How to Pack a Carry-On Bag: Tips for Traveling Light

How to Pack a Carry-On Bag: Tips for Traveling Light

Whether you’re taking a quick trip or a long vacation, sometimes it’s just cheaper and more convenient to only pack a carry-on bag. 

Figuring out how to pack a carry on efficiently, however, is trickier than you might expect. Luckily, we have a few tips to help you travel light seamlessly. 

When packing a carry on, only take what you really need. Rolling your clothing, wearing bulky items on the plane, and buying toiletries upon arrival are all great ways to efficiently travel light. 

In this article, we’ll break down all the ways you can carry less on your travels without sacrificing important items. Plus, we’ve included a list of the things you need to pack, and those you shouldn’t, so you don’t run into any issues at the airport.

What is a Carry On Bag?

Bag pack with EDC health related items on a brick background wall.

A carry-on bag is a traveler's best friend when it comes to avoiding luggage fees and lost suitcases, as this compact companion stays by your side during the entire airport trek. 

Carry-ons are designed to fit in the overhead bin or snugly under an airplane seat. Airlines restrict the size of carry-on bags, generally to around 22” x 14” x 9”. 

The beauty of a carry-on is speed. You can breeze from the plane straight to your destination without wrestling other travelers for your bag around the luggage carousel. Travel delays? No problem - you have everything you need in your trusty carry-on. No more fretting about lost or delayed suitcases. 

That said, packing for a trip using just a carry-on takes strategy. The small size of carry-on bags forces you to think about what you actually need, which comes with a few benefits. When traveling light, you'll have greater mobility without unnecessary bulk. And as a bonus, checking less luggage means saving on airline fees.

With mindful packing, the carry-on gives you flexibility and convenience without the hassle. You can focus on enjoying your travels rather than worrying about lost bags. 

Packing Tips for Carry On

Because of their small size, carry-on bags can be tricky to pack. With limited space, how can you bring everything you need for your trip? Luckily, there are a few tips and tricks you can use to make sure you have the things you need without checking a bag. 

So, without further ado, here is the best way to pack a carry on: 

Use the Right Bag

Choosing the optimal carry-on bag is one of the most vital packing decisions for light travel. Look for a bag with features that maximize packing efficiency, such as multiple compartments, pockets, and organizers to separate items, lightweight and durable material like polycarbonate that won't weigh you down, and two wheels so you can roll the bag smoothly rather than carrying it. 

Soft-sided bags work very well as their flexibility allows you to fit more inside. Crucially, measure your packed bag to ensure it follows the carry-on size limits of your airline, and be prepared to shift items if needed at airport check-in. Investing in a strategically designed carry-on creates an excellent foundation for hassle-free lightweight packing. 

Carry Travel Sized Items

A key packing strategy is to bring travel-sized versions of toiletries and medications. Take advantage of the miniature shampoos, toothpastes, lotions, and other items you can buy at most big box stores. 

Narrow your medication down to only the ones you are certain to use. Solid versions of cosmetics, perfumes, and other items take up less space than liquids. The aim is to pare down to just the bare essentials in forms sized for traveling light. This opens up valuable room in your bag for the items that matter most on your trip. 

Plan to do Laundry

You can creatively expand your wardrobe choices with some simple laundry planning. It's incredible how much space you can save in your luggage just by packing fewer pairs of pants and jeans and re-wearing them over multiple days. 

At hotels, make use of laundry services to refresh clothes as needed rather than overpacking. With some strategic laundry planning, you can get away with far fewer wardrobe pieces.

Wear Your Bulkiest Clothes on the Plane

Make the most of your outfit by wearing bulky sweaters, jackets, hats, and other substantial items on the plane ride itself. 

In your carry-on, pack t-shirts, tanks, and lightweight layers to mix and match into varied outfits. The bulkier clothing worn in transit doesn't take up valuable space in your packed bag, which allows you to bring more clothing overall. 

Roll Clothing or Use Compressed Bags

One of the best travel tips is that tightly rolling clothes consumes far less luggage room than folding them. Compression bags are also extremely useful for compactly squeezing more clothes into limited space, which is especially helpful on longer trips.

Use packing cubes, pouches, or folders to neatly separate and organize rolled clothing. This keeps items accessible so you can swiftly grab what you need. Rolling and compressing clothing optimizes the carry-on room you have available so you can make the most of every inch. 

Buy Some Things When You Arrive

Rather than attempting to pack for every possible climate or event, part of the travel experience can be acquiring a few versatile items suited to local conditions after arrival. 

Shop at your destination for essentials like sweatshirts, swimsuits, or umbrellas that align with the weather and your itinerary. Purchasing a couple of key pieces on location spares overpacking and leaves extra space in your luggage. 

You can also do this with toiletry items. You can buy small tubes of shampoo, soap, and toothpaste once you arrive and use them while you’re there. You can also take advantage of the complimentary items hotels usually provide. 

Grab a Shopping Bag at the Airport

Lightweight, collapsible shopping bags found in airport stores come in extremely handy, as they don’t count as a personal item. 

Use them for holding items you'll want easy access to in-flight like snacks, reading material, electronics, medications, or anything that would become jumbled loosely in your carry-on. 

The shopping bag can simply be stuffed into your personal item when not utilized on the plane. Airport shopping bags prevent you from having to force everything into your carry-on, giving you a little bit of extra space. 

Carry On Packing List

Array of electronics like an iPhone and a tablet, also food, a Geogrit Wallet, and more on top of a table - Geogrit Stock Image

Wallet - When you’re at the airport, you’ll be reaching for your wallet pretty often. It’s important that whatever wallet you carry on your travels is not only compact and lightweight to save space, but also has security features. 

The best travel wallet is an aluminum or carbon fiber minimalist wallet. These credit card-sized wallets are lightweight, ergonomic, and can be carried in your front pocket for added convenience and safety. At GeoGrit, our collection of slim wallets also features RFID-blocking technology, keeping your personal information safe from digital pickpockets who use scanners to read signals from chipped cards. 

Before your flight, check out the GeoGrit wallet here!

Electronics - Pack devices like your phone, tablet, e-reader, headphones, and chargers to stay connected and entertained. Use a protective case and bring backup battery packs. Downloading content ahead of time helps conserve battery and helps you avoid paying for in-flight WiFi.

Earbuds - Earbuds are essential for listening to music, podcasts, movies, and more without disturbing others on the plane. Opt for noise-canceling headphones to reduce engine noise and clearly hear what you’re watching or listening to. Don’t forget these when you’re packing, as buying them at the airport will cost a pretty penny!

Clothes - You’ll obviously need clothing while on your trip. Pack versatile layers and lightweight fabrics you can mix and match into outfits. As we already mentioned, roll clothing tightly to conserve space, and wear bulky items like jackets to maximize your packable gear. Only bring what you really need! 

Charger - Don't forget the charging cables for all your devices! This is another item that is criminally expensive when bought at the airport. A charging port is another great idea, especially for long flights and layovers. A multi-port charger is a convenient way to power up several items at once. 

Hand Sanitizer - A mini bottle of hand sanitizer is a must-have while traveling. Look for one that meets TSA liquid rules of 3.4 oz. Trust us, airports are dirty, and you’ll be glad you remembered this item! 

Toiletries - Pack the essentials like a toothbrush, toothpaste, medications, hairbrush, deodorant, and contact solution in permitted sizes. Don’t forget to take advantage of hotel toiletries to limit liquids!

Snacks - Bring some snacks to tide you over during your travels – airport food is expensive! Resealable bags of snacks should last you the entire trip, both while you’re waiting and in flight. 

Empty Water Bottle - This is one of the best packing tips there is. Take an empty, reusable water bottle through security and refill it on the other side to stay hydrated for free. Collapsible water bottles make this hack super easy! 

Medication - Pack critical medications in their original containers with labels to get through TSA smoothly. Inform agents if you have medical liquids that are over the limit.

Neck Pillow - For long flights, a compact neck pillow provides comfortable support for napping. Look for one with a snap closure to easily attach it to your carry-on. Believe us, you won’t want to forget this one. 

Book/Entertainment - Download books, magazines, games, movies, and other entertainment to enjoy offline during your flight. Pack pens, notepads, and other activities too, if you prefer! 

Shoes - Wear your largest shoes, like boots, on the plane and pack an extra pair of sandals, flats, or sneakers. This lets you bring two pairs while minimizing luggage space.

What Can’t You Bring?

A handgun, a pocket knife, a lighter and more - Geogrit Stock Photography

While carry-on luggage provides travelers with flexibility and convenience, there are some restrictions on what items are allowed in the cabin. Understanding the TSA rules on prohibited carry-on items can help ensure you avoid any issues or delays going through airport security.

First and foremost, you cannot bring any sharp objects in your carry-on baggage. Items like knives, box cutters, scissors, spear guns, and razor blades are not permitted. Pointy metal items like knitting needles and awls must be in checked baggage. Baseball bats, golf clubs, hockey sticks, pool cues, and other sports equipment are also barred from carry-ons.

Liquids, gels, aerosols, creams, and pastes must adhere to the 3-1-1 rule. Containers with these items cannot exceed 3.4 ounces and all must fit in a single quart-sized bag. Exceptions are made for medications, breast milk, and baby food. Be prepared, though, as TSA may require extra screening of these exemption items.

You cannot pack flammable or explosive materials in your carry-on such as fireworks, gunpowder, gasoline, propane, lighter fluid, bleach, solvents, fertilizer, oxygen generators, or aerosol spray paint. Additionally, any disabling chemicals like mace or pepper spray are restricted. Flares, hand grenades, plastic explosives, dynamite, and other detonators are obviously prohibited as well.

Other banned items include cattle prods, chainsaws, drills, crowbars, hammers, saws, torches, and tools with a blade over 7 inches. Recreational items like paddle boards, pool cues, ski poles, hockey sticks, lacrosse sticks, and baseball bats must be checked due to their potential as weapons.

Knowing what not to pack in your carry-on means you can move through security quickly and without hassle. Following the rules ensures the process is smooth for you and your fellow travelers.

A full list of items that you can/cannot pack in a carry-on bag can be found on the TSA’s website here


Figuring out how to pack a carry on for a flight the first time can be nerve-wracking. After all, you don’t want to run into trouble going through security or even at the gate. 

Luckily, packing a carry on is easy if you follow a few simple steps. First, pack only what you need and plan to re-wear items. Second, tightly rolling your clothing and wearing the bulkiest items allows you to bring more than you would otherwise. Finally, wait to buy certain items like toiletries until after you arrive to save a little extra space. 

One of the best lightweight packing tips is to carry a compact, secure wallet. Not only will it free up your hands, but will protect your personal information while traveling. 

If you’re interested in carrying a minimalist travel wallet that’s made in the USA, check out our entire collection at Be sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and follow our blog to keep up on all our latest content.

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