I don’t know about you, but I always try to stick to carry-on luggage when I’m traveling.
I’ve taken multiple 10-day vacations using nothing more than a carry-on suitcase or duffel bag through some seriously clever packing. There’s just something reassuring about skipping the check-in desks and baggage carousels, and not having to tug a heavy suitcase along the sidewalk.
If this sounds like vacation paradise to you, then check out this list of carry-on luggage hacks that can help you make the most of that limited space. These tips come straight from industry experts and travel bloggers who are well-versed in finding all the packing loopholes to maximize their carry-on luggage allowance.
Analyze Your Luggage After a Trip
The first hack on our list comes from travel influencer Rameez Ghayas, who analyzes his luggage after every trip. It’s a great method for working out which garments are your essentials and which ones you threw in on a whim. If you’re sensing a pattern in which you regularly pack something but don’t use it, then you can probably leave it at home for future trips.
“When you come back from your trip, divide the [contents] of your luggage [into those] that you used and [those] you did not use. Never pack the items you [didn’t] use again for your next trip,” says Rameez.
This makes me think about my last trip. I packed five sweaters—which take up an absolute ton of space—and five T-shirts. In my mind, the logic was that I was going for 10 days and would want at least 10 different outfits to wear (on a side note, I’m also realizing that I need to branch out with my fashion choices). But in total, I think I wore about half of those things, simply reusing them every couple of days. Imagine the space I could’ve saved if I’d cut out even half of those sweaters from my luggage.
Prepare for Dirty Laundry
It’s inevitable that the clothes you wear are going to need washing, either during or after your holiday. If you’re renting an Airbnb with access to a washing machine, then great! But that’s not always a possibility.
While you can always store your dirty clothes in a separate bag or basket until your trip home, if you just toss your dirty clothes into your bag with everything else, they’ll transfer odors onto your clean garments. And you really don’t want to have to wash everything in your suitcase when you get home, especially things you haven’t worn.
“When you don’t have the time or opportunity to do laundry while on a trip, your old clothes can make your luggage a little funky,” says David Adler. “You can combat this by packing some dryer sheets and placing a couple within your clothes.”
David’s solution is great. The dryer sheets will capture any odors and keep everything else smelling fresh.
I’ve used another tactic on previous trips where I really didn’t want to check a bag but needed a lot of clothing. Slip a couple of liquid laundry detergent pods into your luggage. When your favorite top is getting a little funky, simply toss a pod into the sink at your hotel and you can hand wash it yourself.
Use Your Suitcase to Charge Electronics
One of the founders at Arlo Skye, Mayur, recommends choosing a carry-on suitcase or bag that has a removable powerbank built into the design. The concept is simple: you remove the powerbank and charge it at home, then slot it back into the bag. When you’re at the airport or running low on juice during a long flight, you can pull out a retractable cable for a battery boost.
I have a separate powerbank, but I like the idea of having it built directly into my bag. Otherwise, I’m going to be carrying the powerbank, powerbank cable, and cell phone charging cable separately, which immediately adds extra bulk and weight to your bag. You’ll also avoid the headache of fishing for these items if they’ve slipped to the bottom of your carry-on luggage.
Get the Lightest Possible Suitcase
When you’re buying a new piece of carry-on luggage—or any new suitcase for that matter—you might be tempted by low price tags and sales. But keep in mind that the cheaper bags are also often heavier, depending on the quality of materials used. Remember that when you’re battling with a weight limitation, every little bit adds up. If you buy a suitcase that’s heavy when it’s empty, you’re starting with a serious disadvantage.
“Airlines are pressuring weight limitations onto passengers and carry-on luggage is no exception. When purchasing a carry-aboard wheeled piece of luggage, pay attention to how much it weighs when it is empty,” recommends travel blogger Linda Malys Yore.
Based on my own experience, here’s another great hack for avoiding any unpleasant shocks and fees when you’re standing at the baggage check-in desk. While Linda recommends investing in a luggage scale—which is a good idea—I’ve gotten by just fine with a regular scale at home. Though many scales won’t register the weight of something as light as a carry-on bag, what you can do is to weigh yourself first, then pick up your bag, hold it close to your chest, and step back onto the scale.
Once you’ve got that reading, subtract your own weight from the combined weight of your body and your bag, and you’ve got a pretty accurate estimate of your bag’s weight. I’ve never been wrong by more than a pound or so, which helps me prepare for the airport weigh-in.
Hide Extras Inside Your Coat
This hack brings back memories of those old movies and cartoons where a sketchy-looking vendor opens his coat to reveal a hoard of dodgy wares. But Kim Parizek at travelbta.com swears by this method, which involves turning your bulky coat into a discreet smuggling device, albeit a legal one of course! She’s absolutely right in that the flight attendants don’t tend to pay any attention to a coat that you’re either wearing or carrying over one arm.
“When I am going into a colder climate and have to pack gloves, hats, scarves, I carry a coat that can hold all the items in the sleeves, pockets, and inside pockets,” says Kim. “I have been known to use a safety pin to attach other items to the inside of a coat that I can carry on.”
I have a fairly bulky winter coat, so this trick would work wonders for me. Of course, there’s probably little room for stashing clothing, but it’s the perfect way to keep valuables close to you and out of your limited carry-on weight allowance.
Keep the Essentials on Top
When it comes to the question of what goes into your suitcase first, Alex at It Works Media raises a good point. As well as ensuring that the heaviest items are at the lower end of your suitcase—see carry-on hack #9— think about the order in which you pack your clothes and other accessories. If it’s a long-haul flight, you don’t want to lose your headphones in a sea of socks and underwear.
“We’ve all been there: you need just one thing from your bag and it so happens to be the thing that has fallen to the bottom of your luggage [so] you spend the next five minutes rummaging through everything you’ve brought with you,” says Alex.
We have indeed all been there, myself included. I tend to freak out about losing important documents like my passport or hotel confirmation, so once I’ve cleared security and passport control, I’ll often stuff all those things underneath my sweaters for peace of mind. It seems like a great idea in the long run, until you land at your destination and have to tear through your carry-on bag to find them.
Analyze Your Destination and Double Up
This one’s all about only packing only the clothes you need, and leaving behind those nice-to-haves that you toss into the suitcase on a whim. If you’re headed to a hot climate, then let’s be honest: you don’t really need those thick sweaters or calf-high boots, do you? Prioritize the things you can’t be without. Then, if there’s any extra space, you can toss in a few extras.
Also, pack clothing that can have a double purpose wherever possible. “Everything has to do double duty—bring nice hiking pants that look good dressed up, [and] consider your destinations and your activities. If you are going to the beach, just bring flips, swimsuits, and a few things to cover up,” recommends travel blogger Zachary Stafford.
If you’re headed for a fancy dinner or planning on popping the question, then perhaps you need a suit. But you could always ditch the usual suit shirt and wear a regular shirt or dark T-shirt underneath the blazer. Think about other ways to use the same clothing in different ways that might mean you can leave an item or two at home.
Kate Sullivan of otistravel.com is my new personal hero. I love traveling with just a carry-on, but sometimes the bits and pieces I need to travel with are just too much for the small space and I have to check a bag. But Kate’s recommendation is brilliant:
“Get vacuum bags and a portable vacuum unit. These save SO much space, even over the standard ‘packing cube’ tips that you see!” You simply pack your belongings into one of these vacuum bags and suck the air out with a vacuum cleaner. This compresses your clothes to within an inch of their life—much tighter than you could ever manage simply through folding and squashing.
Come to think of it, I’ve seen marketing for bags like this before, but only in the context of saving space on storage at home. It makes perfect sense to repurpose this technique to maximize your carry-on luggage allowance.
Kate also pointed out that you can find USB vacuums online, which means you won’t be stuck on the return journey trying to squeeze everything back into your bag.
Make Sure Your Bag Is Bottom-Heavy
Have you ever had your carry-on bag topple over every time you let go of the handle? It’s one of those infuriating yet meaningless things, like stubbing your toe or catching your pocket on a door handle. But when it happens time and time again throughout the airport, it’s just frustrating.
If it sounds like I have an unusual vendetta against this particular phenomenon, it’s probably because I had it happen to me right after I arrived at my destination hotel and made the mistake of letting go of the handle… right beside the pool. I don’t think I need to tell you what happened next.
“Pack shoes at the bottom; shoes are the heaviest item in your luggage,” says Taylor Randolph. If you pack your shoes at the bottom of your carry-on, it’s less likely to topple over every two seconds. Of course, anything else heavy should be shoved down to the bottom, too, like jeans.
You can combine this hack with another one of Taylor’s suggestions, which is to use the empty space inside your shoes. At the very least, stuff some socks or underwear into your shoes to maximize that space and add more weight to the bottom of your bag.
Use a Soft Fabric Bag Instead of a Hard Suitcase
I don’t have a source for you on this one, as it comes straight from me and my experience flying on cramped planes. Some airlines have pretty stringent carry-on rules; for example, some airlines with smaller planes for domestic routes will only let so many rolling suitcases onboard. After that, you run the risk of being relieved of your suitcase at the door and having it tossed in the hold: the dreaded gate-check.
I’ve noticed that most people who fall victim to gate-checking are those using miniature suitcases on wheels. These carry-on suitcases look big and bulky, and they’re an immediate target for anxious flight attendants who can quickly see the overhead bins filling up. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that if you use a duffel bag made from soft fabric, you’re generally safe.
I’ve never had my carry-on duffel tossed in the hold, and what’s more, the malleable nature of the fabric means you can usually squish it under the seat in front of you or mold it into the corner of an already stuffed bin.