The general rule of thumb is, lighter is better. And if you can’t follow that rule, at least follow this guide.
Is it possible to smash a pair of heels and a hairdryer along with enough winter clothes for three weeks in Europe into one relatively small carry on like this one? Yup, if you cram it in right.
Luckily, we’ve traveled our faces off and we’ve figured out what works best. It’s practically down to an art at this point. So if you’re figuring out what to pack and how to pack for your next trip, read on.
Suitcase or Backpack?
A suitcase or a backpack will work. I personally prefer a backpack since I originally began most of my traveling zip zapping through Asia (it keeps me more mobile, since I can run to catch a bus or run through the airport much quicker) but it’s a matter of personal preference.
Honestly, if you’re bringing more than one carry on for any length of time, you’re bringing too much. Learn to cut the filler. Exceptions apply if you are bringing equipment for a work project or something like tha, but seriously, your dryer, curling iron and hair straightener do not need to make the trip to the Amazon with you.
On Travel-Sized Products
Hi. You know those travel-sized toiletries you see in your local drugstore? Those ones designed to fit perfectly into your carry on? Yeah, go ahead and pick a few up. Staying at a hotel? Don’t forget to bring that tiny bottle of conditioner home. And if you don’t want to listen to me, at least go buy some empty travel-friendly bottles that you can fill up with your favorite shampoo at the dollar store.
Almost never, and I repeat, never bring full size products with you. You can always pick up whatever you need when you hit the ground. The amount of conditioner you’ll actually use won’t justify the hassle. Unless, you’re actually, um, moving out of the country or something like that.
Once you’ve got everything, pack the liquids on top of your clothes or right next to a compartment opening for speeding through security. Keeping your liquids to carry-on limits will also allow you to save time at the baggage carousel; instead of waiting for your bags, you can make a beeline for the airport exit the minute the captain turns off the seat belt sign.
…in travel-friendly products. Okay, so having a portable spork is probably pushing it, but if you’re a serial traveler of any kind, these products will pay for itself over time for you. We’re talking about things like microfiber travel towels, collapsible daypacks, a small first-aid kit. The focus is on reducing an object’s footprint and weight as much as possible. Even my hairdryer is designed to be portable.
First order of business, stop folding your clothes. Learn to roll them: It reduces the footprint of your clothes and gives you extra space, letting you pack even more in. Flight attendants do it, Boy Scouts do it, I do it. If you can’t let go of your icky outdated habit, then just fold the clothes that are difficult to roll, like a jacket or a pair of jeans.
There are also vacuum-sealed clothes bags, which happen to be nice for reducing space. They aren’t a necessity but if you have them I’d suggest using at least one bag to store dirty clothing.
How Many Clothes?
- For Trips Lasting 1-5 Days
The maximum number of shirts you bring should be equivalent to the number of days you’ll be at your destination. (If you’re going on a three-day trip, bring three shirts at the most, if you’re going on five-day trip, bring five shirts at the most, etc.) That’s a maximum limit, so if you can do with less, you’ll be better off. Bring one to two pairs of pants and one to two pairs of jammies, and that should be enough.
The danger isn’t underpacking, but overpacking. You’ll most likely have some wiggle room left but resist the urge to fill it up with unnecessary excess weight. Ask yourself the golden question: Can I live without this [insert object name]?
- For Trips Lasting 6-10 Days
Bring about 75 percent’s worth of clothing that would last you for that time. That means roughly four to seven shirts, two pairs of pants, and two sets of pajamas. The limit is seven shirts; assuming you’re not sweating through them like you’re in the Sahara, you can re-wear one or two. If that sounds gross to you, you can hand wash and hang dry a few tops.
- For Trips Lasting 2 Weeks & More
Bring about a week’s worth of clothing. This means about seven shirts, two or three pairs of bottoms and two or three sets of pajamas. There is also no limit to fresh underwear in my unprofessional opinion. Leave the leopard prints at home; pick items that play and mix well with others.
With all due respect, it’s not necessary to bring your entire wardrobe with you. With hand washing and the availability of laundromats worldwide, your smattering of belongings should be more than enough to last you in most situations. Case in point, I once lived almost three months out of one carry on in Central America and I was fine.
Let’s Talk Shoes
I suggest no more than three pairs: one pair of sandals, one pair of comfortable walking shoes and one other pair of your choice. This includes the shoes that you wear to the airport. If you can, strip it down to two pairs, so you’re only packing one. Then wear your clunkiest shoes onto the plane.
Dealing with Weather
- It’s So Hot, I’m Melting Like the Wicked Witch
Luckily, summer weather is easy to pack for. The only thing to remember is that if you’re planning out to hang out in the tropical beaches of Bali, you’ll most likely be sweating through them a lot faster. Bring breathable t-shirts (flannel is not breathable!) and a couple pairs of shorts. A pair of pants, though, can come in handy.
- A Note on Freezing Your Ass off in Siberia
Unfortunately, winter clothing adds a lot of weight, so you’ll have to more creative. The key in mildly cold temperatures is to layer, layer and layer. One scarf, a cardigan, a jacket and/or a light fleece can make all the difference between being comfortable or catching pneumonia. Don’t forget your extremities: bring gloves and a hat if the weather seems like it will dip below 50° F/10° C.
If you’ll be in near-freezing temperatures (32° F/0° C), then you will want to take at least one functional jacket with you. Two, if you’ll be there for a while. Three is overkill. It’s not a beauty contest; it’s about warmth around this point. If you’re bringing boots, wear them on the plane ’cause they’re often the worst things to find space for. None of this advice applies if you’re planning to head to the Arctic or Antarctica.
- But I’m Going Everywhere!
Layering is your friend.
Can’t You Tell Me What to Bring?
No, because everyone has different needs and priorities. Some people might be able to survive without their camera; some might not. This guide is all about how to pack efficiently with the utmost basics, cause you can’t exactly run around town without clothes on.
For the non-essentials items, they should follow the golden question we mentioned above: Can I live without this [insert object name]? If you answer, “Well, I might need it…” then you need to leave it out of your bag. If the answer is a definitive omg-I-might-die-without-it “no,” toss it in the bag.
But with all of that said, here are some things to consider that you should try to make space for:
- Passport. This is probably the most important thing if you are planning internationally, cause you won’t make it past the airport without it. It’s best to keep it in same place consistently so you don’t lose it. Another form of identification can also help in certain cases: an old expired driver license can help when you need a form of ID and don’t want to give up your trusty passport.
- Universal travel adapter. Especially if you plan on bringing electronics.
- Towel. We’ve already explained our reasons for this before.
- First-aid kit. In case you hurt yourself.
- Mosquito repellent. If you plan to spend time indoors or outdoors. Standing water can be a problem in some of the most unexpected places.
- Dimenhydrinate (or Dramamine). If you plan to be on a boat. If you already get motion sickness, don’t leave without it or you’ll be spending a lot of time with a barf bag.
- Sunscreen. Fog can disguise how powerful the sun’s ultraviolet rays are. Snow can often act as a powerful reflective surface for the sun when it’s out in full force. Bring it even in winter. Just because it’s cold doesn’t mean it can’t be sunny: for instance, though the weather can often drop to below freezing, the sun can often still shine briskly in Beijing or Mongolia.
- Toothbrush. It’s funny how many people forget it.