Here’s How to Pack a Carry-On and Avoid Those Dreaded Baggage Fees

A woman looks defeated as she tries to pack her carry on suitcase.
Getty Images

If you’re flying again after a year’s hiatus, don’t forget that checked luggage costs an average of $40 per bag on many airlines.

By fitting everything into a carry-on suitcase, an individual traveler can save at least $80 round trip. A family of four can save $320. Wouldn’t you rather spend that money on a great dinner or two or three extra nights in your hotel?

Whether your trip is for the weekend or a week, follow these tips to pare down your packing list, conserve space and save money.

5 Expert Tips: How to Pack a Carry-On

Pack Versatility in Your Carry-On Bags

Clothes that can be worn several ways allow you to have multiple outfits and save valuable space.

For Women:

  1. An elastic-waist maxi skirt is a skirt by day, and can be pulled above the bust to become a strapless dress for nights out when you’re traveling. (The skirt is also comfortable to wear on long flights.)
  2. A long sleeve, button-down shirt can be worn the standard way, or with sleeves rolled up and the shirt tail tied in a knot around your waist. Try this and you’ll have a great wrap to cinch that strapless maxi dress. Or leave it unbuttoned and untied you’ll have something akin to a cardigan.
  3. A long sleeve knit top can be paired with the skirt as a shirt, or tied around your shoulders and neck to go with a dress. It can also be an added layer under or over the  long sleeve button down.
  4. A small bag of jewelry takes up a lot less valuable space than clothes. Add lightweight, bright earrings or a necklace and you’ll change the look of your limited outfits.

For Men:

  1. Again, the same button down shirt can look completely different with a tie one night and untucked with sleeves rolled up the next day.
  2. Look for quick-drying pants with leg extensions that zip on and off so they can be shorts or long pants. They’re perfect for packing in carry-ons.
  3. A tie (or even two) takes up a lot less space in your carry-on than a second or third shirt and you’ll have several different looks.

Wear and Wash to Save Space 

If you aren’t going to have a washing machine where you’re traveling, then a general rule is only pack things in your carry-on bag that you can wash in a sink. From underwear to workout clothes to that great black dress, you’ll get away with a lot fewer items on your trip if they can be washed in the sink and hung to dry.

This means when you’re packing your carry-on, it’s best to include clothes made from nylon, polyester and lightweight cotton. They take 2 to 4 hours to dry when hung inside and 1 to 2 hours outside. Wash what you wore at night and you’ll have clean clothes the next day.

Some airlines now charge for carry-ons. It’s true. In that case, to save money you’ll need to downsize even more to avoid baggage fees. Here’s how to pack a backpack.

Hikers and campers have been wise to quick-drying, odor resistant underwear for a while. This polyester mesh underwear, found in outfitter stores, has wicking to keep moisture off your body when you sweat and is made with an antimicrobial treatment that reduces odor building up in the fabric. These undies could become as indispensable as Swiss army knives.

Packing Liquid Toiletries in Your Carry-On

How many times have you thought you mastered how to pack a carry-on bag, then you realized you didn’t include that bulging bag of toiletries? It can be one of the most bulky items in your carry-on bag.

Here are some tips to save space.

  • If you are staying with a friend, at a hotel or an Airbnb, many liquid toiletries, razors and soap will be provided. (If you aren’t sure about your Airbnb ask your host before you pack.) It probably won’t be your favorite brand of shampoo, hairspray or conditioner, but in order to save space and save money on baggage fees, your hair can have slightly less shine.
  • Don’t buy travel-sized products. It’s so fun to grab those cute little bottles of mouthwash, lotion and hair products at the grocery store but at $1.99 to $2.49 each, they can easily add $10 to $15 to the cost of your trip. Resist them and you’ll be spending that money on a couple cocktails or a yummy lunch. Bring your own little bottles of liquid toiletries (don’t forget sunscreen) instead of buying them.
  • You’re better off buying clear, plastic travel-size bottles at a dollar store.
Pro Tip

Remember, you can’t carry-on bottles of liquid over 3.4 ounces on flights.

  • Don’t forget to pack liquid detergent in a little bottle. You’ll need it to have clean clothes where you’re going.
  • If you already have miniature bottles of hair and body care products that you’ve saved from motels, use those, of course. But be sure to bring the empty bottles back home so you’ll have them to fill with our own liquid toiletries for your next trip. (For more efficient storage at home, keep them in your empty carry on bag.)
  • Always collect any extra miniature sized bottles at a hotel. It’s okay to ask the housekeepers for more.
  • Use conditioner for shaving cream when you’re traveling to save space in your carry-on luggage.
  • For people who menstruate, try a period cup sometime before your trip. If this personal item works for you, then you don’t need to pack tampons or pads.

Limit Choices when Packing a Carry On Bag

Plan clothing alternatives based on potential weather surprises during your travel, not whether you’ll be in the mood for pinstripes, a geometric pattern or floral print. You’re packing for a trip, not a fashion show. Once you have the mindset of traveling light it allows you to save space and save time. Getting ready each morning or night is easier because you’ve already picked your outfit back home instead of when you get to where you’re going.

Limiting yourself to two pairs of shoes gives you a lot more room when you’re packing your carry on. It’s best to take a pair of athletic shoes for exercise as well as daily activities. Add some flip flops for the beach or going out at night. These pair well with a dress or skirt for women.

Packing light for women means you’ll need: one skirt, one dress, two long sleeve shirts (knit and button down), two short sleeve or sleeveless shirts, and one set of workout clothes. Add a pair of pants or jeans if you prefer them to a skirt or dress or if where you’re going has a cold climate.  (We’ll get to sweaters and jackets soon.)

For men, you’ll need one of each of the following: shorts, long pants, long sleeve knit shirt, button down and a set of workout clothes. Pack two short sleeve shirts.

Wear Extra Clothes When You’re Traveling

Now for those coats, fleeces and sweaters. Don’t pack them — wear them. This can save space in a big way in your carry-on bag.

“When I flew to Iceland for $99 I had to take puffy pants and jackets. I put on as much of that big outerwear as possible and wore it on the plane,” said Jen Ruiz, travel author and blogger on Jenonajetplane.com. “I’ll wear it versus packing it in a bag and taking up all the space. A jacket can double as a blanket for you on the plane.”

Her advice conjures up a scene from Friends when Joey wears all of Chandler’s clothes at once. If the flight attendant asks: “Could you beeee wearing any more clothes?” rest assured you’re showing your commitment to the rules for how to pack a carry-on bag.

Katherine Snow Smith is a senior writer for The Penny Hoarder.


Explore: