How to Pack a Suitcase for Air Travel

How to pack a suitcase for air travel?  Well going on a trip can be exciting, especially for a couple of travel nuts like us.  But the packing is often not.  It’s not just about trying to figure out what to pack for your trip, it’s also about how to pack a suitcase for a trip — especially if you will be traveling by plane.  This can be a little stressful on anyone, including seasoned travelers like us.  How you pack your bags is actually an important step, and can really impact your trip.  So from our experience, here are our best packing tips on how to pack a suitcase for air travel.

How to Pack a Suitcase for Carry-On Bags

With airlines charging crazy fees for checked luggage, many travelers are opting to carry all their items on the plane.  Carrying your bags on the plane can not only save you money, but it can also save you time.  Many frequent flyers prefer to carry their bags onto the plane because you can go straight through security upon arrival at the airport (if you checked in online and got your boarding passes) and you don’t have to wait at baggage claim after the flight.

However, there are different considerations when it comes to packing a suitcase for carry-on bags, including carry on bag size rules & restrictions.

Related:  International Travel Checklist

Choose the Right Carry On Bag 

Choosing a functional bag that meets your needs is important, and everyone is a little different.  Overall, we’ve found that having lots of inside pockets and zippers options are useful.  Also, we like a large open compartment because it is flexible space.  This way, it’s less restrictive and we can use it in different ways.

how to pack a suitcasehow to pack a suitcase

However, the most important factor is that your carry-on bag meets all size requirements by the airline.  Many airlines have different carry-on bag requirements.  Check out the cheat sheet we put together with major airline baggage requirements. (click on the photo below to download)

Airline Baggage Rules & Restrictions PDF

Lastly, expandable carry-on bags are great!  But be sure that they still meet the size rules after you stuff them full of souvenirs from your trip.

Search for the perfect Carry On Luggage

If You Cannot Live Without It, Keep it in Your Carry-On

Another consideration for how to pack a suitcase is what to put in checked baggage versus a carry-on.  As a general rule, anything that you can’t live without should come with you in your carry on bag…and not in your checked baggage.  Unfortunately, we all know that checked bags do go missing…so you should plan for the worst case scenario.

Items that are really important, or irreplaceable, should definitely be packed in your carry on bag.

how to pack a suitcase
Creative Commons What’s In My Bag – Towel Day Edition” by cell105 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Pack your valuables in your carry-on

The same goes for valuables.  All valuables should stay with you at all times in your carry on bag.  This is a bit of common sense, but it is a good reminder when packing.

Travel Tip:  The coveted overhead bin space for carry on luggage fills up fast.  Those who board the plane first have an advantage, but airlines have different boarding processes.  Be sure to check with your airline and try to get in the first boarding groups.

Pack your electronics together (including necessary cords)

Most of us already know that you should never pack your electronics in a checked bag.  Not only do you want to keep them safe, but if you are like me, then you will want to be entertained while you are flying or waiting in the airport.

But some people forget about the cords!

You should have both the power cords (for charging) as well as any other necessary cords for your electronic devices packed with you in your carry on bag.  When checked bags go missing, you don’t want to end up missing an important or irreplacable cord (we’ve heard it happen to other travelers).  It’s a huge inconvenience…and can be quite costly!

Make sure your travel documents are easily accessible

Keep all your travel documents organized and with you at all times, including items like travel itineraries and “cheat sheets” for the trip.   It is nice if you have some kind of a protective document holder (but nothing too big and bulky) to keep printed reservations, confirmation, etc.

Of course you should have electronic back ups too.  But as we know, technology can fail, which is why you should have paper back-ups.  Lastly, these documents should be easily accessible to you during your travels so you are not rummaging around in your bags and holding up the line for others.

how to pack a suitcase

Do you really need all those toiletries?

When trying to figure out how to pack a suitcase, you should definitely ask yourself this question.  Sure, there are always some toiletry items from home that we would like to have.  And it is good to have some items with you in case there are travel delays or cancellations.  But most hotels (even budget hotels and hostels) will have basic toiletries for you to use.

how to pack a suitcase
Creative Commons Toiletry” by Patty Ho is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Lastly, you can always purchase items during your trip if they are really necessary.  Buying small bottles during the trip might be more convenient than hauling large bottles around with you anyway (and there is less chance of a big bottle leaking on your clothes).

Related:  Know TSA Liquid Rules – Packing a Toiletry Kit

Have a first aid kit with the basics, especially pain medication

We would recommend that you have a small travel first aid kit in your carry-on.  In fact, you should have one in your day travel bag anyway, for when you are out and about during your trip. But it can be especially useful on a plane for comfort items such as air sickness pills, headache medicine, wet wipes, etc.  You just never know when you might need something like this in mid-flight.

Wear it, don’t pack it

It can be difficult to pack light, especially if you are traveling in winter.  Those boots, sweaters, scarfs, and coats can really take up a lot of space in your luggage.  So rather than taking up that precious space in your bags, wear them on the plane with you.  This can make the difference in your carry-on bag size and keep you from having to check your luggage.

Some people take this to the extreme…wearing lots of layers!  While you don’t have to go that far, it does work!

Pack light if you plan to bring only a carry on bag

One of the most important packing tips for your carry on bag is that you must be a light packer.  So those of you who have the “kitchen sink” approach to packing a suitcase, may need to scale it down quite a bit.  For more detailed information, check out our post What to Pack in a Carry On Bag.

How to Pack a Suitcase for Checked Luggage

how to pack a suitcase
Creative Commons Please report and unattended luggage” by Kenneth Lu is licensed under CC BY 2.0

While we enjoy avoiding the headache of checking our bags, sometimes hauling multiple heavy bags around at the airport is just not convenient or comfortable.  Especially if it is a large airport where you will be doing lots of walking, or if you you have a long layover.  So if you do plan to check a bag on a flight, here are some packing tips for how to pack a suitcase for checked luggage.

You should still pack light

Just because you are checking your luggage doesn’t mean that you should bring everything from your house.  Airliners weigh your luggage and are not lenient if your bag is over the weight limit.  They are happy to charge you the extra (and sometimes excessive) fess for the overweight bags, or they will simply tell you to remove some items.

This even happened once to Liz and I while traveling around Thailand.  Luckily one of us had space in another bag to transfer some items.  But it’s a pain to repack while you are in a hurry at the ticket counter.

how to pack a suitcase

Keep in mind that different airlines have different weight restrictions, especially discount airlines.  In fact, be sure to read the fine print because some discount carriers are notorious for charging fees…that is essentially their revenue model; and they are betting that you won’t read the rules (ahem, Ryan Air).

For more detailed information, check out our complete post about how to comply with checked baggage size rules when packing a suitcase for a flight.

Have something to identify your luggage

Many suitcases look alike.  So it can be difficult to easily identify your bag when waiting at the baggage claim area.  An easy remedy is to add a handle wrap or a bright color luggage tag.  They are super easy to add to your bag, and make a big difference.  This will make that identifying game at baggage check much easier and stress free.  The more unique it is the better.

An alternative is also just to tie a colored ribbon of some sort to the bag.

how to pack a suitcase

Include identification inside your checked luggage

Some people don’t care for the idea of putting personal information inside their checked bag.  But you will be grateful you did if your luggage goes missing.  Especially because those luggage tags and wraps on the outside of your bag could get torn off too.  By simply putting that same info on the inside of your checked luggage, it can help identify your bags and allow people to contact you.

You don’t need to put your deeply personal information, a simple name and phone number will suffice.

Expect bottles to leak

When it comes to packing liquids, prepare for the worst and hope for the best.  Packing your toiletry kit correctly can help you prevent leakage.  There are TSA approved refillable bottles that can help ensure that you meet the 3-1-1 TSA Liquids Rules.  These products are specifically made to protect breakage and prevent leakage in checked luggage.

how to pack a suitcase
Creative Commons TSA 3-1-1 rule” by Jack Kennard is licensed under CC BY 2.0

But it’s more than just toiletries.  Sometimes you want to bring something back from a trip, like olive oil and wine, which you are not allowed to bring on board the aircraft in your carry-on bag.  Liz did this when returning from a trip to Tuscany, Italy.  She brought a big bottle of olive oil and a couple bottles of wine back in these special travel pouches.  And they totally worked!!!

Travel Tip:  Wipe off anything that can leak and ruin your clothes and souvenirs,  Then use clear wrap to ensure no leaks, and put them inside a TSA approved leak-proof bag.  

How to Pack a Suitcase – General Rules for both Carry-On and Checked Luggage

Roll your clothes

Seriously…it works!  You can save a lot of space in your both your carry-on and your checked luggage if you roll your clothes.  This way, you can get more into your bag and have lots of room for souvenirs when you return!  Just keep in mind those pesky weight limit rules!

Watch this video on How to Roll Your Clothes

Bring a few extra plastic bags

Do not leave on your trip without placing some plastic bags in your luggage.  All of those shopping bags laying around your house can come in handy while traveling.  These are great for wet bathing suits, dirty clothes, shoes, and anything else you want to keep separate in your luggage.

Zip lock bags work especially great too.  Especially if you are in a situation where you clothes / socks get wet or muddy and you cannot was them immediately.

Do not pack what you will buy

Some travelers really love to shop, especially in certain cities or locations. So if you are planning on going bathing suit shopping, then don’t bring 3 bathing suits.  Just bring one and wear the new ones that you buy.  Also, if you know that you will buy some shirts, hats, or dresses to remember your time on vacation, then pack less clothing to begin with so you have space to bring the new items home with you.

how to pack a suitcase
Liz wanted to buy a traditional Cambodian scarf as a souvenir, so she didn’t bring her usual scarf on this trip. She just wore the one she bought in Siem Reap.

Related Post: What Makes a Great Travel Souvenir? 

Don’t Fret Over How to Pack a Suitcase

In the end, it’s really up to you what you want to bring on a trip.  But the important thing is that you have thought out how to pack a suitcase for your trip in advance (not the night before!).  How you pack your bags – both checked luggage and carry on bags, can really make a difference in your experience.  So it’s not about throwing things in a bag and taking off (although some travelers prefer that approach).

We’ve found that taking the time to think it out can really make for less stress before the trip, and an overall better vacation.

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