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I’m a cheap traveler, which means I’m often packing light. When I took a five-day trip to Paris a few years ago, on a budget airline that charges a fee to bring a carry-on, everything had to fit in a small bag under the seat in front of me. Friends, I did it. You can, too.

I first wrote about this trip right when I returned, in 2017, but I can say now that I still use these techniques (except packing dress shoes for a casual trip—what was I thinking??). We’ll get to the specifics of what I packed and how, but this is a feat that’s more about the planning than the execution. Here’s what I mean.

Measure your bag

The space under the seat in front of you is pretty roomy: it’s big enough for an average-sized backpack, or an overstuffed messenger bag. But don’t eyeball it: if you misjudge, and you can’t quite wedge your bag into that space, the crew will ask you to put it somewhere else. That could mean another fee, or depending on how crowded the plane is, you might even need to hand it over to be gate-checked.

Avoid this minor nightmare by actually checking the airline’s bag measurements. On Wow airlines, my carrier for this trip, a personal item may be 17 by 13 by 10 inches, including handles and wheels, and can’t weigh more than 22 pounds. Check the airline’s website, and then whip out a tape measure and verify. (If your bag is soft-sided, make sure to measure it when it’s fully packed.)

To really be prepared, though, you also need a Plan B. Maybe you’ll buy a few too many souvenirs, and need to check your bag. Or sometimes on domestic flights, you’ll end up in a tiny airplane that doesn’t have any space under the seat, and you’ll have to gate-check your stuff. Here’s your insurance policy: pack your in-flight essentials in a small purse or packing cube that you can tuck in the seat back pocket. This way, if you have to give up your bag, you’ll have the important things with you.

Some great “personal item”-sized bags:

Prune your packing list ruthlessly

Image for article titled How to Pack Your Whole Vacation Into a 'Personal Item'

Photo: Beth Skwarecki

I don’t have a magical spell to fit a suit or a formal dress or a sleeping bag into a carry-on. The one-bag approach only really works for people with simple needs who are going on simple trips. I didn’t bring a laptop or any workout gear. I did bring a few changes of clothes, essential toiletries, a sketchbook, and a phone charger.

I didn’t bother with soap or shampoo, since I knew I could buy those at my destination. (Showering with French soap made my stay in France feel just a little more authentic.) My husband bought a six-pack of electrical outlet adapters, and I caught him shoving the whole thing in his bag. “Wait, how many plug-in things are we bringing?” I asked. Just two: his phone charger, and mine. So we left four of the adapters at home.

I packed fresh socks, shirts, and underwear for each day, and planned to wear a dress once and my shorts and pants twice each. (If I were more hardcore, I would have packed just two outfits and washed one in the hotel sink each night.) I resisted the urge to pack a skirt “just in case.”

To winnow the “just in case” pile, ask yourself, what would I do if I needed this but didn’t have it? Without the skirt, I would just wear my dress or shorts instead. That’s fine; the skirt stays home. But if I got sore feet and didn’t have my packet of blister bandages, I’d have to walk the streets of Paris looking for a place to buy some. The bandages came with me.

Think big, pack small

Dump out your bag, so you’re not bringing any detritus from a previous trip, and then begin to pack it wisely. A few tips:

  • Choose the smallest item that will do the job. Bring the travel size toothpaste, even if the full size is technically small enough to get through security. Compare your jackets and sweaters, and bring the thinnest one that’s still warm enough—or perhaps you’d prefer a lightweight scarf that you can wear as a shawl?
  • Roll your clothes. Rolling is the most compact way to pack. Put socks and t-shirts on the inside of the roll, and carefully smooth your wrinkleable items on the outside. Know how you will remove any surprise wrinkles: Does your room come with an iron? Will you steam the clothes while you’re in the shower?
  • Use packing cubes. It wasn’t until after the Paris trip that I discovered just how much time and trouble packing cubes can save. They don’t save space, but they make a tightly packed bag so much easier to pack and unpack.
  • Wear the biggest items. You’ll have more room in your bag if you wear your jeans and pack your shorts than vice-versa. You can also wear your travel pillow on the flight, and strap it to your bag while you’re trekking through the airport.

Make sure everything is accessible, too. You’ll be miserable if the interior of your bag is a random jumble. This is where the packing cubes come in, or you can at least arrange your rolls of clothes to divide up the space as needed. Make good use of pockets, too: flat things in the laptop compartment, for example, and your passport and phone charger in whatever pocket is easiest to reach.

Keep souvenirs small or intangible

Image for article titled How to Pack Your Whole Vacation Into a 'Personal Item'

Photo: Beth Skwarecki

You do, eventually, have to bring everything back. If you brought travel size toiletries, maybe you can finish them off and throw them out before you come home. You also don’t have to worry as much about keeping your clothes unwrinkled. These tweaks can gain you a few cubic inches.

If you’re serious about bringing home souvenirs, consider bringing a collapsible duffel from home, or buying a cheap bag on the road. Then you’re only paying the bag check fee in one direction, not both. Also compare the bag check fee with the cost (and time delay) of mailing things home.

But if you won’t have much room for souvenirs, keep an eye out during your trip for things that pack light. I picked up a French-language cooking magazine for my mom, and translated the tastiest recipes on the flight home. Foreign snacks also make great gifts, and are easy enough to tuck into small spaces. Photos, videos, and good old fashioned memories make great souvenirs too, and they don’t take up any physical space at all. (You could even get a photo book printed when you return, or write down your thoughts in a journal, to make them more tangible without encroaching on your underwear.)

What I actually packed

 A top-down view of my bag. In the back pocket (top of photo): book and sketchbook, flattened purse, printouts of documents. Middle pocket: Clothing rolls, sitting on top of carefully packed/stuffed shoes. Front pocket: toiletries, art supplies, wallet, battery pack. In pockets not shown: charging cable, passport, ziploc bag of liquid toiletries.

A top-down view of my bag. In the back pocket (top of photo): book and sketchbook, flattened purse, printouts of documents. Middle pocket: Clothing rolls, sitting on top of carefully packed/stuffed shoes. Front pocket: toiletries, art supplies, wallet, battery pack. In pockets not shown: charging cable, passport, ziploc bag of liquid toiletries.
Photo: Beth Skwarecki

OK, time to prove that this is for real. Here’s what I did.

The bag: I used an Eddie Bauer messenger bag that I bought many years ago; it’s now discontinued. We have gone on many one-bag trips, this bag and I. My husband, who packed equally light, used a Swiss Gear backpack similar to this one.

Large and unwieldy Items: My one extravagance was a pair of heeled T-strap leather shoes. I stuffed my socks and underwear inside of them, so they held their shape, and then wrapped them loosely in a plastic bag so they wouldn’t get the rest of my items dirty. I also had a travel pillow, strapped to the handle of my bag.

Clothes: For a four-night trip, I brought four shirts, one dress, one pair of shorts, and five sets of socks and underwear. I wore sneakers, a jacket, and a shirt-and-pants outfit.

Toiletries: I had a small zippered pouch with the likes of lipstick and deodorant, and a ziploc with just a few liquid-phase personal items like moisturizer and toothpaste.

Electronics: All I need for a non-work trip is my phone, a charging cable, and a battery pack. (My husband prefers an electric toothbrush and razor at home, but made do with analog versions for this trip.) We also brought a headphone splitter and a pair of earbuds for each of us.

Fun stuff: A book for the plane; a sketchbook and a small pack of art supplies; Clif bars; wallet, passport, etc.

With hindsight, I only made a few mistakes. I should have left the fancy shoes behind, and either gone without or brought a pair of plain flats instead. I didn’t need the jacket that I wore in the airport, although I’m glad I brought it. And that’s about it; this is one of the most perfectly calibrated trips I’ve taken.

I’ve had a rough time in the past, though. I can think of two trips where I ended up freezing because I didn’t want the bulk of packing warm clothes. In one of those cases, I only had skirts to wear; a pair of tights or leggings would have only taken up a tiny amount of space, and would have been a lifesaver. On a few trips, I forgot to pack a purse, because somehow in my mind the messenger bag was my purse. It is much better to have a real purse (or tote bag, or laptop bag) for your daily excursions instead of having to dump out all your clothes on the hotel bed to make do with your carry-on.

Now, I visualize each day’s activities when I write my packing list, and this helps me remember things like purses. And I apply the “just in case” test to all of those “just in case” items. And now I’m the person who hops off a plane with just a small backpack, breezes past the baggage claim, and takes the Métro to her Airbnb. It’s a great way to vacation.

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