Budget Travel Planning Solo Travel Travel

Secrets to Packing Light

Image from here, until I pack for my next trip and shoot my own

As exciting as traveling can be, it can also be very stressful, especially when it comes to packing.

Confession: I’m a reformed over-packer. For years, I stuffed suitcases to the brim and considered carry-ons nice to have, but saw no way around checking luggage.

A few years ago though, when airlines started charging for checked baggage, I began re-evaluating what I took with me on trips.

There’s something liberating about leaving stuff behind, you realize how little you really need when traveling. Since paring down my packing essentials, I’ve found there are numerous benefits for only taking a carry-on:

  • Most airlines charge for checked luggage, some budget airlines even charge you to carry-on a bag

  • Waiting to check-luggage if the line is long, and again, waiting after the flight for it to be unloaded can waste valuable trip time. If you only carry-on, you also don’t have to worry about your luggage making it between flights if you transfer

  • Only bringing a carry-on, whether it’s a duffel bag or rolling bag, means it’s often easier to get around your destination, especially if you’re taking public transit

How to only travel with a carry-on

Get the right gear

First things first, you need to have the right gear- your plans to only travel with a carry-on will be thwarted if it’s too big to fit in the overhead bin and you’re forced to check it.

  • Suitcase: For whatever reason, I destroy luggage. This non-expandable American Tourister carry-on can take a beating, fits every airline’s baggage restrictions (even budget carriers), and fits a ton of stuff- I use it for weekend trips, as well as 2+ weeks away.  Also, the non-expandable part is key- a lot of airlines, especially in the US and Europe, are cracking down on letting people carry-on suitcases with four-wheels or ones that are expanded in size
  • Duffel Bag: If I’m going on a quick overnight or weekend trip, I usually take my Everlane weekender
  • Personal Item: I’ve recently started traveling with an Eagel Creek Afar backpack and have to say it’s been a game changer. I’m able to fit everything I need from my Kindle to a MacBook Air to various snacks and nicknacks

Write down your schedule 

Writing out what you plan to do may take time, but it’ll help you visualize what you actually need to wear everyday for everything from a morning run to a night at the theatre. 

Skimp on pajamas, gym clothes and shoes

When I travel, I only take 1-2 pairs of pajamas (regardless of trip length), and no more than two gym outfits (even though I workout 5-6 times a week). Here’s the deal: You can always wash clothes when you’re traveling if you’re on a longer trip, but it’s also important to remember that you likely won’t be spending much time in them.

Shoes are another area where it’s easy to pare down to save space. I limit the number of shoes I take with me, usually only bringing a pair of sneakers that can do double duty for running or walking around a city (these black Nikes are my favorite), plus one other pair of sneakers/comfortable walking shoes (these slip-ons are my go-to’s). Aside from those, I won’t bring other shoes unless I need a pair of dress shoes, sandals or flip-flops, based on the destination/my plans.

When packing, place your shoes at the bottom of your suitcase, it’ll prevent your luggage from being top heavy and tipping over

Pro-tip for packing shoesWrap a shower cap around your shoes to keep everything else clean. If space is an issue, stuff your shoes with rolled-up socks or other small items.

Roll your clothes (and consider using packing cubes) 

Rolling clothes saves space in your suitcase, but also leaves your clothes less wrinkled than just folding them. 

I’ve also recently started using packing cubes to stay organized- there’s a reason why long-term travelers and backpackers rave about them. 

Packing cubes help keep your items separated and make it easy to find things in your luggage. Instead of unpacking my whole bag, I can easily find what I’m looking for. Like rolling your clothes to save space, you can fill cubes up with a lot of items and then compress them even more if your suitcase is getting tight.

If you’re new to cubes, I recommend a mix of the Eagle Creek compression and regular full or half ones.

Take less than you think you’ll need

The rule I follow when deciding whether to bring something: You have to carry around whatever you aren’t wearing.

My packing checklist (regardless of the destination) 


  • Passport
  • Credit card, debit card, cash in local currency, $50 in USD
  • MacBook Air (usually only bring this if I’m going to be working from coffee shops)
  • iPhone and power cable
  • Kindle Paperwhite
  • USB wall charger
    • Bringing a wall charger helps cut back on the number of outlets I need to find when I’m traveling, and makes it easier to charge multiple things at once
  • 2-3 back-up batteries
  • Power adapter (if I’m traveling internationally)
  • Headphones
  • Apartment building and front door key

Personal Items

Buy travel-sized toiletries and other essentials to help save space. If you’re putting shampoo, conditioner or lotion into generic bottles, take the tops off and place saran wrap over the opening before putting the cap back on to prevent spills.

  • Toothpaste, toothbrush, floss
  • Compact hairbrush, hair ties and a stretchy headband
  • Sunscreen
  • Make-up, lip balm and face lotions/serums
  • Hydrating face mask to use post-flight (this TonyMoly Aloe one is my fav)
  • Razor
  • Ear plugs
  • Antibacterial wipes
  • Hand lotion
  • Extra Ziploc baggies (you’ll always need them for something)
  • Prescription and over-the-counter medicines (only take what you think you’ll need)

Clothing / Accessories

  • 3 shirts (t-shirt, long-sleeve shirt, quarter sleeve shirt) 
    • Maybe: Chambray shirt or blouse
  • 1-2 pairs of pants (black jeans and dark wash jeans)
  • 1 pair of black leggings
  • 1 lightweight sweater or blazer
  • 1 lightweight or medium-heavy jacket (I usually wear this on the plane)
  • 2-3 pairs of socks
  • 1-2 pairs of lightweight pajamas
  • 1-3 pairs of shoes (as needed)
  • Sunglasses
  • Lightweight scarf
  • Underwear
  • Jewelry (a few pairs of earrings and ~1 necklace)
  • Small purse for daytime use
  • Swimsuit (if I’m going somewhere tropical)

Finally, a tired and true packing hack- wear your heaviest and bulkiest items on the plane to save suitcase space (e.g., running shoes). 

What are your favorite packing hacks?

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