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How I Only Pack In A Carry On

Posted by Emily Cummings on 8/22/18 11:23 AM

ILP Thailand

Even if you’re going to go abroad 2 weeks (or longer!) or backpacking for a 10 day vacation, you really can fit anything in just one carry on. Trust me. 

Packing like pro should be priority number one before any international trips: we can help you out with that. 

Once I switched over to packing in a carry on, I was hooked on traveling like a minimalist.  Now, I fit everything into a backpack rather than a roller bag (it's easier to carry if you're switching cities and hostels every couple of days),  but either way — if you want to skip any checked-luggage fees, you need these tips for travelers: 

  • Streamline Your Clothes
  • Wear Your Heaviest Items
  • Pack Your Clothes Like This 
  • Downsize Your Liquids
  • Pick Your Personal Item 

Streamline Your Clothes 

First, I make a packing list. Then, I lay out everything I think I need to wear for one week, then I downsize. You really need less than you think — you may only need one pair of pants, not 4. Plan out your outfits and see what you can mix and match for multiple outfits (pack the basic, black cardigan that’ll match with your striped dress and your printed tee shirt, instead of the cardigan you could really only wear once), and try to streamline what you’re actually packing.

Pack for multiple  thinner (but warm) layers if you’re headed somewhere cold instead of five huge sweaters. Plan on wearing 2-3 pairs of shoes (max!) during your trip. Bring shirts and dresses that go with other items so you can mix it up without bringing half your closet. 

Oh, and plan on doing a load of laundry at your hotel or hostel halfway through so you can pack even less. 

For a week long trip somewhere warm, I only pack a pair of leggings, 3-5 tee shirts, 2-3 dresses/skirts, exercise shorts to sleep in + a tank top, a swimming suit, a pull over for chilly nights and enough underwear and minimal toiletries. On the plane, will wear a pair of jeans and another shirt that I can wash if needed, or another pair of leggings if it's a longer flight. I'll wear my sandals if those are the only shoes I'm bringing (I love, love, love, love my Saltwaters) or I'll wear tennis shoes with socks and pack my sandals. 

In my backpack (I talk about my personal item more below) goes the essentials - sun glasses, phone, charger, laptop, wallet, etc. 

For a week long trip somewhere chilly, I wear bulky layers on the plane - my thickest leggings or a pair of pants for sure, along with a long sleeved tee shirt and a flannel, with a pullover tied around my waist (stylish, I know). I will also wear my heavy boots or tennis shoes, depending on the length of the flight. 

In my suitcase goes another pair of pants/leggings, maybe 1-2 more of either one depending on space. Inside my suitcase goes another pair of shoes (which takes up quite a bit of space) and my coat/jacket. I'll bring 3-5 long sleeved shirts and another pull over or sweater. Scarves and gloves if it's very cold, plus underwear and warm, warm socks.  I don't get as sweaty for cold weather, so I plan on rewearing a few of my layers once or twice before washing which isn't as helpful as a strategy for hot vacations — You can't really do that with super sweaty clothes in hot weather. 

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Wear Your Heaviest Items

It's mentioned above, but here's a little more detail about the "wear your heaviest layer" strategy. Depending on the size of your luggage and the other contents, a big pull over or thick leggings could take up quite a bit of space .. but not if you wear it on the plane. I bundle up on the plane because it can get chilly on a long flight, plus it saves me room in my bag. My go-to travel outfit is a pair of leggings, a short sleeve tee (or a long sleeved tee), a pull over, and my heaviest, bulkiest shoes (usually tennis shoes or boots). I've also been known to tie another layer around my waist, like a flannel. 

If you're set on bringing a thick sweater, wear a tee shirt and the sweater on the plane (and plan on taking it off once you board) instead of stuffing it in your bag. 

Wearing your thickest pair of pants, or legging and your heaviest jacket, sweater or coat means much more room in your carry on. 

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Pack Your Clothes Like This 

First, roll your clothes — 

I'm a big fan of rolling my clothes instead of folding them. I start with my heaviest layer of pants (usually jeans) and roll those up to help form the bottom of my carry on. I'll roll most all of my items (skirts, tee shirts, dresses, shorts, tights) but I do tend to fold my sweatshirts and sweaters — if you roll these guys, they make a HUGE roll of clothing that isn't as slim as a good fold. After all of your items are rolled (and a few are folded) move onto the next step.

Pack them like this —

I put my heaviest rolled layers (that I'm not wearing) and form the bottom of my suitcase, along with my heavy shoes (like tennis shoes or boots — sandals I usually pack later on ... we'll get to that). I'll put my rolled pants  down first and make single layer rolls of clothes. Once you have a layer of rolled clothes, build a second layer of rolled clothes, then a third if there is room. Then I'll top that all off with my folded clothes (like a couple of sweaters and a pullover, etc). 

At this point, your suitcase should be pretty full but not stuffed. If it's unzippable, go back and cut out a few layers, refold my layers and plan on doing more laundry instead of checking a big bag. 

You'll notice that you have some pockets of space ... that's where little items come in. I'll wedge things like underwear and a sports bra and any slim sandals into those gaps. 

I also make sure I have room for my toiletries, so a little bag of toothpaste, contact solution, shampoo, etc. But you can also be sneaky and hide these in other spots if you keep reading. 

Then nest your clothes — 

If you'll be packing light, you really need to make room for everything in a very strategic way. If you will be putting tennis shoes in your carry on, fill your shoes with socks and your toiletries (a bar of soap, contact case ... any liquids you don't have to take out for security). Maximize any side pockets in your suitcase to help make everything fit. 

Or, opt for packing cubes/space saving bags — 

I had a girl in my ILP group who swore by packing cubes (you can get them on Amazon). Basically, they are little zip-up mesh bags that you put your clothes in, then put those into your suitcase. Somehow, it really helps everything fit. 

You can also use those space saving bags. You'll need a vacuum to press out all of the air (which usually isn't a problem here, but may be an issue finding a vacuum in your ILP country, just as a head's up) and all the air gets sucked out of your bag, leaving you a very slim plastic sleeve full of your clothes. One thing to be careful with; your clothes will really compress down which is great, but you may have to worry about reaching your weight limit with this strategy. Your clothes are so thin, which means you can pack more in space-wise, but maybe not weight-wise. 

I've hacked this strategy when backpacking by shoving tee shirts and other items into large gallon-sized (or larger) Ziplock bags, then using a straw to suck out the extra air. Not as efficient, but it does work! 

Downsize Your Liquids 

Even in a carry on, you can fit enough liquids for your whole trip. Since everything needs to be under 3.4 ounces and fit in a quart-size bag, I only pack the essentials.  I pack lots of things (like face lotion, face wash, foundation, etc) into empty contact containers which take up basically zero space.

For the rest, I do get travel sized versions of what I need and sometimes even plan on buying essentials in-country (like toothpaste, body wash, shampoo, etc) in-country to save space in my bag for the cheapest things to buy in Thailand or snacks from China  … you want to make room in your bag for souvenirs!

Ladies —  you might really need to downsize your makeup. I stick with the basics on normal days, but really downsize when I travel. I'm taking tinted moisturizer for my foundation/face lotion (if I wear any at all), a tube of mascara, an eyebrow brush and maybe some tinted chapstick if I'm fancy. You don't have to be that minimal, but doing so means more space in your luggage. 

ILP China

Pick Your Personal Item 

Most airlines allow a carry on, and a small personal item like a purse or small backpack with no charge. Your personal item sits under the seat in front of you, so it’s got to be rather small, but you can fit a lot inside. I usually keep electronics (my computer, my DSLR camera, phone, charging cords, etc) in that personal item so they are easily accessible (plus it saves room in my carry on).

My go-to is a backpack. I love my Fjallraven Kanken, and usually situate a very small and flat leather purse at the bottom before putting my laptop inside, my DSLR and lenses inside, along with my waterbottle. That way, I do have a small purse to carry around if I don't want to bring my backpack on day trips during my vacation.

Charging chords and my bag of liquids (for the TSA) go in the other pockets, along with my ID and my phone. I'm not a purse person and feel like you can fit more in a backpack, but it's a personal choice. 

I've also been known to fit an extra tee shirt or more socks in my personal item if I feel like I need it and they won't fit in my carry on. 

ILP Thailand

You can even use these tips if you spend a semester volunteering abroad — volunteering with ILP means living in a foreign country for a semester while teaching English or volunteering in an orphanage (we have lots of countries to choose from) plus getting vacation time to really explore … so you’ll want these packing tips for your semester abroad and this minimalist list for all of your dreamy vacations you'll be taking. 

Get way more info about who International Language Programs is and what a typical semester is like, right here … and by talking with someone who has volunteered with us before! Our ILP representatives can answer all of your questions, just send them a quick message: 

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Topics: Travel Tips

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Hi! We are ILP, a non-profit org that has service abroad opportunities for college-age volunteers. Check out our tips for making the most of your time traveling and living abroad.

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