H-Town How-Not-To

The Art of Carry-On Packing

Five lessons learned the hard way.

By Sarah Gabbart June 17, 2014

“You should always travel carry-on—the lighter you pack, the more fun you’ll have!” said everyone on Pinterest. 

Like minimalism, French style, or grooming Bonsai trees, carry-on-only packing is all about editing the clutter and letting the beauty of simplicity shine through. It’s aspirational and, as I found out this month, oh-so-easy to fail at.

Image via Creative Commons: [ T ] Cristóbal Toral - Girl with the Pile of Suitcases by Playing Futures: Applied Nomadology.

Last time I brought you my packing tales, I meticulously planned each item that went into my suitcase using drawings, lists, and the good-old-fashioned “lay them on the bed and take a look” method. I felt like a champ. It was glorious. 

Fast forward a year, and I was again ready to make the trek to visit family in Ireland, though this time my stay was much shorter: 10 days instead of 17. Surely I can just take a carry-on and be done with it. Yes? Yes. That’s what I’ll do!

Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from my ill-fated attempt at aspirational packing. Maybe the next time you try to pack like a monk, you'll heed my warnings and think better of it. 

5.    Know thyself.

As much as I want to be that gal who takes one little carry-on and still looks crazy stylish everyday, I am not. I need some options to feel most comfortable. Also, I tend to do a lot of my shopping on vacation because that’s where I find the most unique stuff, so it’s hard to figure out how much free space I’ll need. It all depends on what I find! Underpacking in a tiny carry-on only fueled my shopping because I needed options. And because I just had the tiny carry-on, I had to buy a crummy (and overpriced) bag off the street of London. 

4.    That tote is cute, but a backpack would be waaayyy better.

My idea was to bring a large leather tote as a purse and stuff it with my laptop, chargers, book, and other odds-and-ends. What I ended up with was the heaviest thing on the planet for one arm to carry. A backpack, which would have evenly distributed the weight, would have saved my shoulder from the strip of broken blood vessels I am now sporting. 

3.    Duffle bags are the devil.

My very wise (and handsome!) husband convinced me to ditch my duffle in favor of a rolling suitcase. He doesn’t have to get me an anniversary present because that one thing saved me a few trips to the chiropractor. 

2.    Don’t be stupid about shoes.

Seriously. I made so many shoe mistakes on this trip. No, you don’t need those pumps. They take up a lot of suitcase space, anyway. Yes, you do need some sandals for the hot, humid London summer. Consider your feet and pack your damn sneakers or you’ll end up buying some fugly ones at the T.K. Maxx on the high street (yes—in the UK it’s T.K. Maxx. Weird.).

1.    Liquids. Don’t forget about liquids.

Said husband (an amateur bartender) requested some UK-only gin, which put me way over my limit for liquids. This meant checking my bag on the way home, which turned out to be another reason he doesn’t have to give me an anniversary gift. It was fantastic to hand over my heavy luggage and walk away, knowing it would meet me at my destination.

My take-away from this packing debacle? Check your bag if you need to. There is no medal for carrying on. No one will throw you a “Wow! You’re such a great packer!” parade. All you get for your trouble is an aching back and a need to “stay with the luggage” instead of the freedom to explore the airport. Good for you if a carry-on can suffice, but it’s not for me and it’s ok if it’s not for you, too. 

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