Maximize Space, Minimize Stress: How to Pack a Carry-On Like a Pro

Packing is an art. But unlike the kind that sits revered in the halls of the Louvre, it’s one that anyone can learn, globetrotter or not. And yes, packing a carry-on for a weeklong trip might seem like a daunting task, where your desires for hot pink fashion must be curbed by the crushing reality of practically. But fear not—it’s far from the impossible task your brain is likely making it out to be. After all, looks can be deceiving, and never more so than when staring into the small confines of a carry-on bag. So, if you’re ready to travel like a pro, maximize your space, and minimize your stress, here’s your guide to packing your carry-on bag like you’ve been doing it all your life.

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Table of Contents

The Best Way to Pack a Carry-On: Select the Perfect Bag

The first step in learning how to pack a carry-on bag is picking the perfect bag. You can do all the stuffing, folding, and sweat-drenched fighting with your zipper that you want, but a carry-on isn’t a one-size-fits-all piece of luggage. If a bag doesn’t have what you need, good luck packing for your trip. So before you start preparing everything that needs to go inside, let’s step back and decide on a carry-on bag first.

What Size Carry-On Should You Get?

Getting the perfect-sized carry-on for your trip can be a bit of a magic trick. Size limits often differ by airline and whether you travel domestically or internationally. But, while some airlines, like Korean Air, enjoy making their sizing limits extra special, the majority fall under one of two sizes:

Domestic Airlines22 x 14 x 9 inches
International Airlines21.5 x 15.5 x 9 inches

In general, frequent globetrotters and airline hoppers will appreciate a versatile bag that can fly under the radar for multiple airlines. But, for those loyal to one airline and one airline only, you might consider a bag that fits their specifications. 

What Kind of Carry-On Bag Is Best?

We said carry-ons aren’t a one-size-fits-all piece of luggage, and we meant it. While choosing a carry-on bag might seem like a simple affair, there are many small decisions that go into selecting the perfect travel companion

If you’re looking for protection, hard-shell carry-on bags have their perks—keeping your electronics and other delicate items insulated from the rough and tumble elements of travel. Some also come “Smart,” with a battery and other features to help you stay on the go. Try out: Coolife Carry-On with Pocket | Wrangler 20″ Smart Spinner Carry-On

Soft-shell luggage is a little more forgiving on your suitcase and your packing list. These suitcases hold up to more wear and tear while also letting you slip in that one extra item (or even two). So if you happen to drop your carry-on down the escalator or get it back from a particularly rough baggage handler, odds are, you won’t even notice. Try out: Travelpro Maxlite Softside Compact Carry-On

Backpacks and duffel bags are great for when you need to keep your hands free. They’re also convenient for storage (in a pinch, they’ll often fit under the seat in front of you, a godsend when you’re the last to board and the overhead bin space is stuffed full). Try out: MATEIN Carry on Backpack | Gonex Canvas Duffle Bag

Planning a last-minute getaway? Totes are extremely practical, especially for day trips. They’re easy to carry, not too heavy, and storing them in the overhead bins is a breeze. Try out: BAGSMART Foldable Tote Bag With Zipper

Pro-Tip: Don’t rely on labels used by suitcase companies to gauge the size of your carry-on. Always check the external dimensions of a bag, including wheels and handles, to ensure it meets carry-on size requirements. 

What to Pack in a Carry-On Bag

Now that you’ve chosen the perfect carry-on to do your packing in, it’s time to decide what you’ll be packing. Because while space may be limited, the possibilities are near endless. But travel aficionados have created a bit of a science out of what to pack in their carry-on to get the most out of their limited space, and we’ve gathered a comprehensive list of everything you need to pack in a carry-on to ensure your trip is spectacular. Follow these suggestions, and pretty soon you’ll have others asking you for advice on what to pack in their carry-ons. 

Travel Documents

When packing a carry-on, start with your travel documents. These are essential for your trip, as you literally can’t go without them. So whatever documents are required—whether it’s your driver’s license, passport, travel visa, etc.— be sure you pack the originals together in your carry-on. You should also keep a few photocopies in your personal item and checked bag, if you’re bringing one. You can even leave an extra copy with relatives or friends for safekeeping.  

The most important thing is to make sure your travel documents are easy to access. You’ll be pulling them out during security, boarding, and arrival if traveling internationally. This is where an outside pocket comes in handy for easy access. But, you’ll also want to make sure that wherever they’re placed, they’re protected from the elements, be it a sudden onslaught of rain or an errant coffee spill all over your luggage. Consider placing your documents in a plastic bag or a zippered pouch made from water-resistant fabric. 

And lastly, triple-check that you have your travel documents before heading out!


Obviously, you’re going to pack clothes for your trip. But take a minute to think about the details. Are you traveling for business or pleasure? What do you plan to do on your trip? What will the weather be like? Will you need to layer up to stop from turning into Frosty the Snowman or will you be somewhere so hot and humid that you’ll wish hugging Frosty was an option?

Quick Pro Tip: If you’re heading somewhere cold, layer up on the flight there and back so you can take more clothes. Put on your bulkiest shoes and consider wearing a hoodie and a coat over your shirt, even if it’s not that cold upon take-off. Then, you can remove them on the plane and even use them as pillows!

When packing for a weeklong trip, follow the 1-2-3-4-5-6 rule: 

  • 1 hat
  • 2 pairs of shoes
  • 3 bottoms
  • 4 tops
  • 5 pairs of socks
  • 6 pairs of underwear

Shoes are not your friend when traveling, so avoid the allure of that shiny new pair of heels. Versatile pieces are your new best friend. By creating a travel wardrobe where everything goes with everything, just two pairs of the right shoes, three bottoms, and four tops can create over twenty different looks—plenty for a weeklong vacation. And you’ll not only save on space in your carry-on but time packing your suitcase too. 


Accessories deserve just as much thought and care when you’re packing your carry-on. Do you really want to bring those hot pink sunglasses that look fabulous with your swimsuit and absolutely nothing else? Or that watch that looks great dressed up and out of place with everything else? Make each item earn its spot in your coveted carry-on space. Plan your accessories and try them all on beforehand so you know what makes the cut and what, sadly, must stay behind. 

Toiletries and Personal Care

If you remember one TSA rule, let it be this: 3.4 ounces or less. That’s the amount of liquid you’re allowed per item to bring in your carry-on luggage. And the TSA doesn’t budge on this rule—they’ve been known to toss items over the limit OR make you toss them. So, if you don’t want to hold back a sob as you inch closer to the trash while holding your très expensive shampoo, don’t play with the sizes. 

The less dramatic and traumatic way to do it is to ensure all your liquids, gels, and aerosols are the appropriate size before leaving the house. Start by packing your toiletry bag with the essentials first: medication, contacts, etc., followed by replaceable items like shampoo and makeup. Once you have all the necessities packed, you can grab the more indulgent items, like that relaxing face mask or that bottle of nail polish.

Electronics and Gadgets

When thinking about how to pack for a flight, don’t let your electronics be an afterthought. Make sure to pack up your laptops, tablets, and eReaders and organize them together. Like your travel documents, you’ll want to make sure they are easily accessible because unless you’re traveling with TSA PreCheck, you’ll have to remove your electronics when you go through security. The last thing you want is to have to go excavating the contents of your bag to pull them out and be that person holding up the security line. 

It’s best to place your electronics near the top of your bag or, even better, in a pocket that’s accessible from the outside. After getting through security, they can either go back in that outside pouch, or you can place your more fragile devices in between your clothes for extra cushioning. (You don’t need B28’s hard-shell luggage slamming into your delicate computer during heavy turbulence.)

Lastly, if traveling abroad, bring adapters for your electronics. Purchase ones with the correct voltage, as too high or too low, and you can damage your electronics for good. While they likely won’t combust, the wrong voltage can melt your electronics—trust us, been there, done that. 

Pro-Tip: Confirm your electronics are password protected, and turn on tracking like Find My Device. 

Pro-Pro Tip: Check to see if your electronics are covered under your warranty or insurance plan for loss and theft. 

Comfort and Entertainment

Between all the packing tips and checking off lists, comfort may be forgotten, but it is an important component to traveling well and ensuring you’ve nailed the best way to pack a carry-on. 

A neck pillow for the bumpy flight, noise-canceling headphones for the screaming child behind you, earplugs for the loud neighbors at the hotel—all of these items could be the difference between a good trip and a wonderful trip. After all, it’s a little hard to take in the sights when your neck can barely move because you fell asleep with your head tilted to an odd angle or enjoy the softest bed imaginable when the person above your hotel room sounds like they’re doing a tap dance routine at 3 am. So, take a moment to think about the little things that can make or break your comfort, from a jacket to keep warm on the plane to a pair of cozy slippers for the hotel. 

And last but not least, entertainment. (Look, it’s not last because we forgot it, okay?) Whether they’re your creature comforts or the things that keep you sane when you travel, don’t forget what you plan to use to keep busy and happily content, whether on the plane, in the hotel, or by the pool. Take a tablet so you can watch TV while in the air, grab your eReader for lounging by the pool, and don’t forget those coloring books to keep your son properly distracted while you get breakfast going. Ensure every entertainment item for you and your loved ones is packed. (And charged—don’t forget to charge everything!)

Essential Tips for Packing a Carry-On Bag

With so little space and so many possibilities, packing may seem like a daunting task. But with these tips and tricks, we’ve got you covered on the best way to pack a carry-on. 

Start with a Packing List

You’ve decided what carry-on bag is best for your travels and what you need to bring, so is it time to start packing now? Not quite. Before you start throwing everything you need in your bag, grab a pen and paper or your phone and a handy app like PackPoint and get ready to make a packing list. A packing list is essential for organizing your luggage and making sure you’re not halfway to the airport before you remember you were supposed to pack that cozy sweater for the chilly nights ahead. 

A packing app can help you customize your packing list for each trip, or you can do this manually, but it’s best to break your list into categories, like essentials, clothes, personal care items, and entertainment. Essentials should be at the top of your packing list with items like travel documents and toiletries that can’t be replaced, like medication or prescription glasses/contacts. Basically, if you can’t buy it at your destination, make sure it’s first on your packing list.

Roll, Don’t Fold, Your Clothes for Better Space Utilization

Now, you have your list itemized to perfection, and you know exactly what you’re taking. It’s Tetris time: How do you pack a carry-on bag? 

Space utilization is the name of the game when packing a carry-on, and rolling your clothes is one of the most popular travel tips for a reason. It’s simple, saves space, and combats wrinkles. Not to mention, it’s generally faster than folding, in case you procrastinated and are now packing in a flurry of limbs and clothes. (This has never happened to us.)

When rolling shirts or bottoms, fold the item in half. With shirts, fold the sleeves in and then get rolling. It truly is that simple. And as with all simple things, we’ve found a way to make it less simple but more efficient. Enter ranger rolling, a method that involves a little extra in your folding and tucking to ensure your clothes don’t unroll during the journey. It’s especially beneficial to those traveling with things they don’t want wrinkled and would be nonplussed to open their luggage and find that those not-so-gentle tosses from the baggage handlers have left the items inside unrolled and in disarray.

What About Packing a Suit in a Carry-On?

Now, you may be asking yourself if this method is how you pack a suit in a carry-on. Rolling it up to prevent wrinkles? The short answer to that would be no. The best option is to purchase a carry-on that comes with a drop-in, fold-out suiter that functions as a removable garment bag to protect your suit. You place your suit in it, gently fold it up into two or three sections, and then it’s placed inside the carry-on, usually on top of everything else. There are also carry-ons with a fold-out suiter. These are not removable and generally fold out from the suitcase flap. This is ideal for someone who travels a lot and usually wears suits. 

So what if you don’t wear suits frequently? What if you’re heading to a special event, and this is the one and only time you’ll need it? Can you roll it up and chuck it in, then? Well, yes, if you’re in enough of a hurry to use the phrase, chuck it. But it’s best to fold the suit. Take the trousers and fold them horizontally before laying them out on a flat surface. The jacket can either be folded into crisp edges or turned inside out. As for the shirt, there’s no need to turn it inside out, but be sure to button it up all the way before folding. And voila! That’s how you pack a suit in a carry-on.

Utilize Packing Cubes for Organization

If you’re looking for the best way to pack a carry-on and the most optimal method of organization, you may want to consider packing cubes. 

Packing cubes make for more efficient and effective packing. There are compression packing cubes to take up less space, packing cube sets with different bags to meet different needs, and color-coded cubes to make organizing a breeze.

Organizing by size or color can help you remember which items are where to keep your carry-on organized. So, if you need an item, instead of rifling through all of your luggage and potentially unraveling all your hard work if you skipped the tuck method (hey, we don’t judge), you can simply slip out the right packing cube and access the item with ease. They’re especially helpful for keeping things organized when traveling with kids. And if you’re like us, the packing cube with the ugliest color will be designated as the dirty clothes cube. 

So, how many packing cubes do you need? Three to six is generally good for anyone just starting out using packing cubes in their luggage. You can split the cubes by clothes and shoes, tops or bottoms, or any way that makes sense to you so long as it organizes your luggage. And with all the space-saving, who knows, you might be able to bring those hot pink sunglasses after all. 

Pack Items in Layers to Optimize Space

Layering clothes isn’t just for crafting the perfect outfit; it can help organize your suitcase, too, saving you time and space. The most efficient way to layer your items is by type, such as shoes, clothes, electronics, and so on. This may be where your Tetris skills come in to save the day as you attempt to get each layer as flat as possible to prevent a stray bulge from making it so you can’t close your suitcase all the way around. 

Be sure to put the items you’ll use the least on the bottom of your carry-on and the items you’ll use most at the top, i.e., your travel documents, electronics, and anything else you might need while on the ground and in the sky. Trust us when we say deep-sea diving in your carry-on at 30,000 feet in the air is no fun.  

Ready for Takeoff? Pack Like a Pro and Save with Next Vacay Flight Deals!

For travel lovers, knowing how to pack a carry-on is just as important as ensuring that carry-on has lots of mileage. Next Vacay’s team is committed to finding you the best travel deals. And with the deals delivered right to your inbox, all you have to do is click the link and book with the airline—certainly a shorter to-do list than your packing list.  

With Next Vacay, your carry-on (and you) will be jet-setting the globe to wondrous places and at an affordable price. So it’s time to keep calm, carry-on, and make your travel dreams come true with Next Vacay.

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