How to use packing cubes to help you pack light!
My most crazy year of travel was 2019, which included over 30 flights. And there was only ONE trip where I actually checked a bag. When I went to Palm Beach in January, I took only a carry on bag. That trip involved business attire, casual time, nice dinners and a black tie event. Another time, I took a nine-day trip, heading first to Phoenix and then to Utah and again I took only a carry-on with packing cubes, despite dramatically different weather in each location. This to say, I bet I could pack for southeast Asia in just a carry on, if I tried.
While all of my travel was cancelled in 2020, I still took a few car trips where I wanted to pack light. And now that things are opening back up, I thought I’d refresh this post with some pointers to help y’all as you hit the road or head for the skies! If you’re traveling with a baby, check out this post from my baby sleep consultant and travel agent.
I try to systemize everything in life (but seriously…) and travel is no different. In this post, I’m sharing my top packing tips, including the systems I use for packing, plus the key travel gear pieces I use to keep my packing organized and help ensure I don’t forget anything. Be sure to watch my IGTV Packing Tips video so you can see more details about what goes in my carry-on and how I fit it all in my suitcase!
How to use packing cubes and tips to travel with only a carry-on bag
Before you start, make sure you have a carry-on sized bag to pack in! Most suitcases will tell you on the website if they’re carry-on approved. The carry on weight limit is 40 lbs, but you shouldn’t have an issue with that since the bag is smaller than a typical suitcase.
1. Packing cubes
I never, ever, ever pack without packing cubes. Packing with packing cubes saves space, keep things organized when packing and also when I’m at my destination. Before I start packing clothes, I lay everything out first so I can make sure I have complete outfits (e.g. shoes, jeans, top, jacket that match) and then put them into packing cubes by category, not by day since that would require more cubes. Running clothes together. Normal clothes together. Undies together. Etc.
When I first started packing with these cubes, I ordered some off of Amazon. Now I use the Away cubes and I love that they fit right in my Away luggage. If you decide to purchase from Away, use this link for $20 off!
What’s the point of packing cubes
Some people use them to save space, which they certainly do, but I like them to keep things organized so when I land I know where everything is. I hate digging through things in a hotel or wherever I’m staying, especially if I have an early morning run.
Sometimes I pop the cubes into the dresser drawers and sometimes I just keep them in my suitcase. Either way, it keeps things together neatly.
What are the best packing cubes
Eh, I don’t think it really matters but I know people have strong feeling about which packing cubes (aka packing bags) they use. I like ones that have a variety of sizes, some that lay flat (for socks and underwear) and some that have a little depth (for clothes). I used to have these from Amazon and they’re fine. They’re not super high quality but only one has torn after having them for 12+ months with a ton of trips (over 30 flights). When I upgraded, I got the Away packing cubes and I love them. They’re similar in size and but more structured and will last a long time.
A note about packing folders: I find they aren’t big enough and wrinkle my clothes more. So I go for packing cube sets that include a couple of flat envelopes. I’ve never used compression bags so I can’t speak to those!
How to use packing cubes
Again, people have super strong feelings about this. My strong feelings: I roll my running clothes and put them into a packing cube with running socks, sports bras and any fuel and/or protein I’m bringing. But I fold my normal clothes. I find this helps my clothes get less wrinkled and laying bulkier things flat (e.g. jeans, sweaters) saves space. Rolling your clothes saves space if they’re wrinkle free.
I also divide my clothes by type into packing cubes. All my running and workout clothes go in one cube and my casual clothes go in another. I put my socks and underwear in another one (typically a small cube or flat envelope). If I have dressier items, I put those with the casual clothes or in their own cube or flat zip envelope.
2. Lists in OneNote
A comprehensive travel packing list is key for staying organized, so I don’t forget anything and don’t overpack. I have five lists in OneNote that I reference for EVERY SINGLE TRIP, whether it’s a week-long trip or a long weekend. (OneNote is a Microsoft program but you could use any digital to-do list.) My lists:
1. Outfit planning – more on that below
3. Running Gear
4. Toiletries + skincare & makeup (3.4 ounces remember!) I put mine in a quart size plastic bag to prevent any leaking. If you can find solid toiletries of any of your products (a bar of soap rather than body wash), this helps with the leakage problem we’re all trying avoid.
5. Morning-of items
A note on toiletries/morning of items: I keep a smaller bag of travel sized items that I’m slowly working to build out . Whenever Beautycounter releases travel size items, I buy them so my travel-only toiletries are nearly complete. And I LOVE this toiletry case! The other “morning of items” are things like my makeup, airpods, glasses, water bottle, etc.
I don’t necessarily take EVERYTHING on every list for every trip, but I just check off what I know I’m not taking from the get-go. That way I don’t forget anything on future trips where I do take more (e.g. I take my beloved blowdryer 50% of the time).
3. A solid backpack or tote
For most trips, I ditch the idea of a cute bag and use something practical that won’t hurt my shoulder and keeps my hands free. And for me, that’s a backpack that fits and protects my laptop. If I’m traveling for work, I may take this tote bag instead so I can use for meetings. But, in general, I prefer a backpack since it holds my snacks (I never travel without Ginger Chews), a travel pillow, wallet, boarding pass, phone, keys, and a book without it being disorganized in a giant heap at the bottom of a tote. This is the backpack I have. I bring this as my personal item.
Whether I take a backpack or tote, I also pack a small cross-body purse that I can use when I get to my destination.
4. A bag of cords
This bag never leaves my backpack, ever. And I never borrow cords from it when I’m not traveling. I don’t want to be scrambling when I’m traveling to find the cords I need or arrive somewhere and realize I’m missing a key charger. So I keep this easily accessible in my backpack.
I bought duplicates of cords for this very purpose and I have every type of cord I use in life in that bag: iPhone, Garmin, car phone charger, etc. This little hard case mini suitcase is from Away and they only have it during the holiday season. So keep an eye out! But, I recently got this Cuyana Tech case and like it even better since this hard-side cases doesn’t smush in a backpack very well and takes up a lot of room.
5. Away luggage
I purchased my first Away luggage about a year ago, after having the same luggage since I graduated college over 12 years ago. And it’s been worth EVERY penny. It magically holds more than my soft-shell luggage, keeps things organized, and is so much lighter. And light luggage is key when you’re 5’1″ and trying to lift luggage into the overhead bins. (Maybe I should go back to Crossfit for this reason? 😉 )
I own the Away larger carry-on luggage and the medium bag for when I have to check bags. I typically only check a bag if my husband is traveling with me. He’s not exactly a light packer.
Away luggage also has a dirty clothes bag so I just put the dirty stuff in there and put it in the place where my running clothes were. That typically makes up the bulk of what’s super gross and has to be contained anyway.
I haven’t tried other hard-shell brands but I would just make sure it has cinch straps on the side with the clothing so you can compress it! That makes a huge difference. If you buy Away luggage, use this link to get $20 off.
Other packing tips to only take a carry-on bag
I list each day, what I have planned and the weather. Then, I list out exactly what I wear, including jackets and shoes. It helps me identify where I was planning on bringing something I’ll only wear once so I can change that approach. It also helps me more easily see where I can mix and match outfits.
Note: This is my packing list from a trip to Utah and Phoenix that I mentioned above, but the pictures are from my trip to Florida, so they don’t match! 🙂
Wear clothes strategically
This is especially true with running clothes. If the weather aligns, I’ll wear a tank under a long sleeved shirt so the long sleeved shirt doesn’t get as a sweaty and I can wear it the next day. (This really only works in non-humid places, ha!)
I have no shame wearing a dress multiple times on a trip. I just swap out the shoes, wear a different jacket and call it good.
Also, I always wear a pair of sneakers and jeans on the plane since those would take more space in my carry-on than leggings and/or sandals or flip flops. Depending on my trip impacts which sneakers I wear. It may be my Vejas, my Allbirds, or my running shoes.
Some running shoes just don’t look cute so I usually take my Nikes since I can use them for a run and then with jeans for exploring. I typically NEVER use my running shoes for anything but running since they last longer that way, but for travel, I take an older pair that can serve multiple purposes. However, on a few trips in 2019, I took three pairs of running shoes since I was deep in training for the 2019 Boston Marathon. Running shoes took priority!
Flats take less space than heels, but if you want to pack heels, pack them so the heel goes in the running shoe opening. It protects the heel and saves a lot of space. Wedges are a terrible option for saving space in a carry-on (which you’ll see in the pictures). But I took them to Florida when I was only taking one pair of running shoes. These are SUCH comfortable wedges, so I recommend these if you want to pack heels!
If I have access to a washer/dryer, this helps a LOT with packing light. Of course, I can always do laundry when I visit family in Utah. Other times, I intentionally book an AirBnB for that purpose.
But if I’m staying at a hotel for more than 7 days, I have to get even more strategic — or break down and check a bag, like I did for Ireland. It’s usually my running clothes that take up so much space and necessitate checking a bag. I will rewear regular clothes, no problem. But sweaty capris or a drenched tank? Only in desperation. 😉 Sometimes I’ll wash running clothes in the sink if I’m really close to being able to take a carry-on!
If I can’t do laundry, I put my sweatiest and dirtiest clothes in my laundry bag that came built into my Away luggage. (Again, that’s usually my running clothes!) That allows me to rewear items if I need to so I don’t immediately stuff them in there. Then, when I’m packing to head home, I empty the must-be-washed items into the laundry bag and move any clean clothes into a smaller packing cube. I essentially replace the largest cube with the laundry bag, space wise, so I have room for it! Replacing the large packing cube usually allows for the laundry bag to fit perfectly into my suitcase.
Here is a packing list for you to use on your next trip! Maybe pin for future reference!
Okay, your turn: Are you an over-packer or do you pack light? Share your packing tips please!
I only recently starting using the bag of cords trick after a friend told me that tip and it’s been a game changer. Small things make such a difference! I hope this post helps you feel better about packing carry on only so you can stay away from those slow baggage carousels and pesky weight limits.
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