How to Fit Everything Into Your Carry-on

Get tips from One Bag One World on how to pack light; plus recommended compact luggage accessories.

I have an occasional traveling companion called WooJoo. WooJoo is a cheapo black rolling suitcase that I take on business trips when a duffle bag would look too unprofessional. With dimensions just slightly larger than most overhead bins allow, WooJoo has become an intrepid and independent traveler, often taking unplanned side journeys only to turn up days later—like that person who vanished midway through the last bachelorette party you attended—mysteriously bashed and covered in airline tags of various countries. Perhaps needless to say, I don’t trust WooJoo with underwear or other essentials.

Paying an extra fee for checked bags may not be enough to convince every traveler to pack light, compact luggage and fly with only a carry-on, but I’ve got 42 million other reasons—that’s the total number of bags reported “mishandled” worldwide in 2007 by Specialists In Air Transport Communications and IT Solutions’ (SITA) WorldTracer baggage tracking system. If you like having your luggage with you and not off on a vacation of its own, carry-on is the way to go.

In a previous article, I discussed the importance of choosing clothing that can pack light and small (read more about Lightweight Winter Clothing), but once you have your contents selected, how do you fit them all into that tiny bag? I asked for advice on how to pack light from Brad Isbell, who edits the light-travel blog One Bag, One World (OBOW) and who has chaperoned numerous student trips in Europe with his wife.

Basic Tips for Packing Light, Even for Family Travel

Many parents think traveling light is a lovely idea, though accessible only to solo and business travelers whose suitcases aren’t burdened with security toys and sippy cups. Isbell says that the goal is manageable if some limits are placed on the number of gadgets that kids can bring with them. Clothing for young children won’t steal much space, and he has found that even teenagers can adapt to packing light, if the subject is approached in the right manner. Says Isbell, “If you can convince teens that going with one bag is cool and adventurous, well that might make it easier!”

Step 1: Choose the right bag. Carry-ons should be “under forty-five inches in combined dimensions,” Isabell recommends. Devout lightweight travelers eschew cases with wheels, but their convenience can’t be denied. “For families, the best mix is probably half rolling bags, half shoulder or backpack bags,” he adds. “I got started with shoulder bags so I could carry my bag and roll my wife’s bag so she could be free to take care of all the teens that go on our trips.” (Check out OBOW’s readers’ forum for a lively debate on the merits of various bag designs.)

Step 2: Learn how to pack efficiently. Rolling or bundle-wrapping clothing will cut down on bulk, but travel packing cubes, folders and compactors can help keep contents organized in small spaces. Isbell recommends “sticking to no more than two or three [of these] or soon you'll have a bag full of bags. Some of the solutions are gimmicky. Simple is best. And the less you pack, the simpler it will be.”

Here are some recommended packing accessories, to help keep your travel load as compact and light as possible.

Flight 001 Spacepak Clothes

On trips, keeping the growing pile of dirty clothes from contaminating the remaining clean ones is always a challenge for me, so I love Flight’s 001’s Spacepak two-compartment compression case, which keeps my laundry situation neat and tidy.

Tom Bihn Convertible Packing Cube/Shoulder Bag

Tom Bihn makes incredible, high-quality laptop and other carry-on bags, as well as thoughtful accessories like this packing cube that doubles as a day bag once you reach your destination (and add a shoulder strap). It also makes a version that converts into a backpack.

Eagle Creek Compression Sac Set

Make room for sweaters, jackets, favorite blankies and pillows with Eagle Creek’s nylon compression sacks, which have a one-way pressure valve that lets you roll out extra air for space savings of up to 80 percent.

L.L. Bean Personal Organizer

It’s probably not the most compact toiletry case on the market, but L.L. Bean’s classic kit has proven itself time and again with a durable design, including an integrated hook and mirror that allows for easy access to all your toiletries in hotel rooms, campsites or wherever else you find yourself. Sizes range from a minimalist small (6 oz.) to the ridiculously capacious family size (1 lb., 4 oz.).
$19.95 to $39.95