6 Packing Tips For A Long Trip When You’re Only Taking A Carry-On

Traveling is a big part of my life as an airline pilot. Having a simple packing system makes my life easy. 

I am a self-proclaimed packing ninja. While chatting with a friend about one of the many trips my family has taken to Europe, I mentioned that we each travel with only a carry-on. Her eyes opened wide. “Really? How?” 

As employees, when we travel we are considered non-revenue passengers and don’t always know if we are going to get on the flight. We don’t “check” our bags; instead, we have created an easy system to pack for a long trip using a single roll-aboard. Working for an airline affords us access to the world, and we use it! Here, I’ll show you how easy it is to pack for a long trip with just one carry-on!

American Airlines carry-on size checker
Make sure your carry-on fits! (Photo Credit: Christy Karsten)

1. Pick The Right Size

The Transportation Security Administration and U.S. carriers dictate the size of the allowable carry-on, and you should have those measurements on hand when choosing your carry-on bag. Though exact limits vary by airline, allowed carry-on items generally can’t be larger than 22” x 14” x 9”. Most carriers also allow a personal item that can fit under the seat in front of you.

Weight limits are another variable to throw into this packing formula. Some airlines have a maximum weight limit for carry-ons. I once heard a great line from a flight attendant: “You pack it, you lift it!” But it seems like there is always a passenger close by to help lift a bag into an overhead bin should the situation arise. 

Pro Tip: International carriers and low-cost carriers often divert from this standard size, forcing you to pay an additional fee for a carry-on.

carry-on bag in stored in overhead compartment
Newer aircraft bins are designed to store more bags upright.
(Photo Credit: Christy Karsten)

2. Push Or Pull (But Don’t Spin)

Do you prefer to push or pull your bag? I prefer to pull my roll-aboard bag. I have found this to be the most practical, beneficial, and useful type of carry-on. 

Note that if you choose a “spinner” bag, you lose about 4” of precious packing space due to the exterior wheels. About the size of a large shoebox. This is because the wheels and handle must lie within the measurement to meet the standard size requirements as a carry-on. 

Crew members do a deep research dive when it comes to buying luggage. My suitcase has interchangeable rollerblade wheels that light up, a soft-sided durable fabric shell, heavy-duty zippers, and a ballistic plastic frame with a retractable pull handle. I hang my personal bag on a “J-hook,” and my roll-aboard is perfectly balanced when it glides effortlessly on rollerblade wheels. 

A spinner bag requires you to put your personal item on top and use the handle to hold it in place. This makes the bag top-heavy, awkward to push, and requires way too much effort to navigate. Prices vary on luggage, from a $79 roll-aboard from Marshalls to over a $1,000 Rimowa from Neiman Marcus. Each has its benefits and shortcomings. I prefer a soft-sided bag over a hard case because it’s easier to stuff. 

3. Plan, Plan, Plan!

In order to become a packing ninja, planning is the key to success. I will now share the Art of the Pack.

When packing for an extended vacation, each item in your wardrobe matters. Create a travel capsule wardrobe. A simplified, carefully chosen wardrobe with interchangeable pieces. Neutral shades work best with other neutrals, and splashes of color can be added with accessories, scarfs, hats, or bags. 

Before I pack, I lay out all my outfits and make sure each piece works with the entire wardrobe. Packing smart can make a few pieces into many outfits! Making a list a few weeks before the trip is essential for planning. I minimize makeup to a few key items. I don’t bring any hair electronics. 

Depending on the season, I usually have one or two pairs of pants, two shorts, two tanks, two T-shirts, one long sleeve shirt, a jacket, and a dress in my capsule wardrobe.

Pro Tips: Leave Some At Home, Leave Some In Paradise

Consider traveling with clothes you will donate along your journey, which frees up space in your bag to fill with clothes or souvenirs you buy on your trip. 

Leave your hair appliances at home. Most hotels offer a hairdryer. U.S. dryers and flat irons typically don’t work internationally, even with our plug converters. Many foreign countries use 220 volts, and we use 110 volts. Trust me, it won’t work! I speak from experience — don’t be that traveler who blows up the hotel’s electric panel!

4. Roll, Don’t Fold

I am a recent convert and must admit the roll method allows more items in the suitcase versus folding your garments. It also minimizes wrinkles. I stuff my undergarments in any open crevice. Place your sleeping shirt, if you wear one, on top so when you get to your first hotel it’s easy to grab and take a nap. 

I have used packing cubes before, but for me, it’s such a hassle to fill them. Some people swear by them and even encourage rolling clothes in the cube. Staying in one place does make sense, I will say, since you can pull the cubes out and drop them in a drawer. 

Pro Tip: Stay Clean

Pack a thin, small face cloth since most foreign countries don’t typically offer washcloths with linens. I also pack a small hotel bar of soap, shampoo, and conditioner from my prior travels, in case the place I am going to doesn’t offer this amenity. If I run out of room, it’s no problem to throw those items away.

5. On-Flight Wardrobe

I wear my bulkiest shoes on the flight, and I pack sandals and a spare closed-toe shoe in my bag. I wear the jacket on the flight because the cabin always seems so cold, freeing up space in my bag and doubling as a pillow.

6. A Personal Bag

In addition to the carry-on bag, a personal bag is permitted to fit under your seat. This bag is limited by size constraints, as well: 18” x 14” x 8’. Some options are a backpack, a tote bag, or a cubed luggage bag. I have used all three during my journeys but prefer a cubed luggage bag that clips effortlessly onto the “J-hook” hanging from the top of my suitcase. Multiple pockets create a space for everything, and everything has a space. 

I have a durable stainless steel thermos for water that fits in the side pocket. I keep all my personal items in this bag and never let it out of my sight. I also like the fact that it can make a great footstool if I’m jammed into a coach seat. I fill any open area in my personal bag with healthy protein snacks.

medicine, a sewing kit, and other things a pilot packs in her carry-on bag
Items pilot Christy Karsten always has in her carry-on bag
(Photo Credit: Christy Karsten)

6. Tricks Of The trade

I like to think of myself as MacGyver, and, if needed, I can jimmy up and repair something broken on the road. Here are some time-tested items that I always travel with and surprisingly use on almost every trip. Most of these items can be tucked into pockets within the suitcase: 

  • Ziploc bags, which are useful for food, wet bathing suits, and broken toiletries 
  • Bandages, a couple of zip ties, and a small sewing kit 
  • I bought a small, plastic sectioned container at the 99-cent store and filled it with just about every over-the-counter drug and labeled the box. It’s small, thin, and fits in the sidewall of my suitcase. 
  • I put my laundry soap sheets and a reusable grocery tote on the other side of the box since most stores charge for grocery bags. 
  • I tuck a travel umbrella, sheets of paper, envelopes, plastic cutlery, and copies of my passport into the sidewalls of my suitcase.
  • I have small, zippered bags that contain earplugs, eye masks, and chapstick, plus a small bag for chargers and electric plugs for various outlet types. 
  • My iPad with downloaded movies in case the movie screen on the airplane doesn’t work. 
  • Once at my destination I use a small, crossover travel purse that easily fits in my suitcase. 

Pro Tips: Sink Washing

If you must wash undergarments in the sink, use Lazy Coconuts laundry sheets. They are amazing, chemical free, and do a fabulous job! They are extra-thin sheets of laundry soap that are easy to pack and clean so well! Then hang your clothes to dry using a pants hanger with clips in the shower or window. 

Passengers waiting for their bags at the carousel
Passengers waiting and waiting for their bags at the carousel (Photo Credit: Christy Karsten)

To Check Or Not To Check

Nobody wants to hear statistics for airlines’ lost baggage or the nightmare that someone experienced on a trip of a lifetime without their luggage. Time is a gift on holiday. Don’t waste an hour anxiously standing and staring at the luggage carousel for your bag to pop out. Grab your bag from the overhead and go! On an international flight, odds are you will be in front of your fellow 300 travel mates in the customs line or taxi line while they are still waiting at the carousel for their checked bags. 

Cleared For Takeoff 

I like the ease and low-stress option of traveling with my bags at all times. I can bob and weave effortlessly in and around the airport. Most importantly, I don’t overpack! 

Hopefully, these tips from this road warrior in the sky can help you streamline your next traveling adventure. Now book your tickets and start packing! 

For more travel wisdom from our resident pilot, check out: