Once upon a time, choosing your seat and checking a bag was included in the cost of your flight. Unfortunately, as more airlines offer up “Basic Economy” fares on international routes, what once was a given is now an extra, and checked luggage can cost $30, $50, or even more each way.
That’s all the more reason to pack light. You know your carry-on bag won’t be lost, you won’t have to wait around for your checked bag to finally show up at baggage claim, and best of all, you’ll save money.
But packing carry-on only can be a challenge. To help, we’ve rounded up 18 great tips from Scott’s Cheap Flights staff and jet-setting members of the Scott’s Cheap Flights Travel Community on Facebook. Here are their tips for packing carry-on only and avoiding bag fees.
Put together a capsule wardrobe to bring fewer items of clothing
A capsule wardrobe is a collection of classic items that can be mixed and matched to create multiple outfits with just a few pieces of clothing. Perfect yours and you’ll have plenty of stylish options without overloading your bag.
“Don’t pack options. Pack outfits.” - Travel Community member Allison B.
“I typically pair two or three tops with one bottom item. For example: one pair of jeans should go with one long-sleeved top, one T-shirt, and one button-up. Depending on the length of your trip, add one or two other combinations, and you'll be set! - Scott’s Cheap Flights Customer Advocate Alex Morton
“Coordinate outfits and shoes in color palettes so that everything goes with everything else. Black and white are the obvious choices, but you can do a lot with any combo...red and grey, navy and white. Small scarves or fun necklaces add pops of color to monochrome outfits.” Travel Community member Dawn T.
Ditch the liquids
Who says toiletries have to be in liquid state? There are tons of solid options for shampoos, soaps, and even toothpaste. Not only can these save space and weight, but it removes the hassle of taking your liquids out when you go through security.
“I take shampoo/conditioner bars and Lush Toothy Tabs to help free up space in my toiletry bag. They do not need to fit in the TSA-approved bag and you can downsize really easily. Just throw a few tabs into a small container and, with the bars, cut off just enough for your trip.” - Travel Community member Jessica L.
Many airlines are becoming more strict not only with carry-on size, but weight as well, and sometimes every ounce counts. To be sure you’re within the limits, weigh your filled bag. You can also allow weight to help you make decisions about what to bring.
“When deciding between similar items, weigh the items on a kitchen scale and take the lighter one.” - Travel Community member Allison B.
Buy toiletries when you get there
Unless you’re heading to a remote destination, chances are, there’s a convenience store or pharmacy near where you’re staying and you can pick up toiletries there. Bonus: It’s an excuse to try items that might not be available at home.
“Most hotels provide free toiletries and even if they don’t there’s always a pharmacy nearby. So ditch the shampoo and sunblock and other bottles that take up space and get them when you arrive.” - Scott’s Cheap Flights Social Media Manager Andrew Hickey
Wash as you go
Even if you aren’t staying at a place with a washing machine, you have options. Most major cities have coin-operated laundries and many hotels offer laundry services (those fees can add up quickly, but might still be cheaper than the cost of a checked bag both ways). And there’s always the option of washing your clothes in the hotel sink.
“Both my husband and I only took a carry-on each to Thailand for our 15-day honeymoon and just did laundry around the halfway point. It was like $4 (pressed and folded!) and saved us the hassle and expense of bringing a larger bag.” - Travel Community member Kara F.
“I carve out laundry days every five days or so. Sometimes it’s just underwear and a couple of shirts in the sink. Sometimes we wash several loads. It’s just so much easier to do laundry than pack a billion things.” Travel Community member Erin B.
Pick the right fabrics
If you plan to wear your clothes multiple times or do laundry, the right fabrics can make a difference. Look for items that dry quickly or compress down into small packages. Lightweight layers not only take up less space; they dry faster and are generally more versatile than bulkier, heavier ones.
“I have loads of merino wool jumpers from Uniqlo. They are thin but warm, and breathe well, so you can wear them several times without washing.” - Scott’s Cheap Flights APAC Flight Expert Manager Nicole Pozzobon
“I wear moisture-wicking clothes, wash them in a sink and, in even the most humid conditions, they are dry the next morning.” - Travel Community member Leslie H.
“Leggings are your best friend for traveling because they roll up very tight and dry quickly!” - Travel Community member Jess H.
“Go with light fabric shirts (polyester and linen are best; they are light and dry quickly) and pants (no jeans).” - Travel Community member Larry F.
Have kids carry their own weight
Depending on their ages, consider having kids pack and carry their own luggage so they learn early the merits of traveling light—and you can take full advantage of your carry-on bag allotment.
“My kids have to manage their own luggage. If an item they want to take doesn't fit, it doesn't go.” - Travel Community member Erin B.
Plan for souvenirs
Anything you buy on your trip has to fit into your bag on the way home. If you know you’re going to want to bring a lot home—and you don’t mind paying to check a bag to do it—you can always stash a small, lightweight bag inside your other carry-on on the way there, fill it up on your trip, and then check it on the way home. Otherwise, plan to shop small, or ship.
“If you purchase small items like jewelry or collect some local coins as your souvenir, you won't use up much space. You can also pay to have souvenirs shipped home if it's worth it to you.” - Travel Community member Jess H.
Save space with sample-size and single-use containers
If you want to bring liquid toiletries, you’ll need to stick to small sizes, but even those can take up more space than you’d like. Sample sizes and single-use products can help—just be sure to recycle the containers at the end of your trip.
“I subscribe to a monthly service that sends me sample sizes of makeup and skincare products, which are perfect for traveling. The small sizes are carry-on friendly and the amount inside is just enough for a one-week trip. I recycle the empty containers before I head home, freeing up a bit more space in my bag for souvenirs.” - Scott’s Cheap Flights Content Marketing Manager Katie Hammel
“If you wear contacts, look into getting a prescription for daily lenses just for travel. It saves me a good amount of space on contact solution and is very convenient.” - Travel Community member Tasha H.
Roll clothes and use packing cubes
It’s a much-lauded trick, but it works. Rolled clothes take up less space and are less likely to wrinkle. Squeeze smaller rolled items into the space around larger items. Packing cubes can also help compress your items so they take up less space, and they keep everything in your bag organized so you can quickly find what you need.
“Roll up your socks and underwear and place them inside your shoes.” - Scott’s Cheap Flights Social Media Manager Andrew Hickey
“Use packing cubes, or if things are really tight, put clothes in gallon zip lock bags and suck all the air out of them. This is how I recently got everything to fit in Spirit's really small personal item.” - Travel Community member Laura W.
Wear it again
In cooler climates, commit to wearing the same shirt or pants multiple times. Choose dark colors than don’t show dirt easily and pick fabrics that breathe. And don’t waste space on items you might want to wear; go with what you know you love.
“I bring shirts that can be worn multiple days over a trip without needing a wash. Especially when it is a cooler climate and stays within 50-70F, I can wear the same shirt 2-3 times.” - Travel Community member Courtney R.
“Never pack anything that's been in your closet for a while but that you've never worn because you're ‘saving it for the right time.’ That time will be never. And it certainly won't be on your trip!” - Scott’s Cheap Flights Customer Advocate Alex Morton
Limit the shoes
Shoes are some of the heaviest and bulkiest items we pack, so limit the number you bring by choosing shoes that can do double duty, like a pair of sneakers you can wear both exploring the city and doing some light hiking, or comfy sandals that are equally appropriate at the beach or out to dinner.
“Try to bring just two pairs of shoes! I find that one pair of sneakers and boots (for winter) and one pair of sneakers and sandals (for summer) is just fine, even for a two-week trip.” - Travel Community member Alyssa F.
Wear heavy items on the plane
It might mean wearing hiking boots when you arrive in Paris, or departing from Florida carrying a winter coat, but wearing your heaviest and bulkiest items can free up a huge amount of space and weight in your bag.
“You can show up wearing a couple of sweaters or even double pants, if you need to! Once you're on the plane, you can take off whatever you want and put it in the overhead bin or under your seat. Remember: they may weigh your bag but they won't weigh you!”- Travel Community member Riana A.
“On a Wizz Air flight from Budapest to Dubai, our carry-on bags were 2kg too heavy, so we each wore two pair of pants, put on our jackets, and stuffed as much electronics into our pockets as possible. We learned once we boarded that at least 10 others did that, because once the seat belt sign came off, we were all stripping down in our seats.” - Travel Community member Larry F.
Leave things behind
What goes on the trip with you doesn’t have to come home. If you have some clothes that are on their last legs, wear them on the trip and then ditch them before you come home. Tossing items then frees up space for souvenirs.
“I often will pack old socks/underwear/bras and toss them at the end of my trip to free up space. I also do this with toiletries; I take little bottles of everything and then throw them away before flying home.” - Travel Community member Stefanie H.
Buy the right bag
All the packing tips in the world won’t help you avoid checking a bag if the bag itself is too big or too heavy. When buying a carry-on, make sure it conforms to most airlines’ dimensions and buy the lightest option.
“Take into account the weight of your empty luggage. My pack is amazing, and was designed for carry-on travel, except for the fact that it weighs 6 pounds! That’s a huge portion of my allotted 22 pounds for most international flights. I’m ditching that pack for something that weighs much less.” - Travel Community member Kendra S.
Remember, packing small doesn’t have to mean giving up comfort . . .
It can be a fun challenge to figure out just how little you actually need, but packing light doesn’t have to mean eliminating all creature comforts; rather, it’s about determining what you can live without—and what you can’t possibly give up—and balancing that against the space you have available. If an items brings you joy or makes your trip more pleasant, bring it.
“Inflatable neck pillows are an awesome way to save space in your carry-on and not have to look funny walking around the airport with a pillow around your neck. They go for around $15 on Amazon and fold up in a little baseball-size bag. All you have to do is pull it out and press the pump button and you’re good to go!” - Scott’s Cheap Flights Senior Front-end Developer Andrew R.
“My kids pack 150% of the underwear they're projected to need. I've never had a regret related to packing too much underwear.” - Travel Community member Erin B.
“Always bring a big scarf! It’s a blanket, a cover up, a makeshift skirt etc. So versatile—and handy for religious sites.” - Scott’s Cheap Flight Europe Flight Expert Manager Katie Stepek
But it may mean making some tough choices
Packing light is all about choices and it can be a bit of trial-and-error as you figure out what you truly need and what’s just taking up space.
“Lay out everything you are bringing. Now put 1/2 of it back.” - Travel Community member Julie B.
Less is usually more
“Nobody ever said they wished they brought more stuff! You’ll be surprised at how little you can get by with.” - Travel Community member Allison B.
You’re more likely to regret overpacking than you are under-packing. In most cases, it might just mean you have to wear the same outfit a few more times than you’d like, or you need to run to the pharmacy to buy shampoo, or you have to pay a few dollars to have some laundry done. So long as you bring the absolute essentials, the rest is gravy.
Katie has been to 30 countries, including multiple repeats to her favorite places: Iceland, France, Germany, and Argentina. She prefers markets to museums, hates cucumbers, and once slept the entire duration of an 8-hour flight. Originally from Detroit, she lived in Seattle and Chicago before settling in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and their two strange cats.