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

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

I used to take a large suitcase on 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 my most recent trip to Bali, Rob and I took a carry on bag that fit clothing, toiletries, and appliances for two people. Yes, 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 carry on. If you haven’t got a carry on sized bag, here’s a comparison of the ultimate cabin luggage.
  • Lining up at the airport to check-in 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.
  • 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


  • Pack minimally, including only items that match more than one other item. There’s no point taking a t-shirt that you’ll only wear once because it only goes with one pair of shorts. You can wear everything twice!
  • 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.
  • Ladies – please consider whether those heels that you may only wear once are actually worth bringing along. Take 2 pairs maximum, sneakers and sandals. No arguments.
  • Pack your bag 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 stored in smaller, 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.
  • For items that can’t be repackaged into smaller bottles such as deodorant and hairspray, you’ll find they 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.
  • Don’t take an entire container of medications when you’ll only need a few! Extract the exact amount of pills you’ll require and place them in a click zip bag for safekeeping.

Packing lightly - appliances


  • I’m a huge fan of reading books while travelling, but physical copies 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.
  • Taking hair appliances can be a waste of space, but I like to look good in my travel photos! In 2012 I invested in a GHD styler, which was expensive but high quality and it 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 travel size! I use a travel hairdryer by VS Sassoon.
  • 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 – for example my Kindle, HTC phone, and portable speaker all accept a mini USB cable so I can take the one charger for these devices.

One last thing to remember is that if worst comes to worst, you can buy stuff when you get to your destination!

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17 Responses to “The art of packing lightly: How to fit a week in a carry on bag”

  1. jo

    Apparently you can get ghd that is usable on wet hair. No dryer needed, more space!

    • Ashlea

      Whaaaat! That’s phenomenal. I wonder if it’s much more expensive than the classic ones?

  2. Melissa | Suitcase and Heels

    I’m going to have to argue on the shoe comment. 😛 Sandals and sneakers are great if you’re going somewhere warm and doing something athletic. I think a good rule is to just bring the shoes you need for the weather and occasion. I totally agree that if it’s only going to be worn once, leave it home.

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      That’s entirely true, it does depend on where you are visiting. I used my trip Bali as an example, but if you’re planning on hiking through mud or heading somewhere with snow then sandals or sneakers would be very innappropriate – you’ve just got to plan ahead for the conditions and ensure you take only what is necessary!

  3. Samantha

    Great tips! I used to be like you too, I’d pack an outfit for nearly everyday of the trip and found that to be really a big space waster. I always look for clothes that can be multi functional, dress it up or dress it down, same with shoes (that is my weak point I love to bring a lot of shoes!)

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Thanks Samantha! It’s a very hard thing to do – I know we’ve all had that moment where we want to take a nice outfit or nice pair of shoes but have to leave it behind as we know we’d probably wear it just once. Multi-functional clothing is definitely the winner when it comes to packing lightly!

  4. Brianna

    I used to have a chronic overpacking problem. I was so proud of myself for my last 10 day trip that I was able to get by with just a carryon!

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      I think everyone has experienced the overpacking problem at one stage or another! 10 days with a carry on is a great achievement, well done!

  5. Britany

    I’m pretty good at cramming all of my stuff into a carry-on, but always manage to forget an essential! Good to remember that you can always buy it when you get there — and if you REALLY need to, you can also buy another bag.

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      I think that’s one thing most people forget – their destination will normally have shops to buy anything that might have been forgotten!

  6. Emily

    Great tips!
    For short trips, carry-on is definitely the way forward. We’re on a two year jaunt at the moment and there are many days when I have haul my massive pack off and on numerous buses – travelling lighter would make things a hell of a lot easier!

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      I couldn’t agree more Emily, it’s especially annoying carrying around a heavy backpack when you’re moving about all the time!

  7. Nancy

    Loved this post even more so for the Black Books reference. Now feeling the sudden urge to put down my Shakespeare, stop writing my essay and watch 6 episodes in a row.

    Have bookmarked this page (and about a billion others from your blog) in the vain hope that someday I won’t be a poor student and can use these tips properly instead of just dreaming!

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Thanks Nancy, the same thing happens to me every time some makes a Black Books reference! Though I highly recommend you wait until you’ve done some work on your essay first 😉

      Being a poor student doesn’t have to stop you from travelling, I hope I can inspire you to get going sooner rather than later!

  8. David

    When we were kids my dad would lake us only take carry on, No matter what. Trips from one week to three weeks it was a carry on. Guess he was helping me for our RTW trip i was going to take 27 years later. Thanks for the skill dad!

  9. Joyce Garber

    Very helpful information. I’m going on my first international trip since the 60s so a lot has changed. This is a trip to Kenya and so I will have to Long flights to deal with. New York to London and London to Nairobi with a 4 hour wait between flights.
    I’m only allowed 33 lb all together for this trip. Since I don’t know how to maneuver the airport in London, I’m wondering if I shouldn’t just have one bag weighing about 20 lb checked in and a 10 lb carry on.
    What are your suggestions for such a trip.

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Thanks for your comment, Joyce! How exciting to hear that you are heading to Kenya. With those long layovers, it’s always nice to have some clean clothes and toiletries on hand so that you can freshen up in between flights. I’d suggest taking a few of those items in your carry on, and put the remainder in your check in bag 🙂


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