It pays to travel light with just a single carry-on suitcase. Not only will you avoid paying excessive airline luggage fees, but you’ll get through airport security faster with a stealthily packed, slimmed-down carry-on suitcase. You’ll also save time by not waiting for checked luggage and you won’t risk losing a single bag. Yay!

funny dogs
I can fit…PLEASE don’t go without me!

I should know. After traveling through Germany, The Netherlands, and France for ten straight days with a single piece of 19″ carry-on luggage, I managed to escape paying a single luggage fee, and jaunted around major European cities care-free with a very light load to carry.

carry on luggage rules

How did I do it? With a little planning and a few frugal air travel packing tips you too can take flight without the extra cost and luggage weight.

Here’s how to pack a suitcase in ten simple steps:

1. Check the weather.

Living on the farm for the last few years, I’ve grown to appreciate the insanity farmers have for weather reports — Carl included. I call it ‘Weather P0rn’ ’cause the delight my man gets from barometric pressures, dew points, and capping inversions gives me cause for climatic disturbance.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you glue yourself to The Weather Channel (like Farmer Carl) before your business, holiday, weekend, or family trip. But being inclined to glance at a few weather forecasts will make it easier for you to pack for any kind of getaway. Check out or for meteorological updates at your destination.

I traveled to Europe in the fall, so I needed a good mix of warm and cold weather clothing. Yes, I packed it all in one carry-on suitcase.

2. Plan your destination events.

Visiting relatives, partying at swanky soirees, hiking up glaciers, or sunning your bum on the beach all require different attire. So pack only the clothing you need for your planned events — nothing extra! If you suddenly need a string bikini on a beach in Brazil then *cough* think twice about it, and buy it there.

My biggest events for Berlin, France, and Amsterdam included excursions to the Bodemuseum, Gemäldegalerie, Musée du Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, Centre Georges Pompidou, Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, and numerous national and war monuments. So basically I needed a pair of very comfortable shoes for viewing thousands of priceless paintings. I guesstimate I walked a minimum of 10km a day! Carl was thrilled. 🙂

3. Limit footwear, embrace double-duty items.

Ladies sure love to pack shoes. Get over yourself! You only need two, maybe three pairs: walking shoes, ballerina flats, and perhaps a pair of sandals. Those kitten heels sure look cute, but fashion footwear isn’t comfortable to walk in and takes up a lot of space.

What’s a double-duty item? Cardigans, pashimina scarves, a neutral trench coat — anything can be dressed UP or down. I wore my basic Banana Republic trench coat nearly every day on my trip and I fit right in with the fashionable locals in Paris, Berlin, and Amsterdam.

4. Create a packing list.

I fully admit that I’m a list person. If you’re going away for ANY length of time I’d highly recommend you embrace the packing list — it will help you get organized and take inventory of the stuff you actually need.

packing list

Years ago I created this Printable Travel Checklist and Packing List for weary travelers.

Today I pack very little. Here’s my pared down packing list for Europe. Yeah, it looks like a lot but it all fits in one 19″ carry-on suitcase, minus the stuff I’d wear on the plane.


  • 2 pairs shoes (comfy walking, sturdy ballet flats)
  • 1 light nylon jacket
  • 1 beige trench coat
  • 3 pairs pants (blue jeans, nylon khakis, black slacks)
  • 1 skirt (knee-length, black)
  • 3 long sleeve shirts
  • 2 short sleeve shirts
  • 5 3/4 sleeve shirts
  • 2 cardigan sweaters
  • 1 thick sweater
  • 1 black dress
  • 2 tank tops, with built-in bras
  • 2 scarves (1 dressy, 1 wool buff)
  • 1 pair of PJs
  • 6 pairs underwear, 1 bra, 3 pairs socks
  • 1 pair black tights
  • 1 bathing suit, goggles, swim cap
  • 1 sling pack day bag

Toiletries, Odds and Ends:

Note: With the exception of my bathing suit, I used and wore EVERYTHING.

5. Pack neutral colors, light washable fabrics.

Pack a neutral color palette (brown, blue, gray, tan) to keep your wardrobe flexible and interchangeable. Opting for light and quick drying fabrics like merino wool and nylon over heavy cotton makes it easy to wash and wear your clothing quickly while keeping your suitcase light.

Peeking into my suitcase you’ll notice I’m a HUGE fan of Icebreaker merino wool clothing. These garments can be worn for days without any smell, plus they wash and dry quickly. Icebreaker is high quality stuff, and it ain’t cheap.

6. Pack outside your bag.

Dump your planned travel gear onto the floor and ruthlessly edit the nice to have items. Now do it again. And again.

how to pack a suitcase

Don’t pack directly into your suitcase — you’ll be tempted to cram in a few extra items and add volume. Seriously, you will.

7. Bundle, roll, shove, layer, tame.

I use a myriad of packing techniques to fit everything into my trusted carry-on. Here’s how to pack a suitcase in five easy steps:

Step One: Bundle.

The first step is to layer (or bundle) like garments together. Bundling can help reduce wrinkles while organizing all your similar clothing in an easy to access stack.

packing a suitcase

Step Two: Roll.

Roll each layered bundle into a tidy tube. Rolling a small bundle of clothing can save space in your suitcase and prevent your clothes from creasing. Because rolling doesn’t reduce the weight of your stuff, you’ll still need to be aware of how much junk you’re shoving in your trunk.

merino wool

icebreaker clothing

Since I wear a lot of merino wool and nylon fabrics, I never walk around wearing wrinkled clothing.

Step Three: Stuff.

Packing a second pair of shoes? Go ahead and stuff your socks, bras, and underwear into each foot bed. Shoes take up a lot of space, so be sure to use your soles and all surface areas. I like to stuff each shoe into a Ziploc bag to keep my suitcase clean and tidy.


Step Four: Layer.

Most carry-on suitcases have wheels and an extendable handle. While these are great features for hauling a$$ through big airports, they can make for uneven packing spaces. So embrace those awkward areas by layering your shoes and nesting your clothing rolls between these spots.


I always start by layering my shoes and pants into the bottom of my suitcase, between the handle slots.

carry on luggage

I then take each clothing roll and layer them between gaps and spaces.

But what about my dress, nylon jacket, PJs, wool buff, travel book, energy bars, laundry bags, and swim gear?

samsonite luggage

Easy. I roll my dress, jacket, and wool buff and shove them in any available space. I like to roll and layer my PJs on top with my travel book for easy access when I arrive at my destination at night. Laundry bags, energy bars, and swim gear go into the top flap of my suitcase.

air travel packing tips

Step Five: Tame toiletries, organize electronics.

After boarding eight flights in Europe, I’ve come to the conclusion that airport security sucks when you’re carrying too many liquids and a clutter of electronics. The solution is to carry only the liquid essentials and stick your electronic gadgets in an easy to view Ziploc bag. Both the liquids bag and electronics Ziploc were accessible in my sling pack purse for quick security checks.

airline luggage fees

To save maximum space, consider buying some of your toiletries at your destination.

luggage tags

If a flight was super strict about boarding with one bag, I still had plenty of room to stuff my sling purse into my carry-on.

8. Wash and wear.

Do a little laundry for five minutes each night in your hotel room bathroom sink. A dollop of shampoo can do wonders to clean socks, wash underwear, and launder shirts. Use your shower to hang your gear to dry overnight. If you’re staying with family or have access to machines, go ahead and use your laundry bags to keep things organized.

9. Invest in travel-sized bottles, brushes, towels.

Leave your full-sized shampoo and cream moisturizer at home. Do yourself (and airport security) a solid by investing in quality travel-sized reusable bottles that won’t leak. I love my super handy GoToob travel containers since they’re leak-proof, fun to use, and gorgeous.


Go ahead and downsize your hair brush, toothbrush, and makeup brushes too. This inexpensive travel makeup brush set was a huge space saver (and skin fixer) in airports and anywhere else I needed to powder my nose.

Most hotels in Europe offer towels to travelers. In Paris I was somewhat shocked (but mostly horrified) to find a single tiny towel hanging for both Carl’s and my use. Thank goodness for my microfiber travel towel — it got me dry fast without adding a lot of suitcase weight.

10. Wear your heaviest shoes, sweater, and jacket.

If you wear it on the plane, you won’t have to pack it in your suitcase.

swiss army luggage

My travel wear consisted of a trench coat (fashionable around the world), blue jeans, tank top (with shelf bra), thin wool shirt, light wool sweater, and a blue scarf. Summer travelers won’t need as many layers, but I was thankful for my clothing choices on long-haul flights and short jaunts. Some flights were freezing, others were hot stuff.

Your Turn: How do you pack your suitcase? What’s the biggest excess baggage fee you’ve been charged?