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Packing Solutions for Even the Smallest Carry-On Bags

by Wendy Perrin | September 15, 2023

Many international airlines have rules that require smaller carry-on luggage than U.S. airlines, whether those rules count by centimeters or kilograms.  I bumped up against such a rule last week:

I checked in at JFK for a Swissair flight to Geneva, and the check-in agent told me my carry-on wheelie was too heavy.   I said, I’ve taken this wheelie into cabins on transatlantic flights countless times.  He said, Swissair was worried about heavy bags falling out from the overhead bins.  I said, what if I remove a couple of heavy items and put them in my handbag?  He said I should try it.  So I removed from my wheelie three pairs of shoes and a tote bag and placed the shoes in the tote bag.  He weighed my carry-on again, said it was acceptable now, and waved me off to the security line with it.

Since I was now headed toward security with a wheelie and two handbags, I shuffled items around so that I was back down to just one (heavier than before) handbag. I had no problem in the TSA line, boarding the plane, or fitting the wheelie into the overhead bin.  When flying back to the U.S. a few days later, I flew United instead of Swissair, and nobody checked the weight of any bag.

No matter what baggage regulations your next flight has, you can be ahead of the game with these hard-earned packing tips:

  • Wear your heaviest shoes. If you need to bring bulky footwear, wear it on your feet rather than taking up space in your luggage.
  • Pack your oldest socks and underwear. You can discard them along the way, making room for souvenirs you pick up.
  • Stick to just two or three colors of clothing, and avoid patterns and stripes. That way everything matches and can be worn with everything else. I usually pack mainly black, then add color with a bright silk scarf (in summer) or pashmina shawl (in winter).
  • Opt for luggage with few compartments. This might sound counterintuitive in an era when we have to cram so much into such a small space, but in my experience, extra zippers, buckles, and straps just take up space. I’d rather have an empty box-like space so that I can use those precious extra millimeters to cram things in. I do like to have an outside pocket, though, so I can quickly reach items I’ll need to access, such as my ultra-light compressible parka and pashmina.
  • Use zip-top bags of varying sizes to make space and stay organized. Instead of using a carry-on with lots of compartments, I make my own “compartments” with zip-top bags. They weigh nothing and take up no space. I place my liquid toiletries in one (for easy removal at airport security), my dry toiletries in another. I vacuum-pack clothes in a two-gallon-size one, and I create my own inflight amenities kit by throwing eye drops, ear plugs, eye shades, Vitamin C, etc. into a sandwich-size Ziploc.
  • Carry travel-sized, multi-purpose toiletries. Use 3-ounce-and-under sizes of multi-purpose toiletries (e.g., facial moisturizer with SPF, shampoo-plus-conditioner that you can use as shaving cream) and liquid toiletries in disposable packets rather than bottles (e.g., makeup remover pads; hand-sanitizing wipes).
  • Bring 3 or 4 plastic grocery bags too. Like Ziplocs, they weigh nothing and take up no space. I use them as shoe bags, and they can also hold laundry, protect a camera from rain, etc.
  • Pack travel-size detergent. Use Woolite packets or Tide singles to wash clothing in your hotel-room sink.

Be a smarter traveler: Read real travelers’s reviews of Wendy’s WOW List and use it to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter @wendyperrin, and Instagram @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

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