Tips for packing carry-on luggage
My dad’s been a pilot since before I was born, so I grew up traveling as an “airline kid.” When I got married, I smoothly transitioned into being an “airline spouse,” since my husband is a baggage assembly lead. This means I’m very comfortable on airplanes — while simultaneously suffering from Standby Stomach — but I don’t exactly travel the traditional way.
For one, we never check luggage. Checked luggage is a huge pain when you’re traveling standby since it means you can’t jump from flight to flight as opportunities present themselves — you’re stuck with the plane holding your suitcase.
We started flying with our kids when they were three and five, and while it certainly would have been easier to check huge suitcases full of everything we might need or want, we’ve managed to keep things streamlined and only take what we can carry directly onto the plane.
Ready to dive into how we organize our neatly-packed ultra-efficient suitcases? Fasten your seatbelts and prepare for takeoff …
- Know the rules. Typically an airline allows you to take two pieces of carry-on luggage — a suitcase and a smaller bag, like a purse. We each have a small wheeled suitcase that fits under the seat with no problem. My husband and I each carry a small backpack, and the kids have small canvas bags. When we travel with our dog as a carry-on, we slip one of their canvas bags into the other so we still have two bags per person.
- Limit the clothing. We only pack 3-4 tops and 2-3 bottoms per person and do laundry while we’re away. I make sure everything coordinates so we can mix and match.
- Tuck and roll. Rolling clothes keeps them from wrinkling, and rolled bundles take up less space. If there are tops and bottoms I want our kids to wear together, I roll the entire outfit up and wrap it with a hair elastic.
- Don’t double up. One ball cap. One pair of sunglasses. One bathing suit per person is fine for most vacations, since they dry quickly over the edge of a tub. One pair of PJs is fine, too — in an emergency that requires a second pair of PJs, a T-shirt and underwear would work.
- Pack multipurpose items. Instead of packing a jacket and a sweatshirt for each of the kids, I packed a fleece sweater that doubles as both.
- Bag it up. I separate the kids’ items into clear zippered bags — one for underwear, one for socks, one for their bathing suit and rashguard — so it’s easy to see what we have and what’s still clean. (Socks still in the baggie? Still clean!) This is also helpful if Security needs to look through a suitcase, says someone who once had her undies rifled through at Heathrow as a mortified 10-year-old girl.
- Dress carefully for the plane ride. Employees and their families travelling standby are required to dress nicely, so this means wearing fancy clothes and shoes we likely won’t need on our vacation. But we can still layer on items that will be helpful to have on our trip, like cardigans and jackets. Anything we wear is something we don’t need to pack!
- Pack liquids sparingly. With the 100ml limit on liquids and gels, we only bag up a few essentials, like deodorant (not a gel, but sometimes it’s questioned), toothpaste, my face cream, my husband’s hair gel, and Children’s Tylenol. We buy a bottle of sunscreen at our destination, and shampoo is free at hotels anyway (and homes where you’re staying as a guest).
- Keep carry-ons simple for kids. You don’t want them hunting through a bunch of compartments and forgetting to zip up pockets. I recently modified two canvas grocery bags to have tight elastic-gathered tops. They can stick their hands into the bags to fish out what they need — a snack, a book, etc. — and then the bag snaps shut again, keeping everything from spilling out onto the plane.
- Stock it with the basics. We happily let our kids watch videos on the in-flight entertainment system — best invention ever — so headphones are a must. But I also pack an activity book and pencils (my husband refuses to include crayons, markers or stickers since he’s had to scrub airplane table-trays at work), a book, a few small toys, snacks, and their very own pack of gum. The gum really is the highlight of any airplane ride.
While packing carry-on bags only might take a bit more planning — you can’t just toss a ton of stuff in and have plenty options — it certainly has its advantages. We have everything we need close at hand, we never have to worry about lost luggage, and it reminds us there’s really not that much stuff we need on a daily basis.
Of course, ask me again when I’m wearing the same T-shirt for the third time on our trip and see how I feel. 😉