Never Check A Bag: 5 Ways To Maximize Your Carry On

I haven’t checked a bag in years. And since the price of checked bags keeps going up, I don’t plan to start again anytime soon.

My aunt Barb is a flight attendant and I’ve had the privilege of flying all over the world with her using her buddy pass. The only catch? You have to fly stand-by, which means your seat isn’t guaranteed, so you can’t check luggage. It took only one attempt at consolidating everything into one roller bag and one stash-it-under-the-seat personal item to realize that I’d previously been packing way too much stuff.

Here are five simple tips to maximize your carry-ons so you don’t have to worry about checking a bag.

Pack clothing and accessories that can pull double duty:
If you can’t wear it in more than one situation, leave it at home. Think leggings for under dresses and tunics and as workout pants, tank style bathing suits that double as bodysuits and a big scarf that you can wear draped around your shoulders, use as a blanket or wear as a sarong at the pool.  I’m also partial to bodysuits like the leopard print one shown below from AMI Clubwear (which the company sent me to try, just FYI), because they work as shirts, workout wear, an extra layer under sweaters and jackets and even double as a spare pair of underwear in a pinch.

Don’t forget to roll those items to save as much space as possible. If you pack a bit of laundry detergent (or purchase some when you arrive) you can get even more use out of a few well chosen items.

Switch out expensive or heavy jewelry in favor of simple pieces like lightweight earrings and a simple necklace that goes with everything. Footwear should double up too. Workout shoes  or hiking books can become back-up walking shoes and simple sandals can be dressed up for dinner or  dressed down for the beach. Wear your bulkiest shoes or boots on the plane to save room and save your back — shoes get heavy!


The bag I use is from Stone Mountain USA. It’s sold out right now, so if you need a weekender bag, try these from Shopbop.com. There’s a sale going on now through 1:59 a.m. CST on April 15 and you can save 20-25% when you enter the code EVENT17. (Just so you know, I’m an affiliate for shopbop.com. I earn a percentage from purchases made through affiliate links on this site.)

Pack every inch of your personal item:
The bag or suitcase in the overhead compartment has fixed dimensions (usually 9 x 14 x 22 inches, but you’ll want to check with your airline), but you can get a little more creative with the personal item that you stash under the seat in front of you. Anything between 12-17 inches tall usually works as long as it can squish a bit to get under the seat. (But again, check the dimensions with your airline to be absolutely certain.)

You’d be surprised how much you can fit in your personal item if you set your mind to it. I bring a bag or a backpack large enough to accommodate my regular purse, a daypack for hiking, my make-up case, charging cords, snacks, medicines, earplugs and a sleep mask and any items or activities I’ll need in the airport or in-flight.

Keep in-flight diversions light:
My eReader is my must-have travel luxury.  Be sure to pack it with books and games before you leave, since airport wi-fi can be spotty and isn’t usually secure. I keep my charger handy and plug it in when I’m at the gate. I also upload a book or two onto my phone as a back-up.

If you want something more tactile, a slim travel journal or sketchbook maximizes creativity while taking up minimal space. I pack crayons and colored pencils so my son can use it too. And if you can’t resist catching up on magazines while you fly, pass them along to the flight attendants when you’re done with them! You’ll lighten your load and my aunt tells me the flight attendants like having something new to read for those few moments when they get a break mid-flight.


Lean protein can be hard to find, so I pack jerky like this from The New Primal. The company sent me a whole bunch of flavors to try, and I was surprised to find that the date and rosemary was my hands down favorite!

Stash your snacks and drink containers:
I know it seems weird to write about efficient packing by adding things to your packing list, but nothing undoes a streamlined packing plan like airport induced hunger. It’s hard to get across the terminal or into your seat quickly when you’re schlepping a burning hot coffee in one hand and a giant bag of fast food or overpriced airport snacks in the other.

Get around this hassle by packing your own. I bring hiking/camping friendly snacks like dried fruit, nuts and jerky in a large Ziplock bag so nothing ends up buried on the bottom of my bag. It’s much healthier than the junk I’m tempted to buy at airports before a 6 a.m. flight and if I don’t eat it in flight or at the gate, it doubles a trail side snack or breakfast later on.

After I’m through security, I ask the barista to pour my airport coffee into a reusable tumbler. I broke my last one this winter, so when Hydro Flask sent me a new one, virtually indestructible one to try, it was perfect timing.  A reusable tumbler is better for the environment, you don’t have to worry about cheap plastic to-go lids flying off as you power walk to your gate, and you can fill it with water for hikes and hotel gym workouts when you reach your destination.


I’m terrible about doing my nails when I travel, so Glossique Nail Deco nail wraps are an easy (and liquid-free) alternative. A portion of the proceeds from this Glow for a Cause solid perfume are donated back to non-profit organizations. Both companies gave me these products to try.

Lose the liquids, switch to solids:
When you don’t check a bag, you’re limited to your tiny sandwich bag filled with tiny bottles of liquids, gels, creams and pastes that are all 3.4 ounces or less, so save that space for the self care items you really need. My skin is sensitive, so I travel with minis of my favorite cleansers and foundation, but I save space by switching to solid perfume, nail wraps instead of nail polish, make-up removing wipes and sunscreen sticks when I travel.

Remember, you can always purchase items at your destination. Sometimes purchasing a full size bottle of shampoo or sunscreen (especially if you’re going to use it all) at a store near your hotel is easier and usually costs less per ounce the purchasing a mini. And it’s one less thing to carry.

What about you?
Do you prefer checking a bag or just carrying on your luggage? Why?
What are your carry on essentials?
Where are you traveling to next?

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