6 Ways to Maximize Your Carry-On Luggage Space

I was packing more items than usual into my 32-liter backpack and a small bag for a 2-week trip while chatting with a friend. Eventually she asked,

“How in the world do you think you’re going to fit all of this into those two bags?”

I told her not to worry and twenty minutes later I had my two bags ready. I must point out that I’m a far more “practical packer” than just about every woman I’ve ever met. But as airlines charge more and more for more limiting luggage allowances, even high-maintenance ladies might need some helpful tricks in packing a carry-on only — while still having a decent choice of wardrobe.

Just remember: depending on where you’re going it’s a good idea to leave some extra space so you can bring back some goodies.

1. Roll, roll, roll your clothes.

The old rolling trick saves lots of space, though some garments might need a little time to flatten out at your destination. Take each one of your folded garments and roll it tightly just before putting it in your bag so that you use every inch of space available. There are certain garments (such as dress cotton shirts) that cannot handle too much rolling or you will never de-wrinkle them — so lay those flat at the bottom of your suitcase then put your rolled up clothes on top of them.

2. Stuff your shoes up.

Each shoe has valuable space that can be used for storage. Place rolled up socks (or even your favorite bar of soap) inside your shoes and pack them back to back inside a shoe bag or in separate shoe bags; leather shoes should go in separate bags for better protection and stuffing them with socks helps keep their shape. High-heeled shoes are best packed in separate shoe bags so that, in addition to stuffing them with socks, you may also use the back of the heels to secure rolled up garments or fragile items.

3. Cloth handbags are your space friends.

Cloth handbags are great for saving space because you can fold them into tiny little things, which is especially helpful if you like to have many wardrobe options while dealing with limited space options. Cloth bags are handy if you fly with an airline that allows only one carry-on because you can stuff your cloth bag in your suitcase to get through check points but take it out afterwards to keep your wallet and passport closer to you.

4. Buy reversible.

What better than to pack one skirt but have the option of wearing two! You’ll easily find cloth handbags that are reversible but you might want to explore options for reversible clothing too, especially when it comes to bulky items like coats.  (On top of saving space you’ll also save money, as you pay for one item that serves as two).

5. Bulk up on the way.

If you’re taking bulky items such as knee-high or hiking boots, wear them instead of packing them so you save a decent amount of space in your bags — remember that every inch is valuable. And if you’re headed somewhere colder than your departure city, carry your coat or thick sweater in your hands to save space in your luggage (airlines don’t count them as carry-on items).

6. Go on a toiletries diet.

Those who aren’t hotel dwellers may want to buy toiletries at their destination, but sometimes we just like that conditioner so much we want to take it with us (or we heard that the last person who bought shampoo at our destination lost all their hair!). Here are some tips for taking on toiletries, keeping in mind that you should check aviation regulations for the latest carry-on liquid rules:

  • Instead of a full-size hair brush, take a wide-toothed comb or a mini-hair brush.
  • Take free samples instead of a full bottle of perfume. Saves you space, money and headaches at security check points.
  • For those who aren’t hotel dwellers take a combo shampoo/body wash instead of shampoo and soap.
  • For the women who like makeup, some lipsticks and eye shadow also work as blush. And look into tinted moisturizers so that you don’t have to take a day moisturizer and foundation.

All packed and ready to go…

Using these tips I was able to pack my 32-liter pack (about the size of a regular carry-on) for a 35-day backpacking trip through the Iberian Peninsula that included:

  • dinner dresses, partying outfits and apparel for everyday;
  • hiking and beach wear;
  • 5 pairs of footwear;
  • a couple of handbags;
  • my toiletries bag.

I also packed my laptop and other work gear as well as a few books and on the way home I managed to find room for four bottles of cava, which is Spain’s equivalent of champagne, and was I glad I’d left a little extra room for them!


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Freelance writer, translator and copyeditor currently living in Amsterdam. Former stressed-out marketing and public relations person in NYC. Likes languages but really doesn't like flowers. Contact through GreenRabbitTranslations.com.


  1. Wolf on the 17th March

    Packing cubes, packing cubes, packing cubes. Far better than rolling, offers an organizational system and when the TSA goes rifling through your clothes, you’re not left with an awful mess. You can pack an additional cube or two for the dirty clothes.

    Purchase small Tupperware (Smidgets) for small amounts of pills, moisturizers, soaps, shampoos, etc. Place all in a zip-lock bag. Even though Tupperware rocks, accidents happen.

    • Ana da Silva on the 17th March

      Thanks Wolf! Rolling’s proved to be the most space efficient but you do have a point about the TSA. Fortunately flying through Europe and South America passengers usually don’t have to deal with that sort of “harassment” 🙂

      What cubes do you use?

    • Wolf on the 18th March

      The Eagle Creek packing cubes are incredibly well built but they are pricey. Avon (yes, the cosmetics company) offered some brightly colored packing cubes a couple of years ago in a set of 3 sizes – the large held 3 pr of men’s pants, the medium size held 4-5 men’s shirts and the smallest was good for underwear/socks.

      My favorite packing cube find was on ebags.com — search for “slim packing cubes.” This unusual size is great for underwear/socks/belts, but also terrific because it fills up the spaces in your luggage would otherwise get missed because of the larger cube’s dimensions.

      Also, search for “compression packing cubes” that allow you to save even more space.

    • Ana da Silva on the 18th March

      Thanks a lot Wolf!

  2. Some Design Blog on the 17th March

    Thanks for the tips, Ana. Here are a couple of my favorite travel tips: quick dry socks and underwear (any anything else you can find/afford) can be washed by hand and are dry for the next morning, also (for the guys) shaving oil: it’s way smaller than even the travel sized shaving cream. Hope you enjoyed your trip!

    • Ana da Silva on the 17th March

      Hadn’t heard of shaving oil but seems like a good alternative for women’s legs too 🙂

  3. Laura on the 17th March

    Good article. I particularly like the idea of using the space inside of your shoes for socks and other items. I had a “duh moment” when reading it. 🙂

    I would add that buying toiletries once you arrive at your destination is far easier than trying to fill and pack a bunch of little bottles and bars. Also, there’s the ScotteVest, which pretty much solves all of our carry-on needs.

    • Ana da Silva on the 18th March

      I didn’t know about he ScotteVast so thanks for sharing that. Seems like a great idea for keeping stuff safe while traveling.

  4. Thera on the 19th March

    I never bring anything but a carry-on luggage personally: no waiting at airports (especially useful for countries whose language you don’t speak), it doesn’t get lost and even on your first/last day, you don’t have to carry a bulky extra bag.

    Yet I can fit everything I need in one bag, even my large Gigapan panorama head and a 2 meters tripod. 🙂

    On the other hand, I never had the need to bring more than a single extra pair of shoes (and that time was even an exception), so that certainly helps saving space too.

    • Ana da Silva on the 20th March

      I wish I only ever had to bring my flip flops and sneakers anywhere I go!

  5. Natalie Sisson on the 21st March

    Hey Ana

    As a Suitcase Entrepreneur who lives out of her suitcase you taught me a few things so thanks! I too am incredibly well versed in packing and know that 80% of what you first pack you often never end up using.

    Another thing I’ve found is buying clothes in material that never wrinkles – I mean who wants to iron anyway. And of course even though I still love carrying physical books it’s just not always practical so the Kindle or uploading audiobooks to your smartphone or MP3 player is a great way to enjoy books while travelling.

    I’d love to repost this on my blog and fully credit you if you’re up for it too.

    Let me know


    • Ana da Silva on the 22nd March

      Hi Natalie,

      Thanks for your tips. I’ve ebooks and audiobooks on my Mac and smartphone too since it’s impossible not to read!

      Please email my editor about posting my article on your site: editor (at) workawesome. Your site looks nice, I’ll spend some time perusing it.



  6. Bojan Djordjevic on the 30th March

    I often wonder why more people don’t roll their clothes when packing. It saves tons of space and helps with the wrinkly factor. Stuffing the shoes is a great idea too!

  7. Leather Shoes on the 23rd January

    Normally I don’t read post on blogs, but I wish to say that this write-up very compelled me to check out and do it! Your writing taste has been amazed me. Thanks, very nice post.

  8. Stiletto Dash on the 7th April

    Great tips! We have some great ones for how to maximize your travel carry on too. Check it out here http://stilettodash.com/pack-for-two-weeks-in-two-carry-ons/

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