How to Pack Like a Pro: Tips for Fitting all of Your Shoes, Makeup, and Accessories into a Carry-On

Shoes I packed for my bachelorette party weekend….obviously broke a few of my rules for this trip.

When we travel, we travel fast. We hit as many touristy spots as possible, stay in hostels, take a million trains, eat from street carts, shop the local markets, and are always in such a hurry that we are basically running from one stop to the next. I really enjoy our traveling habits because we always get to see and experience four times as much as the average traveler.

The only downside is when we are running, we are often carrying our luggage. After carrying my suitcase and backpack through a tiny village in China, on a sketchy bus in Shanghai, and up 4,000 steps in Hong Kong I learned to pack much lighter.

In my pre-world-traveling years I pack my life into very large suitcases….an outfit for every day, jewelry to match, 10 different pairs of shoes, an extra swimsuit, a blow-dryer, straightener, and curling iron, 10 books, a computer, a travel game, first aid kit, snacks, a coat, rain boots, pillow, the kitchen sink, etc, etc. So, when we (i.e. me, Husband, dad-in-law, and Zoey…AKA our travel group) decided to start traveling with only a carry-on, I had to seriously re-work my packing habits.

My first really big challenge was packing a carry-on for three weeks in Japan. I was so concerned about surviving out of a carry-on for 3 weeks that I started planning and packing months in advance. Turns out my careful planning paid off. I was incredibly successful that trip (everyone asked me for something they needed, but forgot to pack). Now, I follow my carry-on packing rule EVERY TIME I travel. (Minus Christmas and the wedding.)

This is especially helpful now that every damn airline charges for checking any bags now!

Because I know you are all dying for my secrets, I made an easy to follow list of steps for your next trip! You’re so very welcome…really no need to thank me.

1. Make a list of everything you want to bring…now take half the items off the list. You do not need that third bikini.

2. Plan an outfit for every day you will be gone, BUT every outfit must be rearranged to make a second/third outfit.

To get the most out of the clothes I pack, I typically pick a color scheme. That way all my clothes can be rearranged and still match. The shoes I pack will match everything, same goes for jewelry. For example, a black tunic can be worn with blue jean shorts, with leggings, over a swimsuit, and (if it’s long enough) just throw a belt around it and create a mini dress. To REALLY thin things down pack lots of leggings and cotton dresses (less wrinkly). Also make sure you pack at least one pair of jeans or leggings for the plane ride…It will be cold, and shorts just look tacky on the plane.

3. Plan accessories carefully.

Scarves, belts, and hats are small, easy to pack, and can easily freshen up an outfit and make it feel brand new. That way when you are wearing your black cotton sundress for the third time, you can droop a bright scarf around your neck or shoulders, and completely change your look.

4. Pick one hair tool: curly or straight.

Then learn to put your hair up in a few different styles. This is especially important for pictures. If you are wearing tops or pants multiple times, your pictures may start to meld together. Changing your hairstyle can keep everything looking different.

5. Only bring the essentials for toiletries.

For me, this is A LOT. I use a fold-out pouch with various zip-up pouches to keep all of my things separated and organized. I only bring the bare minerals for make-up. I bring everything for my facial routine, just in smaller bottles. Also, I pack conditioner, shampoo, hairspray, and moist towelettes to clean my face/body when showers or washcloths may not be available.

6. Pack a separate bag (plastic, reusable, or made-for-travel) for all dirty or wet clothes, or for shoes.

7. Pack some emergency snacks. (ONLY eat this for real emergencies….i.e. car broke down, no vegetarian options, or Husband having a meltdown.)

Now…time to actually pack.

8. Roll all of your clothes. If rolled carefully and tightly then clothes will not wrinkle and will save LOTS of space.

9. Put shoes and undies on top.

10.  All toiletries should go in outside pockets or in plastic bags…just assume they will all explode.

11. Make sure you have some extra space because you will buy souvenirs and gifts.

12. Congratulations! You fit all of your essentials in you carry-on sized suitcase! As a reward you get to bring a backpack! Woohoo!

13.  Laptop, phone, chargers, book/nook/kindle, emergency snacks, chap stick, cardigan, scarf, iPod, headphones, small travel pillow, cash, passport deck of cards, and Starbucks Via will all nicely fit into your backpack.

14. Now, check your checklist and double check you’ve packed everything you need.

15. When you realize you forgot your mascara, Advil, and bobby pins do not fret. I promise you these simple items are sold EVERYWHERE…even Albania.

Okay, now that you’re packed you should probably plan a trip somewhere. Also, it’s probably a good idea to put on your backpack, grab your suitcase and run around the block and up a few flights of stairs… this skill will come in handy, promise.


10 Replies to “How to Pack Like a Pro: Tips for Fitting all of Your Shoes, Makeup, and Accessories into a Carry-On”

  1. This is so helpful! I’m terrible at packing.

  2. I seriously packed 3 or 4 dresses for the rehearsal dinner.

    1. haha, well at least you had a good reason! Glad this turned out to be helpful!

  3. A really great site for one bag packing is Doug Dyment has a great packing list.

    I would also suggest trying to go for solid toiletries where possible. It make a big difference on weight savings.

    1. oooh thanks for the info, Ill have to check that site out before my next trip!

  4. Isn’t it fantastic when you learn how to do this? It is the equivalent of the holy grail for travelers. Having done it for a number of years now I am still learning something new every time I travel for any length of time. I also continue to learn from other one bag packers. My favorite new one bag hint is the go-tube – best little tubes for decanting liquids ever (I don’t get paid to endorse them either!)

    1. Yes, I am always learning new tricks too, i love it! And, now I’ll just have to check out the go-tube! Thanks for the tip.

  5. Haha! I loved this one! Great ideas. Now I need somewhere to go and a travel buddy!

    1. New York is waiting for you…

  6. […] her. Husband and I have learned to be very light packers over our years of traveling. I even wrote a blog about it. We only bring carry-on’s, even if it’s a 3 week trip on the other side of the world. It’s […]

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