Gear up for a long and detailed article! This pieces covers everything I’ve learned in the last couple years as I try to pack more thoughtfully and efficiently in a carry-on.
I took 4 trips in 2018 but spent many more hours figuring out the best things to pack in a carry-on for a successful two week trip.
So I took the time to photograph and document everything I packed for the last trip of 2018 to Hawaii. I think there is still room for improvement, but I feel pretty happy with what I got my system to in 2018.
Step 1: Building a Packing Template
I use Asana for work and transitioned a lot of my personal lists and templates into it as well throughout the year.
In Asana, I have a Packing Template set up with a basic (but comprehensive) list of things to pack in my carry on and backpack. For every trip, I duplicate the project and rename it Location Year. Then I make changes specific to the trip, but try to keep the number of items the same.
My template is broken down into the following categories:
- in flight
- to do before leaving, and
- to get at destination.
You should figure out the breakdown that makes the most sense for you.
Step 2: Use the right tools and techniques
I travel with an airline approved carry-on and a backpack that can fit underneath the plane seat. My carry-on is relatively new but my backpack is super old – still going strong, though.
The carry on is pretty basic, with a couple pouches and zippered areas on the door.
My backpack has a number of small pockets on the front, 3 main compartments (including one padded compartment that can fit my 15” Macbook Pro), and a side pocket for a water bottle.
This year, I also bought compression packing cubes! I had my doubts about these, since I already pack very tightly. Packing cubes seemed handy for keeping things neat and organized, but compression packing cubes promised to help me eke out a little more space in my carry-on. So I took the plunge and ordered some.
The way these particular cubes work is you use light coloured zipper to zip up the cube once you’ve packed it and then zip up the dark zipper which helps you squeeze out air and compress your cube.
I packed and repacked again and again, trying out various techniques and seeing how difficult it was to compress the cubes with the second zipper. Once I got the hang of it, I could do it pretty quickly and I got even faster during my trip. The compression packing cubes definitely helped me pack more than I could without them, I was able to fit in everything I want to take and still had room to bring back souvenirs of all sorts.
I also use a travel cosmetics bag so keep all my makeup and jewellery in. All my liquids go into a 1 L clear bag which I keep in one of the front pockets of my backpack for easy access during security. Later, if I remember to, I transfer the liquids bag into my cosmetics bag..but often, I just leave it there till I get to my destination.
Roll your clothes
I learned how to roll my clothes from an old Lifehacker article many years ago. This is my absolutely favourite technique. You really can fit a lot more clothes in if you roll your clothes tightly instead of folding your clothes the regular way. There’s also the added benefit that you get less fold lines in your clothes so you don’t have to re-iron as much (although, do yourself a favour and don’t pack too many things that need ironing).
Wear your bulkiest items
I wear my hoodie and sneakers (or boots) on the plane. These items are bulky and take up precious space. You can always tie the hoodie around your waist or put it under your butt on the plane. Sneakers come off in the plane too, so you don’t feel cramped and heavy.
Bring as few liquids as possible
I have had to play Tetris with my liquids and it drives me insane. So I’ve been finding ways to reduce the liquids I bring with me on the trip – accomplishing this and still having enough makeup to do your face can be a challenge. I’ll cover that in more detail below.
Step 3: Pack what you need but need as little as possible
Makeup + Skincare
The 100ml liquid limit within a 1L bag can be really annoying if you like to bring makeup with you. In the past, I’ve always felt like I was making all sorts of sacrifices when travelling with makeup. But no more! I have found a way to feel happy about my travel makeup kit and not have to play Tetris to get it all to fit in the liquids bag!
Seriously, I just toss stuff into my liquids bag every which way and it all fits with plenty of room to spare. Here’s how:
Consider your makeup requirements realistically.
How much makeup do you really need on your trip? If it’s a beach vacation, honey, there’s very little that you need. If it’s a business trip, you’re not going for glam, you’re going for sleek and professional (you don’t need your glitter eye palette). If you’re attending a wedding, take only what you need to work with your outfits, and maybe get outfits that share colours so you don’t have to bring as much.
Get a solid
There are lots of solid or powder versions of liquids. Depending on your requirements and preferences, you should be able to replace some, if not all, of your liquids with solids.
I switched my liquid peach corrector for a solid one and I actually love it more.
If you wear foundation regularly, consider getting a stick foundation, I hear they work marvellously.
Get a stick based contour kit – I have the Fenty Match Stix Trio and it’s great; when I’m travelling I just bring the Fenty Match Stix concealer as my everything concealer (bring one concealer, you do not need multiples for a short trip!).
Get yourself a solid non-gel deodorant if you don’t normally use a solid deodorant.
Get a solid shampoo and conditioner. I use the Godiva shampoo bar from Lush. If I absolutely want to bring a conditioner, I bring the Lush jungle conditioner (but the Godiva is pretty moisturizing so I don’t always need it).
Get a few minis
I have a mini setting spray from NYX, a few mini refillable perfume bottles from Amazon (one of these lasts me 7 days, so I bring two if I know I’ll be wearing perfume everyday), and a set of mini eyeliners. I also have a mini deodorant and a mini bottle of philosophy cleanser (this beauty even gets waterproof makeup off without drying out your skin).
I love having a few things permanently stay in my travel cosmetics bag because they are exclusively for travel. I want to slowly add to this collection of minis until I have a ready to go basic travel makeup kit that I can just grab and go one day. #longtermgoals
I use little paint pots with covers to bring a few creams with me. Two paint pots of Nivea face cream is enough to last me two weeks. I often also bring a pot or two of sunscreen (I colour code the lids to tell them apart). The paint pots are super cheap at Dollarama or Michaels (or Amazon) and do the job perfectly.
Travel Friendly Items
I have a travel hair brush I got from Avon many year ago. I love this thing. There’s a mirror on the back and the handle is storage for hair ties and bobby pins. I keep 3 hair ties and a couple bobby pins in here all the time.
I bought this silicone mat/cover for my straightener and it’s so handy! I never have to worry about where to set down my straightener when it’s hot anymore, and I can put my straightener away quickly without worrying it’ll burn everything.
With all that being said, here’s a list of the makeup I generally take with me – although I could have done without half of it for my honeymoon in Hawaii where I wore makeup maybe twice.
- NARS tinted moisturizer (liquid)
- Hourglass bronzer (solid)
- NARS blush (solid)
- Urban Decay mini eyeliners (solid)
- Benefit mascara (liquid)
- Fenty Match Stix concealer (solid)
- corrector (solid)
- Rimmel peach liquid lipstick(liquid)
- Sephora red liquid lipstick (liquid)
- NYX setting spray (liquid)
- bronzer brush
- Sephora blush brush
- fluffy eyeshadow brush
- Life Oil-free makeup remover wipes
- Avon travel hairbrush
- 4 hair ties
- Straigtener + silicone cover
- mini perfume atomizer (liquid)
Skincare / Hygiene / Medicine
I keep most of these items in my travel cosmetics bag as well, but as a category I like to separate it out. Most of the makeup tips apply here as well.
I have an Oral-B power toothbrush which lasts me two weeks without charging, so I make sure it’s fully charged and take it with me on 2 week trips without its dock. Even if I forget it (or it runs out of power), I always have another toothbrush, but we’ll get to that later.
My normal toothpaste tube is exactly 100ml so I usually just take that with me, but if you don’t, I recommend you get a small tube for travelling and just refill it from your larger tube when you’re packing (here’s how!).
Here’s a list of what I carry in this department:
- Oral-B power toothbrush
- Crest toothpaste (liquid)
- Dove solid deodrant
- Paint pots of Nivea face cream (liquid)
- 1 paint pot of sunscreen (liquid)
- Lush Godiva shampoo bar
- Lush Jungle conditioner
- Philosophy cleanser (liquid)
- 1 Smoooth Away – a little sand paper like apparatus handy for removing upper lip peach fuzz. I buy them from eBay in large quantities. The last time I bought them was when I was 17, and I still have roughly 90. (They last me two weeks per pad, so I’m good for another year).
- Disposable razor – I have a cheap pack of 10 handy and just toss one in when I’m packing.
- Travel Pill Box – my mom got me this super handy pill box with a little drawer for bandaids as well. I couldn’t find an exact match, but this is similar. I keep a little of everything in it: Advil, Tylenol, Peptobismol, Aleve, Migraine medication, Reactine, Tums, and 4-5 bandaids.
- Cotton balls
- Safety pins
Unless I know I’ll be attending specific events (weddings, etc), I pack pearl drops, a pair of silver earrings, and either a bracelet or some silver bangles. Since I always have a pair of earrings and a necklace on, I don’t usually need much jewellery to complete my outfit.
Now we’re really getting into it. Obviously, clothes will take up the most space in your bag. The clothes that make up the basis of your template will depend heavily on your style and preference.
Here’s what’s on my template:
- 2 Pairs of tights
- 7 pairs of underwear (one pair to wear on the plane)
- 3 Bras (one pair to wear on the plane)
- 4 Pairs of socks (one pair to wear on the plane)
- Hoodie (to wear on the plane)
- Black dupatta (officially called a stole in English, but it’s just a long light scarf)
- Quick Drying towel set
Pack clothes you can mix and match
Make sure you have a cohesive colour palette for the clothes you pack. You’ll get more outfits out of less clothing if they roughly all go together.
For my Hawaii trip, I packed 1 pair of black tights, 1 pair of pull on black trousers, and a pair of blue jeans.
To accompany my bottoms, I had a green plaid patterned long shirt (could be worn with any of the bottoms), one short white dress/tunic (could be worn with jeans or tights), a light pink loose shirt (paired with a white tank top or easily worn on top of a swimsuit and any of the bottoms).
So I had 7 light (not bulky at all, except for the jeans) pieces that I could mix and match to create 8-9 outfits. I also brought a fancy dress which I never wore, because Hawaii is a pretty casual place. Honestly, I could have brought less if I wanted, but I like to be slightly over prepared than under.
I also took a black shrug and a long skirt with me, perfect for going to the beach. I would wear my swimsuit, long skirt, and my black shrug. It was a complete outfit but light and easy to take off and on for the beach.
Organize things in packing cubes
I used packing cubes for the first time when we went to Hawaii and I’m never going back. My carry-on stayed pretty well organized and easy to pack up when we were going to the next island or packing up to come home.
I used the long and small packing cube to pack undergarments and socks. Socks were rolled tightly and put on one side, and underwear was rolled and tucked into the cups of the bras – which is hilarious to type out, but it’s a great way to save space!
The mini rectangle packing cube was where I kept my fancy dress that I never wore. I’ll know better next time I take a beach vacation.
My tops were less bulky, so the medium rectangle packing cube was where they went. I rolled them up tightly, laid my shrug on top of the rolled tops, and zipped it up.
My large packing cube is where my bottoms went: skirt, jeans, and tights. I wore the pull on trousers and a black shirt on the plane with my hoodie.
I took 2 swimsuits with me and my black dupatta; all of these things were tucked in and around the packing cubes.
On top of it all, I placed my makeup bag.
It doesn’t look like it in this picture, but there’s still a lot of space in the bag. I was able to fit in all my purchases without a problem.
I read many articles which said to only bring two pairs of shoes with you. I agreed with the logic, but I couldn’t do it. I brought 4 pairs of shoes with me…
I wore my sneakers on the plane, and brought flats, flip flops, and water shoes with me. My flats and flip flops fit into the pouches in the door of my carry-on. My water shoes went into my backpack.
To be fair, I used all my shoes, but I probably could have done without the flip flops – my flats worked as well and I often alternated between them when we went to the beach (depending on what we were doing before or after).
We all carry around so many electronics now. I made a list to make sure I don’t forget a charger or something else. Here’s my list:
- MacBook Pro
- MacBook Pro Charger
- iPhone Charger x2 (one for the car)
- Kindle Charger
- Headphones with headphone dongle
- Apple Watch
- Apple Watch Charger
- Anker Power Bank
I used everything. If I had an iPad, I would have brought that instead of my computer, as it is, I take my computer with me wherever I go. I probably would have been fine without the Kindle charger – didn’t need to charge it at all during the trip (the battery lasts forever when you keep it in Airplane Mode, which I did, having downloaded all the books I wanted prior to leaving home), but I like to have it just in case.
The Anker Power Bank was a new addition to my list. I recently purchased it because I knew I would be using my phone heavily to document the trip. It came in handy once or twice when I needed some juice and we weren’t in the car. Otherwise, I just kept my phone connected to the car charger and had more than enough at all times. It’s a great little power bank though.
I kept all the wires together in a ziplock bag – not the prettiest solution, but it works well. The Kindle and MacBook went into the laptop compartment of my bag and the Anker power bank and one iPhone charger went into my day purse during the trip.
My brother and I flew first class to Paris last year with IcelandAir (their way of apologizing for not knowing how to do a simple security check) and I really liked the little amenities bag they gave everyone in first class. I remember when everyone used to get some form of these.
The bag is cute, small, and green (my favourite colour). It came with a molded eye mask, long socks, face cream, body moisturizer, a mini tube of toothpaste, a small toothbrush, ear plugs, lip balm, and a few towelettes. I don’t keep the long socks in there (I’m almost always wearing a pair already) and the towelettes are long gone, but everything else I keep refilled. I’ve added floss, listerine strips, bobby pins, and a Vicks inhaler to the set – you can personalize your own in-flight pouch depending on your needs and preferences.
After that trip, I decided to carry the bag with me on all flights. I refill the mini toothpaste tube and brush my teeth near the end of a long trip. The eye mask and ear plugs come in handy when you want to sleep.
If you’re looking to get any of these things online, I’ve found similar items for ya:
- Bag (similarly sized)
- Molded Eye Mask (almost exact dupe)
- Earplugs with case
- Mini Travel toothbrush with case
- Mini refillable toothpaste tube + mini toothbrush set
To Do Before Leaving
Inevitably, no matter how much I plan, there’s some sort of rush involved when we’re about to leave on a trip. So I’ve started making this task list to make sure we don’t forget anything important. I reference it and check off everything as we rush about and it has made the rushing a bit less hectic.
The list has things like Water all the plants and Download 3 movies for the plane on it. Big and small things, anything that I may forget to do or should do.
To Get at Destination
There are some things you should just buy at your destination and toss when you’re coming back home. For Hawaii our list was:
- bug spray
- reef safe sunscreen
- beach mat
These are things we don’t normally need at home, so we just bought them in Hawaii. I did end up bringing back the sunscreen and bug spray because it doesn’t go bad and we had room, but the cheap beach mat we bought was tossed before we came home.
That was long. I hope you found my 3000+ word post useful or at the very least, mildly interesting. Feel free to bookmark it for the next time you need to plan for a trip. Once you have a small system in place, trust me, you’ll never look back. It gives you such peace of mind.