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27 Little-Known Carry-on Tips for Flying (+ space saving packing hacks)

27 Little-Known Carry-on Tips for Flying (+ space saving packing hacks)

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After 100 flights without checking luggage, I’ve put together my ultimate list of tips for flying carry-on only.

In this post, I’m sharing everything from which types of bags to use, how to maximize space, how to pack light and tips for flying with your carry-on once you’re at the airport. 

Since my video about secret packing hacks for flying carry-on has surpassed 1 million views, I figured I should follow up with a blog post with even more tips I’ve gathered over the years!

This post contains affiliate links, meaning if you click through and make a purchase I may make a small commission. I only share information about things I know, love and trust!

13 Best Tips for Flying with a Carry-on

Use compression packing cubes to fit more items (if you don’t have a weight limit)

Compression packing cubes allow you to almost double the amount of clothing you can bring. 

To really maximize your space, try using multiple smaller packing cubes instead of 2-3 large ones.

This way you can stuff everything easier into every available air pocket of space. 

This is the set of packing cubes I use, as the set comes with all kinds of sizes. 

Ziploc bags are a great alternative

You can also get by using ziploc bags as a cheaper alternative to compression packing cubes.

They don’t work quite as well, but definitely work in a pinch. 

Use a ‘Stuffable’ Neck Pillow

This is one of my ultimate hacks for packing light!

You can easily fit 2 sweaters and several shirts into this soft, neck pillow shell, and it doesn’t count towards your carry-on luggage.

In the neck pillow above, I packed:

  • One cardigan
  • One light athletic zip-up
  • One dress
  • Two t-shirts
  • Two tank tops

So essentially, I put the entire ‘top half’ of my wardrobe in this neck pillow.

If you’re packing shoes/sandals, separate them

When packing a pair of shoes into your luggage, find a spot for each shoe to fit – they don’t have to be packed together.

For example, sometimes I pack one sneaker at the top of the bag and one at the bottom. 

Use a bag with a wide-trolley 

Typical carry-on luggage design has the trolley (handle) spine through the middle of the bag, which eats up precious space. 

The new 20” Voyageur carry-on from Level8 bags has a wide trolley that’s integrated into the design of the bag so you don’t lose any packing space on the inside. 

As an added bonus, this bag has a built-in wet/dry compartment.  

Use a 40L Backpack

If you don’t need wheeled luggage, a 40L backpack will get you the most space for traveling carry-on only. 

The largest hard-shell spinner-wheel bag you can bring on board is going to be 40L.

But that space also accounts for the inset wheels, which eats up a lot of space. 

Travel backpacks have come a long way in the last few years.

The new style opens up like a suitcase, has an incredible amount of zippered compartments and can hold a laptop.

Use This Magic Laundry Spray

A classic way to bring less clothes is to commit to doing laundry while you’re on your trip. 

But most of us are packing for vacation and who wants to do laundry on holidays?? (hint – not me). 

I bring a small bottle of what I call my magical travel spray

Mix Febreeze and a wrinkle-free spray together in a small bottle (make sure it’s under 3 oz or 100ml). 

When your clothes need a little refresh, give them a spritz of this spray, hang to dry and you’re good to go for another couple of days. 

Of course, it’s not an alternative to laundering your clothes, but if it’s a short enough trip, this does the trick just fine.

Learn How to Pack Your Jacket the Right Way

If you’re bringing a light jacket, here’s how to pack it like a pro:

  • Lay it out flat
  • Fold all pieces towards the middle
  • Roll from the bottom up and stuff into the hood
  • Use the pull cords to cinch it down

It can now be stuffed into the corner of your bag or used as a pillow on the plane.

How to Maximize Space in Carry-on Luggage

Stuff your shoes/boots with small items like socks, undergarments, swimsuits and even things like your sunglasses case or hair products. 

I usually pack the larger, more oddly shaped items first and then fill the spaces around those items. If I’m not using packing cubes, I use a combination of rolling, folding and stuffing. 

If you’re not packing shoes or boots or anything oddly shaped, compression packing cubes are the best way to maximize space in your carry-on luggage. 

However, the trick is to use several smaller packing cubes instead of a few large ones.

I like this set of small packing cubes

The smaller bags allow you to play around with your packing configurations and you can end up fitting a lot more in your bag this way.

Tips for Dealing with Carry-on Luggage at the Airport

The biggest issue you’ll encounter when flying with carry-on luggage is potentially not finding room in the overhead bins.

Here are a few things you can do to mitigate this. 

Priority Boarding

Some airlines offer priority boarding for an extra fee when purchasing your ticket.

You could consider this to ensure you get on the plane first and have plenty of space. 

Emergency Exit Row Seats

Consider purchasing a seat in the emergency exit row.

All passengers sitting in these seats need to be briefed with a safety protocol. If you are sitting in these rows, you can request to board the plane early. 

Don’t Be a Target at the Boarding Gate

When at the boarding gate, ensure you only have your carry-on suitcase and one small personal item (that will fit under the seat in front of you).

If you don’t have a lot of other items (such as a pillow, headphones, an additional purse, duty free items or a bag of airport food, etc), you’re much less of a target if the gate agents are looking for passengers to gate check bags. 

Use a Backpack or Soft-sided Carry-on

Use a 40L backpack or softsided two-wheel bag instead of a hardshell 4-spinner wheel bag.

If it’s your first time flying with carry-on bags and you’re not totally confident about your bags fitting, choose something soft sided. 

Most 20” carry-on spinner bags are about 35-40L.

You can get a backpack that’s 40L and as long as you don’t stuff it full, it’s guaranteed to fit since you can squish it if necessary. 

Use an AirTag

For extra peace of mind, place an AirTag inside your bag in case you do have to gate check the bag. 

The Dos and Don’ts of Carry-on Luggage

Do ensure you’ve read the size and weight limits of each airline you’re flying with. 

😒 Don’t assume any bag you buy labeled “carry-on approved” or “fits in the cabin” will actually fit in the overhead bin. 

😒 Don’t overstuff your soft-sided carry-on luggage (in case you have to squish it down to fit). 

Do use compression packing cubes to help you bring more clothing without taking up extra space. 

Do make sure you can lift your luggage yourself (flight attendants are not supposed to place your bags in the overhead bins for you). 

😒 Don’t place items like jackets, souvenirs and small purses in the overhead bins (those go under the seat in front of you). 

Do use a luggage cup holder if you’ll be traveling through the airport with coffee, a water bottle (or if you have small children). 

Do pack your medication and any medical devices in your carry-on bag (and not in your checked luggage).