5 Tips to Become a Carryon Traveler

5 Tips to Become a Carryon Traveler- Monique McHugh Blog
5 Tips to Become a Carryon Traveler- Monique McHugh Blog

Last year I took several work trips and also road tripped the pacific coast highway. One of the biggest things I learned through all of those trips was how to pack smarter! I never used to see the benefits of traveling with only a carry-on. But now I prefer not to check a bag!


Want to check out some of my travel guides? Head to my Aruba, Tulum, New York City, and Morocco guides for lots of inspiration for your upcoming trips.

5 Tips to Become a Carryon Traveler- Monique McHugh Blog
5 Tips to Become a Carryon Traveler- Monique McHugh Blog

When you travel often, you realize how much of a pain it is to have to check bags. It adds at least an hour to your roundtrip travel! Plus it costs an extra $60-$100+ depending on your airline of choice. You also have to stand in line by the check-in counters at the airport before each of your flights.

Call me controlling, but the carry-on life comes with a lot more flexibility and a lot less risk. My bag stays with me the entire trip! I never have to worry if someone is going to lose it or damage it. When I get to the airport, I can head straight for the security checkpoint. Plus as a little icing on top of the cake, after that long flight: I get to waltz straight out of the airport when the plane lands instead of following everyone to baggage claim and waiting. That makes me first in line for any ground transportation too! Talk about a reward after being cooped up on a plane for hours. 🙂

So if those reasons aren’t enough to convince you to try out the carryon life, well you’re just crazy! The catch is, it’s definitely not easy. I actually thought it was impossible for the longest time. But now I’m convinced, and here to share all my tips for adopting the carryon life. If you’re curious how to pack for any trip in a carry-on, this post is for you!

5 Tips to Become a Carryon Traveler- Monique McHugh Blog

Before we dive into my top tips for packing your belongings into your suitcase, I have to address the fact that all carry on suitcases are not created equal. When you go to the store, carry ons can vary from 19” high to 22” inches high and depending on the design, not all of that is usable space. The standard for carry on suitcases is 22” x 14” x 9” so I would recommend not going any smaller than that especially if you plan for it to be your only piece of luggage. I currently use this Calpak suitcase as my carry on and love it. The suitcase is designed to zip straight down the middle with compartments on each side, and has a lot more usable space which makes it easier to stay organized trips.

Once you have a good carry on, here are a few tips for making your things fit:


#1: Pre-plan Your Outfits

It goes without saying: if you’re not intentional you WILL overpack! This is the number one area where I seem to fail. But if I carve out the hour or so that it’ll take to plan out my outfits and make sure I really like them, I always pack less.

You know the drill where you aren’t quite sure if that shirt is going to look good with those pants? Instead of taking a few minutes to try them on, you just throw in a backup option? Before you know it, you have several outfits that might go well together (or might not) and an overflowing suitcase. Instead, start by looking through the days on your itinerary and listing out what you’ll be doing on each day. Then group together similar activities in which you could mix & match pieces to create more outfits. Start laying out the outfits on your bed to see them side by side before you try them all on. Make tweaks as necessary and keep in mind if the place you are staying at has laundry services as this can help you pair down duplicate items.  

Pro Tip: Try to pack a jacket and shoes that can be worn across several outfits! These are the items that take up the most space in your suitcase so try to pack versatile options.

#2: Pack Lightweight Clothing

How much space your clothes take up makes a huge difference in how much you’re able to pack in the end. The only reason I was able to make it 3 weeks in a carry-on suitcase is because I packed a lot of dresses and lightweight items that when rolled up, took up very little space in my suitcase. When packing for warmer destinations, I love to pack dresses, basic tees, and shorts that don’t take up a lot of room. If its a cold destination, pack layers and wear your light and heavy jackets on you in the airport to save room.

#3: Use Suitcase Organizers + Pack Inside of Things

Next up is getting your stuff into your suitcase. I recommend rolling your clothes up instead of stacking so you can see each item. Grab a set of packing cubes and divide your things into different pouches so you can stay organized. I like to put my loungewear and undergarments in one, tops in ones, and bottoms in another. Make sure to use every inch of usable space in your suitcase. It’s like a game of tetris! Pack your socks inside of your shoes, purses within each other and then piece everything together in a way that makes it all fit. Tim makes fun of me because I’m apparently the “Pouch Queen” but hey, when everything is in a packing cube or pouch, it doesn’t really matter how you shove it into your suitcase because it will all stay organized.

#4: Make Your Personal Item Count

I’m not sure if I just keep getting lucky, but I always push the limits on my personal item (and get away with it lol). Most people take a purse or small backpack and don’t even think about how much packing space they’re giving up.

When Tim and I went to Italy a few years ago, I packed this weekender bag as my personal item. It gave me extra space for clothes and shoes and I packed my purse inside of it too! If you decide to take a duffel as your personal item, make sure it’ll fit under the seat in front of you. The last thing you want if for them to check it if there isn’t any additional overhead space. Also keep in mind that you’ll most likely have to carry it for long distances. Because of this, I try to strategically pack lighter, more moldable items (like clothes) so it’s easier to carry. This way you can shove it under the seat and not worry about damaging or spilling what’s inside.

Pro Tip: Make sure to pack one spare change of clothes and your basic toiletries in your personal item. This is a life saver in case the airline ends up gate checking your carry-on and losing it.

#5: Wear your biggest items

I mentioned this a few times above: always wear your largest items on you! I love browsing social and seeing girls in their cute airport outfits, but most of the time that’s just not me at the airport. If I’m traveling with only a carry on suitcase, you will find me in my largest shoes (typically sneakers or boots), largest jacket, and with things like hats tied to my personal item. This saves me a lot of space in my suitcase and honestly, I always get cold on airplanes so I never regret it.

Pro Tip: If you have more liquids than a quart size bag, pack them in a few bags and put them in different bins in the TSA line. Just make sure the bottles are still under 3.4 oz.

So there you have it! My top tips for traveling in a carry on suitcase. Are you ready to give it a shot? I would love to hear your experiences living the carry on suitcase life. If you have any tips, be sure to share them in the comments below. Happy traveling!

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