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. Whenever I’m heading back to my hometown, I can borrow some stuff from my mom if I need to and I always have laundry available to me. I was able to take a 3 week trip in a carry on, simply because I had toiletries and extra socks, shoes, and PJ’s back home. Still, I think I only used half my clothes. I could have packed lighter, or swapped out what I packed for the things I had left behind when I was there. So if you’re going to visit family, make sure you check with them so you don’t pack things like sunscreen if your family has it!

    I’ve gotten in the habit of packing into a carry-on as much as I can, because even if it looks too heavy/slightly too big (such as when the suitcase measures properly as long as I don’t expand it or pack into the outside pockets) I can get through security with it. But then when I get to the gate, they usually offer to check it for free! I have to roll it a little further, but I don’t have to lug it onto the plane. And if I do, it’s because there are lots of extra seats, and I can just buckle my luggage right into one near me and end up with an extra backrest.

    • If you want to keep room for souvenirs, put your carry-on into a checked bag. I pack everything into a carry-on roller, which fits right inside my checked bag with a little extra room. That way I can bring home souvenirs, things I left at home when I moved, and/or beer & wine, with plenty of room.

  2. I went on a 12 day trip recently with 3 pairs of underwears and 3 pairs of socks. The trick is to wash your underwear while it’s still on you in the shower, ring it out, continue with your shower, then hang to dry overnight. If it doesn’t dry in time (usually takes more than 1 night, that’s why there’s 3 pairs)there’s always the iron and ironing board 😉

  3. One of the craziest things I ever did was a 30 day trip to SE Asia with only a school-sized backpack. Even my buddies thought I was nuts. But I wasn’t the one bitching every time we changed cities about having to lug a huge suitcase around >:) Washing my clothes in the bathroom sink with Dr. Bronner’s got tiring after awhile but it was still better than the alternative!

    • EXACTLY! I spent a month traveling around Honduras plus two weeks in the States with just a day pack type backpack. I didn’t pack too many clothes that could get wrinkly so I used a compression sack from REI to maximize my space.

      When I went through customs coming back from Honduras the agents were very suspicious that I had been gone for a month and only had a day pack and a purse!


    Here’s a day by day play of what I wore, and outfit combinations[email protected]/sets/72157631535697099/

    In retrospect, I think I did a pretty good job of packing 🙂 I wore all of my tops except for 1, all shorts were worn 2-3 times each and the only things we took that didn’t get used were the underwater flashlight, my ipod and the first aid kit (yay for not needing that!)

    If I were to do the same trip again here is what I would change:

    1) I would have been okay with only 1 pair of pants instead of 2 – I only wore them for the 2 long flights and the helicopter tour, none of these activities involved getting dirty so they could have been worn multiple times
    2) not bothered taking the water shoes, any boat activities we went on wanted us barefoot anyway, and at the beach I preferred teva sandals.
    3) Pack less toothpaste! It turns out I only needed 1 mini tube of toothpaste, not 2 – really surprising how much is in those things!
    4) packed fewer pairs of sunglasses, I actually only wore the same pair the whole trip – but I had packed 3 because sometimes I feel like a change!
    5) don’t pack an underwater flashlight, the scuba instructor said it wasn’t needed where we were diving

    I loved all the comments and suggestions people made earlier of ways to pack smart and light so here are some things that I personally wouldn’t have changed, but could be options if you wanted an even lighter suitcase

    1) 3 pairs of shorts instead of 4, the short black shorts weren’t dirty at the end of the trip so 1 pair could have been worn 4 times
    2) Leave the jersey daytime dress at home, it was only worn once – but I like it and it’s a nice change in photos from shorts and tank top the whole time
    3) Pack less tops and underwear, and schedule time for washing clothes into your trip

    To make some extra space in my case for the few touristy souvenirs we brought back I chucked out any travel sized half finished toiletries, my shower puff and any unneccesary travel booking paperwork/reservations/printed directions on our last day, We left our water shoes at the vacation cottage we stayed at on big Island as they had a collection of beach items (snorkeling gear etc for people to use).
    We also left the beach towels we bought in Oahu and a beachbag at busy boat harbor (hanging up next to a take it or leave it sign), hoping that someone would find a good use for them, rather than just throwing them in the garbage

    I’ve got to say, I thought this was going to be a HUGE challenge for me, I’ve always packed a TON of stuff, even just for a weekend away, but I managed it!!
    And I’ve realized how much easier it makes flying – no queuing to check-in, no waiting for bags to turn up (or not) on the baggage carousel, no lugging huge cases about the place – I’m a changed woman!

  5. Pack two sets of undies – one to wear and one for the case. Wash them in the hower each night when you wash yourself and hang out to dry – I lasted 6 weeks like that!

  6. While I general check my bags bec. I hate dealing w/the lack of space in overhead bins (seriously, I could rant on about how the airlines charging bag fees has caused a whole ‘nother problem of ppl becoming overhead-bin-hogging-monsters!), I do pack light bec. it’s just easier to deal with. I have a just-barely-over-carry-on-size bag that I use for 1-2 week long trips to Europe & Asia, & my last trip’s packing list & wardrobe can be seen here:

    Some unusual things I like to bring– a corkscrew & eating utensils (which can’t be brought in carry-on luggage due to TSA regulations) for impromptu picnics & drinking yummy cheap French / Italian / Spanish wine, a travel-size Tempur-pedic pillow (bec. I get migraines if I don’t use it), a mini laundry washing kit (for cleaning undies & socks & such in hotel bathrooms every few nights), & an eyemask & ear plugs (bec. you never know how bright/noisy your sleeping accommodations will be).

  7. I just went to Hawaii for 8 days and the one thing I wish I would have packed differently is lightweight long sleeve and long pants to save me from the sun! It’s such a pain to get burned in the strong (nearer to the equator) sun, so having your arms and legs covered even when it’s hot out helps a ton.

  8. I just got back from a month in the UK and Ireland with just a carry on bag and my “personal item”, I got a small duffel and rolled it up in my suitcase and used that for souvenirs. I used that as my carry on on the flight home. Anything I would be devastated to lose went in the duffel, so my checked bag ended up just being my clothing.

  9. Does anyone know how strict Delta Airlines is about their personal item policy? I’m going on a ten-day trip and flying back with my cat. She, of course, will be my carry-on. I really, really don’t want to have to check anything if at all possible. They didn’t list “backpack” or “duffel bag” as a possible personal item, but I don’t know how strictly they adhere to that.
    Regarding the rule that it has to be small enough to fit under the seat in front of me? That’s what they said about my cat carrier. So if my carry-on is technically under the seat, then is it okay to put my personal item in the overhead compartment?

  10. Another tip:
    Check the kind of aircraft you will be flying in. Most airlines are able to tell you how old the aircraft is and you can get a good idea of the size of carry on that will fit. On my last trip to Texas, my carry on fit in the out bound flight overhead, but on the return even though my bag was within the TSA dimensions. This aircraft was super old and the overhead bins were TINY!

  11. A thin pair of pajama pants for hanging out in the hotel room / domicile are excellent to have.

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