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How to Pack a Carry On for Travel: Simple Guide for Beginners + Tips!

Posted by Bea Manzano on
Woman organizing carry on suitcase with clear cubes

"Lugging around heavy luggage is so fun!" said no traveler ever! Nobody likes dragging a large suitcase or carrying heavy bags when they're traveling and yet almost everyone wants to bring their entire wardrobe when preparing for a trip. And this is why, dearest readers, packing can be quite overwhelming. Travelers are always faced with the space or comfort dilemma whenever packing. But why choose one when you can enjoy both? So, in this guide, we’re going to tell you how to pack a carry-on for travel without ever sacrificing space and comfort.


The Golden Rules of Packing a Carry-On

Packing travel essentials in a carry on only

Before we show you how to organize your carry-on luggage, first things first, let’s talk about the important rules that you must know when packing your carry on for air travel. It’s not just merely throwing everything you own and trying to everything into the first suitcase you can find. It’s a little bit more intricate than that. There are certain things that you need to consider so you can avoid extra baggage fees and enjoy a hassle-free trip.

Standard Domestic and International Carry-On Size

Each airline has their own rule when it comes to the allowable size of carry-on luggage on the airplane’s cabin. But the standard dimensions for domestic carry-on luggage is usually 22" x 14" x 9" while for international is about 21.7" x 15.7" x 9” including the handles, side pockets, and wheels. It’s a bit smaller compared to the size for domestic carry-ons since the standard hand baggage size outside of the U.S. is smaller. However, it's always best to check with your specific airlines’ luggage restrictions if you want to know the accurate sizes. Having a size limit is necessary so it can fit all passengers' hand carry luggage in the overhead bin of the plane.

Note: While some airline's basic economy ticket will not cost you extra for a hand carry bag, some will require you to pay additional for a carry-on. Make sure to check before booking your ticket.

Carry-On Weight Restrictions and Limits

Woman sitting on the bed with purse and hardshell carry on suitcase

While some airlines like Delta, Southwest, and JetBlue don't necessarily have weight restrictions for carry-on bags, all other airlines only allow up to 7 kg of carry-on luggage. They won't necessarily check and weigh your carry-on but the idea is that you must be able to lift it above your head into the storage bin unassisted. So think carefully before overstuffing your hand-carry luggage. Having a weight limit for carry-ons, especially on smaller domestic planes, is very important for safety reasons.

Pro Tip: To know your airline’s luggage restrictions, you can simply search and visit their page or you can refer to this website to see a detailed list of the most popular airlines' carry-on size and weight restrictions.

What You CAN and CAN'T Pack in a Carry-On 

The privilege of being able to travel with all of your essentials in your carry-on bag comes with a responsibility. Unlike checked bags, there are certain items you can't pack in your carry-on. Here's a general look of what you can and can't pack in your hand-carry luggage.


Burgundy TSA approved toiletry bag going through airport security

☐ Any liquids, gels, creams, and aerosols (as long as they're not labeled as HAZMAT) stored in 3.4 ounces containers or less.

☐ (Not stinky) Solid food

☐ Medications (with exemptions) 

☐ Powder-like substances not greater than 12 ounces. If greater than 12 ounces, it will undergo additional screening.

☐ Knitting needles (circular wooden or plastic needles are preferred) 

☐ Disposable razor

☐ Anything that is not specified on the “CAN’T” list


Full size hair product containers and a medium cube

☐ Any liquids, gels, creams, aerosols more than 3.4 ounces

☐ Guns

☐ Grenades (not even a replica)

☐ Knives

☐ Bludgeons

☐ Self-defense equipment

☐ Flammable liquids (even when it's less than 3.4 ounces)

☐ Fireworks or any explosives

☐ Bleach or any liquid that could make people sick if opened or spilled.

☐ Wrapped presents

☐ Basically anything that could be used as a weapon or pose a threat to the lives of everyone on board.

Pro Tip: If you're not sure about an item you want to pack in your carry-on, you can always visit the TSA's website. They’ve got a complete list of all the things that are prohibited and allowed on the plane. If the item is not listed there, you can take a photo of it and send a question to AskTSA on Facebook Messenger or Twitter. They usually entertain questions from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. ET weekdays and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekends / holidays.


Choosing the Best Carry-On Luggage for Your Trip

Woman walking carrying a tote bag and carry on suitcase

The secret to having a hassle-free carry-on-only trip is not only knowing how to organize your travel essentials or having the best tips for packing, it also relies on the quality of the carry-on luggage you’ll be using. Now that you know the golden rules to remember before packing your bag, we’ll tell you the things you must consider when choosing your carry-on luggage and recommend some of the carry-on bags that we swear by.

What to consider:

Here are the things that you must consider before choosing a carry-on bag for your travel:

☐ Dimensions - Make sure it fits most airline’s size restrictions.

☐ Weight - A lightweight bag would be the best choice.

☐ Capacity - A compact yet spacious luggage will allow you to pack more without overdoing it.

☐ Wheels or straps - You wouldn’t want a bag that would give up on you halfway through your journey. Make sure they’re durable and made of high quality materials.

☐ Pockets - More pockets means more smaller items you can tuck in it.

☐ Zippers - Durable zippers are very important especially for frequent travelers. A broken or busted zipper can easily ruin your trip.

☐ Handles - A comfortable handle will make it easier and more bearable to carry your luggage.

☐ TSA-approved locks - For a quicker and easier security check at the airport.


Generally, there are three types of carry-ons. There are rolling suitcases, backpacks, and duffel bags. Here’s our recommendation for each of these:

✅ For Rolling Suitcases

Samsonite Freeform Carry On Hardshell Suitcase

For a hardshell suitcase, without a doubt, we recommend the Samsonite FreeForm Carry On Spinner Suitcase. This 21" spinner suitcase may look tough on the outside with its strong, scratch-resistant hard shell, but it's actually extremely light and comfy to carry. If you want a carry-on suitcase that will last you for all your trips, this is the one.

Dimensions: 21.25" x 15.25" x 10"

Weight: 6.5 lbs

Wheels: Multi-directional spinner wheels

Pockets: Multiple pockets to keep travel essentials organized

Zippers: Durable and high quality

Handles: Push-button locking handles to easily maneuver

Locks: TSA combination lock for security

SwissGear soft shell carry on suitcase

For soft shell carry-on suitcases, let's go back to the basics with SwissGear 4010 Softside Spinner Suitcase. You can easily choose between 3 sizes that you can use either for short or long trips. We recommend the 21-inch suitcase so it's not too small and not too big, just the right size. It's super lightweight, so even when it's packed and loaded with your travel essentials, you will still be able to lift it above your head and put it inside the overhead bin.

Dimensions: 21.5” x 15” x 9”

Weight: 5.7 lbs

Wheels: 360-degree spinner wheels for superior mobility

Pockets: Multiple front panel pockets

Zippers: Durable and high quality

Handles: Locking push and pull handle system


Two ladies on a hiking trip with a backpack for travel

Backpacks are the perfect carry-on packs for those who want to be completely hands-free especially when traveling. And with that, we recommend the Osprey Porter 46 Travel Backpack. This convenient backpack is not only durable and comfortable, but it's very easy to organize for travel. It's the kind of carry-on backpack that's going to be with you for all your trips for a very long time.

Dimensions: 22” X 14” X 11” inches

Weight: 3.4 lbs

Capacity: 46L

Straps: Stowable shoulder straps and hip belt to convert it from a backpack into a duffel bag.

Pockets: Large panel lockable zip access to main compartment, front panel vertical zippered pockets for books, travel documents and more

Zippers: Quality metal zippers

Handles: Padded top and side handles

Fabric: Made of high density scratch resistant and water resistant nylon

✅ Duffel Bags

Adidas small black duffel bag with packing cubes

Duffel bags are great for a weekend trip or a less than a week getaway. When it comes to the trusty old weekender carry-on bag, we set our eyes on the prize, the Adidas Small Duffel Bag. It's a small and compact yet surprisingly spacious duffel bag that’s perfect for minimalist travelers. It also doubles as a great personal items bag as it fits perfectly under the plane seat.

Dimensions: 18” x 11” x 12”

Straps: Padded and adjustable shoulder strap

Pockets: Top-loading main compartment

Zippers: Durable metal zippers

Handles: Padded handles for comfort

Fabric: Made from 600D polyester, a heavy-duty and sturdy fabric


Step by Step Guide on How to Pack Your Carry On

Packing a carry on suitcase with clear packing cubes

**Thanks to Aimee for this photo!

Everyone’s got their own way of packing things inside their suitcase. However, there’s just a much more efficient way of doing it that every traveler should be aware of. You’ve got the freedom of trying it out if it works for you and modify it according to your liking t. But don’t worry, the different methods of packing carry on travel essentials that we’re going to show you are totally simple, easy, and useful for all your trips!

STEP 1 - Start with your clothes

Below are the three different ways that you can use to pack your clothes into your carry-on luggage. You can try and experiment to see which one floats your boat. But just between us, we recommend packing using the first method! We assure you it’s the most organized way to pack. *wink wink*

✅ Using Packing Cubes

Clothes folded and packed in rose packing cubes

**Thanks to Jenna for this photo!

Clear packing cubes are a real game changer when it comes to packing. Not only do they save you luggage space and time finding where you store your travel items, it keeps all your travel essentials organized, therefore keeping you sane and stress-free for the entire trip. If you don't want to invest in packing cubes or don't have time to get any, we will also show you how to pack your clothes without them. But ultimately, we recommend that you try packing cubes to be more organized. It’s a worthy investment that you can use for the rest of your travel life. 

So here’s how to pack your clothes using packing cubes:

Folded clothes on the floor with clear packing cubes

First, take out your clothes from your wardrobe and lay them on your clean carpet or bed. Carefully select the ones that you’re sure - not what you think - you’re going to wear for the trip. Pick them out from the original pile and transfer them to the other side of your bed. Make sure not to bring the tops or bottoms or that pair of shoes that you never really wear on the daily. Chances are, you’re never going to wear them on your trip as well. After you’re done planning your outfits, let’s get packing.

Travel essentials with Turquoise clear cubes

Next, categorize your clothes according to pants, tops, underwear, jackets, shoes, and basically anything. Do the same with your toiletries, jewelry, makeup, and all the other travel essentials that you’re going to bring.

Travel essentials in turquoise Starter Set cubes

Then, use different size packing cubes and pouches so you can organize everything from the smallest to the biggest. Use an extra small cube for your toiletries and first aid kit, small cube for your socks and undies, medium cube for your shirts and other tops, and large cube for your pants, jackets, and other bulkier items. The Starter Set is simply the best way to get started when packing clear cubes!

Travel essentials packed and organized using clear cubes in a carry on suitcase

Finally, after packing all your clothes, toiletries, and other travel items inside the packing cubes and pouches, it’s time to pack them in your carry-on suitcase. This is where your Tetris skills will come into play. All those time you spent as a kid playing the game has finally paid off. Pack the cubes in the suitcase so that they fit in exactly as you want them to be.

Rolling and Folding

Folding and rolling clothes for travel

If you aren't going to use packing cubes, rolling and folding is a good way to save space and stay organized. It also lets you see everything packed in your suitcase, although not as much as using packing cubes. This is the time to channel your inner Marie Kondo.

First, let’s start with shirts. Bring in the sleeves in the left part of the shirt and then do the same for the other side. You'll get a uniform shape and then fold the shirt in half all the way to the end, and then fold it once again until it’s small.

Next, for pants, you can pretty much apply the same way of folding to any type of clothing. Make sure the pants are buttoned and zipped.

Then, bring in both legs of the pants and then fold it in half, leaving a few inches of space just below the waistband.

Finally, make sure to fold the crotch part in and fold the legs over, and fold it again, and you're done. The general theme of this folding technique is that you want to keep things into a uniform shape before folding them.

Now, the pants and the shirts are pretty much the same sizes, small and compact. If they stand on their own, they pass the Marie Kondo test!

✅ Bundle Wrapping

 Travel essentials laid on the floor with clear cubes

This is not a particularly popular way of packing since it takes a lot more effort and time compared to the other methods, and it involves wrapping all the clothes together into one giant garment burrito, making it such a hassle when going through security checks at the airport. However, the effort does pay off because your clothes will stay wrinkle-free throughout the trip, even while in transit.

Here’s how you do it:

First, create a core made of smaller pieces of garments such as socks, undies, and wrap them in a t-shirt. You can also use a small packing cube with all your socks and undies packed inside and this will serve as your core. This will be placed later in the middle once all clothes are laid out.

Next, begin piling your clothes on a flat surface starting with the heaviest and bulkiest piece, such as a jacket. If it's a tailored jacket, make sure to lay it face down on the floor so as not to produce creases. Lay all the other garments facing up, smooth out the wrinkles as you go.  

Next, add skirts or dresses on top of the jacket. Fold them in half lengthwise, adding them on the left and right side alternately. Follow this with buttoned long-sleeved shirts, T-shirts, and other shirts. Throw in your pair of pants or slacks and alternate them the same way with the skirts.

Then, add the core at the center of the pile. Wrap and tuck each clothing, working your way down until you reach the bottom of the pile.

Finally, pack the bundled clothes in your suitcase and use your luggage straps to secure them into place. Add in your other essentials, zip it close and you’re done!

STEP 2 - Use a travel shoe bag for your shoes.

Travel Shoe Bag

You can use the insides of your shoes to store your socks, but do this only if the soles are clean, otherwise your perfectly clean socks will get dirty. Putting your socks in your shoes will help in maintaining its shape so they don't get flat or disfigured inside your suitcase while in transit. Make sure to put them in a travel shoe bag so when you pack them again after the trip, they won’t mess up other travel essentials inside the luggage.

STEP 3 - Get a travel laundry bag for your dirty clothes.

Travel Laundry bag

After wearing your clothes, don’t just put them back in your suitcase. It will ruin all your other clean garments and will stink up your luggage. That’s why there’s a travel laundry bag for that. They’re great for separating your dirty clothes from the clean ones so you can easily do your laundry once you get home or even while you’re traveling.

If you have a washer and dryer at your accommodation, by all means, definitely use it. Bring a liquid laundry detergent and put it in a travel size bottle. Use plastic wrap on top of the bottle to prevent it from leaking into your bag. Doing your laundry while you travel is a great alternative to packing more clothes.

STEP 4 - Pack your toiletries the TSA-way.

Royal blue TSA-approved toiletry bag

Use travel size containers instead of bringing full size bottles for your toiletries. You can use a contact lens case to hold your liquids and creams. They're actually very handy and ideal when you're going away for a quick trip. For longer trips, you can use dropper bottles or silicone travel bottles. The greatest thing about these is that you can use them over and over again for all your trips. Using these will help you save money in the long run and it's also better for the environment than single-use travel-sized products.

Pro Tip: If you don't want to carry around too many liquids, a lot of products nowadays come in solid forms, like a shampoo bar, so you can opt for these instead.

STEP 5 - Keep your electronics safe.

Travel essentials ready for packing into carry on suitcase with clear cubes

It's advisable to pack your laptop, tablet, camera, or any other important gadgets in your personal items bag and never in a checked luggage. But if you must pack them in your carry-on, make sure it's properly padded to prevent any damages. That being said, use a thin, cushioned laptop sleeve for extra protection. This will allow you to easily slide your laptop in and out of your carry-on luggage.

If you're packing your laptop, tab, or camera in a carry-on suitcase, make sure it has a designated compartment specifically for keeping tech. If you're bringing a carry-on backpack, make sure not to squish them in at the last second after you've got everything packed. Place them strategically in between bulky clothes for protection.

Remember, your carry-on will go to the overhead bin when you're on the plane. If you're planning to get some work done during your flight, don't pack your laptop in your carry-on. Use a proper laptop backpack for that and pack all your other necessary travel essentials in it.

STEP 6 - Organize your jewelry and other trinkets.

Accessories organized in a travel jewelry roll

This travel jewelry roll is a great and compact way of organizing your jewelry like your rings, bracelets, watches, earrings, necklaces, and other loose trinkets so you won’t lose them on your trip. This chic jewelry organizer has different zippered compartments that's perfect for keeping different types of jewelry and accessories that you have. You can easily fit this in your carry-on luggage or personal tote bag.

STEP 7 - Pack everything in your suitcase systematically.

Packing cubes in a carry on suitcase

Place the heavier essentials at the bottom of the suitcase, near the wheels, followed by the lighter ones. This will help stabilize the suitcase when it’s standing upright so it won’t fall over. Put all the necessary travel items such as your toiletries, in an easy-access place - in the front pocket of your luggage. Place important items such as your travel documents, jewelry, extra cash, and so on in a secure place. Once done, zip your carry-on up and proceed to the last step.

STEP 8 - Weigh your luggage.

Smiling woman beside her purse and hardshell carry on suitcase

Carry-on luggage is seldom measured and even less often weighed. However, it does happen as some airlines, particularly low-cost carriers and those with restrictive luggage policies, are quite strict in checking weight and size limits. But majority of the airlines only weigh checked luggage.

Even though hand-carry bags are rarely checked and weighed, it's still important to adhere to the airline's size and weight limit so that if ever a full flight happens, you won't have to worry about gate-checking your bags.

You can weigh your carry-on bag before your flight using a portable digital luggage scale. Make sure it’s within your airline’s limits, and if not, transfer other items to your personal items bag or just leave them if they’re not that important (or if you can buy them at your destination).

Another way of weighing your hand luggage is at the airport. You can deal with the excess weight by transferring the items to your personal items bag. This is why overpacking must be avoided at all costs!

Once you’re done weighing your carry-on luggage, you’re good to go!

Travel Essentials for Carry On Packing Checklist

Travel essentials for packing a carry on suitcase

Not sure what to pack in your carry-on? We can help you with that. Here are the essential items that you must have in your hand-carry luggage. We’ve got the list, make sure to check it twice!

✔️ Important Travel Documents

Passport and other travel essentials in an extra small cube

☐ Passport / Visa

☐ ID / Driver's License

☐ Boarding Pass / Tickets

☐ Medical Information

☐ Travel Insurance

☐ Credit Card Company Information

☐ Emergency Contacts

☐ Copies of these important documents

✔️ Clothes

Clothes packed in packing cubes

**Thanks to Claire for this photo!

☐ Underwear

☐ Bra

☐ Socks

☐ Sleepwear

☐ Tops (T-shirts, dress shirts, casual shirts, tank tops)

☐ Bottoms (Jeans, pants, leggings, shorts, skirts)

☐ Dresses

☐ Sweaters / Sweatshirts

☐ Swimsuits w/ Coverups

☐ Hat / Cap

✔️ Shoes

Shoes and a travel shoe bag

**Thanks to Sam for this photo!

☐ Walking Shoes / Sneakers

☐ Dress Shoes

☐ Sandals / Flip-Flops

✔️ Toiletries

Toiletries in a turquoise extra small cube

☐ Shampoo

☐ Conditioner

☐ Soap

☐ Deodorant

☐ Toothbrush

☐ Toothpaste

☐ Dental Floss

☐ Facial Cleanser

☐ Sunscreen Lotion

☐ Moisturizer

☐ Contact Lenses and Solution

☐ Shaving Cream and Razor

☐ Feminine Hygiene Products

☐ Hand Sanitizer

☐ Makeup

✔️ First Aid Kit

First aid kit in a gray extra small cube

☐ Bandages

☐ Tweezers

☐ First-Aid Ointment

☐ Insect Repellent

☐ Prescribed Meds

☐ Pain Relievers

☐ Anti-Allergies

☐ Anti-Diarrhea

☐ Vitamins

✔️ Miscellaneous

Chargers and headphones in clear circular pouch

☐ Chargers and other cables

☐ Headphones

☐ Power Adapter

☐ Water Bottle

☐ Snacks

☐ Stain Remover

☐ Eye Mask

☐ Ear Plugs

☐ Chewing Gum

Now that you know different ways to pack your carry on, planning for a trip will be much more exciting! You can experiment with different methods every time you travel so you’ll know which way of packing works best for you. 

If you know other ways to pack a carry on, let us know in the comments! If you’re a newbie in packing suitcases for travel, we’ve got a complete guide on How to Pack a Suitcase. Make sure to check it out!

Safe travels, everyone! 

P.S. Don’t forget your mask :)

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