heavy some dresses can get!) If you’re like me and you prefer wearing pants in transit (because let’s be real, going up and down escalators running to make that connecting flight in a long dress is a huge hazard), what you can do is after check-in and/or airpot security, change into your comfy clothes.
There you have it! 15 tips on how to pack light in a carry-on.
Hope you found my tips and tricks useful and please share this guide if you did. Don’t forget to subscribe for newsletters and I’ll see you in the next post!