Packing Smart: From Checked to Carry-on (Part 3)

Daypack LL BeanEditor’s Note: This is the final segment in the three-part series on packing smart by the travel experts at Torguga, makers of fine travel backpacks.

So, if you’ve gotten motivated by all the benefits you’ll get from ditching overpacking in Part 1 and followed all of the steps in Part 2 to get from multiple checked bags down to one checked bag, you are ready for the next and final step: stepping down to carry on and achieving real travel freedom. – BH, RFT Editor

Step 1: Change Your Bags (Again!)

  1. Choose a carry-on sized rollerbag, duffle, or backpack. Use whichever one you like best.
  2. Choose a daypack, messenger bag, or purse, whichever one you’d prefer to walk around town with. Opt for something the size of Tortuga’s daypack. Since it fits nicely under the seat, it counts as a personal item.

Just keep in mind if you’re on a crowded flight, you might be asked to check your bag at the gate — especially if it’s a rollerbag. Fortunately, on most airlines, you shouldn’t have to pay anything for this service.

3-in-one rule

Know the carry-on rules, including the 3-ounce rule. Courtesy Tortuga.

Step 1.5: Get Familiar with Carry on Rules

This is an extension of step 1, since it might change which pieces of luggage you decide to travel with. Get familiar with carry-on rules when it comes to luggage size, weight, and what you can, and cannot, bring on an airplane. A few things, like what the TSA considers a liquid, bears double checking.

Step 2: Eliminate “Just in Case” Items

Except for basic medicine and first-aid, try to travel with absolutely zero just-in case items. Ask yourself, “Will I use this?” If the answer is “No,” or, “Maybe,” don’t pack it. You have to be able to give a confident, “Yes!” to allow yourself to bring this item.

Matador blanket re-packed.

Tiny, travel-sized items make a difference in smart packing.

Step 3: Go Compact, or Travel Size, for Everything

If you can make something smaller, make it smaller. Every little thing makes a difference in getting your stuff to fit in a small bag over a medium-sized bag.

  • Toiletries are the obvious one. Even though you’ll have to stick to 3 oz or less, now that you’re doing carry-on only, sometimes there’s potential to bring an even smaller version. A 1 oz vile of perfume, for example, can last weeks.
  • Water bottles are something I never travel without. But I prefer to pack a platypus (collapsible) water bottle so it takes up very little room in my bag while I’m not using it.
  • Yoga mats are bulky. Instead, opt for a travel yoga mat. Yoga by Candace has some good reviews of travel yoga mats to consider.
  • Neck pillows are nice, but bulky. Grab an inflatable one you can easily stow when you’re off the plane.
  • Headphones… earbuds are the way to go. (Ed note: foam ear plugs are even smaller!)
  • The iPad Mini is my preferred travel device. It works as a kindle, laptop (with a keyboard attachment), and slips nicely into a small purse. Bring as few electronics as you can, since these, and their chargers, can take space and weight.

    weight chart

    Carry-on bags are limited to 25 pounds.

When possible, ditch cases and consolidate containers. For example, I swapped out my bulky laptop case for a hardcase (when traveling for work, I bring my laptop instead of the iPad), which makes it much easier to fit in the outer pocket of my backpack. Get creative.

Step 4: Plan Activities in Advance

I tend to overpack when there are a dozen different activities on a trip (all of which require their own special type of shoes, naturally) and feel like I need to bring my own equipment for each.


Earbuds or even foam ear plugs don’t take much room.

It’s taken a few years to stop traveling with my rock climbing harness, climbing shoes, hiking boots, a yoga mat, and sports gear for every other possible scenario. By planning my activities in advance, it’s helped reduce the amount of single-activity-specific gear I bring and become okay with renting equipment.

It’s a little different if I’m planning a 5-day trip to rock climb, bike, hike, or do a yoga retreat. However, for trip where one of these activities is one of many, leave your personal equipment at home. Take a look at what the destination is most known for and choose one activity you’d like to do the most. For everything else, rent equipment from a tour outfitter once you’re there.

Step 5: Employ Pro Tips

Try these advanced packing pro tips:

Leave it behind. Instead of saving space for souvenirs, pack items you want to get rid of along the way (old clothes, toiletries, a book) to free up room.

Photo media essential for travel packing

SD drives, jump drives, and back-up memory can be conveniently carried.

Use a list. Challenge yourself to make your packing list as minimalist as possible by reducing what you’ve already packed, then reducing again!

Ditch the destination packing list and use Tortuga’s definitive carry-on packing list instead — for every trip.

Step 6: Organize for Speedy Security Check

Organization is so crucial. It helps protect you against theft, saves time, and keeps you from overpacking. Make sure you are ready with:

  • Laptop on the outside

    luggage cart

    You won’t need one of these if you pack smart.

  • Toiletries in a clear bag on the top or an outside pocket of your bag
  • Passport/ID, phone, wallet, and boarding pass in a hip pocket, or top pocket (though, I usually move these around when I’m outside the airport to prevent theft).

Also, avoid accessories and bobby pins. Wear slip-on shoes when possible. I travel with hiking sneakers, not hiking boots, since they’re much easier to slip on and off.

Step 7: Test it & Take Notes

No matter how much advice we give, the perfect carry-on packing list for you will be different than anyone else’s. The only way to nail a carry-on only travel style is to test it out and take notes on what works and doesn’t work for you.

Was ditching the neck pillow a terrible idea? Could you bring one less t-shirt? You’ll never know until you’ve tested it out, taken notes, and then put those notes to the test the next time you travel. In my opinion, that’s the fun part!

airplane wing

Packing smart and carrying on your luggage can save precious time.

Let’s put it all together now. To stop checking your bags and travel with a carry-on only, follow these steps:

  • Choose a carry-on sized bag, and one personal item
  • Pack two days in advance
  • Pack outside the bag first
  • Pack for fewer days than you’ll actually be traveling
  • Don’t allow yourself to bring any just-in-case items
  • Plan your activities in advance
  • Make sure everything is compact, foldable, or travel size
  • Organize your bag
  • Try a super-pro packing tip, like disposable packing.
  • Test it out, take notes, and try again!

It’ll take a couple of trips before you get your packing list perfectly honed, but before you know it, you’ll be a packing pro. Best of luck!

“Step Down to Carry On: Let it Go!” First appeared on Packsmith.

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