Pack for weeks in a carry on bag

how to pack for a long trip in a carry on

Having to pack before a trip, any trip regardless of how awesome, is the lamest.  I hate packing.  I loathe it, detest it, want to scream every time I do it, procrastinate until the very last minute, and in the end stay up until the wee hours of the morning of travel jamming stuff into every available corner of my suitcase.

But now, after traveling extensively over the past several years, I’m here to tell you I am now a packing ninja.  Let me repeat that, for those of you who know me and have traveled with me in the past:

I am (now) a NINJA, of the packing variety.

barcelona with luggage(You see these ancient, winding stairs, 4 flights up in our apartment in Barcelona?  Yep.  They were a breeze for my carry-on.  Not so much for my traveling bestie Rachael and her ugly American suitcase.)

Learning how to pack properly took me years to figure out, YEARS of trial and mostly error.  Since I’m OCD, the thought of coming home from a trip and tagging everything I didn’t use in my suitcase with a post-it note, writing down what I used, keeping a master pack list of useful stuff, then tagging everything I did use in a different color, color coding tabs for the whole thing, and coordinating the universe of packing in a 3-ring-binder DID occur to me, maybe more than once but I resisted.

eiffel tower paris

Instead, I just traveled a lot and each time realized what a pain in the neck it is for me to carry more stuff than I will ever need.  Ever.  And because I love you, more than the sun and the moon, and even Diet Dr Pepper (well, maybe I love Dr Pepper a teensy bit more, tiny, teeny though) I’ve compiled my best tips and tricks so you too can learn how to pack for weeks in a carry on bag.  Really.

how to pack a carry on(Rachael Herrscher, again, with massive luggage at the train station.  In her defense, she was in France for business meetings and needed 10 super cute business outfits.  And shoes to match.)

Anyway, here are my top tips, gathered from years of hitting planes, trains, and automobiles of every sort to arrive at far flung destinations.  I wish I’d had this 10 years ago.

How to pack for weeks in a carry on bag


rolling clothes

Learning how roll clothes to pack a suitcase took some time, but you cannot believe what I’ve fit into a carry on bag by rolling every single piece of anything roll-able.  That’s not a word, but I just made it one.  My carry-on for my last major bit of travel (to the French Riviera) was like a Mary Poppins bag.  I fit 8 pair of shoes on the way home (I went nuts in a Parisian shoe store, shhhh), a red carpet gown, and 2 weeks worth of clothing in addition to loads and loads of stuff I bought in Europe.  It’s ridiculous how much you can fit into a carry on.

  • Only take 2 pair of shoes

And only take the 2nd pair if you really need to.

pack for weeks in carry on luggage
  • wear your bulkiest stuff on the plane / car / train
Charles de Gaulle airport

If you’re going someplace cold, or at least somewhere you’ll need a jacket and bulky shoes, sweater, and your ninja suit, wear layers of it all on the plane.  Sounds nuts, but if you’re flying you’re probably going to be freezing anyway (who, me?).

  • pack toiletries in one tiny bag at the top of your bag

If you’re a European and you travel by train most of the time, I don’t want to talk about how awesome your life is.  If you’re mostly traveling by air, especially within the US, pack all your toiletries into a zippable bag (again, another word I just made real) at the top of your luggage so when you go through the security scanners you can pop it out in a hurry.

trains in europe
  • use hotel toiletries where you can

Which is a perfect segue into toiletries.  If you’re staying in a hotel or somewhere you can use toiletries provided for you, don’t pack your own or pack only what is ABSOLUTELY necessary for you to maintain your hotness.

  • combine electronic cords in one bag

Having a small sized zipper bag (even as small as a pencil case) to throw in electronic cords for laptops, cell phones, whatever, makes life easy to pull in and out and charge at airports, train stations along your journey.

  • aim for amenities

The same goes for things like a hairdryer, extra pillow and a robe; if you can score a hotel that already provides these types of suitcase space-sucking items, you will be seriously lightening your load.

  • mix and match pieces of clothing

You’re traveling, you want to look amazing (not that you don’t always look amazing, because let’s face it, you do) but let’s get serious.  You don’t need 6 cardigans and your daytime cute shoes, and your nighttime sexy shoes, and your I’m-not-sure-but-I-like-the-way-they-make-my-bum-look shoes.  Wear close toed shoes for the train / plane / automobile and bring a pair of flip flops if you’re going to the beach.   And if you aren’t, stick to one pair.  Seriously.

pack for weeks in a carry on
  • do laundry on the go

Because you’re so clever, you’ll figure out how to pack pieces of clothing that “go” together.  That doesn’t mean your outfits are matchy-matchy, it just means you can combine any and all clothing in your suitcase to create several weeks worth of outfits.  But you’ll have to wear your clothes more than a few times to make it work, which means you’ll be doing laundry somewhere along the way.  I have a DIY laundry kit ready to throw into my bag at a moment’s notice so I can do laundry wherever I am in the world.  I’ve washed clothes in a cheap hotel bathroom in Budapest, in a river in Mexico, in a shower in Warsaw, and it works just fine every time.  In big cities you can find a wash and fold place where you pay per pound, leave your dirty luggage, and come back at the end of the day to a bag full of clean folded laundry. New York City is my favorite for that.  I’ve also stayed in plenty of hotels where sending out laundry is super cheap (this was absolutely true in Costa Rica), so that’s an option as well.

traveling by train
  • don’t pack anything you can buy where you’re going

Learning not to pack the kitchen sink along with all my special favorite things has been the hardest thing for me to learn when it comes to packing efficiently.  I WANT IT ALL, right along with Veruca Salt.  Not only is that impossible, it’s pretty stupid.  After years and years of hauling around too much crap while traveling, I’ve finally learned to take the bare minimum.  If I’m traveling with my kids and one of them spikes a fever, chances are I’m close to a drugstore and can pick up some medicine if I need it.  Even in a foreign country.

Those are my tippy top tips (do you like what I did just now?) for truly being a packing ninja.  You too can pack for weeks in a carry on.

//  Post sponsored by Sleep Inn®, a hotel that takes style and sweet amenities as seriously as it takes value, and let’s get serious: who doesn’t love value?  Check out some brilliant travel tips + videos from Sleep Inn® and join the conversation of travel lovers like yourself at #forless for ideas on how to pack.  //

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Hello there! I'm Allison Czarnecki, founder + editor of Petit Elefant, a blog all about style on a budget for every part of your life: style / home / travel / family. I do a lot of how-to beauty + style tutorials, travel posts, easy recipes, home remodel projects, and cool DIY crafts you totally want to try. I'm super happily married (to a hot Polish immigrant) and am the mother of two kids, a daughter and son, all of whom are featured here on the regular. We live in the country but we're a little bit rock + roll. Welcome!


  1. Sunny :

    Awesome tips! I’m going on a 9 day trip (including planes, trains and automobiles) next month and everyone will only be taking a carry on. Everyone.

  2. Sarah :

    yep, I can confirm, you are a packing ninja!
    Your tips helped me, oh so very much on our recent adventure. I wore every single thing I took, I am like a ninja in training ;)

  3. Honora :

    I pack all of my clothes in 2gal Ziplock bags. I leave all flat, stick them in bag, lay on bag to squish out the air, and then zip! It makes everything tiny and compact.
    Love your tip on not bringing toiletries. That is the hardest part for me, since they are my true love. But, as you said…one can always find a drugstore. Looking at everything in drugstores and grocery stores in other countries in one of my fav parts of traveling!

  4. julie :

    i’m reading this INSTEAD of packing us back up after 38 days away from home.

    i need to master the fewer shoes thing. i really do.

    and, i could really just bring one pair of modcloth boyfriend jeans and call it a day. or week. or month.

  5. Erin O. :

    Awesome! I’ve become a reluctant business traveler and am learning that there is also a fine art to packing for an overnight trip in a bag small enough that you can whip on and off a plane. Small regional jets make you “gate check” a large carry on and I’m standing in a jetway while all my male coworkers blow out with their tiny carry on bag. Thanks for the tips!