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I Tried to Become a Carry-On Traveller—Here’s What I Learned

This summer you’d think I was an international jet-setter. Almost every weekend I’ve been traveling on a plane, mostly due to weddings (it’s what happens in your 30s!) or summer vacation plans with friends. Zigzagging from Prince Edward Island to Ibiza, I’ve practically become a pro at navigating airports. The only hiccup? My recurring weekend jaunts have dished up a serious challenge when it comes to packing for them.

Often left with tight layovers or no time to wait for bags at the carousel, I’ve been forced to become a carry-on traveler this summer. It’s been a big change from my usual travel style, where I’ve been known to always check a bag (which is, more often than not, over the weight limit). Instead of fretting, I took this as a fashion exercise: Could I actually navigate my busy summer travels using only carry-on bags?

Turns out I succeeded, and what I learned in the process is that packing a tiny suitcase isn’t as hard as it seems. You just need the right tips, tricks, and space-saving techniques! Below, here are my eight takeaways.

Pick the right carry-on bag

Before anything, you’ll want to invest in the right carry-on bag. Sure, the aesthetics are an important factor—be it a matte, glossy, or steel finish—but what you’ll want to properly research is the size of your carry-on bag. Size limitations vary from one airline to the next, so make sure the suitcase you’re using will fit in the overhead compartment—otherwise, you may be forced to check it. A good standard dimension to follow is 22x14x9 inches—give or take a few inches, depending on the airline.

Preplan your outfits

Typically I love to pack options when it comes to my travel wardrobe—but when you’re living the carry-on lifestyle, you need to streamline what you’re packing. Predetermine what you will wear on your trip, and then stick to it. Every inch of space counts, so you don’t want to pack unnecessary garments you won’t wear. It’s also worth thinking in layers—packing pieces that you can layer on top of each other to give you multiple outfits. Nice basics, like black pants or a crisp white summer dress, will work double duty and can be dressed up or down depending on the occasion.

Roll your clothes…

When you’ve finalized your Instagram-worthy outfits for the trip, you’ll want to pack them in the most efficient way possible. Fitting them all into a tiny suitcase requires skill: You’ll want to make use of the rolling method. Rolling your clothes not only saves space in your luggage, it also lessens the wrinkling of your clothes during the flight.

…or buy compression bags!

If you’re really tight for space and have a lot to bring with you, you may want to consider purchasing compression bags for your carry-on. You can place all your clothes into a plastic compression bag and then deflate the air using a vacuum cleaner. This can save you a ton of space.

Choose accessories wisely

As a huge shoe lover (I plan my entire outfits around them), my biggest takeaway while packing a carry-on bag is that footwear is heavy and takes up a lot of space! To counter this, you’ll want to wear one key pair on the plane—a dressier sneaker was my choice, which can be paired with multiple outfits—and then pack another pair (a heel or a dress shoe) just in case. Keep it extremely edited—trust me on this one. If you’re heading somewhere tropical, you can always pack a pair of sandals or flip-flops in your personal item. The same goes for your jewelry: Keep it close, in your purse or backpack.

How to pack liquids

This was the biggest challenge of all, as someone who usually checks a bag. How will I ever fit all my favorite shampoo, conditioner, moisturizer, and serums into a tiny carry-on bag? You just need to buy the right travel-size containers. All liquids, gels, and aerosols must fit into containers that are 3.4 ounces or less; these containers must then be placed in a clear quart-size bag. Many travel containers come with handy labels to help identify which product is in what bottle.

Streamline your makeup bag

Just like your liquids, you’ll want to edit down which makeup products you bring in your carry-on. Bring your most essential products—meaning your favorite (and foolproof) moisturizer, foundation, concealer, blush, powder, and bronzer. Even better yet, many makeup products now come in mini travel sizes; consider buying them to save even more space in your makeup bag.

Double-check your airline’s personal-item rules

If all else fails, you’ll want to read up on your airline’s personal-item rules. Most airlines allow you one personal item (a backpack or smaller bag) in addition to your carry-on bag—meaning you can place anything that doesn’t fit into your suitcase there. Just be careful: Sometimes, this personal item also includes purses, so you’ll want to be strategic about what that second bag is.

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