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The art of packing lightly: How to fit a week in a carry on bag

The art of packing lightly: How to travel with just a cabin bag

This post was originally published on A Globe Well Travelled in 2014. The content has been revised and updated with fresh information.

I once packed a large suitcase for every domestic and international trip.

I’d pack a pair of underwear and different outfit for every day that I was going to be away, and left room for shopping trips to buy even more clothes and souvenirs. On the journey home my bag would only just squeeze under the luggage weight limit, and I would take forever to unpack and wash everything once I’d arrived back. While this method suits some people just fine, I’ve since realised that it makes travel a whole lot harder when you’re lugging around a bunch of ‘stuff’.

On a trip to Bali in 2014, Rob and I packed one carry on bag that fit our clothing, toiletries, and appliances for two people. Yep, TWO!

I sometimes check in luggage depending on the type of bag I’m taking and how long I’m going for, but the majority of the time a carry on bag is a way better than check-in luggage. Here’s why:

  • If you’ve booked with a budget airline, check-in luggage is often a paid extra. You can get around these fees with a small cabin suitcase or a mid sized travel backpack.
  • Lining up at the airport to drop off your luggage is often a long and painful process. I’ve been in that check-in line for over 45 minutes before, and by the time I left the counter I had to run to the boarding gate.
  • Once you arrive, you have to wait for your bag to be unloaded. This can also take a ridiculously long time when you could be immediately on your way to your accommodation.
  • If you are travelling to a place with uneven roads/footpaths or staying in hostels that don’t have elevators, you’re going to seriously regret lugging around a large suitcase.

Convinced that a carry on bag is the way to go? Great! There are a few essential things you need to know before you start packing: here are my methods for fitting a week of items in a carry on bag.

Packing lightly - clothing


  • Consider a capsule wardrobe. This means packing minimally and including only items that match more than one other item. There’s no point taking a tee that you’ll only wear once because it only goes with one pair of shorts. Ideally, everything you pack should have the potential to be dressed up or down depending on what other items you match it with.
  • Don’t pack unnecessary shoes or accessories. Consider whether those heels that you may only wear once or that fancy handbag are actually worth bringing along. Take 2-3 pairs maximum including comfortable sneakers and sandals, and 1-2 bags such as a handbag and a day pack. No arguments.
  • Prep for washing your clothes often. Take an elastic clothes line and a small amount of washing powder. This will take up very little room, and means you can halve the amount of clothing you take as you can wash after a few days.
  • Pack smart. Begin with the chunkiest items (such as shoes) first, then roll each clothing item and stack neatly. This will take up less room and makes it easier to remove items without the need to unpack your entire bag. Pack toiletries on top as you’ll likely need to access them first.
Packing lightly - toiletries


  • Never take more than you need. Almost all large bottles of liquids you have (shampoo, moisturiser, sunscreen, etc.) can be squeezed into smaller, more space-efficient travel bottles. Aviation laws in many countries allow only a maximum of 100ml/3oz if you’re taking liquids in your carry on, so each bottle will need to be smaller than this.
  • Buy travel sized items. Those that can’t be repackaged into smaller bottles such as deodorant and hairspray are usually available to purchase in smaller travel sizes. Yes, I know the value for money isn’t very good, but it will take up much less space in your bag.
  • Separate your medications. Don’t take the entire container of your pills when you’ll only need a few! Extract the exact amount of medication you’ll require and place it in a click zip bag for safekeeping.
Packing lightly - appliances


  • Ditch the books for an e-reader. I’m a huge fan of reading novels while travelling, but physical books take up so much space and will quickly have you exceed your luggage weight limit. Purchasing an e-reader (I use the Amazon Kindle) will allow you to load multiple books and just download a new one when you’ve finished what you’re reading.
  • Choose travel-friendly appliances. Taking hair appliances can be a waste of space but I do like to look good in my travel photos, so I recently invested in a GHD styler which means I now have a hair curler and straightener in one. And if you’re going to take a hairdryer, I highly recommend getting one in a compact travel size! I use a travel hairdryer by VS Sassoon.
  • Combine your chargers and cords. Chargers can be an absolute mess when you have to take a different cord for each of your devices. If you can, get USB chargers so that you can use either your laptop USB ports, or take one USB wall plug. Another option is to have multiple devices that use the same charger.

If you’re worried about leaving behind an item that you might later decide that you need, just remember that you can likely buy it when you get to your destination.

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