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May10

How to use packing cubes + tips to travel with only a carry-on!

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My most crazy year of travel was 2019, which included over 30 flights. And there was only ONE trip where I actually checked a bag. When I went to Palm Beach a few years ago, I took only a carry on bag and that involved business attire, casual outfits, cocktail parties and a black tie event. Another time, I took a nine-day trip, heading first to Phoenix and then to Utah and again, I took only a carry-on with packing cubes, despite dramatically different weather in each location.

Now that I’m a mom to a toddler and no longer work in Corporate America, my super busy travel days have slowed quite a bit. But even still, I fly more often than most. With most of my family living in Utah, I try to get out there at least once a year (I live in NC, so this is no small feat!), and I had two work events on the West Coast this past fall, and my husband and I did take an anniversary trip to Dominica at the beginning of last winter too. So I guess I still travel by plane a decent amount.

Since I’d like to consider myself a pretty great packer, I thought I’d re-share this blog post with some updates in hopes that it helps ease your packing stress as you hit the road or head for the skies. I try to systemize everything in life (but seriously…) and travel is no different. In this post, I’m sharing my top packing tips, including the systems I use for packing, plus the key travel gear pieces I use to keep my packing organized and help ensure I don’t forget anything.

It’s also worth noting that you may want some extra tips if you’re traveling with a baby, or taking a trip with a toddler in tow. My travel agent and baby sleep consultant collaborated on those posts, so I hope you find them super helpful!

Okay, let’s get to it.

TeriLyn Adams sharing how to use packing cubes + tips to travel with only a carry-on
TeriLyn Adams sitting on a bed with her luggage

How to use packing cubes and tips to travel with only a carry-on bag

Before you start, make sure you have a carry-on sized bag to pack in! Most suitcases will tell you on the website if they’re carry-on approved. The carry on weight limit is 40 lbs, but you shouldn’t have an issue with that since the bag is smaller than a typical suitcase. The suitcase pictured above is larger than a carry-on, but all I had with me for these photos 🙂 I take a slightly larger bag when traveling to Boone in the car.

1. Packing cubes

I never, ever, ever pack without packing cubes. Packing with packing cubes saves space, keep things organized when packing and also when I’m at my destination. Before I start packing clothes, I lay everything out first so I can make sure I have complete outfits (e.g. shoes, jeans, top, jacket that match) and then put them into packing cubes by category, not by day since that would require more cubes. Running clothes together. Normal clothes together. Undies together. Etc.

When I first started packing with these cubes, I ordered some off of Amazon. Now I use these cubes from AWAY since I wanted higher quality cubes. I love that they fit right in my carry on luggage. Another tip is to INVEST in your luggage. There’s nothing worse than broken luggage, so just do yourself a favor and buy a nice set, one time.  I could go on and on about AWAY luggage and how much I love it. They have a lifetime warranty for any functional damage, they’re SO light, and the fit more than you could ever imagine. We have 3 AWAY bags in our family + the AWAY packing cubes.

a stack of packing cubes
What’s the point of packing cubes?

Some people use them to save space, which they certainly do, but I like them to keep things organized so when I land I know where everything is. I hate digging through things in a hotel or wherever I’m staying, especially if I have an early morning run.

Sometimes I pop the cubes into the dresser drawers and sometimes I just keep them in my suitcase. Either way, it keeps things together neatly. I love that I can use the zippers to stuff more things inside while still keeping things compact. A set of packing cubes makes a huge difference when packing in a carryon, both for space and convenience.

What are the best packing cubes

Eh, I don’t think it really matters but I know people have strong feeling about which packing cubes (aka packing bags) they use. I like ones that have a variety of sizes, some that lay flat (for socks and underwear) and some that have a little depth (for clothes). I used to have these packing cubes from Amazon and they’re fine. They’re not super high quality but they’re affordable; however, they did all tear after about 18 months.

Once those all tore, I got these AWAY packing cubes and I love them. They’re similar in size and but more structured/higher quality fabric and I’ve had them for 3 years and they look brand new. I love that they have a mesh panel with visibility so I can easily find the items I’m looking for and handles at the top. If you travel a lot or thing you’ll use them for years, just invest in the higher quality ones.

A note about packing folders: I find they aren’t big enough and wrinkle my clothes more. So I go for packing cube sets that include a couple of flat envelopes. I’ve never used compression bags so I can’t speak to those!

How to use packing cubes

Again, people have super strong feelings about this. My strong feelings: I roll my running clothes and put them into a packing cube with running socks, sports bras and any fuel (I like Honey Stingers Energy Gels) and/or protein I’m bringing. But I fold my normal clothes. I find this helps my clothes get less wrinkled and laying bulkier things flat (e.g. jeans, sweaters) saves space. Rolling your clothes saves slightly more space but only if they’re thin and wrinkle free.

Having different sizes helps me pack more strategically, too.

I also divide my clothes by type into packing cubes. All my running and workout clothes go in one medium size cube and my casual clothes go into a large cube. I put my socks and underwear in another one (typically a small cube or flat envelope). If I have dressier items, I put those with the casual clothes or in their own cube or flat zip envelope. Or, I may lay them flat (not in a cube at all) on top of all the other cubes in the suitcase to minimize folding.

2. Lists in OneNote

A comprehensive travel packing list is key for staying organized, and so I don’t forget anything and don’t overpack. I have five lists in OneNote that I reference for EVERY SINGLE TRIP, whether it’s a week-long trip or a long weekend. (OneNote is a Microsoft program but you could use any digital to-do list that you’ll be able to find over and over.) My lists include:

1. Outfit planning – more on that below

2. Every time items, e.g. LAKE pajamas, socks, sleep eye mask, earplugs

3. Running Gear

4. Toiletries + my skincare & my makeup (3.4 ounces remember!) I put my items in a quart size plastic bag to prevent any leaking. If you can find solid toiletries of any of your products (a bar of soap rather than body wash), this helps with the leakage problem we’re all trying avoid.

5. Morning-of items

A note on toiletries/morning of items: I keep a smaller bag of travel sized items that I’m slowly working to build out . Whenever Beautycounter or Colleen Rothschild releases travel size items, I buy them so my travel-only toiletries are nearly complete. And I absolutely love this Amazon Toiletry Bag for my makeup, skincare, brushes and razors. It fits everything except my hair products (see just how much can fit in this reel). The other “morning of items” are things like my makeup, airpods, glasses, water bottle, etc.

I don’t necessarily take everything on every list below for every trip, but I just check off what I know I’m not taking from the get-go. That way I don’t forget anything on future trips where I do take more. For example, I don’t always take my travel blowdryer, but if I have room, I prefer too so I keep it on the list. If it’s not going, I just check it off.

When I’m planning for the morning of, I always lay out my travel outfit so I don’t pack something I need to wear. I like to cute but comfortable when I travel. (I shared my go-to travel outfits here and you can get links to everything in that post in this LTK post.)

3. A solid backpack or tote

For most trips, I ditch the idea of a cute bag and use something practical that won’t hurt my shoulder and keeps my hands free. And for me, that’s a backpack that fits and protects my laptop. If I’m traveling for work, I may take my My Demilier tote bag instead so I can use for meetings. But, in general, I prefer a backpack. It holds my snacks, a travel pillow, wallet, boarding pass, phone, keys, face mist and a book without it being disorganized in a giant heap at the bottom of a tote. The travel backpack I take is one of the best purchases I made this past year. It’s huge and fits everything, but it doesn’t feel too big to tote around. It also has a strap on the back that you can use to attach to your suitcase so that you can be hands-free once you’re at the airport.

The snacks I always pack are Picky Bars, ginger chews and LMNT electrolytes. Picky Bars are healthy but keep me full (and way better than airport food). Ginger chews help with nausea, and electrolytes really help me stay hydrated since I get so thirsty when flying.

Whether I take a backpack or tote, I also pack a small cross-body purse or my Amazon belt bag that I can use when I get to my destination.

Lululemon Everywhere Belt Bag Dupe Under $20

4. A bag of cords

This bag never leaves my backpack, ever. And I never borrow cords from it when I’m not traveling. I don’t want to be scrambling when I’m traveling to find the cords I need or arrive somewhere and realize I’m missing a key charger. So I keep this easily accessible in my backpack.

I bought duplicates of cords for this very purpose. So, I have every type of cord I use in life in that bag: iPhone, Garmin, car phone charger, etc. I use a soft tech case to carry everything I need. The soft is great because it smushes well into your bag. Away sells mini suitcase/tech case if you like something with more structure and pockets. The large AWAY tech case would be great for the business traveler who wants to bring all their computer accessories.

cord organizer

5. Nice luggage

I purchased my first piece of AWAY luggage about a few years ago, after having the same luggage since I graduated college over 12 years ago. And it’s been worth EVERY penny. It holds more than my soft-shell luggage, keeps things organized, and is so much lighter. And light luggage is key when you’re 5’1″ and trying to lift luggage into the overhead bins. (Maybe I shouldn’t have quit CrossFit!)

The other major reason I invested in AWAY luggage (rather than another brand) is that they have a lifetime warranty. If the wheels break, a zipper gets stuck, or fabric gets torn, they will cover it! The large interior flat pocket that is used to compress your clothes (pictured below, where you see the straps across a mesh panel) actually broke a year ago and they sent me a replacement for free.

I own the Bigger AWAY carry-on luggage and the AWAY medium suitcase for when I have to check bags. I typically only check a bag if my son is coming with me and I’m packing for two and/or need my hands free.

My luggage also has a dirty clothes bag, so I just put the dirty stuff in there and put it in the place where my running clothes were. That typically makes up the bulk of what’s super gross and has to be contained anyway.

Away luggage
packing tips to only take a carry-on bag

Other packing tips to only take a carry-on bag

Outfit planning

I list each day, what I have planned and the weather while I’m there. Then, I list out exactly what I wear, including jackets and shoes. It helps me identify if I was planning on bringing something I’ll only wear once so I can change that approach. It also helps me more easily see where I can mix and match outfits.

My go-to jackets are a jean jacket and a lightweight quilted jacket. The jean jacket goes with EVERYTHING and the Amazon quilted jacket compresses into a tiny ball so it’s a major space saver. It can also be layered over sweaters and can be dressed up or down.

packing tips outfit planning

Note: This is my packing list from a trip to Utah and Phoenix that I mentioned above.

Wear clothes strategically

This is especially true with running clothes. If the weather aligns, I’ll wear a tank under a long sleeved shirt so the long sleeved shirt doesn’t get as a sweaty and I can wear it the next day. (This really only works in non-humid places!)

I take just one pair of jeans, maybe two and I make sure they’re very different. For my upcoming trip to Utah that’s 10 days long, I’m taking my favorite white jeans. Also, a pair of classic blue denim Abercrombie jeans.

I have no shame wearing a dress multiple times on a trip. I just swap out the shoes, wear a different jacket and call it good. The right dress can be worn with white sneakers (or something similar) during the day and then transition into evening happy hour or dinner at night with heels.

Also, I always wear a pair of sneakers and jeans on the plane since those would take more space in my carry-on than leggings and/or sandals or flip flops. My trip impacts which sneakers I wear. It may be my Vejas, New Balance 327s, or my running shoes.

Shoes

Some of my running shoes just don’t look cute. So, I usually take Nikes since I can use them for a run and then with jeans for exploring. I typically NEVER use my running shoes for anything but running since running shoes last longer that way, But for travel, I take an older pair that can serve multiple purposes. However, on a few trips in 2019, I took three pairs of running shoes. I was deep in training for the 2019 Boston Marathon. Running shoes took priority!

Flats take less space than heels. However, if you want to pack heels, pack them so the heel goes in the running shoe opening. It protects the heel and saves a lot of space.

Other shoe tips: go for neutrals (nude heels, nude flat sandals, nude heeled sandals) and pack shoes that can be dressed up or down.

Laundry

If I have access to a washer/dryer, this helps a LOT with packing light. Of course, I can always do laundry when I visit family in Utah. Other times, I intentionally book an AirBnB for that purpose.

But if I’m staying at a hotel for more than 7 days, I have to get even more strategic — or break down and check a bag, like I did for our trip to Ireland. It’s usually my running clothes that take up so much space and necessitate checking a bag. I’ll rewear regular clothes, no problem… but sweaty leggings or a drenched tank? Only in desperation. Sometimes I’ll wash running clothes in the sink with travel detergent if I’m really close to being able to take a carry-on!

If I can’t do laundry, I put my sweatiest and dirtiest clothes in my laundry bag that came built into my Away luggage. (Again, that’s usually my running clothes!) That allows me to rewear items if I need to so I don’t immediately stuff them in there. Then, when I’m packing to head home, I empty the must-be-washed items into the laundry bag and move any clean clothes into a smaller packing cube. I essentially replace the largest cube with the laundry bag, space wise, so I have room for it. Replacing the large packing cube usually allows for the laundry bag to fit perfectly into my suitcase.

Here is a packing list for you to use on your next trip! Maybe pin for future reference!

ultimate packing list

Okay, your turn: Are you an over-packer or do you pack light? Share your packing tips please!

I hope this post helps you feel better about packing carry on only so you can stay away from those slow baggage carousels and pesky weight limits.

suitcase front porch

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    17 responses to “How to use packing cubes + tips to travel with only a carry-on!”

    1. Where is the white case from? I LOVE the idea of having a cord bag! Why didn’t I think of that?? I also need a the Away suitcase!

    2. This post is EVERYTHING. I also make lists of what to wear and when I’m wearing it. But adding the weather forecast is a great idea. I love how organized everything is! I have a 6 day work trip this year (I’ll have to check a bag) and I’m going to Disney World for a week in the fall. This post is super helpful!

    3. This was perfect timing and so helpful as I’m packing for a trip TODAY! I also have the Away Bigger Carry-on. Great purchase. I actually also bought the Away Daypack to go with it. It slips over the extended handle when I don’t want it on my back. I love it and highly recommend.

      Where did you get the hard white case for cords? Love the idea of always keeping it in you bag.

    4. Loved reading this on the car ride home from a long trip! I love packing cubes but I think I need pretty ones like you.

    5. Love all your suggestions. I also always pack a small multi plug power strip, a small fan, a metal insulated coffee cup, a water filtration straw and a large cotton shawl..
      It’s also nice to keep a few tea bags, instant coffee, salt and pepper packets as well as a small plastic cutlery set.

    6. Super curious about the away suitcases. Are they better than samsonite? Why exactly.? Please share.
      I currently have Samantha Brown ones and I love them except the wheels are terrible. My husband’s samsonite just glides so much easier. Preparing for a trip to Europe this summer and I am looking for the perfect carryon.

    7. Ok that looks great but max weight for carry on is 7 kg, and its not much if youre adding shoes etc??

    8. Hi I enjoyed this pin, very much. But I usually need less casual clothes, to go out to the theatre, opera,dinners,etc.with proper shoes and bags and accessories. I can replace the fitness cube for that kind of clothes. I walk between 15.000 and 20.000 steps in my trips!,, Then I do not need to torture myself training!

    9. Thank you for this list! I am coming up on a 6 month trip and have been feeling a little lost on packing. I’ve gone from bare minimal to over packing, and I know I definitely want to go on the lighter side, but also have everything I need. I’m excited to use compression packing cubes for the first time 🙂

    10. Your packing is spot on. I would add consideration of a compression bag for items where wrinkles are not a concern. I use one for my travel blankie and lay pajamas, underwear, shapers & socks on top of it then compress the air out. I put the compressed bag on the bottom of the luggage with my packing cube or folded clothes, etc on the top. By doing this, I have room to add one more packing cube to the carry on luggage. For bigger luggage 2 compression bags could be used. Just be sure to check the luggage weight before check in.

    11. I am going away for 4 days. I am struggling in using the cubes and that is without the toiletries – i need a whole course in how to pack in a carryon. ????

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