I love to travel. My husband is a pilot, and one major benefit we enjoy is traveling anywhere we want…for free. However, the downfall of free travel is flying stand-by and not being able to check our luggage. As a result, I’ve become a master at packing for a week in a carry-on.
I’ve gone on ski vacations, packed for myself and two toddlers, and taken a two-week vacation, all with a single carry-on.
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Here are my fail-proof steps for packing for a week in a carry-on:
Check the weather
This seems obvious, but you wouldn’t believe the number of phone calls we get from guests asking about the weather when they are visiting.
I don’t mind relaying the weather, but just in case, the website or app I use is weather.com. You’re welcome. 🙂
Be prepared to wear some items twice (or more)
If you want to pack for a week in a carry-on, you need to be mentally prepared to wear some items twice, or maybe even more.
I almost always bring one to two pairs of jeans with me on a trip. They are super versatile. They can handle cold, be dressed up or down, and hide dirt well.
I also wear my bras and wool socks twice.
Unless you sweat more than the average person, which I bet you don’t, you can wear items several times. I promise, no one will notice.
This is my trick to really getting more wear out of my clothes when I pack for a week in a carry-on.
I especially love packing in layers when I’m going somewhere and the weather is all over the place.
For example, I’m going to a conference soon. We should dress nicely, and it’s wintertime. I know the conference rooms will likely be hot, a by-product of a large number of people in a single room.
To prepare myself, I packed all sleeveless or short sleeve blouses and paired them with cardigans. There are a couple of cardigans I can wear more than once if needed.
If you are going someplace where you will be active, you can pack a couple of short sleeve shirts and pair them with a fleece pullover.
Be mindful of the thickness of your layers. I generally pack thin cardigans for nicer wear and fleeces for casual wear. Sweatshirts and big sweaters are bulky and take up a ton of space in your carry-on.
Create a travel capsule wardrobe
If you have never built a capsule wardrobe before, it is essentially an easily mix-and-matched set of clothes that can be worn in a multitude of situations.
Travel is NOT the time to pack your unique pieces.
Pick out clothes where your tops and bottoms can easily be interchanged. That way, if something happens to one half of an outfit, you aren’t completely out of luck.
You can even pack a simple sundress, which can be worn by day, to a party or nice dinner at night, and paired with a lightweight cardigan or jean jacket when needed. They are super versatile.
Pack one extra pair of shoes
If you are seriously committed to packing for a week in a carry-on, you are going to have to concede on the number of shoes you are packing.
I challenge you to pack only one pair of shoes in your bag.
Typically, I’ll wear my tennis shoes or casual wear shoes when I’m at the airport. They are the bulkiest, and they are the most comfortable for a long day of walking.
If I’m going somewhere where I’ll need dress shoes, I’ll pack one pair of ballerina flats in a color that matches all my outfits. Remember, you will have an easily matched capsule wardrobe, so two total pairs of shoes should easily work.
I refuse to pack any less underwear than days in my trip. It’s my one area where I won’t concede. Usually, I pack one pair per day, plus two. For example, on a 7-day trip, I pack 9 pairs of underwear.
It’s makes no sense but I blame my mother for this mentality!
For my bras, I will wear those several times. I usually pack 2-3 bras for a one week trip. I wear one, and the other 1-2 get packed.
Your bras are not meant to be washed daily anyway. Embrace this!
I’m a sock snob. I admit it. I usually wear wool socks, winter and summer versions.
My favorite two manufacturers of wool socks are Darn Tough and Smart Wool socks. They make heavyweight winter and lightweight summer versions. They come in athletic cuts too. Seriously, these are my favorites.
Because they are wool, they don’t get saturated with sweat, and you can usually wear them more than one day without the foot stink.
If I’m packing for a week in a carry-on, I’ll usually pack two workout outfits. Chances are, with six full days of vacation, I’ll work out four times.
By packing two sets of athletic wear, I’ll wear each set twice. They will likely be disgusting after the first workout session, but no one is smelling me while I’m working out anyway!
I’ll use my tennis shoes I packed as my workout shoes.
If you have zero plans to workout (be honest with yourself here), then skip packing this category of clothing.
Swimsuits, Flip Flops, and Cover-ups
Only one swimsuit suit is needed in your carry-on. I don’t care if you are packing for a beach vacation or winter hot tub cabin.
You can wear a semi-wet suit to and from the beach, pool or hot tub. It won’t kill you.
You also don’t have to flaunt all the latest swimsuit fashions if you are committed to packing for a week in a carry-on.
If I don’t have flip flops as one of your two pairs of shoes, consider packing an ultra-thin pair.
Sometimes I simply wear my tennis shoes back and forth from the swimming area, especially in the wintertime. They are more multi-purposeful.
If you want a great pair of all-purpose flip flops, I’m in love with my Teva flip flops. I’ve walked MILES in these things, and my feet have never hurt.
If I’m going somewhere warm, my Teva flip flops are my go-to pair of shoes. Best part, they last years without showing any significant wear.
You can skip the coverup or pack something very small. I like to have a coverup, so I have a small coverup dress that works great for traveling.
Pack basic toiletries
When packing for a week in a carryon, go light on your toiletries. Unless you are staying in a hostel or rental house with no amenities, you should be fine.
If you are going somewhere that doesn’t have soap and shampoos, consider packing a shampoo bar. You can even cut the bar in half or quarters and use it all over your body!
Get your quart-sized bag (must be TSA approved), and put only the essentials in it.
I usually pack any liquid make-up, hand sanitizer, hair gel or other hair product in a travel-sized container, and travel toothpaste.
Don’t pack nail polish, even if you have room. It will break. I speak from experience. Paint your nails before leaving on your trip and call it good.
Keep accessories to a minimum
There is no reason to ever pack a hairdryer in a suitcase. Ever. Use the hairdryer from the hotel, your host’s home, or let it air dry.
I do support packing a flat iron, if you use one. I actually wash my hair right before leaving on a trip and skip washing most days, unless it’s needed.
I really like having a flat iron travel case. Then, if I leave in a hurry, it can be packed fast, even if it’s still not. It also takes up very little space in my suitcase.
Some flat irons even allow you to add some minor waves to your hair without having to pack a curling iron.
Wear the same jewelry every day or carry only a couple very small changes.
A single travel scarf that matches many outfit combinations should be more than sufficient. It can keep you warm on a plane, warm in a cooler climate and used as a fashion accessory.
Jacket and winter gear
I live where it’s super cold. Usually, if going on vacation, I’m going somewhere warmer, so I’ll pack a lighter jacket.
If I’m going somewhere super cold, I’ll usually wear and carry my big, winter coat. It loops through my suitcase handle for easy carrying, and it makes a great pillow if lucky enough to get a window seat!
If you are packing a lightweight jacket, pick one that smushes and carries well. If the weather is cool but not cold, I’ll pack a jean jacket or lightweight rain/wind coat, as it matches nearly every outfit and folds well into a carry-on.
If you need snow pants, one pair should do you. Yes, even for a one week ski vacation.
You likely have thermals on, so your sweat isn’t going to saturate your waterproof pants.
Two pairs of thermals should be more than sufficient if you are going on a winter vacation and they are needed multiple days.
Wool thermals are awesome because of their ability to wick and not smell. I love my Smart Wool thermals.
Be prepared to improvise when packing in a carry-on only
Since you are packing for one week in a carryon, you may need to improvise as your trip progresses.
For example, if you get spaghetti sauce on your shirt, you may now need to wear another shirt twice (or gasp, three times) since you didn’t have room for extras.
Pick the shirt that was least worn and sweated in. Or wear your spaghetti sauce and don’t care!
If you must, you can usually do laundry at most destinations. If you are staying at a rental home or hotel, laundry is fairly cheap. You can even use a hotel sink or bathtub.
If you are forced into a situation where laundry is a must, go ahead and wash ALL your dirty clothes plus those of your travel companions.
Doing laundry on vacation is not the time to be picky about mixing whites and colors. Put them all in the wash and turn it on cold. You’ve now extended your entire wardrobe!
File fold your clothes
If you want to maximize your carry-on space and be super organized, I highly recommend file folding your clothes.
This tactic alone is how I am able to fit so many clothes into my bag.
If you simply stack your clothes, you can’t see how much you have packed.
File folding allows you to see exactly what you packed and if you have too much of any one thing.
Carry a backpack through the airport
Pack a backpack as your personal item.
It’s more efficient as a personal item than a purse or bag, and it doubles as a useful bag at your destination.
I usually pack a small or thin purse in the top of my clothes once everything else is packed. I use it when I get to my destination and my backpack at the airport.
I love my Osprey daypack and Gregory daypack. Both are exceptional day packs and allow me to pack my computer (if needed for a combo work/leisure trip) and leave room for any surprise items on the return trip.
Minimalist travel doesn’t have to be hard
Minimalist travel doesn’t have to be hard, and it is completely possible to pack for a week in a carry-on.
Be flexible, and don’t be afraid to go with less than you initially thought. Practice too! It gets easier with time.