What’s in your bag?: Tips for packing light


My style of packing for a trip can be described as one word: minimalist. This style of packing takes practice and some serious self-control. I will only travel with a carry-on and a personal item for ease and convenience. The worst trips I’ve had were when my checked luggage was lost.

My first time travelling to Europe I checked my luggage for my twelve-day trip. I had a layover in Amsterdam and that morning there was an issue with the luggage system, so my luggage didn’t make it on to my connecting flight. As usual, I wasn’t told until we landed in Paris and had to then wait two hours in line to claim my lost luggage. The airline offered free delivery to my hotel and reimbursement for any essential items while I was luggage-less. This seemed fine to me until I arrived at our hotel and a large sign on the counter stated, “We do not accept luggage deliveries.” I inquired and was told I would have to wait in the lobby until my bag arrived. The thing was, I didn’t know when it would arrive. It could have been days away. Luckily, I wasn’t travelling alone so we spent the next full day taking shifts in the lobby while the other stepped out for food and to see some of the nearest attractions. I say “luckily”, but in reality, it put a real damper in our plans. Sitting in a hotel lobby is a poor way to start a vacation. I made many luggage-related faux pas, for example, all my essentials were in my checked luggage. I was naïve and ill-prepared. Boy, have I changed.

So what’s in my bag? Below I listed the items I typically pack in my carry-on and personal item. I split them up because some flights don’t allow carry-on bags in the cabin due to limited space. Instead, they’ll tag it at the gate and put it below deck.

Personal Item

1. The bag

Acquire a bag that fits within the required dimensions, is comfortable, has a few pockets for organisation, and fits your essential items as listed below, including your laptop. I use a large purse with a long strap that happens to fit my laptop. I’m sure the bag is larger than the recommended dimensions, but I’ve yet to be questioned. It still fits under the seat, at least.

2. Snacks

I’m the person you want to travel with, whether it’s by plane, train, or car because I will ALWAYS have snacks. For a long time, I was under the impression you couldn’t bring food to the airport, but that is false. The liquid limits still hold, but solid foods are outside those restrictions. Be careful with powders as some countries, such as the U.S.A., now have restrictions on them as well.

I recommend bringing snacks because a) you can no longer rely on flights to provide food, and b) snack vendors in the airport are over-priced. Oh, did I mention I travel on a budget? You may also have to miss a meal if your flight is delayed at the layover point, or if you’re travelling with a budget airline such as WOW. When this happens, you’ll be happy you had snacks, and your stomach will thank you.

Studies have shown that airline water (not bottled) is not always the cleanest. Bring a bottle with you. It may seem like just another thing to add to your bag, but it may save you from illness. If you want to save additional space, you can take a soft bottle that rolls up when empty, or a travel mug or shaker cup to maximize the usefulness.

3. Entertainment

Flights are boring. Waiting in an airport is boring. Pack something that will occupy your time.

You can’t always rely on the aircraft to have digital entertainment systems. WestJet, among other airlines, has introduced streaming services that require an electronic device and the corresponding app. You can’t always rely on what their website tells you either. As I write this, I’m on a flight that advertised an entertainment system, but the seat in front of me is bare. Bring your own. Be prepared with the apps required by the airline for streaming, download podcasts or e-books, or download albums on Spotify.

Additionally, you can’t rely on having an outlet on the plane to charge your devices. Again, this flight advertised in-seat charging ports but there are none to be found. For that reason, make sure your devices are fully charged, travel with charging banks and bring all the cords necessary to charge your device when you can.

4. Drugs

No, not those drugs. I mean Gravol, Tylenol, Advil, Benadryl, TUMs, vitamins. I use a small, clear container and add a few of each to it. This saves you from having to purchase it while travelling, which can be costly depending on the country, and they usually come in larger-than-required bottles. Having this in your personal item will ensure you have it when you need it.

5. Liquids

I like to bring my own personal care products, many of which are liquids. I have a collection of travel shampoo and conditioner bottles that I’ve taken from hotels over the years, and they serve very well when travelling. I avoid purchasing travel-sized items, due to inflated costs, and instead acquire travel bottles that seal tightly and fit 100 mL or less.

Place your liquid and gel items in an appropriately-sized plastic Ziplock to avoid a mess if one of them leaks. Make sure you’re carrying within the volume limit. Have the bag handy in your personal item as this saves you time during luggage inspection. You don’t want to be that person who rummages around their carry-on for that loose shampoo bottle. You also don’t want to waste time while your luggage is searched because you missed a bottle.

Once through security, I move this bag of liquids into my carry-on, which means I under pack to ensure there is space.


Choose your carry-on wisely. If you travel with fragile bottles, consider a hard-sided case but be aware that you may have trouble fitting it in the overhead bins. Because flights are often crowded and difficult to manoeuvre, avoid putting anything in your carry-on that you might need at your seat.

1. Clothing

The volume of clothes relies on how willing you are to wear your clothes more than once. You can get a few wears from pants and sweaters, and these are often the largest pieces you may be packing. Consider wearing your largest sweater and don those pants on the flight to save space.

Tightly roll your clothes together to increase compactness. You can roll fragile items (not liquid containers) in these clothes. Additionally, packing cubes are great tools. I prefer to use large Ziplock bags because they are more easily manipulated into whatever shape and space available. Either way, these double as a storage barrier between your clean and dirty clothes.

2. Shoes

If you require more than one pair, pack them in bags to avoid getting your clothing and luggage dirty, and wear the largest pair on the flight. You can stuff items in your packed shoes, such as rolled socks, a hairbrush, or anything oddly shaped.

3. Non-essential goods

This would include extra books, electronics without lithium-ion batteries, solid personal care items, and anything else you don’t need at your seat.

Now that I am efficient at using my space, I avoid checking my luggage like the plague. That being said, there are three very specific reasons I would check my luggage. One tip I will give is if you need to check your luggage on the way to your destination, pack one day’s worth of clothing in your personal item or carry-on to ensure your first day will be comfortable.

1. A trip lasting more than 10 days

Packing for a long trip is very difficult to do unless you have access to laundry facilities. I don’t usually give myself the time to wash my clothes during a trip, but if you tend to stay in hotels you may be able to have a few things laundered.

2. A trip encompassing more than one climate

This is a difficult one because if you’re going to do a backpacking trip through some Northern countries and then head south to warmer weather, packing light is tough. One way to curb this problem is by purchasing versatile gear. Purchase clothing that is light-weight and compact but warm when needed, such as a waterproof jacket with a liner. These can be accompanied by a large price tag, but if this style of travel is common for you, don’t hesitate to invest!

3. Large souvenirs or bottles of alcohol

I often buy wine or beer that I really enjoyed while travelling, but the liquid limit stops me from putting it in my carry-on. If you are sure you can find these items at the duty-free within the airport, then by all means avoid checking your bag. But if it’s from a small company or you’re not willing to leave it up to chance, checking your luggage is an option.

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