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How to pack a carry-on (and save on airline baggage fees)

Save money on checked luggage with these simple hacks for fitting everything you need into a carry on.
Image: Vacation Packing
In the first three quarters of 2019, airlines have already made almost $4.4 billion in revenue on checked baggage fees.Lewis Mulatero / Getty Images

Snag an amazing deal on a flight for the holidays? Better read that fine print before you start packing.

According to a report by Hopper, airlines are increasingly unbundling their offerings so that they can offer the lowest possible fares. Which means that once you get to the check-in counter, you’ll likely find yourself shelling out more cash for things that were once included in the base price of your ticket — like a checked bag.

In fact, travelers who check at least one bag when flying domestically are paying more overall than they did before airlines began unbundling fares in 2008 and charging separately for checked baggage, according to the Government Accountability Office. Today, checking a bag can set you back an additional $25-$100 depending on the airline you’re flying with. And airlines are raking it in: In the first three quarters of 2019, airlines have already made almost $4.4 billion in revenue on checked baggage fees, according to the Department of Transportation statistics — and that's before counting the travel rush from Thanksgiving to New Year's.

One person not contributing to that revenue? Patrice J. Williams, on-air style expert, blogger and author of "Looking Fly on a Dime", who says she’s never checked a bag.

“I've never checked a bag because the process just gives me so much anxiety,” says Williams. “I've seen so many friends and colleagues who've had travel nightmares all due to lost and sometimes stolen baggage. Traveling is stressful enough, so if there's a way for me to cut down on some of the stress, I'm all for it.” Besides helping reduce stress, going the carry-on route is also a time saver. “When I went to Belize a few years ago, I caught one of the last water taxis to the island I was visiting. If I would have waited at the carousel to retrieve my bags, I would have missed the water taxi and been stuck at the terminal for two hours until the next one arrived,” says Williams. “Also, when you take the time in advance to be intentional about what you pack, it makes getting dressed so much easier when you reach your destination.”

Fitting everything you need into a bag that is 9” x 14” x 22” may seem an impossible feat, but Williams is sharing all of her insider tricks for maximizing space and packing more efficiently.

How to maximize space in your carry on

  • Occupy dead space: “Shoes can take up a lot of space, but the ‘dead space’ of the inside of a shoe is prime packing space,” says Williams. “Stuff the inside of a sneaker with socks, underwear, medication or even electronic chargers. If you feel weird about stuffing your clean clothes or items inside of a shoe, just wrap the items in plastic wrap or a plastic baggie." This is a great tip to keep in mind during the winter season when we tend to wear bulkier shoes like boots that take up precious space. Stuffing them not only utilizes the dead space, but helps tall boots keep their shape in the suitcase, says Williams. "The same goes for hats, which are tricky to travel with. Stuff the inside of the hat with clothes. This maximizes your space but also ensures the hat doesn't lose its shape,” she adds.
  • Plastic wrap your accessories: “Jewelry can take up a ton of space and smaller items get lost easily. But I like to lay everything flat out on a sheet of press ‘n seal plastic wrap and then layer another piece over it,” says Williams. “The plastic creates a perfect seal around your jewelry (without damaging anything!) and you don't have to worry about anything getting lost or tangled. Once you have this sheet of sealed jewelry, you can simply fold it up and place in your bag. You can lay several pieces of jewelry on a sheet or do individual sheets.”
  • Don’t fold — roll clothes as tightly as possible: “I do the roll method when packing. I tightly roll everything, similar to how you'd wrap a burrito. Nice and tight,” says Williams. “I start with the heavier, bulkier items because these are sure to take up more space. These bigger items can be the base of your suitcase or carry-on, while the smaller, light weight pieces can be rolled on top or you can even shove them into any crevices between the bigger items. Packing cubes are also a great way to save space and especially organize your clothes based on the day you'll wear them or even certain activities (cubes for dressier items, cubes for casual wear, etc.).”
  • Use the 'bookend' method: Once you roll bulky items like sweaters and jeans, Williams suggests using them as bookends by placing them on either side of the suitcase, and then filling the space in between with smaller articles of clothing. Another affordable space-saver? Compression storage bags, which are great for packing thick shirts, sweaters and jackets in the most compact space possible.

Tricks for packing less, without limiting your outfit choice

We’ve all been guilty of shoving way too many clothes in our suitcase — and only wearing half of them on our trip. Luckily Williams has a few tricks up her sleeve for cutting down on the amount of clothing you bring, without limiting your outfit options.

  • Have a color scheme. “It's easier to mix and match your wardrobe (one top with two different pairs of jeans or shorts, etc.) if you follow a cohesive color scheme,” says Williams. “You don't have to wear all neutrals, but even just having one cohesive color makes it easy to play around with mixing and matching. And adding fun statement accessories is a way to create a new look, even if you're wearing the same pieces.” It may take a little pre-planning but when you’re able to remix a single piece multiple ways you can cut down on how many clothes you need to bring, plus it will make choosing an outfit and getting dressed easier during the trip.
  • Pack based on activities, not length of trip. A 10-day trip means 10 different outfits right? Wrong. “I like to break the wardrobe basics down based on activities (because this can mean multiple changes throughout the day) versus strictly the number of days you'll be somewhere,” says Williams. “So if it's a five-day beach getaway where you'll be mostly relaxing, but going out at night once or twice, that might mean: 3 swimsuits, 2 dresses, 3 tops and 2 pairs of shorts; 1 pair of dressy sandals, 1 pair of flats, jewelry. This covers the casualness of a day on the beach and sightseeing, with the dressier options for having fun at night.” Not to mention it all fits into that small carry-on, no problem.

Clever hacks for storing all your essentials without any spills or tangles

  • Take advantage of sample size beauty. “I like to save all the sample beauty products I get (from department stores, gifts, etc.) and bring them on a trip. This is easier than transferring your favorite items into travel size bottles (which I also do),” says Williams. “And for beauty products that I don't need a lot of (typically eye or night cream), I store them in contact lens cases. Just a few dollops of the product is stored in the cases and because they're a thicker consistency (versus a liquid), I don't worry about them spilling.”
Williams uses contact lens cases to store beauty products like eye or night cream.
Williams uses contact lens cases to store beauty products like eye or night cream.Patrice Williams
  • Every product should work double duty. “Everything in your bag should have a double duty function. That can be a dress that's worn a variety of ways or even a lip stain that doubles as a blush,” Williams advises. “I have a travel blanket that folds up into a pouch and can be used as a blanket, pillow or back support while flying. And the blanket is soft enough that I've even used it as a blanket while laying out on the beach (it's lightweight enough that I can wash it in the hotel sink and dry overnight).”
  • Keep small jewelry items secure. Packing rings, earrings or cuff links? Using pill cases to store them is a great, compact way to keep them secure, says Williams.
  • Try a better way to store dirty shoes. “If you don't have shoe bags or a separate compartment, you can store your shoes in cheap plastic shower caps,” says Williams. “Place the shoes, soles down, in the shower cap to keep the dirty shoes from the rest of your luggage.”
  • Untangle your chargers. Williams recommends using a sunglasses case to store your chargers. This keeps them contained and easy to find in your bag.

Invest in a few products that will help you pack smarter

1. Compression Packing Organizer

Compression storage bags are great for packing thick shirts, bulky sweaters and jackets in a compact space.

2. Fold n Go blanket

This blanket serves multiple purposes, working as a pillow, blanket and back support in a car or airplane, and even a blanket for the beach or park once you reach your destination.

3. Packing cubes

Packing cubes are a smart way to save space and can help you organize your clothes based on the day you'll wear them or even by certain activities, keeping you organized once you reach your destination as well.

4. Travel bottle pack

Full-size shampoo and conditioner and other cosmetic items are a no-go with a carry on. A travel bottle pack allows you to pack just the right amount to stash in your carry on.

5. Contact lens case

Contact lens cases are a compact and tidy way to store eye creams and moisturizers leak-free.

6. Travel cord roll

Keep all of your cords and chargers organized in one place with a travel cord roll.

7. Cord tacos

Cord tacos are another compact way to keep cords and chargers organized, so you aren't digging for them at the bottom of your carry on or purse.

8. The Carry-On by Away

Want to really up your carry-on game? This model from Away Travel passes the 22" x 14" x 9 test, and also comes with a built-in battery plus USB charger for your cell phone, two compartments — one for clothes and one for shoes and toiletries — and a durable outer shell that won’t break no matter how rough the airline is with your luggage.

Analyze your bag after a trip

Once you've returned from a trip, Williams recommends going through your bag and noting everything you didn't wear and which products you didn't use. This gives you a snapshot of what you don't need to pack for your next trip, she says. You'll have even more room for souvenirs in your carry-on next time around.

More ways to travel better

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