04/26 Tips / Travel

How to Pack a Carry-On: Tips for Packing Light + What I Packed for Japan

I’ve had it in the plans for a while to do an updated and more detailed post about how I pack a carry-on for travel and realized quickly that this is a pretty personal topic!  It has everything to do with where you’re going for how long, what you’ll be doing there, what your comforts and priorities are, will there be a laundry machine and do you want to spend time doing laundry, there’s a good amount to consider and what works for me may very well not work for you, but I’ve got a few tips and tools that can be helpful regardless of these things.

The context this time is our trip to Japan (that travel guide is coming soon!)  We visited for 10 days, the weather ranged from 50s-80s, and we knew we’d be walking a whole lot.  We also knew we’d want to bring back a lot of gifts, so we did check a large suitcase for that but my stuff still all fit into a carry-on so this post is still legitimate!  Just got back this week and while I was unpacking took notes on what I was really glad I brought with me and why, starting with clothing- linked what I could if you want to check the specific items out:

Tip: Roll your clothing into little logs and fit them into your suitcase like above to maximize space.  This makes it easier to see everything at once and do things like live out of your suitcase without having to take everything out if space is going to be an issue at your destination (space was tight for us in Japan!)


With the weather ranging so much during our trip, I brought items that would layer + mix and match well while also being really comfortable for all the walking we’d do, and could double up in purpose (ie simple t-shirts to wear out or as loungewear).  The button-up was for one of the nicer but still casual dinners we had reservations for, which was also comfortable enough to wear all day.  It helped a lot that our hotel had a laundry machine since that meant doing our laundry once halfway through the trip would save us from bringing twice as many underwear and socks (I folded and stored them in this pouch), and more clothing in general.  Without this I’m not sure I could have stuck with just a carry-on sized luggage for 10 days, but it worked this time.

Tip: Wear your bulkiest items to the airport to save space in your luggage.  For me this meant wearing my long cardigan/jacket, which was the single most versatile thing I packed and I wore it almost everyday.  It also turns into a blanket on the plane niiice.

For the shoes, I always bring at least 1) flip flops to wear around the hotel and 2) sneakers.  I place them in this shoe bag which I’m enjoying a lot more than I thought I would.  They keep the shoes from getting your clothes dirty and just make them easier to move around, it’s a nice tiny luxury with utility.

About these sneakers, I ended up getting them while I was in Japan.  The sneakers I wore there, though comfortable in my normal life, have never been through the test of walking 10 miles a day, which is about what we were averaging.  My feet got so sore and swollen from all the walking that the sneakers I brought became painful and constricting.  I picked out these shoes in Japan not only after being drawn to the tag that advertised that it had orthopedic insoles, but because I saw the velcro as being more convenient for conforming better to my then swollen feet.  This long and maybe unnecessary paragraph is just to say comfortable shoes are so important!!!  And explains why I ended up having to pack an extra pair of sneakers home but I still had room for it so we’re good.  And velcro is cool.

For makeup, I’ve vowed to only use makeup bags that I won’t care about getting ruined during travel because something is always bound to break, leak, or smear- too much past heartbreak.  I currently use this affordable one and love it for the compartmentalization, adjustable divider, and the pockets for brushes.  This all makes it so that I don’t have to dump everything out to find what I’m looking for, which is especially helpful if counter space is going to be limited.  It also stores a good amount of stuff while still being pretty compact.

Depending on if we have pre-check (this time we did, though usually don’t on international flights), I store all the liquids, including liquid/cream makeup, into separate clear pouches and carry them in my “personal item” tote bag for easier access so I’m not having a panic attack in the security line from having to unzip my luggage and fish liquids out of there.

Oo the personal item bag.  This is the most important part, where I store everything I’m going to need while I’m on the plane, things that I’ll want easy and quick access to or the stuff that TSA is going to want to see:

Tip: Make your “personal item” with your carry-on a larger tote bag to store your flight survival kit, and pack a smaller everyday bag inside your carry-on.  I packed this bag inside my carry-on which does great with getting squished and can store a surprisingly good amount for how small it is.


          • tote bag (the zipper make this one my favorite ever)
          • laptop
          • kindle
          • neck pillow – I usually keep this in its pouch and hanging off the shoulder strap of the bag to save space inside the bag
          • skincare/makeup stored in this clear pouch
          • toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, contacts case and solution, makeup remover wipes, etc.)
          • charging cords for phone and laptop
          • headphones – Must be over the ear, buds start to hurt after a while!
          • portable charger – Can’t ever travel without this.  Holds about three full iPhone charges and has saved my life more times than I can count.
          • travel size tissues
          • travel size disinfectant wipes to wipe down the tray and screen on the plane
          • protein bars if I get hangry (I LOVE these bars and feel good about eating them because they don’t contain any processed ingredients, but as I’ve mentioned once before my husband thinks they’re “disgusting” so try at your own risk, but I’m pretty sure they’re delicious.)
          • donut cushion – OK, does your butt get sore from a long flight and feel similar to what can be imagined as being on fire?  This happened to me on my last long flight, even with getting up regularly to walk around, and this cushion relieves that.  It’s inflatable and comes with a small pump, which makes it easy to pack though might make you self-conscious about the potential judgment you’ll get from your neighbors for whipping it out to inflate, but your butt comfort is way more important, trust.

        Linking down below the travel gear and accessories mentioned in case it got lost, and let me know if you have any questions/want me to go further into anything specific.  And of course feel free to share what your packing tips or essentials are!

17 comments on “How to Pack a Carry-On: Tips for Packing Light + What I Packed for Japan”

  1. I have questions- why bring a laptop while on vacation? Did you bring a camera besides your phone?
    On the suitcase side with the striped shirt, under that striped shirt- is that where you kept the makeup case & what else? Also noted that the clothing was either rayon or cotton, how did the rayon do in humid warm climate? Rayon is great to pack but not sure I would feel like my body can breathe. Going to Asia in the next year so I’m trying to learn as many tips from you that I can. Ordering the shoe bags. And seriously thinking about the donut and more all cotton clothing. Was there anything, you wish you would have brought from home? Did you bring outlet converters, or get them in Japan? What did O bring for in flight survival? Thank you Amy!

    1. Hi Ann,
      For shorter trips I’m more likely not to bring my laptop but most of the time I bring it. I’d call it one of the prices I pay for being self-employed, and even if my workload happens to be lower I still bring it in case of emergency. I didn’t bring a camera besides my phone and rarely do.
      Yes that’s where I kept the makeup case, also shoes, undies/socks, my everyday bag, and a few more folded clothes since not all of it fit on the other side. Oh and a curling iron that I never used! The weather got warm but not humid, and it was pretty cool and breezy most of the time so rayon wore fine, I found it to be light and comfortable.
      No outlet converters needed, the outlets are the same as the US. For the plane, O brought his own kindle and an ipad with shows pre-downloaded on it. He uses everything in my bag for his flight survival too, how convenient for him ;) even stole my donut pillow. He’s extra minimal about packing. I actually asked him if he had any packing essentials and the only thing he mentioned was this cord taco for his earbuds, which isn’t really for survival but he always comments on how useful it is to keep them from tangling.
      I wish I had brought our small umbrellas, we definitely had room for them. I knew it was going to rain a little on a couple days but still forgot to bring them, so we ended up having to buy a large umbrella that was kind of expensive and had to leave it in Japan.
      Thanks for your q’s, happy to answer them!

      1. Thank you Amy!! That carry-on is Amazing!! I love it!! Thanks for answering all my questions, I sure do appreciate it!! Have a wonderful day!!

  2. Thanks for this post! I’m packing right now for a trip and will use many of these tips. One question: where did you get the second clear makeup bag in the last picture? (It’s the one with a toothbrush and contact case in it.) Thanks!

    1. Glad this was helpful, Laura! That bag is from Madewell but it’s no longer available unfortunately. Have great time on your trip!

  3. Love this post! I’ll be going to Tokyo in 2 weeks and I bought the closca bottle just for the trip! Love all your packing tips too. I’ll take any recommendations on things to do or places to eat! Thanks!

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