6 Packing Tips for a Long Trip When You’re Packing Only Hand Luggage

Travel is an integral part of my life as an airline pilot. Having a simple packaging system makes my life easier.

I am a self-proclaimed packaging ninja. While chatting with a friend about one of the many trips my family took to Europe, I mentioned that we each travel with only hand luggage. His eyes widened. “Really? How?”

As employees, when we travel, we are considered non-paying passengers and we don’t always know if we are going to take the flight. We don’t “check” our bags; instead, we’ve created an easy-to-pack system for a long trip using a single roll-aboard. Working for an airline gives us access to the world, and we use it! Here, I’ll show you how easy it is to pack for a long trip with just one piece of hand luggage!

Make sure your hand luggage fits! (Photo credit: Christy Karsten)

1. Choose the right size

The Transportation Security Administration and US carriers dictate the size of carry-on baggage allowed, and you should have these measurements handy when choosing your carry-on baggage. Although exact limits vary by airline, carry-on baggage allowances generally cannot exceed 22″ x 14″ x 9″. Most carriers also allow one personal item that can fit under the seat in front of you.

Weight limits are another variable to factor into this packaging formula. Some airlines have a maximum weight limit for hand luggage. I once heard a nice line from a flight attendant: “You pack it, you lift it!” But there always seems to be a passenger nearby to help lift a bag into an overhead bin if the situation arises.

Pro Tip: International carriers and low-cost carriers often deviate from this standard size, forcing you to pay extra for carry-on baggage.

hand luggage stored in the overhead compartment
Newer airplane bins are designed to store more bags upright. (Photo credit: Christy Karsten)

2. Push or pull (but don’t twist)

Do you prefer to push or pull your bag? I prefer shoot my wheelie bag. I have found this to be the most convenient, beneficial, and useful type of carry-on.

Note that if you choose a “spinner” bag, you lose about 4″ of valuable storage space due to the outer wheels. About the size of a large shoebox. This is because the wheels and handle should fit to the extent to meet standard size requirements as carry-on baggage.

Crew members do extensive research when it comes to buying luggage. My suitcase has interchangeable wheels that light up, a durable fabric shell with soft sides, heavy-duty zippers, and a ballistic plastic frame with a retractable pull handle. I hook my personal bag to a “J-hook”, and my roll-aboard is perfectly balanced as it glides effortlessly over the roller wheels.

A roller bag requires you to put your personal item on top and use the handle to hold it in place. This makes the bag heavy, difficult to push, and requires far too much effort to navigate. Prices vary on luggage, from a $79 roll-aboard from Marshalls to over $1,000 Rimowa from Neiman Marcus. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. I prefer a soft sided bag to a hard case as it is easier to store.

3. Plan, plan, plan!

To become a packaging ninja, planning is the key to success. I will now share the art of the pack.

When you’re packing for an extended vacation, every item in your wardrobe matters. Create a travel capsule wardrobe. A simplified and carefully chosen wardrobe with interchangeable parts. Neutral shades work best with other neutrals, and pops of color can be added with accessories, scarves, hats or bags.

Before I pack my bags, I prep all of my outfits and make sure each piece works with the entire wardrobe. Clever packaging can turn a few pieces into multiple outfits! Making a list a few weeks before the trip is essential for planning. I minimize makeup to a few key elements. I do not bring electronic hair devices.

Depending on the season, I usually have one or two pants, two shorts, two tank tops, two t-shirts, a long-sleeved shirt, a jacket, and a dress in my capsule wardrobe.

Pro tips: leave some at home, leave some in heaven

Consider traveling with clothes that you will donate throughout your trip, which will free up space in your bag to fill it with clothes or souvenirs that you will buy during your trip.

Leave your hair appliances at home. Most hotels provide hair dryers. US clothes dryers and irons generally do not work internationally, even with our plug converters. Many foreign countries use 220 volts, and we use 110 volts. Believe me, it won’t work! I speak from experience, don’t be that traveler who blows up the electrical panel of the hotel!

4. Roll, don’t fold

I’m a recent convert and have to admit that the roll method allows for more items in the suitcase than folding your clothes. It also minimizes wrinkles. I stuff my underwear into any open crevice. Place your nightgown, if you’re wearing one, over it so that when you arrive at your first hotel it’s easy to grab it and take a nap.

I’ve used packing cubes before, but for me it’s so complicated to fill them. Some people swear by them and even encourage rolling clothes in the cube. Staying in one place makes sense, I’ll say, since you can remove the cubes and put them in a drawer.

Pro tip: stay clean

Pack a small, thin washcloth, as most foreign countries generally do not offer washcloths with sheets. I also carry a small hotel bar with soap, shampoo, and conditioner from my previous trips, in case where I’m going doesn’t offer that convenience. If I run out of space, it’s no problem to throw these items away.

5. Wardrobe on board

I wear my bulkiest shoes during the flight and carry sandals and a spare closed-toe shoe in my bag. I wear the jacket during the flight because the cabin always feels so cold, freeing up space in my bag and also acting as a pillow.

6. A personal bag

In addition to hand luggage, a personal bag can be placed under your seat. This bag is also limited by size constraints: 18″ x 14″ x 8′. Some options are a backpack, tote bag, or cubed luggage bag. I’ve used all three on my travels but prefer a cubic luggage bag that clips effortlessly onto the “J-hook” hanging from the top of my suitcase. Multiple pockets create space for everything, and everything has space.

I have a durable stainless steel thermos for water that fits in the side pocket. I keep all my personal items in this bag and never take my eyes off it. I also like that it can make a great footrest if I’m stuck in a coach seat. I fill any open space in my personal bag with healthy protein snacks.

medication, a sewing kit and other things that a pilot packs in their hand luggage
Items pilot Christy Karsten always has in her carry-on (Photo credit: Christy Karsten)

6. Tricks of the trade

I like to think of myself as MacGyver, and if necessary, I can fix something broken down the road. Here are some tried and true items I always travel with and surprisingly use on almost every trip. Most of these items can be stored in pockets inside the suitcase:

  • Ziploc bags, useful for food, wet bathing suits and broken toiletries
  • Bandages, some zip ties and a small sewing kit
  • I bought a small sectioned plastic container at the store for 99 cents and filled it with just about every over-the-counter medication and labeled the box. It’s small, thin and fits in the side wall of my suitcase.
  • I put my laundry soap sheets and a reusable grocery bag on the other side of the box because most stores charge for grocery bags.
  • I store a travel umbrella, sheets of paper, envelopes, plastic cutlery and copies of my passport in the side walls of my suitcase.
  • I have small zipper bags that hold earplugs, eye masks, and lip balm, as well as a small bag for chargers and electrical outlets for different types of outlets.
  • My iPad with downloaded movies in case the plane’s movie screen didn’t work.
  • Once at my destination, I use a small crossover travel handbag that fits easily in my suitcase.

Pro Tips: Washing the Sink

If you must wash your underwear in the sink, use Lazy Coconuts Laundry Sheets. They are amazing, chemical free and do a fabulous job! These are extra-thin laundry soap sheets that are easy to pack and clean so well! Then hang your clothes to dry using a trouser hanger with clips in the shower or window.

Passengers waiting for their luggage at the carousel
Passengers queuing and waiting for their luggage at the carousel (Photo credit: Christy Karsten)

To Check or Not to Check

Nobody wants to hear the statistics on lost luggage from the airlines or the nightmare someone has had on a trip of a lifetime without their luggage. Time is a gift on vacation. Don’t waste an hour standing anxiously and staring to the baggage carousel to get your bag out. Take your bag over your head and go! On an international flight, there is a good chance that you will be ahead of your 300 fellow travelers in the customs line or in the taxi line while they are still waiting at the carousel for their checked baggage.

cleared to take off

I love the ease and low stress option of traveling with my luggage anytime. I can dance and weave effortlessly in and around the airport. Above all, I do not overpack!

Hopefully these tips from this road warrior in the sky can help you streamline your next travel adventure. Book your tickets now and start packing!

For more information on our Resident Pilot’s travels, see: