How To Maximize Your Carry On Luggage Space


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My son had the chance to go on a week long mission trip with Back to Back Ministries through the small christian private school he attends 2 days a week. The first email about flying instructions stated a $25 fee for checked luggage I immediately decided “I refuse to pay for a service that use to be free, so carry-on it is.”

How to maximize your carry on luggage space I can't believe what fit in this bag!Then I read the included packing list in detail and began to doubt myself. The list suggested 2 outfits a day due to the hot and sweaty conditions. Also on the list was a twin sheet set, beach towel, swim trunks, notebook and bible, snacks, flashlight, batteries, hat, socks, work shoes, flip flops, sunscreen, soap, shampoo, deodorant, underwear, anti nausea pills, imodium, ibuprofen, wet wipes, hand sanitizer and of course snacks.

Since he was going for an entire week, that meant he needed 12 outfits. In the end with my son’s agreement I packed 12 t-shirts, 12 pairs of boxer shorts and 8 pairs of shorts . We both figured he could change the things closest to his body after working and reuse the shorts for the rest of the day.

If my son were not such a picky eater, snacks would have been unessential, but I couldn’t let the boy who likes roughly 20 different food items completely starve, so we ended up packing 12 granola bars and 12 snack sized containers of fish crackers.

My son is also extremely heat intolerant and gets dehydrated quickly so I packed 24 sticks of Gatorade so that he could have 2 sticks a day to put in his purified water and make sure he keeps up his electrolytes.

I knew I only had a backpack that he could consider a personal item and the black carry on bag seen in the photo above to fit that all in. So I used some of my husband’s tricks for compact packing and then came up with a few of my own.

How to Maximize Your Carry On Luggage Space

1. Purchase good quality zip lock bags

I know from past experience that packing clothes in zip lock bags takes up less space and keeps them clean until the child wears them. The second half of that tip comes in handy when you send younger kids to summer camp.

The key to this step is use good quality gallon sized zip lock bags. I have used and liked the Aldi brand and the Ziploc brand.

2. Roll or fold the clothes to fit the bag.

Here is how I fit the t-shirt and boxer shorts in their bags

folding t-shirts step oneI placed a pair of folded in half boxer shorts inside a folded in half t-shirt. If my 14 year old ever reads this I am sure he is not going to like me talking about his boxers so much, but hey at least there are not photos of them. (but you do get to see my foot in this picture 🙂 ).

t-shirt one foldI then folded the top down to mid way down.

folded again t-shirtI folded the bottom over the top for the final fold.

putting t-shirt in bagI then slipped the t-shirt into the gallon sized Ziploc bag. You will notice it matches the width of the bag almost perfectly. My son is an adult large (he is almost 6 feet at 14 yrs of age), so depending on the size you are packing you might have to play around with your folding to achieve the width.

how to get the air out of a ziploc bag when using it for packingI then harnessed the power of my behind and sat on the Ziploc bag to get out all the air. While sitting on it I sealed it. I left all the space at the top so that the bag could fit upright in the carry on. By having the bags upright I could squeeze more in.

t-shirt packed as small as possible for carry onThe result is a vacuum sealed bag effect without the vacuum seal machine. The Ziploc bag does seem to regain a bit of air over time, so I did all of the t-shirts and shorts at the same time so that I could get them squeezed in while they were at their smallest.

rolled in shorts to fit in carry onFor shorts I simply rolled them up and then…

2 pair of shorts packed for carry onplaced 2 in a bag one on top of the other and used my bottom air vacuum technique to get them as small as possible.

 3. For items that don’t fit in zip lock bags roll them to fit remaining space

The twin sized sheets and beach towel did not fit in zip lock bags so I simply rolled them to fit down the space beside the bags. This left me with one small square space at end where I put in his quart sized bag of personal items like shampoo and soap, as well as a small travel sized flashlight and batteries.

The carry on also had two front pockets. I used one to hold his Bible and notebook and the other to hold his bandana and socks.

I was also able to get a few of the snacks in the bag as well.

There are actually 6 shorts, and 11 shirts & boxers in the black carry-on bag. I will show you what I did with the last 2 pairs of shorts and t-shirt and a few other items.

back pack as personal item for carry onI packed the last t-shirt and 2 pairs of shorts in this backpack. I probably could have squeezed it in to the carry on but I was sending these things with a very absent minded 14 year old and I just had this fear of him walking onto the flight with the backpack slung over his shoulder and the carry on left by itself next to the chair he was sitting on while he waited for the flight. Rather than leave him with just the clothes on his back I made sure he would have at least a spare outfit should this happen.

In this backpack I also packed his water bottle (empty for refilling at filtered water station) His anti-nausea pills (he gets travel sick). The other over the counter items the mission recommended . His wallet and passport. Chewing gum to pop his ears. Tissues for bleeding noses (I get them almost every time I fly and I didn’t know if he would or not). Wet wipes for his hands. Plus a few other travel papers he needed.

The shirt on the front you see in the photo was his group travel shirt that he put on just before he left.

I am pretty happy with how I was able to fit things in. I think I could have even taking things smaller if I didn’t divide up his snacks into one days worth per zip lock bag. However, knowing that my son is a picky eater I wanted to help him to ration out his snacks to last the week (whether that worked or not only time will tell 🙂 ).

Road Trip Packing To The Max (small)See how our family of 5 makes use of every square inch of our SUV for road trips.

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  1. These are great tips! With Spring break right around the corner, I’m going to put these to use right away. I’m with you — I have paying for checked bags at the airport.

  2. Excellent ideas! My husband used to fly all the time for work and became a master at paring down and squeezing in.

    I can usually pack myself and three (one medium sized, the other both adult sizes) a week’s worth of outfits into one large rolling suitcase. I would still have to check it if we flew, but it saves space in the trunk when we drive!

    I might not have thought to put that second outfit in the back pack, way to think ahead! I hope he had a great trip!

  3. Nice work! That looks so labor intensive, I can’t imagine doing that for more than one kid at a time! LOL Rolling clothes is so helpful, I think more people need to realize this, but then again, if they did, the airlines wouldn’t make so much money from checked bags, would they? Great post!

  4. This is brilliant. We can use this for carry on and larger checked bags to keep everything clean until worn.

  5. Wonderful tips for packing, and everything is so neat!

  6. You sure got a lot in that little suitcase! Do airlines in America not have weight limits for carry-ons? We always travel with just a carry-on and a backpack because I don’t like those extra fees–plus, huge suitcases are cumbersome, but the weight limit on most budget Asia-based airline is 7 kilos or 15 pounds, and I find that my carry-on weighs 15 pounds easily, without me packing it to the max! I could definitely sneak more clothes along if they didn’t insist on weighing carry-ons over here. 🙂

    • Victoria says:

      You know I don’t remember them weighing the carry on but I do believe I read a weight limit somewhere and his was under it when I packed it at home. It certainly was not under 15 pounds though.

    • The weight limit for most Canadian carriers is 10 kg (22 lbs) and they are enforcing it more often now. I got rid of my carry on that weighed 6.5 lbs and opted for one at 3.5 lbs because I stay within the weight guidelines and not what I can cram in the bag. Many European and Asian carriers have even lower weight limits.

      • Good to know. I usually pack less than above but in this case we were following the list that was given by his school.

  7. I know the snacks will be gone, but how is he going to fit that all back in for his return trip without you there to pack for him? Unless he helped you pack, you may find that not everything makes it home…

    • Victoria says:

      He is home now and he actually did a fairly good job. He did leave the sheets and towel behind, but I had told him before hand to do that. I had packed an older set knowing he would need space on return flight since I wasn’t there to pack his stuff as tight.

  8. Hi Victoria, you just threw me a ‘challenge’! Hubby & I love crusing and yes, luggage is an issue. We have a Mediteranean cruise coming up in Oct. so, we’ll put your tricks to good use…we will try one carry-on with every day clothes, shoes & sandals and one carry-on with dressier clothes for dinner & evening wear. We usually do 14-day cruises (we love Princess cruises) and since there are laundry facilities including laundry room (just like a laundramat) and they also have dry cleaning service should you have a mishap), we pack just enough clothes for 7 days. I wash my personal items every night so that also cuts down on packing. We wear our heavier shoes and sweaters/jackets while travelling. Our personal/hygiene products in ziplock bags, (as in hotels, soap, shampoo, body lotion are supplied in stateroom), tablet (me),/travelling pc( hubby), travelling schedule/itineraries, empty water bottle (filled on plane), medicine, hard candies are packed in back pack or small under seat tote bag. We also add on top of articles a body travelling pouch which contains id papers, money and passport, pens and note pad for easy access. We wear this pouch on excursions/shopping trips! Hopefully we’ll save $$$ for storing luggage! Here Canada, i don’t remember a weight restriction for carry-on but they do have rules for the size of the luggage! So far we’ve not had a pro lem with that!
    Thanks for all your posts…you have a very friendly web site. God bless

    • Victoria says:

      WOW! 14 days in 2 carry-ons and 2 personal items. You will have me beat. That is amazing. Haven’t tried a cruise yet. I grew up on Vancouver Island and just the huge ferry to the main land would sometimes make me sea sick, so I am always hesitant to try. I told my hubby I was willing to try a 3 day one to start though. I hope you have a great cruise and thanks for your kind words about the site.

  9. Diana @ Soulful Necessities says:

    LOVE this post! Such great tips. Visiting from A Bowl Full Of Lemons linky party.

  10. when my kids were little I packed an outfit a day in a ziplock bag, plus a few extras. On road trips I left the big suitcase in the car for overnight motel stays and just brought a bag with a change or two of underwear, a ziplock with an outfit for the next day, bathing suit (in summer), and their pjs. Saved pulling everything out of the car and having to lug it all back in the morning. It was also easy for the kids to grab a bag and know they had a whole outfit in there.

    • Victoria says:

      Smart idea! I bet it saved you from that explosion look in the hotel room. You know the one where the kids each get out a few things from the luggage and suddenly there is stuff everywhere.

  11. Charlotte says:

    I love these ideas but it seems like it could be wasteful without advanced planning. Any ideas for re-using those Ziploc bags, especially if they are used to bring dirty clothes home? They’re like gold in our house and I hate seeing them go to waste.

    • Victoria says:

      To reuse the Ziploc bags you could simply rinse them out and let them dry and then put them back in the empty suitcase to reuse next time.

  12. If you want to get the rest of the air out of your bags, close them almost all the way. Stick a straw in the corner, suck out the air, and then zip it the rest of the way. This also works for getting food ready for the freezer. Thanks for posting. Hello from Thrifty Thursday.

  13. Tee hee, “the bottom technique”. Ah, that’s great. I usually just roll up a day’s worth of clothes and wrap a rubber band around it, but my method isn’t nearly as effective. Organized, but still bulky. I’ll have to put some posterior power into it next time, thanks!

    • Victoria says:

      Yes posterior power is amazing! LOL I like the idea of rubber bands that would have been helpful to tame the sheet set he took along a bit better. I will have to remember that for our next trip.

  14. Hi there! Do you perhaps have any tips on packing shoes? Being a girl I usually want to take lots of shoes to be prepared for any event or activity, but I always end up not having enough space.

    • Victoria says:

      Shoes are tough. My suggestion wear the bulkiest ones on the plane. Pack the other shoes in a grocery sack heal to toe and then tie,this doesn’t save much space but it does keep them from getting the other things not in ziplock bags dirty. Also try to pick outfits that all go with just a pair or two of shoes so that you are not packing too many pairs. Put the ones you can’t squish like heals on top, and put the ones you can like sneakers at the ends. Experimentation is key.

  15. Bonnie Kirin says:

    You did a great job of packing a lot in a small space. I have used some of those techniques and will use others the next time I travel. My question is how did your 14 year old do with repacking all that stuff on the return trip. I had to send my husband off on a plane trip for an emergency visit with his family. The packing of those dirty, crumbled clothes was not quite so easy for him. My sister-in-law thinks I am a witch because I packed so much in such a small space.
    Thanks for the great ideas

    • Victoria says:

      He actually did pretty good. Nothing came back in ziploc bags but, he did have more room on his return trip because a)he had eaten all his snacks b)I sent him with an old towel and sheets that already had several small holes in them and told him if he ran out of space he could throw those away so he did.

  16. Melissa D. says:

    Great tips! I can’t believe I never thought of just sitting on the Ziplock bags to get all of the air out! Thanks for the post!

    • I didn’t think of it either until my husband packed for a trip to Africa many years ago and someone suggested it to him. Although it that case he ziplocked his clothes to keep the sand out.

  17. Normal Dad says:

    Your son is going on a trip and he can’t even pack his own bag without your help?

    What have you been doing as a parent?

    • He helped. He gathered all the clothes and other items for me. He brought me the ziplock bags. He got the suitcase out of the attic for me. He just didn’t brainstorm how to get it all to fit. Remember a blog post only shows a slice of life, not the whole picture.

  18. Carol Johnson says:

    Great ideas. When packing, I place a plastic dry cleaning bag on the bottom of the suitcase as well as one on top of the final layer of clothing. This protects clothes from rain or other substances that may come in contact with your luggage. Also, I use those plastic, zippered pouches that contained curtains, pillowcases, bed sheets etc. for liquids, underwear, hair products and other items. Before you completely zip pouch, press out the air. They are thicker than zip locks and protect clothing better. Also, I carry extra plastic bags, e.g. grocery, large bags and place them in the drawers of hotel or cruise cabin and dispose at end of trip.

  19. This was an excellent idea! And yes I am amazed! I use similar techniques, roll, fold and pack in ziplock bags too. BUT I never thought to place it in vertically! That awesome! Next trip, definitely will try it out. I wear my heaviest clothes on the plane and place extra shoes parallel to the side of the suitcase.

  20. why did you pack your sons bag for him. hes 14 years old

  21. Bonnie says:

    Great ideas. I’ve never used the ziplock bag method but I will try it. I always pack to carry on nowadays. I did spend money on the travel underwear, you only need two pair and wash one in sink at night. Totally worth it if you travel a lot! (Def not for a kids mission trip though!)


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