How to pack a 3-1-1 liquids bag for a long trip
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When I first began going on longer trips with just a carry-on, there were some pretty serious learning curves.
What to wear, certainly. Choosing two weeks’ worth of outfits, and building a modular, capsule-like wardrobe, was its own struggle (at first). Nevermind the trips where I crossed into multiple climates!
But the biggest hurdle I faced was actually figuring out how to fit all of my liquids into those teensy tiny clear bags, in just 3.38 ounces or less per container. Even the decidedly not high maintenance among us who have attempted this for a longer trip probably wanted to throw their Ziploc bags against the mirror and scream.
Under U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) regulations, and airline restrictions around the world, only quart-sized bags with bottles 3.38 ounces or under can travel on board a plane in carry-on luggage.
But what if you're going on a long trip, say, two weeks, with just a carry-on bag? Thankfully, after years of doing this with a lot of trial and error, I pretty much have this part down.
I know how much better, more fun, more freeing travel can be when you pack light and avoid checking bags. And I don’t want this to be the roadblock that deters you from giving this a real shot.
It is possible to fit all of your essential liquids for a trip of that length into a single TSA-approved bag. It is even possible to fit all of your “nice-to-have” liquids, too. It can take some creativity, but it’s absolutely worth it.
Here's how I make it work:
STEP 1: STREAMLINE YOUR ROUTINE.
Your daily hygiene and beauty routines won’t necessarily be the same when you travel, especially if you enjoy makeup, skincare and the rituals of getting ready.
When traveling, it’s important to make sure you’re being as efficient as possible about the products you use and bring. Plus, you definitely don’t want to spend more time in front of a mirror on vacation than you have to.
If there’s ever a time to embrace an easier, more natural and minimal look, it’s now.
So check out my other post, “4 ways to simplify your beauty routine for travel,” which goes into way more detail on how to adapt your typical routine for traveling with a carry-on.
STEP 2: FUN-SIZE EVERYTHING.
After making a list of every essential liquid you’ll need to bring (pro tip: consult my free packing guide for a downloadable list to get you started), figure out what you can buy that comes already in that size.
Head to the trial size toiletry section at your nearest Target or grocery store to stock up on essentials. While you're there, pick up several empty travel size bottles that you'll pour your own products at home into, or grab my favorites - LiquiSnugs silicone bottles.
Heads up! The official regulation is actually 100 ml (3.38 ounces) or under, so carefully check each bottle to be sure it meets or is under that amount. I have inadvertently purchased so-called "travel bottles" that were 4 ounces, so unfortunately you really do need to check. I’ve also purchased travel-size bottles that were exactly 3 ounces - which means I could’ve brought a little more of something I really needed in a larger quantity!
For specialty items like luxury skincare products, things you absolutely don’t want to spill, you can also buy 1 oz. glass bottles and pour your products in there with a small funnel. As I’ve gotten older, my skincare routine has become a little more involved, and I’ve been using these bottles for things like alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) lotions and toners.
Definitely also check whether your favorite products already come in a travel size container. A quick search told me that my favorite AHA toner does actually come in a smaller bottle that’s easier to apply than anything I could have poured it into. I also discovered that some of my favorite haircare products are made in travel size bottles.
It’s most important to buy a travel size version of your favorites (versus pouring the product into a smaller bottle) when the bottle itself is an important part of how you apply the product - like, for instance, an aerosol can of flexible hair spray. I’m not a fan of the spritz bottle hair sprays, so that's something I always buy in the travel size bottle.
I also love to hoard my skincare samples for trips. You can squeeze those little packets pretty much anywhere in your luggage, and because they’re so tiny, they are rarely picked up by airport security agents as liquids.
STEP 3: SWAP LIQUIDS FOR SOLIDS AND POWDERS.
At home, it doesn’t much matter if what we’re using in our daily hygiene routines is a liquid or a solid. But when traveling, this makes a huge difference to how much you can bring with you. Switching your products from liquids to a solid or powder whenever possible is such an easy fix, but not one many people consider.
Swapping your body wash for bar soap is an obvious one - but have you thought of the following?
A facial bar instead of a liquid cleanser. My favorite is the SAPO charcoal bar. Incredibly gentle and lasts a long time.
Shampoo bar. I love Lush’s solid shampoo bars, which are so easy to use (just scrub a little on your hair to get a good lather going) and my hair is always bouncy and shiny. Ever since I first tried these several years ago, I haven’t looked back - in fact, I never pack liquid shampoo anymore.
Mineral powder foundation instead of liquid foundation. BareMinerals has long been my go-to, and it’s so convenient for travel because it eliminates the need to carry liquid foundation or CC cream. If you’re not into loose powder foundations, try a pressed powder compact.
Make-up removing towelettes instead of liquid make-up remover with cotton pads. Even though they're wet, in my personal experience, they haven’t been flagged as liquids, so I can carry them separately. I’ve also been testing these natural makeup remover cloths at home, which claim to remove makeup (even waterproof mascara) with just water. The soft, fine fibers of the cloth do take away a lot of makeup easily - so far so good! I’ll probably still take a few of my pre-moistened makeup remover wipes on my next trip, just to be safe.
Solid perfume. I can get away with travel size glass tubes of perfume, but you can take it a step further with solid perfume. Google your favorite scent to see if a solid is available.
Bar laundry soap. If you’re traveling for more than a week with just a carry-on, you’re doing laundry. You can hire it out, or you can do it yourself with your sink, some laundry soap, and a place to hang your undies. I’ve recommended Woolite packets of liquid laundry soap before, and I’ve even been able to carry these without putting them in my “liquids” bag. But if you want to be even safer, go with the old-school solid bars of laundry soap by Fels-Naptha. I can also find these at my local grocery store in the laundry section, usually on a high shelf.
Coconut oil and shea butter make a great moisturizer, and can carry as a solid, but liquify when warmed up in your palm.
Nivea also makes a travel-size tin of hand cream. I routinely find this in my grocery store’s travel size section. It’s pretty thick and comes in a unique flat disc shape which can fit easily into that last little space in your liquid bag.
Individually packaged facial masks are an easy way to fit more skincare into your trip. Sheet masks, even though they’re wet, generally don’t get flagged as a liquid by security agents in my experience, similar to makeup remover wipes. I usually slide these into the leftover nooks and crannies in my toiletry bag.
Sanitizing wipes or towelettes work great as an alternative to lugging around liquid hand sanitizer.
The one product I have yet to successfully find a non-liquid alternative for is hair conditioner. Lush makes a bar conditioner, but it just didn’t work for me. So I pack as much conditioner as I can, use it sparingly, and then make plans to buy more halfway through my trip.
STEP 4: UPGRADE FROM YOUR ZIPLOC.
Here’s a little secret all frequent travelers know: not all quart-sized toiletry bags are created equal.
Indeed, something can be exactly one quart but, due to its shape, fit a little more than a quart-sized Ziploc baggie (or a travel bag shaped like one).
My favorite TSA-friendly liquid bag is made by Lewis N. Clark. It’s still shaped like a Ziploc, but since it’s made of stronger plastic, and the zipper isn’t placed exactly at the top, I can fit a lot more.
Definitely also experiment with rectangular clear bags as well, like this one.
STEP 5: SQUEEZE IT ALL IN.
It’s time to practice your TSA Tetris skills. If you'll be on the move a lot on your trip, frequently repacking and moving to a new destination, it’s especially important that you’re able to repeat whatever you did to get everything in there in the first place.
Remember what order you put everything in and practice putting it all in there a few times. For me, this generally means putting my liquids in from biggest to smallest.
If this is your first time packing light for a long trip, it may even be worth buying two different brands of TSA-friendly toiletry bags and testing them out to see which better fits all of your liquids.
You might even want to bring a few extra Ziploc bags just in case the bag you bring doesn’t quite cut it. It’s never a bad idea to have backups!
I don’t really consider myself to be high-maintenance, but I do love makeup, beauty products and skincare. More than that, I’m a huge fan of traveling light. So for those on the fence, know that it’s definitely possible to pack light while still bringing your favorite products.
It takes a little planning and creativity, but being able to travel with a lighter, smaller suitcase to drag around - and with a faster, get-up-and-go routine - is so worth it.
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