How To Pack a Carry-On Like a Boss

If you thought my Type-A agenda planning was bordering on madness, you may be even more concerned with the way I pack a suitcase. But ohemgee, this kind of thing gets me completely high.

On tour, I was the one designated to pack our gear into the trailer. My whole crew was proud of the way I could maneuver an entire 4-piece band’s touring paraphernalia into a tiny space. I excel at the real-life version of Tetris.

When packing for BlogHer ’12, I knew I’d have a lot of stuff to bring along. I’m in NYC five full days plus a morning for our flight so I needed 6 outfits at a minimum plus some extra items for special events like parties and dinner with my husband. I also needed to pack a box of my personal swag to give out. With all this, I first assumed that I’d need to go with a big suitcase and check my baggage.

But airlines have lost my baggage before, and I really cannot imagine surviving NYC with NO clothes and NONE of my blog swag to hand out. That would be an absolute NIGHTMARE. This exact thing happened to me when my band traveled to London some years ago to be on Top of the Pops and do some other promotional stuff. I got there and had NO clothes to wear. I had to borrow something ill-fitting from the label rep because I couldn’t afford to replace anything, so I went on Top of the Pops looking less than my best. Not my finest moment.

Thinking about this made me decide that come hell or high water, my clothes and swag were going in a carry-on. Next I just had to figure out how. Ah, but this is my specialty!

I saw a great slide show from the NYT Business section showing “10 Days in a Carry-On” and it’s a GREAT one. But, aesthetics mean a lot to me, so I wanted my suitcase to look more organized that hers did. I was also packing some items that I felt needed extra care (read, chiffon with sequin detailing), so I wanted them wrapped inside another cloth for extra protection.

So here’s my show and tell!

What’s in the bag:

7 Bottoms:

  • 4 pairs of shorts
  • 2 Skirts
  • 1 pair of Jeans

8 Tops:

  • 6 shirts
  • 2 Cardigans

3 Pairs of Shoes:

  • Strappy heals
  • Gladiator-style sandals
  • Flip-flops

2 Pajamas

  • 1 pretty nighty
  • 1 cami/capri set


  • 9 pairs of underwear
  • 4 bras
  • 1 tank with built-in bra


  • 3 Belts
  • Jewelry

Personal Care

  • Flat Iron
  • Hairbrush
  • Makeup bag
  • Glasses
  • 1 Quart bag with toiletries

Blog Swag to Give Out

  • 100 Blog Buttons
  • 250 Business Cards
  • 250 Post Cards (for our ROYO session)

But HOW did I do that? Easy – rolling and Tetrising, natch!

Just grab a pillow case out of your closet, lay it down, and start stacking your shirts. When you’re done, fold it in half and start rolling it up tightly until you’ve got yourself a clothes burrito! It will pack all those shirts into a fraction of the space while keeping them far more organized.

Next up! BOTTOMS! Same idea.

After you’ve rolled everything, place these items toward the bottom of the suitcase. This should only take up about 1/2 of the bag. Then place shoes around the inside perimeter of the suitcase. Next, lay in your other items (Makeup bag, hairbrush, etc.) at the top.

In the top mesh part of the suitcase, I placed in my underwear, bras, and belts. This is how it looks when it’s completely finished.

Don’t forget to utilize the outside pockets!

I ALWAYS ALWAYS (well, since 2006) carry my 1 Qt toiletries in the OUTSIDE zipper pocket of my carry on, that way they’re quick to whip out for the security screening and quick to put away without disturbing any of the rest of the bag.

And there’s my 100% packed BlogHer12 bag!


94 Responses to “How To Pack a Carry-On Like a Boss”

  1. What about heels? i find they take up more space than almost anything else… i don’t want to wear heels traveling cuz it’s not the comfiest thing, but i usually need two pair when i get there.


    • I LOVE this. I am pretty good at this packing thing and just discovered this upon traveling to Philly with our ortho team. I never dreamed I could get it all into the small carry on sz required by TSA bt I did! It weighed a ton but I managed to hoist it over head lol! I would’ve loved to have had the inside track on the pillow case technique though. Sure woulda saved me a lot of energy from ironing at the hotel. I had individually wound every piece really small and tight and layered them in the case. Now I know for next years convention! WOohoo!

  2. Your list states 7 bottoms and 9 tops however, you only packed 3 pairs of shorts and 2 shirts.

    I wouldn’t use the pillow cases. They would take up too much room.

    @THESHAMEDOC – You would wear the shoes that take up the most room. Pack other shoes, such as your heels, on the sides of your suitcase. You can put shirts, underwear and/or socks in them and around them to save space. This has always worked for me. I hate overpacking and carrying around too much luggage when I go away!

    • No, I packed everything I said I packed. I just didn’t take a picture of all of it.

      • With out posting what you said you packed, I don’t understand why you are posting or even have a post. What is your point? You are not showing us what your really packed – hence, garbage.

        • Then why are you here? Nobody’s forcing you to be. If you don’t find it helpful, then go write your own post.

          • Hello, Pay no attention to that negative comment. It was obviously a internet troll. Just looking to hurt someones feelings without being seen. I was looking up how to pack a carry on for a 5 day trip & I will use your description as my #1 resource. (there always has to be some AWFUL person some where. Ignore them!)


        • Hey Nicole,
          I personally found this to be helpful as I tend to pack everything and the kitchen sink. If this isn’t for you, why not just say no thanks? I don’t understand the point of sounding so rude? I get her point without a photo of every single item. I am talented at many things, and packing is not one of them. This may not be for everyone, and that’s ok, but my impression is that she is just trying to be helpful:) I hope you can cheer up:)

  3. I’m taking a four day trip. Would I have enough room to bring back souvenirs?

    • I always use a large beach tote instead of a purse as my “personal bag”, it leaves quite a bit of room for snacks, book, souvenirs, or whatever. HTH :)

      • I use my backpack, which has a built in computer department, there for it is a computer bag. I can bring a lot more as well as a carry on and no one can tell me its too big!

  4. Best packing tutorial ever!

  5. Just for clarification, could you post the dimensions of your bag?

  6. Excellent! I’m a seamstress – so I think i’ll just use two rectangle (pillow-sized) pieces of fabric to save space and the rest is awesomeness! Thanks for the tutorial – I’m going to need it soon when I travel back East!


  7. Great job. I travel constantly as part of my work. I made it through a 2 week trip to China with just a carry on and a briefcase. It is much easier to do when the weather is warm and you can travel with light clothing. I also found a hotel chain that provides workout gear so no more excuses that I can’t fit my sneakers in the bag! I roll my clothes but never thought about rolling them TOGETHER in a pillowcase! This is clever and keeps them clean – duh, why didnt i think of that? smart cookie. I’m also happy to see that someone else has a cosmetic bag that takes up a third of the bag! Ha! You’ll know we’ve cracked the glass ceiling in business travel for women when they finally start stocking our room with a flat iron!

  8. We’re going on an Alaskan cruise soon so I am going to use your ideas. Thanks!

  9. This is perfect, especially because I am leaving for a summer camp iwith so many sports and activities (bungee jumping, swimming, running, rock climbing) That they tell people to bring double the outfits so you don’t run out of clean clothes! Also the pillow case thing is helpful as I have to bring my own bedding!

  10. Thank you so much for this advice. I am off to New York for 4 days next week for my birthday treat. I’ve never been been to New York before and I was getting a tad stressed about how mine and hubby’s clothes were going to fit in 1 bag as normally if we go away for just the weekend I take a huge holdall.
    Thank you, you have answered all my questions.

  11. This looks great but I have a question. When you rolled up your tops, were they each rolled up in individual pillowcases or were they layered and all rolled up together in one pillowcase? Thanks!

  12. Great ideas, but won’t work for plus sized people

    • Yes it will I did this for going to Paris for 2 weeks and it worked great and I was a size 18 then but that was last year it works easier now that I’m a size 9 and my clothes are smaller but it still was easy to use before.

  13. What about tennis shoes for walking, hiking?

  14. This is amazing! I’m heading to Africa to volunteer for a few months and I’m using these same ideas with my checked luggage–I have way more space for all of the donations that I want to bring. Even the pillowcases work great because I have to bring my own bedding–props for the great tutorial! Thanks!

  15. You’re a life saver! I wish I had known this trick for previous trips. Thank you so much! (:

  16. I just did a 2 week trip from Maui to LA then onto Australia. Did it all in carry-on using the roll technique, but I like the pillowcase idea. Will be sure to try it on my next multi-city/country excursion!

    I assume you carry a laptop and that is in a laptop bag or briefcase?

  17. I always roll my clothing and I am a plus sized woman. I recently went on a five day cruise and took: 5 pairs of dress slacks and 5 fancy tops, 5 pairs of capris and five sports tops, 1 bathing suit, flip flops, 1 sweater, 3 pajamas, 6 bras, 6 panties, my toiletries in a hang up bag (clear facing). I also took a pair of sturdy shoes (tennis sneakers) and I TIED them very securely by their shoe strings to the handles of the bag (on the outside of the bag) and dropped a sun visor over the handle, too, that has a Velcro closure. I wore my better sandals and clothes for the day/evening dinner that day so I did not have to change for dinner. I roll everything, including the panties and bras but I roll an entire outfit with no pillow case. (Good idea for a temporary dirty clothes hamper though). I have a spring out type hamper I use (closes to 3 x 3 inches flat) and when I take my clothes off at night I roll them and place them in the hamper. Then when it comes to packing for home and my carry on bag is empty I simply put the rolled dirty clothes back in the bag with a fresh fabric sheet softener until I get home. Makes packing up simple again…

  18. How much was the total weight?

  19. Whenever I am packing for a trip I always take extra unmentionables, and an extra shirt or two, so it was nice to see you did that too. I had never thought of rolling my clothes all together before, makes me feel like an idiot. Genius!

    • I felt the same way! I roll my clothes, but all individually–why didn’t I think of doing it all together either??? LOL. At least now we know!

  20. Dear Feminist Breeder!

    I love your site and probably check it out every few months. I am a new mother of a 7 month old girl. I had a natural 7 hour! labor and am still breastfeeding. I love reading the encouraging articles about your baby girl. I would never be able to afford a subscription to a blog but really appreciate that you still make some articles available to your readers. I just wanted to say keep up the good work, you are awesome!


  21. Loveeeeee!!!

  22. I am leaving for New York on Thursday and will definitely try this strategy! Thank you!

  23. Consider using a sheet or two of tissue paper
    Instead of the pillow cases for less room and
    Weight, but with the ability to keep your
    Things organized for the space saving roll up!

  24. I pack unmentionables and pajamas first (doesn’t matter if they wrinkle)…also pantyhose, socks and shoes (which I put in plastic bags…I will have them, in case the shoes get wet or muddy while on my trip), which go on the sides. Next, I fold pants, capris, shorts to fit comfortably on one half of the bottom of suitcase. Any dresses, shirts, tops, etc. get folded neatly like in a store display (sleeves folded in; then in half or thirds). Once folded, they will go on top, on the other side of the suitcase. Anything that might wrinkle, I wrap in plastic (from dry cleaners) before folding in half or thirds to fit. I keep any odds and ends in the mesh bag on the top.

    I do like the idea of unmentionables in the mesh top, though…will have to try that. It may give me more room all the way around.

    I never keep anything that has any worth to me in my suitcase. Clothing can be replaced. If I am forced to check it, something may be missing upon arrival or it may be lost. I keep any jewelry, makeup, meds, phone, etc. in my carry-on tote. I also keep one or two easily packed outfits in my tote bag, in case I am forced to check my bag (No more room on the airplane, etc.)

    *I also print out any map layouts of the airports I stop at, so that it is easier to find my next flight from the gate I land at. I keep these in my tote bag, also. No more walking around the airport in circles trying to find my way!

    This works for me…hope it helps someone else!

  25. One plus with the pillow cases could be to separate dirty clothes from clean on the trip home. When in Europe, there are many laundrettes that will clean and fold your laundry and the pillow case would have been a good transporter. I don’t know that I’d do that in NYC but it is an option towards keeping your packing to a minumum in other places.

  26. What size is your carry-on? I’m flying Spirit Airlines this August and their very pacific about the dimensions of the carry on bag? the bag has to be 22x18x10 and that’s including handles and wheels. Do have any ideas on luggage? Thanks for your this article; it definitely came at a time when I really need it.

  27. I’m going on a 4 day cruise to the Bahamas and can’t wear shorts or anything like that to dinner, so I will be taking a couple of casual dresses. Where would you put those?

    • I would put them together and roll them up just like the other items, depending on the fullness you may need to fold/tuck before rolling…

  28. Love your ideas, I always take my oldest underwear, and last years flip flops, a pair of old tennis shoes on vacation and dispose of them on the last day so I have more room for gifts to bring back. Also I try to stay to a two color palette so you can mix and match your outfits Yes I get to buy new stuff when I get home an added bonus.

  29. How would you pack moulded cup bras? They take up a lot of space!

  30. This is really cool! I am going to give it a whirl…what about hair care products? I need mousse, gel and ‘taming creme’ for my curls and hair spray! I haven’t seen all those products in travel sizes…just curious!!

  31. I always think I am a light packer until I actually pack lol.

  32. What about for 9 days in Ireland in mid Oct? I need to pack light!!

  33. Last trip I rolled each outfit together and it worked great. I’d roll a pants with a couple tops for example. Cardigans, sleepwear and unmentionables were in the mesh. I always have a backpack for my “purse” so pack that too. I was gone six days and had clothes with that I didnt wear! Next time i’m packing less!

  34. I never fly with check in luggage, only ever carry on! I’m never without anything I need and my trips are usually around a week long too. It’s so great not having to wrestle with a massive case or get tired arms from carrying it up and down stairs; or wait for the check in luggage- especially if you have unsociable timed flights; or worry about your precious belongings that you would hate to have lost/stolen/damaged NOT TO MENTION you don’t end up bringing more than you need. It’s GREAT!

  35. HI, I’m 16, and I’m traveling across the country to spend three months with my dad over my vacation. (I know my timing is not the usual summer vacation, but I got to a boarding school, and they basically make up their own rules!)
    I’ve actually never met my dad before, and I’m totally unsure of what to pack.
    Since you are such an amazing packer, do you think you could tell me how many tops/ bottoms to pack, and how many bags I may have to take?
    I’m driving alone.

    • Before we get to the clothes;
      If you are driving alone cross country, make sure someone shows you how to change a flat tire before you go, and carry an empty gas can in the trunk, just in case. Don’t pick up any hitchhikers.

      I’m assuming that you will have access to laundry facilities at least once a week, even if you have to drive to a laundrymat. Take 2 bathing suits, at least 8 shorts/pants and tops. Make sure that each top will go with at least two of the bottoms and each bottom will go with at least two tops, so you don’t get down to the last of each that wont go well together.
      Take at least one nice dress to wear if your dad takes you out to dinner, and a couple of casual dresses or skirts that work with your tops for other
      occasions. At least one cardigan/jacket in case the evenings get chilly. I think you can figure out your shoes, sleepwear, underwear, toiletries etc based on the above suggestions.

  36. Your post was terribly good! It is truly amazing how insightful you’re. I beg you blog more often as I’m a loyal follower.

  37. I just can’t believe how many people posted so many questions on how to pack a bag.. and critizing her? She’s good at packing lol

  38. I always safety pin my underwear into the pockets of my bottoms. That way I don’t end up with a black pair of underwear and a white pair of pants.

  39. to save a little space buy ur toiletries when u get a travel flat iron. wear ur sneakers on the plan. also dont bring pjs sleep naked. lol

  40. I only see one pair of shoes. Doesn’t look like it’s deep enough for all 3 there – where are the other 2 pair?

  41. Love your suggestions on pack stuff in carry on luggage 21 in. Be traveling to NY 7 days. How can I pack my husband’s suit ( suit coat, suit pants and tie and dress shirts long sleeve )? I have always packed his suit and extra pants and my dresses in a garment bag. Are you suggesting for us to bring 2 carry on suitcases?

  42. Excellent, thanks 4 sharing. I’m attempting to travel for 120 days in a rolling carryon & a single backpack. I’m a plus size gal & can’t help but feel like I may be wearing the same few outfits over & over again. At least the dress I am taking is an infinity dress so that should give me multiple looks. LOL Time will tell. May have to share on my blog after I figure it all out. Your ideas are really helpful! Pura Vida.

  43. Awesome thank you!

  44. Did you pack makeup?

  45. My boyfriend and I recently did an 8 day cruise with the prior and post nights in hotel rooms to prevent any severe rushing(making it 10 full days) He travels for work and has had many a bag lost, so we of course opted for carry-on rollers JUST like this one! (picked them up at a thrift shop for $10 ea)

    I never thought of the pillow case trick, but I did roll everything. [I will note however, I am a size 0-2 and merely 5 ft 3 so my clothing is fairly small.] I was able to pack quite a few more items plus twice the shoes. Zip lock bags lately have been my thing. I am horrible with Tupperware, I lose it or let it get ruined in the fridge so I use zip locks for all my half used cheeses, meats, and veggies. When I was packing I had that ‘wish we could vacuum pack this stuff’ thought and it clicked!

    Unmentionables and under layers such as tanks and camis roll very easily and fit in small qt size ziplocks that you can easily suck the air out of!! The larger sizes don’t work as well and air leaks back in, but the small ones work almost like space bags plus double as sealed ‘dirty clothes’ pouches that can easily be distinguished from any clean clothes you have left over and keep the rest of your clothes fresh.

    This was a great article, and I have another 9 day trip ahead of me to Florida so I will be trying some of this out, however deciding on JUST one or two pairs of shoes may be hard for me! =] I’m 27 and turning 28, visiting my younger cousin for my birthday and it’s over Halloween. I hope I can fit everything I want to wear!

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  49. Hi thanks for all the tips. We are travelling to France for 4 weeks in January. Any tips for packing for a cold climate? In Australia extreme cold weather is not the norm so any help appreciated regarding clothing to take,

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  55. Last time I knew, you were allowed a carry-on AND a purse. Is that still true?
    If it is…you could, conceivably, pack even more! Of course, I’m one of those women that has a practically empty purse, normally. LOL
    Last time I traveled (on a plane anyway) makeup, “unmentionables”, and the such, were packed in our purses and only clothes & shoes were in the bag.
    Of course, last time *I* was on a plane…you were still allowed to pack a lunch, etcetera!!!

  56. I can pack clothes and other items in a carry on ? Like my flat iron, curling iron, and clothes !? Please let me know ASAP! I’m going on a trips soon and I really don’t want to pay for a bag check >.<

  57. I have to attend a ball wid my boyfriend in June AND I am already nervous what to wear, how to mix in n stuff. I surely don’t wanna embarrass him in front of all the seniors. the article was a great help. perfectly what I was looking for.thanx a ton

  58. This is amazing! What are the dimensions of the bag you used? American Airlines requires the bag be smaller than 9x14x22.

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