Crowded airports, clogged freeways, weather delays—all are stressful, but lost luggage is quite possibly the worst offender. One way to ensure your limited-edition leggings and new sneakers make it home with you? Pack them in a carry-on suitcase.
Yes, it is possible to fit all your essentials into limited luggage space, and no one knows that better than those who do it for a living: flight attendants.
I consulted Grace Antipala and Theona Kapoi, veteran attendants from Hawaiian Airlines, who have perfected the carry-on packing technique. They’re sharing their secrets to help keep your sojourns as anxiety-free as possible. (Although their help stops once you get off the plane—sorry, but they can’t assist with eliminating jet lag from your itinerary.)
“As a professional world traveler, learning how to pack quickly and efficiently is a valuable asset,” explains Antipala. “Once you have that mastered, it’s the best way to ease the stresses of travel.” At this point, anything helps.
Scroll down for their genius tips on packing for the holidays (or any farflung trip) using just a carry-on suitcase.
Consider your travel outfits and essentials carefully
Before you even think of unzipping your suitcase, start by taking mental stock of what you actually need for your trip. What will the weather be like at your final destination? How long will you be there? What’s on the itinerary during your stay? Use this intel to create a packing list that skews toward practical, multipurpose items.
And while you should be mindful of what you’re putting in your bag, it’s also helpful to know what not to add in. For example, both of our packing pros recommend keeping some layers out and wearing them on the plane instead.
“Some cabins feel warmer, while some are frigid, so having layers gives you the option to remove or add clothes to stay comfortable,” explains Kapoi.
They also suggest investing in special “plane purchases.” Certainly you can travel with your everyday necessities, but both women suggest picking up a few items that you keep in your carry-on (rather than use day-to-day when you’re home), so they’re always there for your trips.
For example, Antipala has a 10-foot charging cord that reaches every randomly placed hotel room outlet. She also invested in an external battery pack for flights where she can’t plug in. Her last go-to plane purchase? A cozy scarf that can act as a blanket, wrap, or face cover for in-flight naps.
Once you’ve settled on what’s going into your bag, the next question is how to get it all in.
Create a packing routine and stick to it
Part of what helps flight attendants pack in a flash is having a set routine for every trip. Beyond using the same carry-on for every flight—which they say is a no-brainer—they also have a designated place for each necessity.
When it comes to fitting as much in your suitcase as possible, there are two camps: Team Folding, and Team Roll-Up. Like Marie Kondo, these pros swear by rolling.
“Clothes tend to have fewer weird wrinkles when you roll them,” says Antipala. “Plus, you can fit way more in your bag this way.” Which means that you’ll leave more room for the treasures you pick up in little out-of-the-way shops, where the internet is still a faraway concept.
“Chargers are separated and placed into the same baggie, while my wallet, passport, and plane ticket go in an easily-accessible outside pocket,” says Kapoi. “I also pack a ready-to-go extra outfit in a Ziploc bag—just in case. Activewear is the easiest option because it’s so light and compact.”
It’s not a coincidence that Kapoi mentioned Ziploc bags twice—they’re a space-saving staple in her suitcase.
“I use these like they’re vacuum-sealed packing bags,” she says. “You put your clothes in them, suck out the air, and—voilà!—so much space. It keeps you organized and lets you pack a few extra outfits.”
Investing in a set of packing cubes is a more sustainable option. Plus, they come in various sizes, which makes it easier to organize your essentials by type with out the same space restrictions baggies create.
Finally, it’s important to set realistic expectations. Because, although the glass-half-full mentality is the best way to live, let’s be real: Travel can sometimes be cursed—especially around the holidays. And in extra-full flights, that means you may need to check your carry-on at the gate.
For this reason, it’s always best to be prepared and put your can’t-live-without-it items in your purse or backpack. “I like to pack an extra outfit, several extra undergarments, toiletries, and my makeup,” says Antipala. Bon voyage!
Originally published December 16, 2016; updated May 22, 2018.
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