How Carry-On Bags Save Me Major Money

Several major airlines have announced recently that they’ve increased their checked bag fees — or soon will. That means $30 or more per suitcase. If you have a large family or you’re just not a light packer, these fees can add up quickly.

In the past year, I’ve taken weeklong vacations in the U.S. and Mexico, attended multiday conferences, traveled on cruises and taken extended family visits — and not once have I had to check a bag. In fact, my family has flown several times every year for the past decade, and the only times we have ever checked luggage were to take advantage of duty-free liquor deals or to transport something that was not otherwise allowed in carry-on bags. Here’s how we do it.

Don’t Pack for a Bunch of ‘What Ifs’

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Think about the places you’ll go, the weather and any dress requirements you might encounter. I stick to one outfit per day, with an extra undershirt and pair of socks and underwear in the summer. Shorts and jeans are usually the biggest space hogs, so I plan to wear them two to three days each for most trips.

If I need to dress up, I’ll pack one pair of dress shoes, a pair of dress pants and a different dress shirt and tie for each occasion. Depending on how much of the day I’ll be dressed up, I might cut back on casual wear. There’s no sense in bringing two T-shirts that I’ll only wear for two hours each. Bring one, and if you don’t want people to notice you’re wearing the same shirt twice, just wear it again on the flight home.

Understand Packing Science

Worker checking wing as luggage rolls onto airplane© Lester Lefkowitz/Getty Images Worker checking wing as luggage rolls onto airplane

The best method for packing a suitcase is a hotly debated issue. Some swear by vacuum packing. Those vacuum-packing bags are tempting, sure, but just remember that you have to get everything back, too. If you need an actual vacuum to get it all in there, you’ll need the same thing to get it all back.

That’s why I strongly believe that the most efficient way to pack clothes in a suitcase is to roll them into a cylinder shape. And I do this with almost everything.

Roll everything up and pack it as tightly as possible. Pack the big stuff first, and then fit smaller items like underwear or ties in crevices. I find socks are easier to keep flat in some cases, as they can be wedged into places that other rolled clothes won’t fit. If you do all of this carefully, you can avoid wrinkles (even if you don’t, just about anywhere you go is going to have an iron).

If I’m packing another pair of shoes, I will put them in the bottom of the suitcase first, facing opposite directions — the same way you would find them in a shoebox at the store. If I’m really trying to maximize space, I’ll stuff them full of socks to open up more space for other clothes. After all, the socks are going to be in the shoes all day anyway.

Use the Personal Item as Storage

Carry-on Luggage© Gene Chutka/Getty Images Carry-on Luggage

I travel with a reasonably sized backpack. I put my computer, tablet, in-flight entertainment, etc. in there, but I also use it for things like a light jacket, toiletry bag or other awkward items that don’t fit nicely in my suitcase. Women can bring a backpack and put their purse inside of it for the flight to keep within the limit of one personal item. Just be sure to do a test fit before you leave the house.

Backpack pockets are great for jewelry, watches, medications, snacks, extra socks, umbrellas and other items.

Consider Your Airport Wardrobe as Part of Your Packing

Family pushing luggage cart in airport.© Thierry Foulon/PhotoAlto/Getty Images Family pushing luggage cart in airport.

If space is really at a premium, I set aside the bulky items to wear to the airport. For instance, if the nights will be chilly where I’m traveling, I might wear jeans plus a jacket or hoodie on the plane, even though shorts and a T-shirt would be plenty comfortable at flight time. The jacket doesn’t count as a personal item, and the jeans won’t take up valuable real estate in my bag.

I will also wear the bulkier shoes on the plane and put the smaller ones in my bag. Another trick is to tie a pair of shoes to your backpack. A friend of mine recently did this when his bag was just too full to fit anything else. No one said anything about it.

Treat Your Kid Like an Adult

A family packing a mini van before a vacation.© Hero Images/DigitalVision/Getty Images A family packing a mini van before a vacation.

Kids’ mini-suitcases and backpacks are cute, but if you’re traveling with younger children, be sure to bring a full-size carry-on and personal item for them. Since children’s clothes take up less space, you can fill the rest of the suitcase with overflow or toiletry bags for the rest of the family. The airlines want to see one carry-on and one personal item per person, but they don’t require that each person lug their own bags. You paid for the seat, so use all the space you’re entitled to.

A Few Odds and Ends

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If the place you’re going to has a laundry facility, you can just plan to wash your clothes there. That can significantly cut down the amount of clothing you need to pack.

Also, if you pick up a souvenir or two on your trip and have trouble fitting everything on the way back, remember that the airline is going to charge you $25 to $30 to check a bag. If push comes to shove, you could likely leave your socks or undershirts behind, bring home your new goodies and then buy new socks or undershirts for less than the cost of a checked bag.

Though these tips will help you pack lighter and save money, by far the best part of packing efficiently is that when you walk off the plane, you never have to worry about lost luggage or waiting in the sea of people at the baggage carousel.

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