Confession: I am an over-packer. I believe in being prepared for anything while traveling. Have I worn this dress at all in the 3 years I’ve owned it? No, but let’s bring it anyway just in case I get the urge. Do I need to bring a pair of nice sandals on my hiking/camping trip? Of course! We might stop for a nice dinner on the way home.
In the past, this meant that no matter where I was going, I always checked a bag. I needed that stuff. But my wallet doesn’t always agree. Budget airlines (such as Allegiant, Frontier, Ryanair, and Spirit) love to advertise incredibly cheap tickets. We once flew from Brussels to Budapest for $12 on a budget carrier. But those tickets only stay cheap if you play by their rules. One of their rules? Avoid checking a bag if you can.
A checked bag can cost anywhere from $30 to $60 EACH WAY. American domestic flights have also started charging for checked items, so flying a larger carrier (such as United or Delta) won’t save you. However, most tickets do include a carry-on. Want to save money to spend on that awesome boat tour? Skip the big bag and throw everything into something small.
The thing to remember is, even if you’re only traveling with a carry-on, whether that be a small suitcase or a backpack, you can still fit everything you need (and then some!) with some strategic packing.
Here are some tips that I’ve learned along the way that help me look like I’m packing light, while really still over-packing:
- Roll roll roll. Roll your clothes. I’m sure you’ve seen this advice before, but there’s a reason everyone suggests it. Rolling your clothes makes them small and easily stackable, meaning you can fit more while enjoying a fun game of clothes-tetris while you pack.
- Go monotone. Pack similar colors for everyday wear, this way you can mix-and-match, and use the same shoes. This also cuts down on stress. If everything is mix-and-match, all you really have to do is reach blindly into your bag and pull out any shirt and pants, and you’re good to go.
- Pack your socks and underwear into your shoes. This one might seem a bit odd, but trust me, it works. If you are taking multiple pairs of shoes, especially if they are sneakers or boots, roll up your socks and underwear and shove them into the shoes. You won’t believe how much space this can end up saving. Your shoes are already going into the bag, and it is amazing how much space bulky socks can consume. Shove those babies deep into the far recesses of those cute Allbirds, and you have shoes that won’t get squashed plus more room for cute souvenirs!
- Be careful with fabrics. Not only is the amount of clothes you take important, but the type of clothes you take is also something to consider. Stay away from bulkier fabrics such as wool or fleece, and opt for synthetic-blends that pack down nicely. If you’re going somewhere cold, look for options with down-interiors. Down is a great insulator and won’t take up much room. Fleece-blends are better than pure fleece, which can be hard to roll. This also goes for denim. While those jeans are cute, leggings or jeggings pack way better. Determined to pack the jean jacket and wool sweater? Make that your plane outfit, and keep the lighter clothes in the bag.
- Underwire free bras. This is related to tip 4, but directed at our female travelers. Most stores now will sell soft, well-made bras without any wires in them. They roll up as small as a pair of underwear with no fuss or struggle, and take up way less room than a bra with wires and a full shaped cup. They are comfortable, offer great support, and are the perfect travel companion, especially when you’re trying to keep things light. Here’s my favorite.
- Wear your biggest shoes to the airport. Even if they are your hiking boots, and you won’t be hiking straight from the plane, wearing them instead of your comfy sandals or sneakers will save so much extra space in your bag. I cannot tell you how many times I had to unlace and lace back up my muddy hiking boots at airport security, which was a pain. But not having them in my bag meant I could fit another 2 days worth of clothes in there (at least!), and that was worth the minor inconvenience.
- Packing cubes. Confession: I do not own a packing cube. But I have seen them at work, and they are magical. It blows my mind how much you can fit into a small bag when stuffing it full of packing cubes. It’s the clown car of packing. The only reason I don’t own one is because I apparently enjoy frantically sitting on my suitcase trying close it while cursing the travel gods that I once again forgot to buy some cubes before my trip. You can find them in all sizes, and they even sell compression versions of the cubes to maximize space.
- Take advantage of your personal item. Even if you’re bringing a carry-on, you can still take an additional personal item with you. Check the airline guidelines to make sure you are bringing the biggest one you can! Put a small purse inside a bigger purse to use during your trip, and then use the rest of the space in that big purse for stuff that won’t fit into your carry-on. I usually like to keep any toiletries I’m bringing, along with any electronic devices, in my personal item. This gives you easy access for when you have to take them out going through security. I recently went away for the weekend, and brought a backpack plus a tote bag. The tote was my personal item, and inside it were an extra pair of shoes, a curling iron, my makeup bag, a book to read, plus my cross-body purse. It fit neatly under my seat, and meant that I had everything I needed.
- Toiletries are international. Something that always trips up travelers who are only bringing a carry-on is the strict liquid allowance for cabin bags. Liquids must be in containers smaller than 3.4 oz, and you can only have a collective quart in your bag. While we all have a favorite shampoo or face wash, a little flexibility here can go a long way. By leaving the toiletries at home, you don’t need to worry about those pesky airport rules. Instead, visit a local drug store at your destination and stock up on cheap alternatives. (Do NOT shop in your arrival airport or hotel- those prices are usually ridiculously high.) Most drug stores overseas are actually quite a bit cheaper than US stores. I’ve picked up face wash in the UK that was half the price as the US option and had the same ingredients. This is also a great opportunity to test out new products!
- All hail the AirBnb. If you don’t like to wear things twice without cleaning them, I get it. But consider searching for the elusive washer/dryer AirBnB booking so that you can wash your stuff in between wears, cutting down on the amount of stuff you have to bring. You can even pack your own detergent in some small carry-on bottles so that you’re prepped and ready to go upon arrival.
The biggest additional tip I can give you about packing using the suggestions above is NOT to pack your undies and socks on the bottom of your bag. Roll up your pants and shirts to pack first. I always make the mistake of rolling up and packing my underwear, bras, and socks first, since those are the easiest things to decide on. Obviously, you’ll need them. The thing is, you’re going to need them EVERY DAY. So they shouldn’t be on the bottom, because then you have to unpack everything, every single morning, in order to get dressed, and you start to resent that small carry-on very quickly.
I try to follow these tips whenever I travel. I spent 4 days away recently with just the backpack you see in this article. I had at least 3 extra outfits in there that I didn’t wear. I absolutely overpacked, but no one could tell!