Expert-Approved Hacks For Packing A Carry On

Maximize space before your next getaway.

by Jessica Goodman
the best way to pack a carry-on suitcase

Raise your hand if you’ve been victimized by an overstuffed carry-on suitcase that takes three of your friends sitting on top of it just so you can pull it closed millimeter by millimeter until the whole thing bulges like crazy and the flight attendant tells you that, sorry, it’s actually too big to fit into the overhead compartment.

Cool, cool. Sound familiar?

But as travel plans pick up and experts advise bringing a carry-on bag instead of checking big suitcases thanks to all of the overwhelmed airlines, it’s time to learn how to pack a small luggage in smarter, more efficient ways. Ahead, six expert-backed tips on the best ways to pack a carry-on to maximize space before your next getaway.

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Choose Luggage With Lots Of Storage Compartments

“The traditional style of luggage that has the mesh zipper pocket on the front flap isn't very helpful for organizing your belongings,” says Lela Burris, an organization expert who runs the blog Organized-Ish. “By choosing luggage with two identical storage sides, you can use one side for your clothes and the other for shoes, or one side for clean clothes and the other for dirty ones.”

Rashelle Isip, a professional organizer and productivity consultant, also says to look for luggage that has “straps, flaps, zippers, pockets, sections, and compartments.” She advises, “Take time to fully inspect these storage features. Built-in storage may sometimes appear spacious at first glance but may shrink in volume when other items are placed adjacent. Unzip pockets, undo flaps, and open compartments.” That way you’ll make sure your new suitcase has as much space as you think it does.

Embrace Packing Cubes

Burris uses them to separate outfits, keep shoes from touching clean clothes, and make sure small items like underwear and socks don’t get lost in the mess. “I always stash an extra empty packing cube just in case I buy something on my trip or a pair of shoes get really dirty,” she says. “The best rule of thumb for packing cubes is to treat them like you treat your dresser and bathroom drawers. If they wouldn't go together in a drawer, they shouldn't go together in a cube.”

Another hot tip: “You can fit a lot more clothes in packing cubes when you loosely roll them,” says Burris. “If they end up with a few wrinkles from being rolled, you can take them out and hang them in the bathroom while you shower on the first night of your trip. The steam will loosen the wrinkles back out.”

Skip The Big Items — If Your Destination Provides Them

Before stuffing your bag full of bulky electronics like a hair dryer or a clothing steamer, call your hotel or rental house and see if they have them for you to use once you arrive, says Burris. That way you can free up space in your bag for the essentials — aka that floppy hat you bought just for the beach. And if you must BYO, invest in travel-sized versions so you can leave your big ones at home.

Pack Only What You Need

Sounds impossible, but really try your best, advises Isip. “Review your travel itinerary and create a list based on that. Essential items include undergarments, pajamas, tops, bottoms, dresses, socks, shoes.” If you’re stumped on what’s “necessary,” choose clothes that come in solid neutral colors, advises Isip. This makes it easier to mix and match outfits. One or two bold items can help make a statement against the rest of your basics.

Use Toiletry Bags With Hooks

Even with all your packing cubes, grabbing a few toiletry bags that fold up into quadrants and have a hook for hanging can help keep all your small goodies together, says Burris. “You can fit a lot in them, and you don't lose space on a small bathroom countertop [once you arrive at your destination] because you can hang all your makeup and bathroom supplies from a towel hook.”

Pack A Million Zippered Storage Bags

OK, maybe not a million but stuffing a bunch of baggies in your carry-on will help keep things organized in your bag and once you get to your destination. Burris suggests stuffing one with pens (so they don’t bleed), and Isip says you can even use big ones to keep ironed, folded shirts nice and pressed for when you arrive.