Travel: Packing my Carry-on Bag

Work trips? Carry-on.

Bachelorette parties in Vegas complete with decor? Carry-on.

Touring Europe? Carry-on.

The only vacation I’ve taken an actual suitcase on in the last decade or so was to Scottsdale, Arizona — one of our favorite cities. And that’s because I brought everything from pool floaties to snacks to hiking gear for around the Grand Canyon.

I wouldn’t consider myself an expert, but I’d like to think I’m become quite adept at navigating the right mix of items from everything to running a half marathon in New York City, to working 3 consecutive days beachside in San Diego.

To begin: Find a bag that works for you. I use a hardside Ellen Tracy rolling carry-on, which makes walking, picking up, and storing my bag durable and easy. According to the TSA, carry-on’s shouldn’t be larger than 22 inches long, 14 inches wide and 9 inches high. But, I opted for one that is a tad bit on the smaller side, that way I don’t have to give it a second thought for other airlines. And since I fly Southwest and United, respectively, I can also bring a personal item as well. For this, I’ll usually bring a larger purse that fits my camera (if I’m bringing it), a laptop or iPad, and electronic chords. (In Europe, 1 of the 3 flights charged for anything beyond one carry-on. In that case, I wore a lot on the plane. For that reason, I always try to leave a little room for condensing further– and any souvenirs for that matter.)

And while the types of activities may alter the list of items in the carry-on, I tend to stick to the following rule of thumb when packing (whether 3 days or 7):

  • 2-3 bottoms (jeans, leggings or skirts)
  • 2-3 dresses
  • 3 nice tops
  • 1 outfit for sleeping
  • 2-3 jackets or sweaters
  • 3 pairs of shoes
  • Socks, underwear, and bathing suit per day/ as needed
  • 1 additional, smaller purse (remember, my personal item is an oversized purse or a trendy, smaller backpack)

Switching jackets (and thoughtfully layering) is one of the easiest ways to breathe new life into outfits. Plus, a jacket is often overlooked. Even as Scottsdale battled record-high 115-degree days, I’d carry a light denim jacket into restaurants. I find a nice, denim jacket pairs with just about anything and will select a suede (Blank NYC) or leather moto-jacket for my second option that can easily be dressed up.

I’ll try to wear my bulkiest pair of shoes on the plane, but sometimes the last thing I’ll want to do is fly in heels if I’m going to a work event. So this is not always the case. I’ll usually try to do one nicer heel that’s comfortable (think platform or wedge), a flat bootie, and gym shoes. For work trips, I’ll exchange the gym shoes for a second bootie, heels or flats. (For my running trips, I ditch the heels entirely and bring two pairs of reliable gym shoes so I don’t get a blister beforehand. Plus, that way I’m not wearing my running shoes beforehand either.)

Finally: outfits. I will try to select shirts that go with every bottom and jacket so I can mix and match. Some blogs will go as far as suggesting wearing a similar color palette to make it even easier. I like to change up my looks, and will bring whatever colors speak to me for that trip. That said, the shoes and jackets tend to be something that pulls everything together (grey, neutral, denim, etc.) Then, I’ll bring a small bag with a handful of jewelry, or wear them on the plane, with a couple of pieces that go with everything. (Crystal stud earrings, a simple gold necklace, and maybe one or two statement pieces like chandelier earrings or a clustered pearl necklace.)

I also bring items that are quite durable. I avoid any fabric that wrinkles easily (sorry, linen.) For work, I’ll bring dresses that are 95%+ polyester, which makes them super light, easy to pack and quite forgiving. You can easily wear them with heels and a blazer for a conference, or dress them down with sandals and denim.

Once you’ve selected your items, I use the following methods to make sure they fit:

  • I use the bundle packing method as well as packing cubes. This will keep the clothing tightly contained and organized. (A larger cube for a majority of my outfits, and a second, smaller one for my sleeping items and/or lighter shirts. I’ll typically use the larger one in the zipped portion of my suitcase along with the bulkiest shoes and jackets, and the smaller cube, bagged liquids and other personal items in the open part of my suitcase where they can be accessed easily.)
  • I leave out one sweater or softer item to roll around my bag of liquids and/or any breakables.
  • For the occasional items outside of the packing cubes, I’ll either roll along the edge of the suitcase or fold jackets carefully at the top, at the very end.
  • I will use space in my shoes for socks, underwear, and other items to reduce wasted space. Then, I stack them and (usually) cover them in plastic bags next to my packing cube.
  • With the remaining space, I’ll put my personal items (brush, non-liquid make-up, etc.).
  • I try to be very intentional with the liquids I bring since I am limited when bringing a carry-on only.

Since you’re not checking a bag, you’re much more limited on what liquids you can bring. Everything needs to be less than 3.4 ounces and fit in a 1 quart bag. I have several thick bags from Sephora, which are durable and great in the event something leaks. So, what liquids do I bring?

  • Contact solution (As someone who is nearly blind, this one is non-negiotable for me, unfortunately)
  • Travel sized shampoo and conditioner (I find my hair needs products it’s accustomed too, otherwise it’s not very forgiving)
  • A small, thin fragrance spray that virtually takes up no space
  • Foundation
  • Depending on the remaining space, I’ll have to decided between toner and micellular water. Usually I’ll opt for the toner, and use make-up wipes instead (which I normally don’t use)
  • Use an empty, unused contact case for small amounts of moisturizer, eye cream or other beauty products that don’t require the entire bottle.

As for what I wear on the plane:

  • I’ll always keep my ID and phone handy. That way I’m ready to go.
  • I’ll always wear layers, too. My go-to tends to be a long tank, shirt and jacket with Lululemon leggings. They’re comfortable but the top and jacket elevate the outfit in the event I run into any co-workers on the plane.
  • I actually don’t wear my bulkiest shoes, since those tend to be heels. Instead, I’ll wear shoes I can slip on and off easily for security, like a pair of nicer gym shoes, loafers or booties.
  • If it’s in the winter, I’ll bring a scarf that can easily act as a blanket.
  • I also try to keep a water bottle on me. It’s super convenient for the airplane, but I’ve found it’s come in handy in hotels, day-long conferences and more.