Is it possible to pack for two weeks or more just using your carry-on allowance? Of course it is, but you’ll need some expert packing tips to pull it off.
I’m packing for a three-week trip to Australia – in a 40L backpack. I did the same when I went to Vietnam and Sri Lanka. In fact, the last time I checked a suitcase was for the US about 5 years ago. That was because I wanted to bring back some of my belongings I’d left at my parents’ house. For some, packing using only your cabin bag allowance sounds routine. But here’s the full disclosure: I don’t think I’m low-maintenance. I am not the type that will happily backpack around for a month on the same three outfits, no makeup, and just the shoes on my feet.
But I’m too small to carry around large cases or backpacks, too energetic to stay in one place for a whole trip, and too cheap to pay for a checked suitcase on budget flights. How to I deal? I’ve become quite the carry-on suitcase packing expert. And so can you with a few tips.
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How to pack for two weeks in a carry on suitcase
Get the right case or backpack
Carry-on suitcases take many shapes and forms, but I’ve found that one with a zip at the top of the case rather than one that zips out into two halves is much easier to stuff full, even with packing cubes. Otherwise, you have pieces falling out when you try to get those two parts to fit together.
And I always go for one with front pockets. I store my essentials in the top pocket and everything that will need to be out for security (liquids, Ipad) in the other.
Depending on the trip, I either go for my trusty black rolling carry-on (usually for a business trip) or more likely, for my backpack. I absolutely love my Osprey Fairview 40L pack. It unzips like a suitcase so it’s really easy to put everything in and find everything once it’s packed. And its dimensions are perfect for the majority of cabin baggage restrictions.
Start rolling your clothes
You’ve probably heard this packing tip before, but it still amazes me how much more I can fit when my clothes are rolled up tight in my suitcase. Here’s how it’s done:
Start by folding in the sides of tops/dresses. For bottoms, just fold in half length wise. Next, start rolling from the bottom of the garment, being careful it folds evenly and smoothly. And that’s it!
Pack your case starting with shoes at what would be the bottom when the case/backpack is upright. Then put your rolled clothes (preferably in packing cubes) in the middle. Put any non-liquid toiletries, hair straighteners, etc. at the top.
Try packing cubes
I tried packing cubes for the first time for Malta! If you’ve read some of my previous posts (welcome back and thank you!), you may remember that I was considering trying packing cubes. When I use a rolling suitcase, I was convinced I could fit more in by just rolling my clothes and shoving them in. Just the name cube sounded bulky. I was wrong, and ‘free packing’ really does not work for backpacks. I learned this the hard way travelling around Vietnam and staying in about 7 accommodations over 2.5 weeks. The result was repacking stuff constantly!
I think the best packing cubes to get are compression ones. These packing cubes have an extra zipper so when they are full, you can zip this up to squash your clothes down further. I got these ones from Amazon and so far I’m really pleased with them. However, one tip I learned with compression packing cubes is that it is very easy to accidentally catch the zipper on the fabric while using the compression zipper. Putting a finger behind the zipper as you compress it helped prevent catches though.
Packing cubes often come in a set of different sizes so you can have everything organised. Put tops in one of the medium ones, accessories or undergarments in the smaller cubes, and use the big one for bulky items like cardigans, jackets and trousers.
What to pack in your carry on
Take clothes that will work hard
When packing for two weeks in a carry on, it makes a big difference when you can take one item that has multiple uses! In this age of Instagram, wearing the same items multiple days so they are showing up in a lot of your photos might not be the easiest thing to do. But there is no way I’m carrying around a dress just to twirl around in/pose in front of a door for a few photos. Also, if you like an Instagram account that is of a real person travelling without this extra bulk, come follow me!
Here’s my tips for packing clothes for two week in a carry on.
It’s all about neutrals and layer
I always have to stop myself from taking all of my favourite outfits on holiday, especially when I know it’s something I’ll only wear once. Taking things you can mix and match will mean you can have a different outfit every day with half the luggage. And take a neutral cardigan to layer up when you get cold. Lay out some clothes and make sure you can get at least two outfits out of most of your pieces or that they can be worn for several occasions. For example, a simple cotton black dress can easily be worn in the day and then dressed up with accessories for a night out.
Mix in just a couple of statement pieces
No, your holiday wardrobe doesn’t have to be completely boring just because you’re light on luggage. Pick a fun dress or shirt with lots of colour you’ll love wearing. Dress up neutrals with a colourful scarf or fun jewellery (neither take up much space).
Wear your outerwear and heaviest shoes to the airport
It might seem a bit inconvenient when you have to take them off at the airport, but it will save you a lot of room if you wear your boots, hiking boots, trainers, whatever your heaviest shoes are when passing through the airport. And wear (or at least carry) the biggest jacket or coat you are taking. For a beach holiday, the outerwear you take might just be a light jacket anyway. I’ve taken my (small) hiking shoes on a few trips if I’m going do a few outdoorsy things and end up wearing them for the plane.
And put that back in the wardrobe
You never need all the clothes you think you will. A general rule of thumb is to lay out everything you want to take and cull it by at least 1/3. Sometimes this is where planning ahead comes in handy. Roughly knowing what activities I want to do. Packing for that is a lot easier than packing for every possibility.
Shoes take up so much luggage space and deciding which pairs to take can be tough. Unless I know I’m going to need them, I usually skip taking heels. Some dressy sandals that can be worn during the day or some flats I can dress up is usually enough unless I know I’m going for a night out somewhere upscale. For Sri Lanka and Vietnam, I took three pairs of shoes – my comfy flip flops, dressier sandals, and (non-bulky) hiking boots. I knew we would be doing some climbing up mountains and some beach time. For Prague in March this year, I wore a pair of black boots that were flat enough to walk a lot but I could dress up and a pair of flats. That’s it.
The exception to this rule is that I always overpack underwear. And I’ve thanked myself when I’ve had flights home cancelled.
Take a tablet
I love real books, and reading on a tablet just isn’t the same. But the advantage is that if you pack a tablet, you not only have a device to read, but depending on which one you have, you can do any last minute research/use like a laptop (which means, unless you have to bring it, leave the laptop behind too).
Have a travel handbag
I have a specific handbag I use for trips: cross-body, weather resistant, medium-sized, and most importantly, it lies completely flat in my suitcase. It’s a slightly older version of this bag. Some budget airlines don’t weigh your bag (Easyjet for example) but you can only take one bag free of charge. That means everything, handbag included, has to go into that suitcase/backpack. Pack everything, then stick it on top.
If you are flying on an airline that allows you to also have a personal item, use this luxury to the fullest. It will really help you with overflow/on board items when packing for a long trip. The personal allowance is often a lot bigger than you might think. I’ve often used a decent sized tote. Pack your flight essentials in the personal allowance. This is also where I leave extra room for holiday purchases.
Step out of your beauty comfort zone
This one is always tough for me. Usually, I end up forgoing the hairdryer and taking my straightener instead. This means hoping the place I’m staying has a half-decent hair dryer or letting it air dry, putting it up/in braids. It means leaving stuff behind and asking myself, can I live with just one shade of lippy.
It also means taking products that will work hard for you and getting mini products. My tips on that can be found here.
Other minimalist packing tips
Book accommodation with washing facilities
Packing for two weeks in a carry on means you aren’t going to be able to pack a different outfit for every day. And while stuff can be reworn, you’ll probably want to do this at a minimum. Especially if you’re in a hot climate/on the go a lot. A lot of Airbnbs have washing machines, especially if you are renting an entire place. Check on their list of facilities for the place you book and the house rules if it’s a room in someone’s house. In addition, many hostels have washing facilities. You can also get soap leaves to do sink washing but I’m not a fan. I would recommend packing a laundry bag (mine came with my compression cubes) to separate dirty clothes and I like to pack a little sachet of lavender to keep my suitcase smelling fresh.
Leave some room in your suitcase
Imagine if you found something amazing on holiday and you can’t take it back with you because you packed your suitcase too full! In Vietnam, we were really glad we hadn’t maximised our space considering all the great deals we found. And when I go to Australia, I’ll probably bring back half a suitcase of TimTams.
Know the difference in airline requirements
Large carriers are pretty much the same on cabin baggage size and personal item allowance. But budget carriers differ greatly, each as greedy for people to pay extra for a bag as the next. Skyscanner have a really great guide to all the airlines cabin baggage allowance.
If you must check a bag, KNOW IN ADVANCE or you’ll be caught out with extra fees.
Long flights are annoying with only cabin baggage because you end up needing more stuff just for the flight! Luckily most will also let you have a personal item, which is what I use to put all of my carry on essentials in. Needs some tips for what to take on a long flight? Check out my post here.
What other packing tips would you recommend to travel for longer with less stuff?