How to Pack a Carry-On Bag

Even With the New Liquid Rules, You Can Pack so You Don't Check a Bag

Cropped shot of a mature couple packing their bags before going on vacation

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Fitting your liquids into a small baggie on a carry-on bag - and avoid checking luggage - is an art worth learning, whether you are a frequent traveler or just trying to avoid extra holiday airport stress. It may be more challenging for women than men since as a general rule we tend to require more products. But I'm convinced if I can learn how to do it, anyone can.

Why Not Check?

Learning how to pack in a carry-on bag can save you time and money. For one thing, airlines have a cut-off time for checking luggage. The cut-off time can be as much as two hours before departure, particularly a problem for early-morning international flights.

It's a great feeling to reach your destination and be able to bypass the baggage claim area and get right on your way. Waiting for luggage to come down off the carousel at your destination can be a waste of time. Jockeying for position to even see the carousel can be a challenge among some crowds. And most importantly, if you don't check your luggage, it won't get lost - and you won't have to scramble to replace its contents.

Now that airlines have started charging for checked bags, this has become an even more important skill to master.

The 3-1-1 Liquid Rule

First, let's review the current rules. U.S. regulations require all liquids to be packed in a quart-sized, transparent, resealable plastic baggie. Each item can only contain three ounces or less. You have to remove this bag and send it separately through security, so keep it handy. I recommend using a freezer-style bag since they tend to be thicker and more durable. Now, the tricks:

Use the Hotel Amenities

If you're staying in a hotel, remember some amenities will be in the room. Shampoo, conditioner, and body lotion are common; most resorts will add shower gel. Even if you have products you prefer to use at home, chances are you can be comfortable (even treat yourself) using the hotel's amenities. Often, you can ask the front desk for items like toothpaste and deodorant that aren't normally placed in the room.

Go Solid

If it's not liquid, it can be packed in your carry-on bag. Deodorant, makeup, and even sunscreen have solid or powder alternatives. 

Travel Size

Travel sized containers of even upscale products are available in stores and online. You can find them at a discount store like Target for the basic grocery store items. Frequent travelers should stock up on basics like toothpaste. For more upscale or salon brands like Paul Mitchell and Chanel, try for travel-sized versions of your favorite products.

One Bag Per Person

Are you traveling with someone who is low-maintenance or a child? The rules state one baggie per person. When I travel with my son and husband, that means they get room for toothpaste, and I get three baggies to fill.

Ship It

I picked up this trick from some colleagues who travel within the U.S. frequently and can't live without a half-dozen specialty hair products, even for a few days. They ship all of their liquids by FedEx the day they're leaving, they have the business center at the hotel pack and ship them back. It costs about $30 but is worth it for the time and headaches they save, plus the savings over having to replace the contents of lost, checked luggage.

Buy It There

You can use this trick if you're staying somewhere a week or more, especially if it's a familiar destination (like family). Simply stop by a store and pick up sunscreen, shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste and other easily purchased items in full-sized versions. Use them while on the trip and then leave them for your next trip or for the next guest.

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