preloadPacking a carry-on luggage

The considerations of how to pack a carry-on bag go far beyond trying to stuff everything you need into a single bag to avoid checking luggage. From varying bag styles and airline-specific allowances to surprise fees and prohibited items, packing a carry-on is no mindless endeavor. When there’s finally only one more sleep until you head to the airport, use KAYAK’s out-of-office generator for a sweet sign-off and get packing.

1. Types of carry-on luggage

A young Asian male traveller boards a plane, carrying a backpack and glancing back.

Carry-on luggage comes in a surprising variety of styles. For those packing light, a small handbag or backpack can serve to transport the bare essentials, but most will want to bring something more substantial. Traditional carry-on bags range from duffel bags, carried by hand, to small suitcases that airlines often refer to as roll-aboard bags.

The ideal duffel bag size for carry-on luggage is the weekender style, which generally allows for two or three outfits, an extra pair of shoes, and a few personal items. Adventure duffels designed for gear may be too large for carry-on, especially if fully packed.

Roll-aboard bags are so-called for obvious reasons: They roll aboard the plane on either two or four wheels. These miniature suitcases are offered in both soft-shell versions made from durable fabrics to hard-shell cases made from materials like polycarbonate plastics or aluminum.

2. Carry-on baggage allowances


Most major US airlines follow a carry-on standard easily remembered as the 1:1 rule. This allows for one carry-on bag and one small personal item, like a handbag, briefcase, or umbrella. The good news is that these items are typically allowed free of charge. But not all airlines are so generous. Budget airlines may charge for carry-on, regardless of whether you also checked a bag, and some may only allow one total item.

To be sure you aren’t hit with surprise charges for your carry-on bag, check the airline fees page for a quick reference. Because most airlines don’t charge for carry-on, you won’t find a separate column for this, but any known carry-on fees will be listed under the first column, “Checked Baggage.” If you haven’t chosen your airline yet, KAYAK offers a Baggage Fee Assistant on every flight search results page. Select your number of carry-on and checked bags at the top, and your search results will show updated rates that include your baggage estimate.

3. Confirm your carry-on is size compliant

Because your carry-on items need to fit fully under the seat or in a closed overhead bin, they need to meet size requirements. Primarily, your bag will need to stay under specific dimensions that vary slightly by the airline, and this is typically calculated by adding the total inches of your bag’s height, width, and length. You can find your measuring tape and start calculating, or let KAYAK help you out. The mobile app contains a Bag Measurement tool that will provide accurate measurements from a live scan of your bag and let you know if it’ll be allowed aboard your desired flight (or others). This tool isn’t just easy – it’s fun. Watch the video below and see how it works.

Technically, your carry-on bag will need to meet weight requirements, too. This rule is far less enforced by major US airlines, which often eyeball carry-on bags rather than weigh them but try to avoid filling yours with heavy items just in case. They’re allowed to weigh your carry-on bag and prevent you from boarding with one that’s too heavy. Your airline’s website will provide this weight limit.

4. What to pack in a carry-on bag

Two individual packs their stuff laid in bed inside a suitcase.

Keep in mind that plenty of items are prohibited in carry-on bags, and most of these are determined by country, not by airline. Once you’ve ensured you’re not trying to bring any violations on board, it’s time to consider what you’ll most need during your trip.

There are two main reasons most will want to bring a carry-on: to avoid checking a bag or to be sure you’ll still have your essentials if your checked bag is delayed or lost. If you’re seeking to avoid checking a bag entirely, your number one packing goal should be minimalism. You can’t go over the carry-on size and weight limits, so maximizing space (more on this below) and minimizing unnecessary items are the keys.

For longer trips that really stress your carry-on space, pack lightweight fabrics and consider items that can mix and match to create multiple looks without packing additional items. Keep bulky footwear to a minimum, and avoid bringing toiletries that can be easily purchased at your destination if space is tight.

Regardless of the trip duration or whether you also have a checked bag, there are a handful of items everyone should bring onboard. Valuables, like expensive jewelry and small electronics, should not be checked. Identification documents may be required throughout the airport processes on both ends of your flight, so be sure these are always with you, too. Finally, keep anything that is a daily requirement, like medications, in your carry-on, too, in case other luggage is delayed or lost. If space allows, it helps to be sure you have at least one full outfit in your carry-on, even if you checked a bag. In case of baggage delays, you’ll be grateful for the clean change of clothes the next day.

5. Tips for how to pack a carry-on

No matter what type of carry-on you choose to bring with you, we have 6 tips that will make the packing process a tad easier.

Choose a lighter carry-on suitcase

Because some airlines do weigh carry-on bags, it’s helpful to select a lightweight bag that won’t take up much of your total allowance. It’s also easier to lift these into overhead bins during boarding.

Check the weather the day before you pack

Even if your destination is known for sunny skies or constant downpours, check the weather the day before flying. Weather patterns may be more regular, but you never know what the temperatures or precipitation will be on a specific day, so be sure you have the right clothing, shoes, and gear (like umbrellas) for the exact days you’ll be there. Don’t arrive unprepared for unusual weather.

Maximize your carry-on baggage allowance

If your airline only allows one total item, don’t be afraid to select the largest dimensions allowed. Soft-sided carry-on bags like duffels can be easily squished into the measuring bin used by stringent airlines, so you may get away with packing more than you would in a hard-sided case. Don’t forget that roll-aboard bags also have wheels, which are against your size limit without providing any packing space.

Maximize your carry-on space

In addition to avoiding bulkier fabrics and items, packing techniques and tricks can also help you squeeze more into your carry-on bag. Roll your clothes rather than folding them to maximize space, and you may find fewer wrinkles, too. Some rolled clothing can also be stuffed inside shoes to save space and preserve shoe shape, but this otherwise dead space is also great for socks, underwear, or non-liquid toiletries. Stick whatever you want in here; just don’t leave it empty.

Packing cubes also save space by compressing your clothing into a more compact space. As a bonus, they also keep your bag more organized. Just keep in mind that finding more space for extra items may push your carry-on bag over the weight limit if you get carried away.

Know where your liquids are

Depending on the airports you encounter and your personal security status, you may be required to remove liquids from your carry-on during security screening. In these cases, they’re required to be collected in a single bag, and you should keep these bags in an easy-to-access area of your carry-on so you don’t struggle at the security checkpoint. The same may be true for larger electronics, like laptops and tablets.

Save a carry-on packing list

Create a comprehensive carry-on packing list a few days ahead, and review it each day before you leave. This is especially necessary if this will be your only luggage, but it’s useful for everyone to be sure everything necessary is actually packed. Daily essentials, like medicines, may not be packed until the day of, making them easier to forget. And don’t forget to use this list when re-packing to return home, to be sure nothing is left behind.

How was this guide created?

Random passengers dragging their luggage through an airport terminal.

The art of planning! I travel every week of the year, averaging more than 120 flights annually, so I’m personally familiar with just about every pitfall and surprise that can pop up when traveling with a carry-on. I once lived out of a carry-on suitcase for two months, so I can also guarantee that it’s possible to take everything you need without violating any airline’s policies, provided you prepare properly. I combined this extensive experience with the expert guidance of KAYAK’s tools and teams to prepare this guide.

Start Planning! Following the tips above will take the stress out of carry-on luggage, from choosing the right airline to packing your bag. Now that you’re confident in your carry-on abilities, take a look at some of this year’s travel trends and start planning your next getaway. Here’s a pro tip to get you started: consider the slower travel months for reduced rates and minimized crowds!

Check out some of our favorite cheap flight routes

How to pack a carry-on FAQs

Luggage with colourful travelling essentials with facemasks, refillable bottles and a passport.

How do I pack a carry-on for 4 days?

Any standard carry-on bag can easily hold enough clothing for four days, provided your outfits can share just one or two pairs of shoes. This will only become trickier during colder visits when you’ll need to bulk up. For these trips, focus on thinner layering elements so heavy outer garments become less unnecessary, and reuse layers when they won’t be seen or soiled.

How do I pack a carry-on for a week?

Some say a carry-on should be able to hold up to ten days’ worth of travel, but even a week can be tricky for those who love a showier style. It’s still doable, though. Plan outfits of simple pieces that can be reused to create new looks, and focus on accessories that can change frequently without taking up much valuable packing space. This is definitely a time for packing cubes.

How do I pack a suit in a carry-on?

Some carry-on bags come with a built-in garment bag for suits, but it’s not entirely necessary. The key is to make minimal folds, and not to compress or crowd the materials. Leave plenty of space and lay the loosely folded garments gently on top of your other items.

About the author

Brandon SchultzBrandon travels every week and makes friends with stray cats wherever he goes. Dogs, too... he once brought one home to the US from the Amalfi Coast. He’s written 6 books, visited 6 continents (still waiting on Antarctica), and would eat ice cream 6 times a day if he could. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his partner and three cats.

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