Ultimate carry-on packing guide + free printable checklist

I believe strongly in the virtues of packing light - so much so that I take only a carry-on suitcase when I travel, even for trips lasting longer than 2 weeks. A few years ago, I wrote "How to pack for a two week trip in a carry-on", and I recently updated it based on what I've learned since writing it. It's the perfect guide for people, especially women, who want to pack light but don't know how to get started. If you haven't read that, I recommend starting there for an introduction to the strategies I use when choosing what to bring. To find out what gear I'm using these days, and how I'm organizing everything I take with me, keep reading. I am constantly buying and testing out new travel gear, and below is what's working for me now.

1. Suitcase: eBags 2.0 Hardside Spinner

I've heard some advice that travelers looking to pack light should not use hard-side suitcases - that the amount of room you have is fixed, so you lose the flexibility that comes with soft suitcases or even duffel bags or backpacks. But that inflexibility is exactly what I like. Overhead bin space is tight, and airlines are always looking for an excuse to check larger carry-on bags. When you're forced to check your carry-on, you lose some of the benefits of packing so light, like not having to wait at baggage claim after a flight, or eliminating the chance that you'll be robbed by baggage handlers, or the airline even losing your bag.

So why risk it? When I pack my hard-side suitcase, I know it'll always be the same size in the end, a size that very strategically is the largest allowed by most domestic and international airlines, minimizing the chances that I'll be asked to check. The only risk is going over the weight limits.

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I love this eBags suitcase in particular for several reasons: For one thing, no other suitcase has made such excellent and efficient use of the interior space as this one. You may only be taking a carry-on, but you may as well maximize the space you do get! The overall construction and hard exterior is extremely durable and flexible, which prevents cracks and amputated wheels. However, it comes with a lifetime guarantee - so if it does crack, they'll send you a replacement. For free. For life. It very likely may be the last carry-on suitcase you'll ever buy. At $170 full price to $120 on sale, it's an incredible value.

And yes - I'm that person with a bright yellow suitcase. It's a lot harder to lose (and steal) a bag that bright!

2. Compression bags by Eagle Creek

I don't know how I fit even a full weeks' worth of clothing in my carry-on before these bags, even with packing cubes. They work simply by sealing the top edge (which is much like a Ziploc) and simply rolling it to squeeze the air out - no vacuum cleaner or crazy attachments needed. That means you can recompress during your journey and on the way back too. So incredibly useful, especially for longer trips. They come in a set of Large, Medium, and Small - but I only use the Medium and Small. The medium fits into my eBags carry-on suitcase perfectly - and I use the small for underwear and socks. (The large doesn't fit into carry-on sized bags when full.)

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You don't want to roll your clothing when using these bags, however. The best approach is to lay everything flat inside to ensure you're squeezing out as much air as possible and creating the most smooth, even surface possible.

3. LEWIS N. CLARK Liquids bag

For the longest time, I'd simply use regular Ziploc bags for my 3-1-1 airport security liquid allowance. With this reusable liquids bag, you can actually fit a lot more. I also tested this against other clear, quart-sized bags, but this one was able to fit the most.

It takes a little bit of Toiletry Tetris, but it can easily fit:

  • travel size contact lens solution
  • travel size toothpaste
  • 3.2 oz hair conditioner
  • 1.7 oz Elta MD facial sunscreen
  • 2 oz aerosol hair spray or other liquid hair product
  • 2x 1 oz skincare or makeup products (I pour my favorite skincare products into these 1 oz glass bottles)
  • travel/purse size perfume spray from Ulta/Sephora
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Wait, what about shampoo? Yeah, there's no reason to waste space in your liquids bag for anything that could easily come in solid form. Give one of Lush's solid shampoo bars a try and then just try to convince yourself you'll ever need to pack liquid shampoo again. (And if you're still not sold, just know shampoo is universal and you can find some form of a brand you recognize in almost any drug store around the world. Shampoo is the last thing I worry about when packing - I'd rather pack twice as much conditioner instead!

4. Hanging toiletry bag

This particular toiletry bag was designed to be folded up, but I actually unroll it and lay it out flat in my luggage. It's the perfect size for my carry-on luggage and fits neatly among my other travel gear. It's great especially for small bathrooms or hotel rooms/Airbnbs without a lot of counter space as it can be held up by its hook. I keep mine loaded up with almost everything non-liquid and non-makeup related: over the counter (OTC) medication, toothbrush, dental floss, first aid kit, extra contact lenses, bar soap, hairbrush, powdered dry shampoo, bobby pins, makeup remover wipes, and more.

5. Makeup bag

Any small, compact makeup bag works for this, but the key is to find makeup you like to wear that doesn't require hauling a ton of liquids. That's why I love mineral (powder) foundation and have been using it for years. It's especially perfect for traveling light because you only need a sunscreen or primer on your face to give the makeup something to hold onto (as opposed to sunscreen or primer plus another liquid, like liquid foundation). The rest of your makeup is in powder form and therefore doesn't require any room in your precious TSA liquids bag. 

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I prefer to take my makeup bag with me in my purse/personal item, along with my medications and liquids bag, just in case I am forced to check my bag. I am particular about my makeup and would hate to have to figure out a whole new makeup kit on arrival in case my bag gets lost. It's far easier just to keep it with me in my personal item, just in case my carry-on suitcase does have to be checked (it happens - more on that in a bit!).

6. TECH bag (CORDS & WIRES)

Your chargers and cords will quickly become unruly during a trip if you don't have a single place to put all of them. I love Eagle Creek's Pack-It Sacs because they are perfect for this - just large enough to fit a variety of rogue, tangled cords and to keep them from springing out wildly upon opening. There are many ways you can successfully organize and contain your tech on a trip - this is just what's worked for me so far with super limited space. For example, I bought a Cocoon Grid-It organizer and I just felt like it was taking up more room than it deserved based on the value it was supposedly adding. Again - you must be absolutely ruthless about what gets to accompany you on a trip when you are packing with a carry-on only!

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7. Personal item (small backpack)

On the ground at my destination, I prefer to take a small crossbody bag - but that'll never work for days I'm traveling to, from or between destinations. So I pack that small bag in my suitcase, and take a larger bag that can hold all of the items I'm not packing into my suitcase, like my TSA-friendly 3-1-1 liquids bag, makeup, prescription medications, passport, phone, wallet, etc.

In the event that you do have to check your carry-on luggage (which has happened to me on small foreign carriers with tiny airplanes), you'll want important items like medications with you and not in your suitcase. When I was a newbie traveler, a couple of times I was asked to check my carry-on bag at the gate. That meant I had to quickly open and dig into my bag in front of dozens of tired travelers to grab my hard-to-replace items. Save yourself the stress and public display -- just put those in your personal item at the outset so you don't have to worry in the event that you are asked to check.

I'm not really into backpacks, so for a few years, I hauled around a very large tote bag as my personal item. Lately, however, I have been carrying a small North Face backpack. It is large enough to carry everything I need, small enough to easily slide under the seat in front of me, and cute and polished enough to feel more 'athleisure' than backpacker. If you opt for a large tote handbag, just make sure it zips up at the top! You don't want all of your stuff spilling into the aisle when it tips over. 

And that's everything I use to pack light now! Packing with just a carry-on can be challenging, but this gear helps make it all a little bit easier.

BONUS!

I know it might be easier to actually see how it all comes together, rather than just read about it. So I created this free packing checklist and visual diagram, showing how everything I mentioned above fits into a carry-on suitcase and single personal item. I hope it helps you have the confidence to pack super light on your next trip!

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Ultimate Travel Packing Guide + Free Printable Checklist