Adulting: From check-in to carry-on

The following article is about how to switch over from a traveler “check-in bag” mentality to a “carry-on bag” mentality. If you are one of the many amazing travelers who are already doing this, feel free to stop reading now. I share this information in case it might help someone out there who fully believes (like I did) that they could never make the switch.

Today was the day that I finally decided to take a stand against my younger, less confident self. I spent the afternoon switching over my packing system from the default “I don’t care what I throw into my bag because I’m checking it” to “OMG – I have to strategically plan this out now”.

Most of my traveler friends made the switch years ago from checking in their bag to carrying on their bag, so this whole blog post might seem silly. However, I have only ever carried on a few times in my entire career. This career spans 15+ years of regular travel – most of it weekly and 60-80% of the year. “Why did you ever subject yourself?” you might ask. Here are my arguments for why I vehemently refused to give up the checked bag scenario:

  • I have waaaaaaaaaay too many liquids: shampoo, conditioner, multiple types of lotion, hair supplies, perfumes, liquid make up, sunscreen, etc. The list goes on and on. Ever since the implementation of the U.S. 3 ounce liquid law (which has spanned most of my career), this has been the number one argument for why I could never carry on.
  • My airlines of choice allow only 2 total carry-on bags. With a purse, computer bag, and luggage, it was hard to get around this rule. My purse used to not be able to fit into my computer bag. Some airlines allow 3 bags, as long as the computer bag and personal bag can fit together under the seat in front of you.
  • I have issues lifting luggage above my head. My carry-on usually weighs 31’ish pounds (which is already too much) but has been known to climb to 45’ish pounds when I’ve engaged the luggage expansion feature. My vertically challenged size, lack of muscle strength, and unwillingness to ask complete strangers around me to help me with my luggage every single time played a huge factor in me keeping this stance.
  • The airlines only lose my luggage once very 4 years (approximately 4 times total), so fear was not a motivating factor
  • Laziness. Let’s be honest here – I have a number of female friends who had the same arguments I did and managed to make the switch.

So why bother then? There was one determining factor in why I decided to finally invest the time and money to do this: time. My bag has been delayed at baggage claim too many times. I’ve also been in the situation where my bag was “lost” temporarily at the airport and then found after I’ve already left (which made me waste time turning around to go back and retrieve it). On average, I wait ~20 minutes for my bag at most airport baggage claims. There have been at least a dozen times when I waited over an hour. Now that I’m getting older, time is more precious to me. I have decided that investing several hours in researching the best way to make this switch and then executing on it is a much better use of my time.

Below are the tactical steps that I took to accomplish this:

  • Researching tips by women on how to consolidate and pack luggage efficiently – this led to me investing in a packing cube system so that I could condense the amount of space my clothes took up
  • The “big purge” – undoing years of garbage and unnecessaries stuck in lesser used pockets and niches of my luggage
  • Investing in many, many 3 oz and smaller liquid containers (The Container Store and I are BFF’s now)
  • Converting to a smaller purse that I can shove into my computer bag – I actually did this a couple of years ago so this part was easy
  • Investing in a “carry-on approved” smaller, super light-weight luggage bag – this ended up being smaller than my previous bag so I had to condense all of my normal luggage items
  • Purchasing a permanent, TSA-approved quart-sized clear bag for liquids that I could take out easily in the security line
  • Shifting my packing mentality. After a few iterations of this, I’m sure it will stick.

Old vs. New

Here is the comparison of my old check-in bag with my new super light carry-on. 

Here was one of my biggest challenges: converting 2 bags of toiletries/makeup into one quart sized bag and a smaller toiletry bag.

And here is my new Eagle Creek Pack-It system, which is the starter set of packing cubes. Packing cubes efficiently pack and condense the amount of space clothes take up. I was not convinced that I needed this at first, so I watched many videos. The starter set includes 3 sized bags, including one with a folder in it. Note that I had to buy the matching Eagle Creek toiletry bag separately.

What I Learned

When I researched light weight carry-on approved luggage, I came across a company called IT. They specialize in this type of luggage and have excellent reviews. I found the 20.5″ Mega Lite Carry On Luggage Spinner and it cost less than $50. It was the lightest luggage I could find and weighs in at 3.8 pounds. For comparison purposes, my old Swiss Army bag weighs 8.4 pounds. However, due to the gliding wheels the new bag is 2-3 inches shorter in the main packing compartment, although about the same depth and width. The one thing I would say I don’t like about it is that it lacks an expansion zipper.

I did first attempt to shove all of my liquid containers into the new permanent quart-sized bag, in the hopes that they would just fit. That was a complete and total failure. So I downsized the full-sized bottles to smaller travel containers. Once I did that, I filled the new approved clear bag and have a tiny bit of room left over, in case I need to add things in the future.

Once I managed to fill all of my packing cubes and toiletry bags (and the rest of my usual luggage items), I have to say that I was surprised. It all fit in the smaller bag. However, there was zero room left in the main packing compartment. Therefore, if I wanted to take some exercise clothes with me on my 5-day trip, I would not be able to.

As you can see above, there is some extra room in the inside zipper compartment, but that’s about it. I’m impressed that I got in 5 days of clothes (2 pairs of pants, 1 pair of jeans, 8 t-shirts, a medium weight jacket, and 3 pairs of shoes), toiletries, my flat iron, and my usual “essentials” for travel.

Lessons Learned

  • The purge alone is worth it. For instance, I found a scarf, mittens, and a winter wear hat in the front pocket of my old luggage. It’s August for Pete’s sake. I probably relieved myself of at least 5 pounds of crap that I was unknowingly carrying around.
  • I invested <$150 total in this new system. This included the new IT luggage, packing cubes, permanent TSA approved quart-sized bag, and smaller liquid containers.
  • Yes, packing cubes are worth it. I had to see it to believe it. In the past, 4 days of pure business clothes (1 pair of pants, 3 shirts, 1 travel t-shirt, 2 pairs of shoes, etc.) took up 1/2 of my larger luggage. If I put the 5 days worth of business and fun clothes-filled packing cubes in the old luggage, they take up less than 1/2 of the space and can be condensed down even further. In addition, I didn’t use them for this purpose but some travelers prefer packing cubes for organizational reasons – putting pants together, shirts together, etc. 
  • Some people would make the argument that I’m a petite female and therefore need less room for packing. This is absolutely true. I can fit more clothes and shoes because of this and I don’t lose sight of that. This is why I listed the main contents of what I packed. However, my needs are not everyone’s – I chose my luggage size based on weight.
  • Rolling your clothes instead of folding them is a recommended technique. Yes, this does save space.
  • I chose to buy the 20.5″ bag with spinners at a cost of 2-3″ in main compartment space. I did this because overall weight is more important to me. I went from ~31 pounds to ~19.6 pounds with this new travel configuration. If you need more space and are less concerned about weight, there are many other luggage options available without spinner wheels that are carry on approved.
  • As mentioned before, I do wish IT made a lightweight bag that had an expansion feature. Yes, I would have to check that bag if expanded, but I could gate check it in the worst case scenario.
  • The wide-mouth leakproof Nalgene bottles are the best for condensing down liquid containers. They come in squeeze tubes and tubs and are easy to fill and clean (and therefore recycle). Each costs between $0.99 and $4.99 and range from 0.25 to 3 ounces in size. I also bought sprayers from another brand. Pretty much any container format you need you can find or work around.
  • I did make some concessions. I don’t have room for exercise clothes, nor my portable steamer. Most trips are not 5 days long, however, nor require a medium-weight jacket that I feel the need to pack vs. carry. I think I can make it work if I ever need to pack for a 4-day travel week. 
  • I only travel about once a month now, but I do need to upgrade my known traveler status to one that is more permanent to really maximize the time saved. I still have not purchased Global Entry, Clear, TSA Precheck, etc. I am one of the beta testers of Precheck so I get it randomly and free.
  • It’s important to have airline status when you carry on. On American, I’ve reached 1 million miles so I’m permanent Gold. Although Gold means nothing in today’s travel world, I’m at least ahead of 1/3 – 1/2 of the other travelers so I can find room for my bag.

This upcoming week is the first week testing this new packing process and travel luggage. I’m excited. I feel like I’ve taken one of the last steps toward adulthood. Yay!

5 thoughts on “Adulting: From check-in to carry-on

  1. Glenn Schwartzberg says:

    I have the Eagle Creek Tarmac. It is heavier than your bag at about 6 lbs but 22″ and the top is sloped to fit into overheads better. Much more expensive at about $300 but has a lifetime guarantee. I love it.


  2. dbakevlar says:

    I have to admit that my bag is lighter and smaller than my husbands. This is done by the following:
    1. Compression bags- Like packing cubes, they allow you to pack a lot in smaller space. Very helpful during winter when you have sweaters.
    2. I like Samsonite’s hybrid hard/soft side suitcases. They do have an expansion section in the 20in international, (my “large” bag) and my smaller bag is a 20 X 9 X 11 samsonite ultralite. I always know mine over any other bag, even thought its black as it’s the smallest thing coming on the baggage carrier if they make me check it…LOL
    3. silicone tubes. I went down to 2oz silicone squeeze tubes. They compress better inside the travel bag and are easy to put in the outside zipper pocket if the airport doesn’t have TSA Pre-check.
    4. Get travel size hair dryer/curling iron/straightener. No reason to pack full size of anything these days.

    My 20 inch international is for 1-2 week trips, my smaller bag is for up to one week. Great write up, Opal!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Cheryl P. Stokes says:

    Packing plays an important role in a traveller’s life. If you pack well and stay organized you will be able to save a lot of time and your trip will be even more fun. I would caution travellers to always carry their valuables in their carry on just on case your checked bag is lost which happens a things like watches, jewelry and small gifts..keep those with you


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