How to pack for a 10-day trip with only carry-on bags

Guest post by Mich

I am flying to Hawaii for ten days and only taking carry-on luggage. Here’s how you can do it too! You can either…

  1. Pack nothing: wear the same clothes all week, smell funky, look awful in your holiday photos and probably fall out with anyone else you are traveling with.
  2. Pack nothing: buy everything when you get there. Kinda smart but EXPENSIVE! How are you going to get it all home and do you really want to waste hours of your action-packed vacation shopping?
  3. Pack smart and pack light: *DING DING DING — we have a WINNER*

This is what I took:



  • In my 3-1-1 TSA bag (2 mini toothpastes, hair spray, shower gel, eyeliner, mascara, nail polish, anti-itch cream)
  • Packed in normal bag (stick deodorant, mini hair brush, hair bobbles, toothbrush, body puff, SOLID shampoo, makeup wipes, rest of my makeup bag)

Stuff for hiking/exploring activities/emergencies:

  • water bottle
  • headlamp
  • wet wipes and insect repellant wipes
  • GPS
  • phone, camera, and chargers for each
  • first aid kit (including knee support)
  • medication (routine daily stuff and emergency meds)
  • mini sewing kit

For use during the 11 hour flight
Pillow, eye mask, iPod, headphones, book, travel folder with all reservations, copies of all important shit, food.

When we get there I plan to buy:

  • beach towel
  • sunscreen
  • batteries

My tips for packing light are:

1. Check what your airline allows as carry-on luggage
I’m allowed one carry-on bag (size limit 22″ x 14″ x 9″, weight limit 25 pounds) and one personal item (purse, briefcase, laptop bag, backpack, or similar item).

Something to consider… while those hard laptop cases and briefcases look gorgeous, they can often weigh quite a bit before you even pack them!

2. Wear your bulkiest, heaviest outfit on the plane ride
For me this is a pair of trousers, a tank top, a sweater and my sneakers, with my big bandana scarf as I like to snuggle my head under it on the plane

3. Really think about your liquids
You can only take 100ml (3.4oz) bottles of liquids in carry-on luggage, to a maximum of 1 quart ziplock bag (via the TSA guide). To help reduce my liquids I bought solid shampoo from LUSH, used a stick deodorant instead of gel, and swapped my normal liquid foundation for a solid one. I also bought trial size toothpaste, body wash, hairspray etc.

The only liquid that was going to be a problem was sunscreen, so we just decided we would buy that when we get there.

4. Mix and match
Make sure all your outfit choices can be worn in different combinations and can be worn for more than one occasion. Yes, I packed a lot of dresses, but I am just as likely to throw on a jersey dress to go for a hike as I am to wear it out to dinner or to play on the beach.

However, I would recommend packing enough underwear for the trip, unless you’re planning on wearing them inside out and back to front!

5. Choose lightweight clothes
Think about clothing choices, I usually live in knee length baggy cargo shorts and huge jeans. Three pairs of them and my case would be full! So I bought some lightweight linen pants (still wide legged to keep me happy) and some short shorts, while singing “who likes short shorts… we like short shorts” all the way round the shops.

6. Think about your vacation plans
Open door helicopter? We need long pants and sweater. Hiking through volcanoes and caves? Bring good shoes, water bottles, first aid kit and headlamps. Swimming and ocean activities? Gonna need a lot of swim wear. ATV tour? Closed toe shoes and bandanas as dust masks. Dinner out? A pretty dress or two and my hair straighteners!

7. Take advantage of that “personal item”
A lot of airlines don’t say what size this need to be, but its got to small enough to fit under the seat infront of you, rather than the overhead bin (because that’s not fair on other passengers) but it doesn’t get weighed. So stick your heavy shit in there! Mine contains my liquids bag, medication, first aid kit, makeup, book, camera, iPod, travel folder and FOOD. I hate airline food, it hates me and I get grumpy when I don’t eat.

How to pack

Exhibit 1
Throw it all in your case, sit on top, squash all your important stuff, have very crushed clothes and have to leave half of it at home because it won’t all fit!

Exhibit 2
Roll all your clothes. Then layer them up, figure out what fits in between the ridges on the back of the case formed by the wheels and the extendable handle. Squish socks and knickers inside other items (shoes, water bottles and in any crack and crevice).

Check the weight of your case before you go to the airport (we used our WII Fit as there’s no bathroom scales in our house). Try not to go right up to the maximum as your scales might be off, the airport ones may vary a little and you need to be able to lift it into the overhead compartment without decapitating any fellow passengers.

While I’m away I’m going to photograph what I wear each day for outfit combinations and then evaluate to let you know what I could have left behind, and what I wish I had remembered to bring.

Comments on How to pack for a 10-day trip with only carry-on bags

  1. We went to Alaska for 15 days for our honeymoon, and while my husband had his ruck sack and a BIG (but still considered carry-one sized) suitcase, I took a rolling backpack. 2 pairs of zip-off pants, 1 pair of lounge shorts, 2 long-sleeve zip-up shirts, a bunch of tank-tops, and enough undergarments for one week – not to mention what I wore on the plane. Also brought the other crap like toiletries, within the TSA guidelines, as well as my camera.
    We ended up checking all our carry-ons for the flight home, and just kept my over-the-shoulder bag on the plane, and it worked out just fine.
    We knew which hotels had laundry rooms, and built time to do laundry into our itinerary. It was really great to not have to lug around so much luggage (it’s named lug-gage for a reason!) and my husband even ended up leaving the suitcase in Anchorage!

    • our vacation cottage for the last 4 days of our honeymoon actually had a laundry room so we used that, however in my case I had planned my outfits accordingly so I still had clothes clean for those days so I only did laundry so I didnt have any dirty clothes to bring home!!!

  2. I went on a 17 day trip to London, Paris, and Provence with only one carry-on. My biggest tip is to pack light so you have room for souvenirs! For me, this meant a “personal item” bag that started off empty and filled up as the trip progressed. Also, I usually plan on doing laundry about once a week, and that can mean handwashing in hotel sinks or finding a laundromat. We did the laundromat route, because while it’s more expensive, it’s more of an adventure!

    • great advice! I’m not one for too many souvenirs, taking photos is usually enough for me. But I did buy some postcards of places that I knew my photography just wouldn’t do it justice

    • For my recent trip to the UK, my bring-home-treats bag started the journey filled with American snacks (Cheezits, jelly beans, and Mac and Cheese were requested) to gift the lovely hosts I was staying with. The bag came home full of fantastic souvenirs and gifts. 🙂

  3. If you need to I’ve found you can often cheat slightly with weight limits for carry-on bags.

    It’s in no way fool proof (it relies on them not having time to check each and every bag) but I’ve found if your bag lOOKS light enough they’ll assume it is.

    There are 2 main ways you can do this:
    1) Carry it. If you can lift the bag (especially in one hand) and don’t look like you’re about to drop it or topple over at any second they’re more likely to assume it’s light.

    2) Make sure it doesn’t look stuffed. This doesn’t really apply to hard cases of course (unless you’re the person I once saw taping their bag shut because the zip couldn’t hold it) but if your bag is bursting at the seams and looks like every pocket is stuffed then again it looks heavier and is more likely to be weighed. Feel free to pack it oddly (I’m a huge fan of stuffing socks into any gaps to save space) but pack it neatly so it looks like it’s not very full.

    Obviously it’s best to try and keep under the limit, but if you find yourself a few pounds over and at a complete loss for ways to cut it down this can be an alternative solution.

    (At least until the day everyone on the plane tries it and all the sneaky excess weight stops it taking off!)

    • “Make sure it doesn’t look stuffed.”

      Yes, this is essential.

      Unless it is a very small plane, I’ve never had my carry on bag weighed. I’ve found that making sure it fits the dimensions is most important. If you bag looks like it might be a bit big you are likley to be stopped and asked to fit your bag into a sizer box. Those things are much less forgiving than the actual overhead bins (I swear they actually make them smaller) and rushed gate agents often declare it doesn’t fit if you can’t fit it into the sizer within about thirty seconds.

      I’ve found that to make sure it fits, I have to leave all outside pockets of rolling bags empty to prevent bumps that make it more difficult for bags to fit.

    • This depends on the airline! From my experiences, Sunwing weighs every item. Air Canada weighs carry-ons but usually not personal items if they don’t look oversized.

  4. I admire your light packing sense. I always over pack and end up with tired arms when vacation is over. 10 pairs of underwear for 3 days? That’s me. 4 pairs of jeans for 4 days? Yes. I always imagine things that NEVER happen will suddenly happen, like falling butt first in a big puddle of mud and the mud soaking through to the skin. I have never fallen in mud, much less butt first. But who knows, right? We have a vacation coming up in December, and even though we’re driving and don’t have airline luggage restrictions, I’ll try to pack lighter. (But what if I fall butt first in the snow and all my clothes get soaked?!)

    • Then you get the honestly enjoyable experience of borrowing someone else’s clothes or curling up naked in a blanket while things dry. Especially in a snowy December, it’s such a secretly awesome thing to have to do. 🙂

    • I used to overpack a lot too. But in the end, if you’re worried about contingencies like soaking something, I recommend bringing just 1 extra pair of clothes. 1 extra pair of socks and underwear, and 1 extra pair of pants (normally I stick to 2 pairs of pants and maybe a skirt for anything shorter than 5 days). It’s always possible to soak something, but I find it unlikely to soak more than one pair of clothes a day. Which givens the wet stuff time to dry.

  5. Great advice! Unfortunately, I usually subscribe to the PACK EVERYTHING method, because it might rain and then you’ll really need that 5th tshirt for your two day trip! We’re honeymooning in Costa Rica next month, and I’m looking forward to seeing how you make this work so I can do the same!

    • that TOTALLY used to be me, my parents and friends couldn’t believe me when I said I was doing carry on luggage only – but you really can fit a surprising amount in there!

  6. My tips are:
    – Taking a laptop or tablet? It has to be carried a specific way, and you’re going to have to pull it out for the airline to scan separately. Know the rules, and pack it accordingly.

    – Wear layers when you travel. If you wear a lot of the clothes you’re packing, you don’t need to pack them! Anyway, I’m never temperature-comfortable on planes, so I like the ability to pile on or shed. Note: a super-bulky outfit will probably flag you to security, so don’t get crazy.

    – The backpack as a personal item? Take such advantage. I once used a backpack as my only luggage for a weekend trip, and it was BLISSFUL travelling.

    – Accept that your carry on luggage will probably be checked and stowed under the plane, anyway. Every flight I’ve been on in the last five years, they’ve checked every single piece of rolling luggage at the gate.

    – Accept that you’re going to forget something, or wish with all your heart you’d packed something you left at home. It’s inevitable! If you accept it, you can move on and let some stuff go. Just budget emergency purchases into your travel funds and move on.

    • “Accept that your carry on luggage will probably be checked and stowed under the plane, anyway.”

      THIS. I always make sure now to keep my food and a book and music or something in my PURSE or other small carry-on item. I then keep the purse in the rolling bag and just pull it out before they stow it under the plane.

    • “Accept that your carry on luggage will probably be checked and stowed under the plane, anyway.”

      Unless I’m flying a small plane where all rolling bags are gate checked, I don’t accept this as inevitable. Often gate agents and flight attendants will start telling people they should gate check their bags before the overheads are actually full. If they ask me to check my carry on I calmly tell them that I’d really prefer not to and if there is any space left I’d like to try to find a spot for my bag. Usually this works.

      If you want to have space for your carry-on and avoid having to check it, try to get in the first normal boarding group that is called. For most airlines that means picking a seat at the back of the plane, since they board back to front. On some airlines you want to get a window seat because they board window seats, then middle ones, and aisle seats last. Find out which is the case for the airline you are flying and pick your seats accordingly to get the best chance at overhead bin space.

      Then again, sometimes it seems like the majority of the plane has boards early due to due to various special statuses, and even the first normal boarding group has trouble finding space for bags. It does vary and making sure you can make your rolling carry on is checkable quickly is important. Put anything you might have to take out if it had to be checked in an easily accessible location.

      • I’ve NEVER come across open bin space in the past two years, and I’m jealous of people who have. 😛 Some of the planes I’ve flown on don’t even have bins that are properly sized to accommodate the approved carry on size, which is just outrageous to me.
        If you’re a “wait and see” carry onner, you might try enlisting the help of the flight attendant. They’re wicked skilled at rearranging bins.

        • the main problem I’ve found with over crowded luggage bins is people putting BOTH their carry-on and their personal item up there.
          We made sure to be considerate passengers and put our personal items under the seat infront of us

          • If you have a 40″ inseam, your legs are far too long to stow ANYTHING under the seat in front of you– even feet and knees are almost impossible. Just saying that sometimes people who seem like they’re being “inconsiderate” actually have a good reason to put both their carry-on and their personal item in the overhead storage (although I tend to travel with a purse and either a carry-on OR a backpack, I don’t do two large carry-ons).

        • I’ve found that planning where I sit to make sure I can board early is really the key to getting overhead bin space. That and avoiding major legacy carriers (United, Delta, American, etc) and flying regional or budget carriers (Alaska, Frontier, JetBlue) whenever possible. Somehow flights on the larger airlines always seem to have more packed overhead bins.

          I don’t mind planes where the bins won’t fit rolling bags, as long as they have an efficient system for gate checking them, such as a cart for dropping off and picking up bags. I dislike it when they expect people to wait in the jetway for their bags it’s not efficient or comfortable.

          I really appreciate it when flight attendants are willing to attempt to rearrange bags to make more space, but I’ve found few that are willing to try lately. I’m pretty good at bag tetris myself, and am willing to move things around within a bin if no one seems to object.

          • Longer flights = more crowded overhead bins. If you take more nonstops or you are simply flying to farther destinations, you’re more likely to find the overhead bins get stuffed fast.

            Not sure where you’re traveling to that you can always stick to little regional carriers bec. I can’t get from the U.S. to Europe or Asia or even Hawaii as the OP did w/out going bigger 🙂

  7. Other tips:

    Carry along a travel-sized thing of laundry soap (powdered?). That way you feel confident that you can give items a quick wash in the sink and won’t feel so compelled to pack extra clothes just in case.

    Look into quick-dry underwear (like Exofficio, or even Hanes makes some) that you can wash in the sink and let dry overnight. For socks (and other clothes) consider wool because you can wear it multiple times without it getting smelly.

    These things really can help.

    You obviously want a big towel for lounging on the beach, but if you just need something to clean/dry yourself with, a travel towel is a big space-saver

  8. I love the idea of packing light.. however, my thighs don’t like skirts or shorts, so I’m always travelling with pants, and not having the lightweight ones makes packing HARD. That been said, I did manage a move overseas only carrying what fit in my suitcases and my cat as my carryon. Not too shabby.

    • I have this problem too, but I’ve come across a solution that lets me get away with it. There’s something that runners use for that essentially looks like a stick of deoderent called Body Glide – it’s a magic anti-blister/chafing stick and I never travel without it. Works wonders, and highly recommend for any like-thighed-travelers.

  9. I did a 2 day business trip with just my backpack this summer. I even had my laptop and lab notebook crammed in there with all my clothes. Only problem? I realized when I got there that I had completely forgotten to bring my makeup with me.

  10. I went on a 7 day trip to London and only brought my tiny roll-aboard and a backpack. When I met my parents at the train station they were amazed! But I used a lot of similar packing techniques and it saved me quite a bit of time/hassle/money of checking a bag.

  11. These are great tips! I’m pretty good about selecting what to pack, but less good at efficiently getting it onto the suitcase.
    A couple of other toiletries recommendations: Klorane non-aerosol dry shampoo, Burts Bees lemon butter cuticle cream (solid), Bare Minerals exfoliating treatment cleanser (dry powder).

  12. perfect timing on this post… I just arrived home today!!
    Gotta say my packing was pretty darn accurate, I wore almost everything I packed (apart from 1 tank top) didn’t have to wear things multiple times and didn’t actually forget anything important.

    We were lucky enough to fly first class on our two LONG flights (11hr there, 9 hr return) but even on the small inter-island plane our luggage fit just fine, with our cases in the overhead and our backpacks under the seats.

    I’ll get some photos together to show outfit combinations once i’ve gone through the over 1000 photos we took while we were away

  13. I remembered one more trick I use: if I’m bringing comfy pajamas (like a t-shirt or yoga pants) I pick items that can do double duty as my travel-home outfit. They’re often the cleanest clothing I have by the end of the trip. I get to travel in something comfy and cleanish without having to keep a spare set of clothing set aside for traveling home.

  14. Coats with many pockets- especially poachers pockets- poachers pockets are amaizng for laptops and tablets…
    Its amazing what you can fit into coats of many pockets

    Trousers with pockets as well….

    Usually you can get away with carrier bags as well (i.e. like you bought it at the airport)

    You get used to packing light in Europe with the likes of Ryan Air and EasyJet and Jet2 – One carry on only, no personal item…. and Ryan Air doesn’t even let you have the carrier bag. But you can have you coat and many pockets!

  15. Pack old underwear. You know, the ones that you probably should’ve thrown out already but they’re comfy so you haven’t? Pack those. Then for your return if you need more space for souvenirs or whatnot you can throw out your underwear and voila!

  16. I think the cram-all-your-undies-in-your-water-bottle trick is genius! I’ve crammed them into shoes before, but what a great space saver AND guarantor of hydration!
    I’ve found that packing by color scheme is a great way to pack light. If all your pieces coordinate with each other and work with the same shoes/accessories you won’t feel the need to bring a bunch of extraneous stuff. Think multi-taskers! On that note, I ALWAYS bring a big pashmina. It can be a blanket on the plane, a scarf for an unexpected cool night, or a wrap with a dress for dinner. Plus I just wear it when in the airport so it doesn’t even get near the suitcase at all!

  17. This is a great breakdown! But it seems like a ton of stuff for just 10 days.

    I do think occasionally doing laundry (or at least the possibility of it) is key – you can get away with so much less! I have done several month long trips with less than half as much stuff, but I get that not everyone wants to be that way. For any trip over 4 days or so I pretty much count on at least washing some underwear and socks in the sink. Maybe I’m just weird?

    I could probably write a whole post about how to bring 8 clothing items that mix and match into 15 different outfits. As long as you don’t mind being confined to a particular color scheme for your trip. It’s harder if you’re changing climates, but totally possible!

    • I wasn’t sure of the laundry possibilities when we were going and we had such an adventure packed vacation planned I knew there wasn’t going to be time for a laundrette.
      Shorts get worn multiple times in my books, but I like a clean top and knickers each day

  18. Just curious… where did you get your bag? I love gray and yellow together, and it looks sturdy! I made out the brand from the pictures, but I can’t seem to find much “sirocco” online. I’m heading to Disney in December, and France in March, and looking for a new carry on piece. A while back, I fit into a carry on for a week in Italy, and haven’t looked back since… I couldn’t imagine taking any more now!

  19. I’d also like to add that packing light is easier if you are a small person. I can generally manage a small bag for a trip but my husband has to pack a real suitcase because he is bigger and one pair of pants pretty much fills half my bag.

  20. We went to Europe for 7 days during the fall, so a couple pairs of jeans were all I needed. I even washed them in the tub after a few days of wearing them and dried them on the window sil

  21. Heh. I always try to have a change of clothes and extra undies in my personal bag (very large purse or backpack). That and my cannot-live-without toiletries and I’m ok for a day or three if something hinky happens to the rest of my kit. And since something hinky always happens on a holiday weekend in bad weather somewhere without available transit… I’ll spend the extra $$$ for horribly overpriced hotel shop thingies if I HAVE to but if I pack according to Murphy and that Law of his then I win at life! Vaycay Saved! \o/

  22. After reading this post it occurred to me that I must be a really light packer. I spent two weeks in Vegas with only a backpack of stuff and one trip to do laundry and I went to Uganda for almost a month with a small suitcase and a backpack. Of course, I don’t have a huge variety of outfits. But, then again, I don’t have a huge variety even when I’m home with my walk-in closet.

  23. I have to brag that packing is my super power.

    Color coordinate. make sure all your accessories and layers are interchangeable. Black beach wrap triples as evening wrap and airplane wrap.

    Wash undies in the sink and hang dry. Spot wash clothes. Crotch for pants, pits for shirts and the center cleavage for bras. They will dry quickly enough to wear again.

    I travel a lot so its been worth it for me to sink money into backpacker gear. Like quick dry undies.

    Plan plan plan. I look at each event carefully and make a specific outfit for it right down to shoes, necklace,and Bra ( can I get a moment for 5 way convertibles?) and, of course, make sure they all get used multiple times. Still not the same as wearing the same outfit the whole time. I try to use the “3 wears” rule for a trip that length.

    Just bring a very small emergency stash of toiletries. 1 tampon 2 Imodium 2 tums 2 Excedrin 1 band aid. I use all the blister packs at work anyway. No need to pack the whole bottle and if after that you have to buy the airport stuff… well you tried.

  24. I did a three-week Europe trip with one big backpack. Three shirts, one pair of pants, one pair of jeans, two dresses (one reversible), one pair leggings, jacket, scarf, two pairs of shoes, and a cycling shirt and skirt (since I was going to be on a bike for five days). One of the shirts I packed never got worn.

    If you have ’em, pack athletic or “travel” clothes (e.g., Go Lite) and undies (e.g., Patagonia). They’re easy to wash and also dry fast enough to pack them back up the next day.

    I packed all black, grey, and light green (plus blue jeans) with a brightly colored scarf and jacket so everything matched but wasn’t too boring.

    I bought two shirts, a pair of flats, and another scarf as souvenirs, but I also got to wear them while there.

    My small checked bag held American treats (Cheezits! jelly beans!) to gift my ex-pat hosts, and came back full of gifts and souvenirs instead.

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