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Pack Your Carry-On Like a Pro With These 10 Tips

Fit everything you need for a week (or more) into one bag.

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A tidy suitcase from overhead
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Mountains of luggage for a week-long trip means more work at the baggage carousel and less space in your hotel room or family’s guest room. Who needs that hassle? Those of us who’ve lost bags over the years or had to load them ourselves into the backs of ride-hiring cars or taxis already know the answer: no one.

Instead, there is freedom in packing a single, carry-on bag filled with ample wardrobe options.

Packing a week’s worth of garments into a 22” by 14” by 9” rectangle — the most common carry-on dimensions for domestic flights — requires planning and practice. Consider it your personal Rubik’s Cube to solve. Here are some carry-on strategies that have served me well over the past year as I’ve traveled 45+ days to visit my favorite people and places.

1. Layering is THE key.
This is the most important tip for packing for any season or any destination. Temperatures vary from day to day, day to night and indoors to outdoors, so be ready for them. Rather than one heavy item, break that single layer down into several — a light-weight undershirt or camisole, a mid-weight T-shirt or turtleneck and a thicker sweater — that can all mix and match. Keeping this in mind enabled me to pack my single carry-on for a 10-day trip where daytime highs swung from 82 to 32 degrees.

2. Check the weather.
Without this essential planning step, I would have missed taking vital pieces on that 10-day trip and been either too hot or too cold rather than just right. Regularly monitoring the weather at your destination(s) days before departure ensures items are clean and ready for the journey.

3. Mixing and matching is a must.
To maximize outfit options, pack pieces that play well with others and focus your selections on a couple of color themes. Winter’s quiet luxury trend that embraces a single hue from neck to toe makes matching an easy and fashionable solution. Pick separates in classic colors like black, gray and camel, which can stand alone or mix with each other.

4. Think through what you need to take — not only what you want to take.
Living in Florida, I get excited to wear sweaters when I travel to colder climates. The trouble is these bulky one-offs take up valuable space in my rolling bag. During the holidays, I balanced the need/want equation by squeezing in a single statement sweater in place of a third pair of jeans. Besides making me smile, this solution aligns with Levi’s recommendation to wear denims 10 times between washes.

5. Elevate with accessories.
Tuck in a few well-chosen accessories to dress up your separates. This also is a great way to inject a memorable print or two into your travel wardrobe without taking up too much room in your carry-on. Scarves that play across your color themes are a great option. And this season, chunky gold earrings and bracelets add elevated impact with minimal space requirements.

6. Leave yourself plenty of time to pack.
Deciding what to pack into a carry-on takes more time than tossing everything into one giant checked bag and sorting it out at your destination. An hour is adequate, but 90 minutes is better. Rushing is the surest way to forget essentials — even obvious ones like undergarments and cosmetics.

7. Lay your selections out on the bed.
To ensure you have the right pieces that can mix and match, arrange them on your bed as outfits. This helps you visualize how your selections work together before stacking them by garment type to confirm you have the proper balance of tops and bottoms. Now they’re ready for your carry-on.

8. Wear the big stuff.
Big and heavy items are better worn than taking up precious space in your bag. In winter, opt for boots and coats on the plane, then pack lighter-weight shoes and sweaters. For summer, lace up the sneakers and throw on a jean jacket for the flight, while keeping sandals and lighter-weight layers in the carry-on.

9. Not all carry-on bags are created equal.
Yes, those bags may measure the same, but keep in mind that spinner wheels tend to gobble up precious packing space. The expert reviewers on The New York Times’ Wirecutter team found that two-wheeled carry-ons often could accommodate the equivalent of two more sweatshirts and that their larger wheels could better handle rough terrain. Having tested 47 carry-ons over the past nine years, they recommend soft-sided models, which tend to last longer and show less wear than hard-sided bags.

10. Track what you pack.
Once you find the right packing solutions for you, jot down the pieces and tuck the list into your carry-on for next time. This works especially well if you make recurring trips to similar destinations like the mountains or the beach. Even when you’re heading somewhere new, a packing list can help you think through the right options to take along.

Whether you’re traveling across time zones or countries, you can make it easy on yourself by packing what you need for a week into one carry-on bag. Just keep these tips in mind to maximize that precious space on your next trip.

Do you try to avoid checking a bag at all costs? Let us know in the comments below.

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