I Travel Hundreds of Thousands of Miles Carry-On Only—Here Are My Packing Go-Tos and Hacks

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I’m a carry-on-only girl. I’ve traveled through four different climates on a 15-day trip and still did not check a bag; it saves time at the airport, and it’s safer (my stuff stays with me the whole time, so there’s no risk of the airline losing it). If you’ve ever suffered the awfulness of lost luggage, you know that traveling without checking your bags definitely has its perks.

While I won’t say that it’s absolutely possible for everyone, given medical needs, parenting needs, and even space needs, I will say it’s more feasible for a lot of people than many might think. See below for my travel go-tos and hacks to make sure everything comes on the plane with me.

Thule Subterra Carry-On Spinner

This one is a “duh,” but for those who don’t travel as often or are still rolling around with that 20-year-old carry-on, you need to upgrade if you want to be able to fit everything without checking your bag. In particular, you’ll want to upgrade to a carry-on with compression technology or a compression system so you can put even more into the suitcase (and it can close).

For example, Away luggage features a compression pad that goes over your clothing and, using straps, pulls down onto it to compress the clothing down. I recently gave Thule’s Subterra Spinner carry-on a try, and I have to say, its compression pad was even easier to use, so make sure you shop around and watch a video to see what works best for you. Whatever you do, compression is your friend!

Buy Thule Subterra Carry-On Spinner at Amazon, $345

Thule Compression Packing Cubes

Speaking of compression, packing cubes are also your friend. In fact, they’re your best friend (especially if you can’t yet upgrade your carry-on). The trick is to make sure you get double-zipping (aka compression) cubes, which will let you fill the cubes with as much stuff as can fit while the second zipper compresses it all down into half the size. I like to use the roll method (aka rolling up clothes as opposed to folding them) for most of my clothing, particularly shirts, skirts, and things like pajamas, and leave only a few things folded—big dresses, a blazer or jacket, etc. You’ll generally be able to fit more this way, and I find it’s super efficient (especially when unpacking). I use a cube for underwear, swimwear, and pajamas; another cube for shirts and workout clothes; and another for bottoms and any other random items. I also use cubes for my shoes (mostly just for hygienic reasons). If you haven’t used cubes yet, give it one go and see how quickly you’ll be a convert. (I swear by Thule’s compression cubes and Calpak’s compression cubes—Thule has them topped with compression, but Calpak’s are generally larger.)

Buy Thule Compression Packing Cubes at Amazon, $45

Uniqlo Button-Down Shirt

I don’t believe in a travel capsule wardrobe, but I do believe in being mindful of what you pack when you’re packing light—so my personal rule is, if I can’t wear it two different ways (and at least in three different outfits), it’s out. I give myself a little leeway on this rule (aka one dress I plan on wearing to a particular dinner, one going out outfit that I want to wear to a particular event, etc.), but in general, I try to keep to somewhat of a color palette and/or things that can be worn together no matter their color.

My favorite non-hack hack is to include at least one button-down—it can be worn as a shirt, sure, but can also be worn open or tied as a light layer, as a beach cover-up, etc. My absolute favorite button-downs come from Uniqlo, and I love to size a size up for a better, more oversized fit.

Buy Uniqlo Button-Down Shirt at Uniqlo, $null

Reebok Classic Leather Sneaker

Wear your biggest and clunkiest shoes to the airport. Period. Unless you can fit them in with ease, this is one of the biggest ways to save space in your suitcase. (You can always wear socks and pack thin slippers for a little economy-luxury moment when on the plane.) I never bring more than one pair of “dressy” shoes, and typically, they’re sandals (pending climate) that I can also wear with more casual looks. I pack a pair of flip-flops for beaches and/or makeshift house shoes and wear either Chelsea boots or sneakers on the plane. I’m not a big fitness person, but if I do work out when I’m traveling, I try to stick to things like yoga, pilates, or outdoor hikes that you can do without dedicated gym shoes. My favorite Chelsea boots that I wear practically everywhere (even out on easy hikes) are these Hush Puppies, and my favorite sneaker hack is to wear white ones that can be worn both at the gym and out on casual adventures, like these from Reebok.

Buy Reebok Classic Leather Sneaker at Amazon, $65

Old Navy Printed Bandana Scarf

A versatile satin-y scarf can do wonders when you’re packing light—protect your hair at the pool or beach and keep it wind-free on a boat, be worn as a cover-up (pending size), be worn as a headband or neckerchief to switch up a look, or even be tied to your backpack or carry-on bag for easy identification.

Button-downs, light sweaters, and a jean jacket will always be able to switch up your look and make one outfit into two (and keep you warm at night).

Buy Old Navy Printed Bandana Scarf at Old Navy, $13


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