Pack Your Bags : Katie’s Carry-On

As summer approaches, we have travel on the brain. Last week we talked about our essential gear for van camping and backpacking trips. Today we’re back with a double feature (check back for Sarah’s post this afternoon!) focused on our respective carry-on strategies.


Between the security lines, extra charges, and crowds, we hear plenty of complaints about air travel, but I can assure you, you aren’t going to get any of that here. We love to travel, and are equally amazed and thankful every time we hop on a plane and land a few hours later and thousands of miles from home. We would rather spend our time enjoying the ride than letting the lines get us down. So today we’re sharing our packing strategies that help us maximize the fun and minimize those aforementioned annoyances, because truth be told, they’re bound to hit everyone once in a while.


Enjoying the ride is all about what’s in our carry-on*. I don’t want to be weighed down by my luggage, but I do want to make sure it has everything I need to:

  1. do some work while on a layover
  2. entertain me during the flight
  3. make me feel hydrated and fresh after hours in the dry air and close quarters of the plane
  4. be prepared for a travel hiccup

As for the packing, my number one strategy is efficiency and number two is organization. I try to pack only essential gear, and I pack bags inside of bags inside of bags for the sake of organization. How do I know if something is essential? If I’ve packed it for the past couple of flights and haven’t used it, it’s not essential. BUT I also ask myself if I were stuck overnight in an airport, would I need it? If so, it may be essential even if I’m not using it every flight. The best example would be my phone charger. I can fly all day and not plug in, but if my travel day is longer than 12 hours, I’m definitely going to need that charger. As for organization, I’m a sucker for bags of all sizes, but particularly toiletry sized bags, and I used them for everything from corralling cords to storing my latest knitting project. I use a lot of the tiny Baggu zipper sacks (the pink and lime green bags in these photos), but they don’t seem to be selling them anymore, and now I’m having a mini pity party for myself. Comparing the photo above to the one below, I think it’s easy to see the value of the bag in bag strategy.


Big Essentials

  • wallet
  • computer & charger
  • phone & charger
  • camera & charger
  • fun book or knitting project
  • planner
  • notebooks
  • pens
  • water bottle
  • scarf
  • socks or, way better: slippers
  • snack/meal (not pictured)
  • glasses/sunglasses
  • foldable shopping bag (ha, I even take an extra bag just for kicks, and shopping)


Small Essentials

  • moisturizer
  • cuticle salve
  • lip balm
  • Calder says scratch the previous three items and pack one tub of Vaseline instead. Why? Because he thinks all cleaning is done with Windex and all preening with Vaseline.
  • sunscreen
  • blush
  • nail file (not pictured)
  • hair ties & bobby pins (not pictured)
  • travel toothbrush
  • travel hair brush
  • vitamins
  • Tylenol/Ibuprofen
  • Emergen-C
  • cucumber face wipes
  • emergency tampon

True story – last week I traveled to Boston for work. I was there for two full days and one night. I packed all of the items above plus: underwear, a second work shirt (I wore one on the flight up), and PJs. That’s it. I’m really working on streamlining my travel, and it felt so good to fit everything into the two bags above with room left to spare.

What about a longer trip? Ok, there are times when we’re traveling for a week+ and I still don’t want to check a bag. In those instances, I fit everything in the photos above into one bag and use a second, larger bag for my clothes. It is more cumbersome, but the only thing added to the list above would be the clothes (and, depending upon where I’m staying, shampoo & conditioner).  Want a visual example? Sarah and I went to Costa Rica for a week, carried-on everything, and even traveled on flights that required sleeping in the airport (we’ll do anything for a cheap flight!).  Traveling light on a trip like that is so essential, because you want to think about how you’ll move around the country. Will you take a bus? yes. Will you ride the super-crowded bus with your luggage on your lap? yeppers.

A few other tricks I’ve learned:

  • My laptop bag was marketed as a document portfolio. This means that it’s the perfect size for 8.5 x 11 documents and magazines. It also fits my 13 inch Macbook Air with wiggle room. When traveling, I pack all three items in it at once: work papers, a magazine, and my computer. It keeps the papers and magazine from getting wrinkled throughout the trip.
  • I have a few tiny bungie cords and they are perfect for keeping cords wound up. Cords are like clothes, they will take up less space in your bag if you wrap (roll) them up.
  • No matter the season, I always pack a scarf and a pair of socks (Calder packs the aforementioned slippers). Temperatures are always fluctuating, you may get on a plane that’s 80F on at the gate, but can feel like it’s 50F in the air. A good big scarf can be used as a blanket or bunched up and used as a pillow. It also covers the dribble down your shirt when you tried drinking your red-eye coffee during turbulence. Now that I travel with Alex, it’s the great nursing coverup and baby cover.
  • It sounds frivolous, but packing an extra, foldable reusable bag has come in handy for me so many times. When I get to my destination I use it for its designated purpose. There are times when I’ve picked up more souvenirs than can fit in my bags, and it’s been handy to have that extra sack. And finally, it’s become another traveling with kids essential, since you never know when accidents will happen and you’ll need to keep dirty items separate from clean.
  • Even though everything could be stuffed into one bag, I like using two carry-on bags: the slim backpack pictured above and the over-the-shoulder bag. I carry my computer, books and cords in the backpack and the other stuff in the shoulder bag. I really like having my wallet and extras handy in the shoulder bag and not having to take on and off the backpack. I also like being able to separate my items into the ones I’ll want on the plane and the ones I won’t. I can put one bag in the overhead and keep the other under my seat. In situations where there isn’t enough overhead space, I can still fit both bags under the seat in front of me without any trouble.
  • I don’t use the seat-back compartment because I am terrified of forgetting something important (phone, glasses, etc). Thus the bag under my seat provides handy storage.
  • At home I keep all of my tiny toiletries items in those quart size zip locks required for security. Classy, I know. But it makes packing easy. I know where everything is and can pack quickly.
  • There are always extras you can buy for your trip. We have some of those tiny travel toothbrushes, and while I hate the once-and-done plastic. They are really handy for those extra long travel days. Good re-fillable travel bottles are worth the money. The GoToobs are pricey, but totally worth the money if you’re a frequent traveler. My favorite feature? They have a little ring that you move to select the bottle’s contents.

As I mentioned above, it’s all about enjoying the ride, and even we can forget that in the stressful moments of packing and rushing out the door, but as soon as we’re in the air, one look out the window and all that stress washes away. 

*Ok, enjoying the ride also depends upon your travel buddies. You want someone who will appreciate a tiny hotel room with big personality.


So, if you see me in the airport, I totally have your back with that spare tampon. [Sarah here: A gal in the airport asked me for one the other day and I felt so badly that I didn’t have one to offer up!] What’s in your carry-on? Any strategies for keeping it efficient and organized?


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