Here's our original carry-on packing list!
There is a Spanish proverb that, on a long journey, even a single straw weighs heavy. And like any travel blogger, I have developed my own packing list to defeat the heavy straws, to make travel simple, fun, and light, and to wear “carry on” only with ease. Save your precious travel dollars for food and fun and never check your luggage again.
While the actual list may contain several variations depending on the climate and focus of the trip, the basics remain the same. Of course, if you are planing a more unusual focus for your trip – hiking in Nepal, for instance – the unique nature of your voyage may dictate an entirely different packing agenda altogether.
I use a standard, unexciting carry-on sized Air Canada brand suitcase. Purchased before our first airplane trip as a couple, it was practical and affordable. Already, the thought of upgrading to a more spiffy brand has crossed my mind, but that’s another story! (Editor's Note: The upgrade has occurred! Read all about it here.)
Before the suitcase, I used a similar sized backpack from Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC). I also carry a small MEC shoulder bag/messenger bag as a second carry-on which I alternate with a small blue MEC knapsack, depending on the trip. I’m considering ditching both for a more savvy knapsack – but that’s another story too! (Editor's Note: This upgrade has occurred as well! Read all about it here.)
One of my best packing tips actually came from my husband – imagine that! He’s a great packer too. As almost all carry-on sized suitcases have telescoping handles, there are two small metal “tracks” that run the length of the suitcase’s bottom. The space between these tracks is the perfect hiding location for seldom-used but important items. For me, it’s my mini first-aid kit, a pack of playing cards, and travel size binoculars.
Eleven Packing Steps
I use packing cubes to keep my tiny suitcase organized, but they certainly aren't necessary. In fact, some might argue that they cubes actually take up space and weight, but I still like them. For a standard, two week trip, like our last trips to Hawaii and the American Southwest, I fill my cubes with the following:
1.) 3 pairs of “everyday” bottoms.
For the last two trips, this consisted of one pair of dark jeans and two pairs of outdoors-y shorts. Okay, there might have been three pairs of shorts but I didn't wear one of them, so they've been struck from the list!! For other locations, you could swap out the shorts for chinos, cords, black dress pants, or – as I did during a UK winter – black wool pants with silk lining.
2.) One skirt or dress.
I love my Tilley Travel Dress! I also often include a black, stretchy pencil skirt for versatility and to reflect my more casual travels. While there are some cultures in which it’s more appropriate for a woman to wear skirts and dresses, in the majority of locations you will be very well served by a modest little black (or navy) dress or a stretchy black pencil skirt, which I favor now.
2A – If you pack a skirt as opposed to a dress – you get one fancy blouse or sweater to dress up the skirt. Just make sure that you can happily mix and match it with your jeans and other bottoms for maximum versatility. And it you’re a guy, pack a good quality, wrinkle free dress shirt – with tie! – in lieu of the fancy girl stuff.
3.) 4 shirts.
MAX. Each shirt must go with a minimum of two bottoms and, ideally, you could mix and match all tops and bottoms for unlimited looks. Never take an outfit where you cannot blend with others. For a trip to Hawaii, my tops consisted of two structured tank tops and two V-neck t-shirts. I also had a striped floaty shirt to dress up my skirt. In Malawi, I had short sleeve, collared shirts and organic cotton t-shirts.
4.) Two super practical bras and 5 pairs of super practical underwear.
For any trip, keep space for a couple of items related to your passion, the reason you are going so far and spending so much to enjoy a destination. For cooler climates, I pack 5 pairs of socks. For warmer climates, I go with 2 pairs of socks – one pair of sports socks for hiking, and one pair of everyday, good quality socks for keeping my feet warm and smell-free on the plane. For pajamas, I use a pair of “capri” style cotton PJ pants and a tank top.
5.) Keeping warm - a scarf and a sweater.
Use for the plane and dressing up more casual outfits and one “warmth” item. It might be a lightweight jacket or a shawl or a fleece running top. I favor an unstructured loose cardigan that is extra comfy on the plane. I hate being cold and I've found that even warm climates have chilly moments in the evening or in more remote areas like national parks.
6.) Two pairs of shoes.
Really, that’s it. One on your feet, one in reserve. For Hawaii, I had a pair of Birks (looking back, Tevas would have been better) and a pair of Nike trail running/light hiking shoes. For business travel, you could have a pair of leather loafers practical for walking in airports, and have a pair of low black leather heels for work. If you want to bring along a pair of flip flops for hostels or pools, I think they get a free pass and don’t count towards the two pairs.
7.) Swimsuit and a beach cover up of some kind.
Since many of my trips involve swimming and the beach, I pack the above, including something like a sarong or a tunic top. For Hawaii, I added my snorkel gear and a second beach cover up. For any trip, keep space for a couple of items related to your passion, the reason you are going so far and spending so much to enjoy a destination.
It might be a change of yoga or running clothing. It might be an old smock and a set of watercolours. It might be silk pajamas, down slippers, and bath bombs if you just want incredible sleep and relaxation. It might be nothing at all but reserved space in your carry on for the shopping you’re going to enjoy! Or you might not have a choice and may need to use the space for much more practical items: a larger first aid kit, a mosquito net, and a water purifying bottle for travel to developed countries, or a sleep sheet and pack-towel for those who are staying in rustic hostels.
8.) Accessible 3-1-1 Kit
The old wisdom from Mom used to say that you should stick your toiletries in the nooks and crannies of your suitcase. Others favour a proper toiletry kit and keep a corner free for it. But for modern air travel, neither method works well. You need to have your liquids inspected and your suitcase may need to be inspected (and unpacked then repacked) at a moment’s notice. I now use three small kits. The first, my transparent 3-1-1 kit for liquids, is always highly accessible and contains my shampoo, shower gel, lotion, etc. The second contains the dry items – toothbrush, travel brush, deodorant etc.. The third, very small, pretty green cloth bag with a leather toggle, is my girly bag, containing solid perfume, travel tweezers, mini nail buffer, make up samples, and a few casual pieces of jewelry, like drop earrings and simple glass beads. It’s a lot easier to pack three little kits than one big one, but things are a lot more organized than if I stuffed odds and ends into shoes. Travelling with my husband, his 3-1-1 kit contains sunscreen, mosquito wipes, and laundry soap and it’s nice to split up the necessities between the two of us.
My passion for packing cubes has naturally led to a Magellan’s padded electronics kit for storing various cords, chargers, memory cards, the inversion coil water heater, and more. I am still not totally convinced about the merits of the kit. Love it in theory. But in reality iPhone chargers just get yanked out of the wall and stuffed into an outer pocket of a suitcase. During last summer’s trip through the American Southwest, when we changed hotels every day, we managed to “lose” one charger for a few days until we did a big gear clean out and it was found again. Generally, I am in charge of the kit, while my husband is in charge of the GSP holder-thingy and the camera passes back and forth between the two of us.
Things that make the trip go more smoothly: Here is a category that I have some troubles with. There are so many nifty things that propose to make travel go more smoothly. I could easily buy them all and pack nothing but pack aids! But a few items really have worked for us: a snap together travel tray to keep important documents, keys, and coins together in hotel rooms. A roll up reusable shopping bag for farmers markets. My general advice for travel nick-knacks is to only buy and try one at a time to see if it works for you.
11.) Easy access carry on – the airplane knapsack.
While on the plane, I usually keep my knapsack close at hand. Our refillable, Platypus water bottles dry snacks like granola bars, the camera, the Kindle, a magazine or two, a guidebook and a Frommer's brand travel folder/organizer for passports, boarding passes, membership cards, tickets, important papers, etc… No matter how much we plan, there is always an extra item or two to toss in and it always feels heavy. At our destination, several of these items can be transferred to the suitcases and the knapsack instead fills up with swimming, snorkeling, and hiking gear.
Many travel articles advise to wear your heaviest, biggest items when you travel to save suitcase space. In many ways, this is misguided advice. It’s certainly more practical to wear your sneakers and pack the sandals when you are running through an airport and every ounce in your suitcase feels like a pound. On the other hand, if you wear your hiking shoes, jeans, and sweater in the airport and your suitcase is filled to the brim, you are going to have a problem on your hand when you arrive at your warm destination and start wearing short and flip flops – where are you going to store your heavy items now? Whenever possible, I pack everything I will need for the trip in the suitcase and the remove my travelling clothing the morning of. Your pack will be lighter and easier to maneuver. You can easily change and repack clothing in the airport if you get hot/cold/dirty. And your pack will have a little extra space for souvenirs upon return.
In the accompanying photos, you can see everything I've described above (the “in Hawaii for two weeks” version) on our guest room bed. Looks like a lot, doesn't it? You can then see things at the half way point, with the first aid kit and other small items packed between the handle tracks and the majority of items rolled and placed in pack cubes. With the finished product, you can tell that everything fit in the suitcase nicely, with important items close at hand in the knapsack. Finally, I've removed the items I would be most likely to wear on the plane – jeans, shirt, sweater, sock, underwear, sneakers – and I had so much room in the suitcase I could transfer some knapsack items into it. I moved over the heavy guidebook and placed the 3-1-1- kit in the lid of the suitcase instead of the pack. Underweight, some free space, easy to handle, good to go!
Packing can be stressful for so many people, but for me it’s exciting. It’s fun to get ready for a trip, to plan and daydream. And I firmly believe that the more organized you are, the more money you will save. The coffeecan financier doesn't spend precious hours and dollars standing in line at airports, waiting to pay for checked luggage, waiting to collect checked luggage, paying to replace missing checked luggage, paying for premium transportation to carry their checked luggage. The coffeecan financier checks in online the day before their flight. The coffeecan financier breezes in and out of airports, nimbly darting around crowds, happily taking that earlier flight or free upgrade without worrying about their belongings. The coffeecan financier can even cheerfully volunteer to be bumped and earn themselves some cash, all while keeping their luggage by their side.They avoid taxis and limos in favor of shuttles, buses, and even walking. The coffeecan financier knows they can take the last seat on a road trip with room to spare. They are welcomed at the cottage, campground, and chalet, and no one ever mumbles that they are too high maintenance or there won’t be enough room for all their stuff. The coffeecan financier rarely finds themselves having to pick up pricey items in a hotel gift shop because they forgot things at home.
I’m officially carried away with carry on luggage and I wouldn't have it any other way. (Cat not included!) (Stay tuned for an updated list when we embark on our round-the-world trip in November 2013!)
As always, I welcome and encourage your comments. What are the must-packs on your list?
If you enjoyed this article, you'll also like:
My 3 Favourite Things That Are Always in My Pack
Making The Case for Carry-on Only
Is Your Bag Really a Carry-on?
Posts by Location
Posts by Date