How to Pack Light

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Learn to Pack
Packing for a big trip: It's all about taking the right steps. (Dougal Waters/Digital Vision/Getty Images)
Pro Packing Tip
Make the most of your "personal item." The Transportation Security Administration defines it as "a laptop computer, purse, small backpack, briefcase, or camera case," but the acceptable size varies by airline—we've gotten away with some bulky camera bags in the past. Keep items you plan to use in-flight in a separate bag near the top, and pull them out once you're seated.

With most airlines charging $20-plus per piece of checked luggage, packing everything into a carry-on is one small thing you can do to keep travel expenses under control. It's also the only way to ensure that your bag doesn't become one of the estimated two million bags lost worldwide each year by the major airlines. While it can be tempting to approach packing with a "just in case" attitude, don't do it. "It's really satisfying to not load yourself down with a bunch of stuff you don't need," says Kim Lemaire, who was a flight attendant for ten years and is now a professional photographer based in Carmel, California. Use these tips to pack light for your next trip. Your wallet, and your back, will thank you.

Picking the bag
What qualifies as a carry-on on a Boeing 737 might be too big to stow on a 44-seat CRJ-440, but the maximum size of a carry-on bag for most domestic air travel is 45 linear inches (the height plus width plus depth of the bag), or a bag that is about 22 inches tall by 14 inches across and 9 inches deep. Carry-on bags cannot weigh more than 40 pounds. And remember that some airlines have different carry-on allowances for domestic and international flights. "If you want a guarantee that your bag will meet the restrictions, always check airline websites," advises Stasia Raines, public relations manager at Eagle Creek, a luggage manufacturer based in Carlsbad, California. Be especially vigilant if you're flying internationally. Though checked baggage is usually gratis on international flights, weight and size restrictions vary widely for carry-ons, especially for regional flights internationally. "The 'international' carry-on limit is 21 inches tall, but in Asia it's 19 inches," says Raines.

If you don't already own a carry-on bag that you love, or if it's time to invest in a new piece of luggage, remember that there is really just one essential feature to consider: carrying capacity. That swiveling handle and those indestructible skateboard wheels might be cool, but what really matters is how much stuff the bag can hold. Some people love hard-sided luggage but, for carry-on, soft is better because it generally weighs less and can more easily conform to—or be crammed into—an overhead storage space.

A bag that is rectilinear in shape—with straight sides and 90-degree corners—also generally provides more cubic inches of storage space than a bag with rounded corners. "A rectilinear duffle has more than 27 percent more space than its rounded counterpart, even if the bags have identical length, width, and height," notes Doug Dyment, founder of, a website that's devoted to traveling light.

Published: 22 Mar 2011 | Last Updated: 8 Aug 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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