Illustration: Jackson Gibbs
You’ve called your parents and booked your ticket home for the holidays, so all that’s left to do is pack. You’re probably only bringing a carry-on — Thanksgiving break is just four days, so how much stuff do you even need? But the night before your flight, you’ll inevitably find yourself trying to jam a sweater and a pair of snow boots and a gift for your aunt who’s hosting everyone into your weekender, all while making sure your three-ounce bottles of conditioner and shampoo fit into an impossibly small, clear quart-size bag.
It is a massive puzzle, but with a little bit of planning and the right gear, you really can make it all fit. We’ve spent this week sharing our favorite tips for packing light — including the most capacious carry-ons, the best tiny toiletries, and tips from frequent fliers who know that packing light is different than roughing it. Scroll down for our favorite hacks and product recommendations. And if you want even more top travel ideas, check out our Strategist Travel 100 for all the best-of-the-best travel products.
To pack everything in a carry-on, you need a good carry-on — one that’s not too heavy and appropriately sized to fit in the overhead compartment. Our best overall pick is Away’s classic carry-on, but you can see all of our picks, including soft-sided and less-expensive options, here.
If you want to go even smaller than a carry-on, consider a personal-item bag— the only thing that is still free on most airlines if you want to avoid extra fees. This Baggu tote is two inches longer than a standard personal-item, but if you don’t pack it full, it’ll still fit under your seat. Find even more frequent traveler-vetted personal items here.
If you’re looking for a personal-item that’s big enough to hold everything you need for multiday trips, try this 25-liter pack from Gregory. “I used this pack as my only luggage item for a four-day trip to the East Coast last fall, and while I was there it pulled triple duty as my luggage, a commuter bag, and a hiking pack in the White Mountains,” says contributor (and self-proclaimed “frequent, frugal traveler”) Maggie Slepian. Read her full review here.
Those only taking a weekend trip may not need a rolling suitcase, but a capacious, easy-to-carry bag is still important. Patagonia’s Black Hole Duffel is our favorite for two- or three-day trips. It has more than enough room for bulky sweaters, and its many pockets, compartments, and sleeves keep chargers, toiletries, and other small items organized. Plus, its water-repellent lining ensures your clothes stay dry, and it comes with adjustable straps so you can carry it on your shoulder or as a backpack. Find the rest of our favorite weekend bags here.
To make sure everything fits in your personal item (or even slightly larger carry-on), we asked ten frequent fliers which bags, packing cubes, toiletries, and versatile clothes they rely on to make everything fit. Find all their hacks here.
One of the biggest challenges of packing a carry-on is making sure all of your toiletries fit into TSA-approved containers. This is our favorite set of toiletry bottles since it comes with 17 different pieces, including two three-ounce silicone bottles, a pair of two-ounce silicone bottles, two 25-millimeter pump-top bottles, four plastic tubs, a brush to clean the nooks and crannies, and a clear quart-size bag to hold it all together. Find all of our favorite toiletry bottles here.
Or, if part of the pleasure in packing light is finding all of the best travel minis, here are 45 tiny, teeny bottles of toiletries from Strategist-approved brands — including pocket-size dry shampoo, our tried-and-true snail mucin goo, and a nice-smelling leave-in conditioner. Find more delightful travel minis here.
Another person who knows a thing or two about traveling light is our own travel writer, Rachael Griffiths (who has taken 11 flights in the past ten months). She shared eight of the carry-on essentials she takes on every flight, whether it’s a two-hour dash from London to Paris or an overnight long haul to Korea — including this travel pillow that packs down flat for easy storage. Find all of her picks here.
Traveling home for the holidays doesn’t mean abandoning your workout plans — and that includes recovery. Our fitness writer, Jeremy Rellosa, can bring a foam roller wherever he goes thanks to this 40-ounce Mobot water bottle. He says he “brought it on a couple of summer trips to Chicago, Boulder, and Arkansas, where I happily rolled out at various Airbnbs, hotel rooms, and airport gates.” Read his full review here.
Of course, key to keeping up your fitness routine is packing the right footwear, but workout shoes can take up a lot of space in luggage. So Rellosa rounded up the best, lightest workout shoes that don’t take up too much space, like Vivobarefoot’s Primus Lite. Its sole is so thin that the shoe can be rolled up into a ball, and it weighs far less than the typical workout shoe. If you prefer a shoe with more cushioning or a lower profile, read the rest of Rellosa’s recommendations for the best lightweight, packable workout shoes.
Finally, if you’re on the hunt for the perfect gift for the traveler in your life, we’ve got a big list of ideas for every budget — and, good news, a lot of them will fit in your carry-on. This luggage scale will help the overpacker on your list save hundreds in overweight-baggage fees. Find the rest of our travel gift ideas here.
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