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How to use packing cubes + tips to travel with only a carry-on!

I’ve had a lot of travel this year, including 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 to Palm Beach last January. 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.

And with the holidays right around the corner, that means more yet travel so I thought I’d refresh this post with some pointers to help y’all as you hit the road or head for the skies!

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!

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.

how to pack light

best packing cubes

packing cubes

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 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 upgrade, I’ll probably get these since they’re similar in size and structure and will likely 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.

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, not forgetting anything and not overpacking. 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 also use Wunderlist.) My lists:

  1. Outfit planning – more on that below

  2. Every time items, e.g. pajamas, socks, sleep eye mask, earplugs

  3. Running Gear

  4. Toiletries + skincare & makeup

  5. Morning of items

A note on toiletries/morning of items: I keep a bag of smaller 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 swear by this brush holder for my makeup brushes (use code FOODIE for 20% off!).

It’ll be nice to just grab my travel toiletry bag and not have to plan around the morning departure and what I’ll need to use before it gets packed! The other “morning of items” are things like my makeup, airpods, 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 blowdryer 50% of the time).

race weekend checklist

packing tips

carry on packing list

3. A solid backpack

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.

I prefer a backpack since it holds my snacks, wallet, phone, keys, and a book without it being disorganized in a giant heap at the bottom of a tote. Plus, they’re all things I need the day of travel, in particular. This is the backpack I have.

I also pack a small cross-body purse that I can use when I get to my destination.

carry on bag

backpack

4. A bag of cords

This bag never leaves my backpack, ever. And I never borrow cords from it. 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.

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.

travel tips

5. Away luggage

My Away luggage is a relatively recent acquisition in the last 6 months, 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 and the medium bag for when I have to check. I typically only check a bag if Tommy is traveling with me – ha! 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!

best packing cubes

away luggage review

pack in a carry on

away luggage

 

luggage | cubes

Other packing tips to only take a carry-on bag

Outfit planning

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.

My go-to jackets are my jean jacket and my Patagonia Nano Puff. The jean jacket goes with EVERYTHING and the nano puff compresses and packs into its own zip pocket which is a major space saver.

 

packing tips

Note: This is my packing list from my most recent trip to Utah/Phoenix but the pictures are from my trip to Florida in January when I was less rushed, 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 take just one pair of jeans, maybe two and I make sure they’re very different. For the Utah/Phoenix trip, I took this pair of dark blue jeans and these white jeans.

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.

Shoes

Some running shoes just don’t look cute (cough, Hokas) so I always take my Adidas on trips 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. But for travel, I take an older pair that can serve multiple purposes.

However, for my trip to Utah and Phoenix, I took three pairs of running shoes since I’m deep in training for the 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.

Other shoe tips: go for neutrals (nude heels, nude flat sandals, nude heeled sandals) and pack shoes that can be dressed up or down (open toe booties or loafers are great for this).

Laundry

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 necessitate it. I will rewear regular clothes, no problem. But sweaty capris or a drenched tank? Only in desperation. 😉

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!

Packing List

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!

 

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  • Theresa
    at

    Where is the white case from? I LOVE the idea of having a cord bag! Why didn’t I think of that?? I also need a the Away suitcase!

  • Jennifer
    at

    This post is EVERYTHING. I also make lists of what to wear and when I’m wearing it. But adding the weather forecast is a great idea. I love how organized everything is! I have a 6 day work trip this year (I’ll have to check a bag) and I’m going to Disney World for a week in the fall. This post is super helpful!

  • Tracy
    at

    This was perfect timing and so helpful as I’m packing for a trip TODAY! I also have the Away Bigger Carry-on. Great purchase. I actually also bought the Away Daypack to go with it. It slips over the extended handle when I don’t want it on my back. I love it and highly recommend.

    Where did you get the hard white case for cords? Love the idea of always keeping it in you bag.

  • Tracy
    at

    Super helpful post! Love Away bags. Where is the hard white case from?

  • Kath
    at

    Loved reading this on the car ride home from a long trip! I love packing cubes but I think I need pretty ones like you.

  • Katie
    at

    I need to bookmark this!! I always struggle with packing for longer trips.