12 Best Packing Tips for an Action-Packed Trip In a Carry-On Suitcase

“We are not checking bags!” Is there a more dreaded declaration when packing for a long trip? 😉 We get it. Not checking luggage is not only much more cost-effective when traveling, especially with a family…it also gives you much more flexibility. Tight connections, aggressive itineraries, cancellations, delays, and all sorts of unpredictable and inevitable issues certainly make “carrying-on” less off-putting. Lost luggage is not a great way to start any trip. But unless you are a Jenga master, packing for a FULL trip in a carry-on suitcase takes some skill and strategy. Erin is a pro at this! She and her family recently embarked on a 2-week, action-packed trip to Vietnam and China. And, you guessed it, she did not check a bag. She has the BEST packing tips for making sure you have everything you need for your trip, with your carry-on and personal item…only. Learn all the ins and outs below. By the way, we’ll be sharing more about Erin’s trip in the coming weeks so stay tuned!

For 10 chic and stylish travel day outfits ideas, make sure you checkout this post next.

Carry-On Suitcase Packing Tips

Carry-On Suitcase Packing Tips

Erin has traveled to more than 35 countries worldwide, often without checking a bag due to aggressive itineraries. Packing a carry-on is a totally different game than checking bags. One of her most important tips, before you even start packing, is…be prepared to sacrifice. She says it’s like looking for an apartment in NYC, inevitably you have to compromise something! When you have limited space, you have to be selective and really consider your MUST-haves. Here are 12 more tips you’ll need to pack like a pro in your carry-on suitcase.

#1) Pick a Color Story

Choosing pieces that will mix and match together is key. For her recent trip, Erin chose a neutral color story of white, beige, black, and tans that all complement each other. This way, pieces can be worn multiple times for different occasions, yet you can still create different outfits. It’s like creating your own little mini travel capsule wardrobe.

#2) Choose Basics

By packing basics within your color story, you’ll be able to get a ton of wear out of each piece. Basics with a twist, like a white tee with an interesting detail, are one way to add some excitement to the mix. But that “one dress” that requires a special handbag or shoes and can’t really be worn more than once isn’t very practical when it comes to getting the most out of each piece.

#3) Edit, Edit, and Edit Some More!

This is where that sacrifice that we mentioned before comes in. You really need to separate the must-haves from the nice-to-haves until you can easily zip your bag shut. Do you really need a blazer, a denim jacket, and a cargo jacket for your trip? Or can you find one jacket that functions the same as all three and looks just as stylish with the rest of your travel wardrobe? We’re not saying it’s easy…but it’s SO important to strategically pick and edit the pieces so you can save space in your carry-on suitcase.

Carry-On Suitcase Packing TipsCarry-On Suitcase expander

#4) Use Suitcase Expander Zipper as Compression

Now that you’ve edited, let’s move on to choosing a suitcase. Super important! A suitcase with a sturdy expander zipper is very helpful. Typically, you think of the expander pocket as a way to get more space in your suitcase…we’re telling you to think of it as the opposite! Unzip the expander zipper, pack your suitcase to the brim, and then compress it down to its original size by zipping the expander compartment closed. You also want to make sure your suitcase is made of a durable yet lightweight material, has sturdy wheels, and a reliable handle. Erin loves the brand Béis for durable luggage that is also pretty! She used this bag for her trip to China and Vietnam and absolutely loved it.

#5) Packing Shoes

We all know shoes take up a ton of space. Erin recommends wearing your bulkiest pair on the plane. For Erin, this is typically a pair of sneakers or boots. For a 2-week trip, she recommends 3 pairs of shoes. Sometimes she can sneak an extra pair of sandals into her suitcase since they are flat and she has small-ish feet.

Compression Packing Cubes | Carry-On Suitcase Packing Tips

#6) Compression Packing Cubes

It might sound dramatic, but we thought packing cubes were helpful and then we met compression packing cubes, which are…life changing! Erin has used these from Amazon in the past and loved them. But for this trip, she tried out the Béis compression packing cubes. She said they’re very high-quality and she appreciated the ability to label them if you want to take it to that next-level organization. No matter which compression cubes you go with, they are THE best way to keep your items organized so you can find things quickly AND they’re a major space-saver.

#7) Utilize All Dead Space

Put your socks, underwear, belts, etc. in any tiny open spaces in your suitcase or inside your shoes. Don’t try to fit everything inside your compression cubes. You want to utilize all the dead space you can!

Carry-On Suitcase Packing TipsCarry-On Suitcase Packing Tips
Carry-On Suitcase Packing TipsCarry-On Suitcase Packing Tips

#8) Your Personal Item Matters

You’ll want to think about utilizing every inch of your personal item too! Your carry-on suitcase and personal item need to work in tandem to carry it all. This carryall bag by Béis checks all the boxes. And, it matches the suitcase. That’s right, having functional AND chic matching luggage is a win-win. This cool bag has an adjustable shoulder strap, exterior pockets (a must!), and a padded compartment for your laptop. It also has a separate, removable bottom compartment for shoes, toiletries, or dirty laundry. The slide-through sleeve fits over the back of your suitcase handle so you don’t have to worry about it toppling off. It’s spacious and lightweight but, an important note…don’t overfill it. Erin did have an issue with the zipper when she tried to overstuff it, so beware of that.

#9) Ditch Hair Tools/Haircare

Yep. When it comes to an action-packed trip, hair care might need to take a back seat. Most hotels will have a hair dryer and hair products. And when it comes to humid and tropical locations, hair ties and hats will be your hair’s best friend. On Erin’s trip to Vietnam, it was so humid that she just let her hair do its thing and embraced it…no hot tools or taming necessary!

Carry-On Suitcase Packing TipsCarry-On Suitcase Packing Tips

#10) Travel Size Toiletries

This might seem like a no-brainer, but it bears mentioning. Having travel-sized toiletries is a must for saving room. And it’s also key when it comes to meeting TSA requirements for many airports/airlines. You can buy smaller sizes of your favorite products and keep them handy for trips. Nordstrom has a great selection of travel-sized beauty products here. Erin keeps hers in this clear make-up bag for easy access during her flight which is conveniently also TSA-approved. Having other zippered bags to keep inside your personal item will help with quick/easy access to items like chargers, headphones or air pods, hand sanitizer, glasses, etc.

travel outfit selfie

#11) Plan Outfits

Rather than throwing a bunch of random basics into your suitcase, plan outfits. Think about what activities you’ll be doing like hiking, sightseeing, beach days, etc., and build outfits for each day. Make sure you consider your outfits based on the weather like humid days, rainy days, and cool nights.

#12) Take Pictures of Your Outfits

This is another tip Erin swears by. Try on everything you plan to bring and take photos of yourself wearing the outfits with your phone. Then store them in an album on your device. This way you’ll remember exactly what you planned to wear, and you won’t struggle to come up with outfits on your trip. Sometimes seeing the pictures and how you look will also help with the editing process (tip #3). You’ll maybe realize certain looks or pieces are similar or unnecessary and can be eliminated from your pile.

What’s the longest trip you’ve taken using a just a carry-on suitcase? Anyone longer than 2 weeks? Let us know in the comments below.

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24 thoughts on “12 Best Packing Tips for an Action-Packed Trip In a Carry-On Suitcase

  1. I did 3 weeks in Vietnam & Cambodia with a backpack! Gallon size zip lock bags can also be used as compression containers 😉

  2. Erin, when you carry the carryon and the weekender are you allowed to carry a purse as well or do you use this weekender as y our purse for your ipad and electronics?? Thanks B I started the color combination same as you and then saw the whole story. Very nice. Love your videos. Where are you traveling to? We leave in a month and I’m trying to get it all together and this helps. You really packed for two weeks in this combination? Thats impressive.

    1. Hi Brenda! The airlines only allow for a carry-on and one personal item and do NOT allow any extra handbags. But Erin did pack this paper thin handbag inside of her weekender: She also kept her passport, phone, and other essentials right on top for easy access. They traveled to China and Vietnam for spring break… we will share all the details in the next few weeks so stay tuned!! ~Team Busbee

  3. Love your tips! I could not agree more, I traveled to Bali, Malaysia and Dubia for three weeks using the same ideas. I have four men in my family and we never travel with more than our Tumi expandable international carry-ons and a backpack for the guys and my Tumi duffle carry-on. We are fans of Tumi and I have several laptop purses and totes that I have also used for shorter trips. I set you showed is also really nice, I love the color. I have never heard of the brand, are they comparable in quality as Tumi?
    Greetings from the Netherlands,

    1. Thanks so much for reading, Natalie! Erin does love Tumi as well and shared that the quality is a bit better than what she used on this trip. Her carryon bag didn’t have any issues at all, but did run into trouble with the extra tote bag on this trip since she stuffed it pretty much to its capacity. Hope these tips are helpful for any future travels you have! ~Team Busbee

  4. I’m embarking on a 6 week (yes, six!) trip around Europe, with the first two chaperoning college students, and the rest visiting friends from Malta 🇲🇹 to Scotland 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿. And I’m trying to do in ALL in a carry on and backpack!

    Wish me luck!!! We leave in 9 days and I’m nervous, about this packing venture! I’ve decided that I’m going to go shampoo bars, vs liquid, and that I HAVE to have a capsule wardrobe… with just accents of color- perhaps in the form of souvenir accessories 😊. Any advice would be appreciated! I’m getting excited and I feel the pressure at the SAME time!

    1. 6 weeks is a big trip to plan for! As long as you stick to your color story you will be set. And comfortable, chic shoes of course. Great idea to save on liquids too with bars. Have the BEST time on your trip, Heidi!! ~Team Busbee

  5. Last summer I went to England and France for 2 1/2 weeks. I carried on. I attended an afternoon wedding, so had to bring a silk dress, dressy jacket and semi-nice shoes. I took dry laundry detergent sheets and hand washed my clothes. Took 4-5 no-iron linen blouses and cotton tee shirts, 2 Anatomie long pants, 2 washable sweaters, a couple of scarves, 3 pairs of shoes (including the wedding shoes). Colors were navy and black. My Biaggi carry-on roller bag was expandable to a 24” bag which I checked on the way home.

    1. Amazing! It IS an accomplishment to feel proud of – not an easy task to pack with a carryon only! Thanks for sharing! ~Team Busbee

  6. I spent 17 days in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia with my daughter, son in law and his mother from India… January/ February 2011. I was very proud to just have one carry on and a backpack. I was traveling alone ( husband stayed behind), and had never flown that far by myself….train from outside Albany , NY to NYC, shuttle to Newark, flight to Tokyo to Bangkok then met his mom in Bangkok for shortish flight to Hanoi where we met ” the kids” in the morning locally ! No real hotel/sleep for me ( I can’t sleep on planes- I’m pretty tall ) until that evening after sightseeing !!! It was nuts but had a Great time and packed well. My personal best record.

    1. You SHOULD be proud, Barbara! That is no easy feat. That sounds like an amazing trip! Thanks for sharing. ~Team Busbee

  7. Your travel advice is everything!! I am going to Italy for 10 days and your advice is super helpful.
    PS.I have bought some clothes you have recommended &love them. Thank you!

    1. SO glad this was helpful for you, Dana! Wishing you an amazing time on your upcoming trip to Italy! ~Team Busbee

  8. 3 weeks carry on, which included a wedding outfit (dress, special shoes & jacket) Everything else worn multiple times during our travels to Europe!

    1. Sounds like you did an amazing job packing for your trip, Carole! It’s tricky when there’s special events mixed into the itinerary too. Thanks for reading! ~Team Busbee

  9. My very first trip to Europe was a month long in December crossing over into the first week of January and encompassed Germany, France, Spain, Gibraltar and Malta. I used a 26 liter backpack and spent probably a whole month refining and reorganizing my backpack which, honestly, was part of the excitement and anticipation of the trip. I had everything I needed and more and of course wore my bulkiest items on the plane. The only thing was, I didn’t have enough extra room for souvenirs and gifts, so mailed some home and they never made it😕. Also, I was 64 years old and the backpack was getting really heavy after a while – would have appreciated having the option of wheels. It was a fabulous trip, though, and one I look back on very fondly!

    1. Amazing job, Mary!! That is a big trip and it sounds like you did a wonderful job. You’ve pointed out one really important piece of the puzzle – planning ahead with plenty of time!! So sorry that your souvenirs and gifts didn’t make it… that would be so sad. A roller bag is definitely the way to go! Thanks so much for reading. ~Team Busbee

  10. I’ve done several 2 week trips but three weeks are my longest – France and Thailand. I admit packing in the winter is a bit more challenging then in hot climates.

    1. Packing in the winter IS more of a challenge for sure! Layers and bulky items simply take up so much of the valuable space in your bag… It sounds like you’ve got this figured out though, Beth! Thanks for reading. ~Team Busbee

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