Travel Packing – Reduce Your Stress Packing for Carry On Only (Updated for 2017)

When it comes to travel packing, there are almost as many styles as there are travelers. Stand at any check-in counter for an international flight and you will see many of them.

The family with three trolleys overflowing with luggage – mom and dad, one to three kids, and maybe a grandma along for the fun. My first thought is always that they are moving overseas. However, if you are in that line long enough you are likely to hear a conversation about their two week trip abroad!

Family of Three Traveling for One Week
Family of Three Traveling for One Week

The couple who each have a medium sized backpack about the size you would use for an all day hike. Often dressed in shorts and sandals, clearly they are taking an exotic weekend excursion to Paris. But no, you hear them talking about how much they will miss their dog during their six months abroad.

Then there is the single traveler, maybe on business, who looks like they tried to keep it light, but couldn’t quite pull it off. The suitcase they are checking is just a couple of inches too large for a carry on. You look at the additional suitcase that they are holding and know that this is one of those suitcases that a few passengers will be called on to help try to shove into the overhead bin.

Close but Not Quite Ready for Carry On
Close but Not Quite Ready for Carry On

I am the one in line with no bags to check, an appropriately sized wheeled carry on and one personal item (that almost pushes the acceptable boundaries, but not quite), looking with envy at the couple with the backpacks and wondering why I cannot manage to pull that off.

What I do pull off successfully is keeping my rolled carry on at 9 inches by 14 inches by 20 inches. My personal sized backpack is right at most of the limits at 8 inches by 12 inches by 17 inches. If I am bringing a tablet rather than my laptop I switch to a smaller backpack.

My Trusty Travel Companions
My Trusty Travel Companions

So, what do I bring along? First of all let’s talk about a few good packing tips that I have picked up over the years.

1. Always bring less than you think you need!

2. If you are going to be gone for a month – bring just enough shampoo and like items for a week. It is easy to buy what you need almost anywhere for no more than you would spend at home.

3. Other than prescription medicines, do not worry about bringing along a first aid kit that covers every possibility unless you are taking a trip to an isolated location.  I always have a few band aids of various sizes, a small supply of pain reliever such as Advil or Tylenol and an antibiotic ointment. There are pharmacies around every corner in most countries in Europe if you need more than the basics.

4. Color coordinate your wardrobe and keep it neutral. Accessorize with a scarf to add some color. Think about how you can layer your clothes to create the warmth you might need instead of packing a heavy sweater.

5. Wear your heaviest clothes and shoes on the plane plus your sweater and coat no matter how hot it is. You can shed the outerwear once inside the airplane. I have to confess I have been known to put my camera and chargers in my coat pockets when packed to the max!

6. Shoes are always a struggle for me. I usually do not bring a second pair, but I fear that will get me in trouble one day. If bringing a second pair, go for as light weight as possible.

7. I pack the same whether going for a week or a month. My travel style usually means at least some of my stays will be in rentals by owner where I will have access to a washing machine. There are usually self-service laundries available in any city and many hotels. That being said, think about clothes that can be washed in a sink and dry easily when choosing what to pack.

8. These days I carry all of my reading material on a Kindle, including guide books. The guide books can also be read with a Kindle app on your smartphone. If you need the feel of those pages, tear out the pages you need from the guidebook and leave the rest at home. You can discard them along the way when you no longer need them. (As a book lover my heart is racing as I type this sacrilege!).

9. Pack for the weather that you expect, do not pack for the worst case scenario. One of the best travel tips I picked up in the past year was from Lynne Martin, author of Home Sweet Anywhere. For unexpected clothing needs, such as unseasonably hot weather or unexpected storms, go to a local Salvation Army or thrift shop (you will find thrift shops in even the smallest of towns) and buy what you need. Donate it back to the thrift shop when you move on.

My List (would vary slightly for a man)

3 lightweight short sleeved knit tops – you can use them alone or as layers in colder weather

1 medium weight long sleeved knit top

1 dressier blouse – just in case of a night out

2 pairs of gauze knit pants – easy to wash and they dry easily (if traveling in cooler weather, 2 pairs of medium weight knit pants)

1 pair light weight black knit slacks (can be used with dressy blouse)

1 pair of shorts

1 cardigan

1 lightweight raincoat (can double as a robe if you have unexpected company)

1 lightweight thermal underwear bottoms

1 lightweight nightgown or pair of pajamas

5 pairs of underpants that dry quickly

4 pairs of socks

2 bras – at least one that dries quickly

1 swimming suit if you like to get in the water

1 nylon drawstring backpack – they take up no room in your suitcase and can be used for shopping at farmers markets or on an afternoon hike

Very small purse

Prescription Medications

Toiletries for one week

Small flashlight

1 dozen zip lock bags of varied sizes – I use these to store food at my accommodations, pack clothes that have not dried and I find them invaluable

Kindle or other electronic reader

Travel alarm

Plug adapters – be sure to check out what is required in the countries that you will be visiting. Also check your electronics to make sure they can accept the voltages for those countries. If not you will also need power converters.

Earplugs – I use them rarely, but boy am I glad I have them when I need them.

Electronics – This will be a very personal list for most. Just remember to bring only what you really must have and the smallest and lightest weight choice for each item. I would bring a USB drive to store photos and carry it separately from where the original images are stored.

Yes, all of this does fit in my two carry-ons!

I have not included travel documents, credit cards, cash or anything else that you will be carrying on your person and not in your carry-ons.

Current carry on size limits of some major airlines at the time of the writing of this article:

Carry On

United – 9 inches x 14 inches x 22 inches (22 cm x 35 cm x 56 cm), including handles and wheels American – 22″ long x 14″ wide x 9″ tall or 115cm (56 x 36 x 23 cm)

Delta – may not exceed 45 linear inches (or 114 cm) in combined length, width and height, including any handles and wheels and must fit easily in the Carry-on Baggage Check (approximately 22″ x 14″ x 9″ or 56 x 35 x 23 cm)

British Air – 56cm x 45cm x 25cm (22in x 18in x 10in) including handles, pockets and wheels

Personal Item

United – 9 inches x 10 inches x 17 inches (22 cm x 25 cm x 43 cm)

American – Must be smaller than your carry on and must fit under your seat

Delta – 1 purse, briefcase, camera bag or diaper bag or 1 laptop computer (computers cannot be checked) or 1 item of a similar or smaller size to those listed above

British Air – 45cm x 36cm x 20cm (18in x 14in x 8in) including handles, pockets and wheels

Do not forget the additional carry on restrictions regarding liquids, electronics, etc. Some airlines also impose a weight limit on their carry-ons, so be sure to check if there are any weight restrictions for your flight.

Pack light and enjoy your flight!

Kathy Stafford
Kathy Stafford

Kathy Stafford is a writer, publisher and editor. She was a contributing author to "Sasha Cohen Fire on Ice". She has been a contributing editor to several publications including, "Discover Balboa Park: A Complete Guide". Kathy was publisher and editor of "Skating Sketches", reporting on figure skating worldwide, for over ten years. She was a credentialed journalist as a figure skating specialist for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City. She has covered international skating events in Switzerland, France, Finland, England, Canada and the United States with published articles in Canada, Japan, and the United States. Although she never accepted an assignment, she was on the list of approved Lonely Planet authors for three years. She is currently combining her love of travel, and her background as a writer and editor, as a publisher and author of travel related journalism. In addition, she blogs about her search for her family roots at

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