Sara Laughed

How to Pack Perfectly for a Flight: How I Pack My Suitcases

January 23, 2017 14 Comments

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I'm flying today, leaving my life in the U.S. for a new chapter in the Netherlands. This isn't my first international flight; far from it! In the last five years, I've taken some 38 flights, which means one thing: I'm good at packing. Whether you need to pack a week's worth of stuff in a backpack, or you're moving abroad indefinitely, I've been there. Here is my strategy for how to pack: how I divide my items into my checked baggage, carry-on, or personal item, and why.

First, let's cover the differences between the three kinds of luggage. For an international flight, an airline will often give you one checked bag, one carry-on suitcase, and a personal item like a backpack or purse. If you need more, you can pay for more checked bags for around $100 a piece.

  • Checked luggage: This is the larger suitcase that will be put in the storage compartment of the plane, meaning that you can't access it mid-flight. Airlines differ in their requirements for checked baggage, so be sure to check your airline's requirements.
  • Carry on luggage: Whether you're taking a major flight across the world or a short flight to a nearby city, you will almost certainly be allowed to bring a carry on bag (exceptions are budget airlines; be sure to check your ticket and conditions). This is a smaller bag or suitcase that you will be asked to store in the overhead bins above your seat. You can access these during the flight, but it will be inconvenient because you will have to get out of your seat and into the aisle.
  • Personal item: You will usually be permitted to bring a small personal item on board the plane in addition to your carry on luggage, such as a purse or backpack. You can often slip this under the seat in front of you during the flight. This is the most accessible piece of your luggage.

How to Pack Your Personal Item

How to Perfectly Pack a Suitcase and Carry-On

Because your personal item is the most accessible piece of luggage during your flight, it's the best place to store things like your laptop, a book, or anything you would need in flight. I bring a backpack instead of a purse in order to maximize space.

Categorically, your personal item is best for:

  • Your passport and ticket
  • Items you might need in-flight
  • Things that would weigh down your luggage, like books – personal items are rarely weighed

Items to include in your personal item:

  • A pen for filling out custom forms in the flight
  • An empty water bottle so you can re-fill it after security, saving yourself from buying expensive airport water
  • Something to read, either a book or an e-reader
  • Toiletries: Your daily medicine if you take it, a moisturizer for your face and hands, earplugs and an eye mask if you use them
  • Your laptop and phone, plus their chargers in case you can charge them on the plane
  • A portable charger in case your phone dies and you need to contact someone after landing

How to Pack Your Carry-On

With those items in your personal item, you can use your carry-on as a second checked bag, filling it with whatever you need to bring under the baggage weight limit. An important thing to consider, however, is that checked baggage may sometimes get lost in transfer or accidentally be sent to the wrong airport. As such, it's smart to have back-ups in your carry-on: enough clothes, medicine, and any necessities you might need in your first few days after landing.

Categorically, your personal item is best for:

  • “Bonus luggage” – things that didn't fit in your suitcase
  • Enough basics to survive the first few days after landing

Items to include in your personal item:

  • Any medicines you take daily
  • Valuable jewelry or other items you can't afford to lose
  • Documents you can't afford to lose
  • A few back-up outfits in case your checked baggage is lost

How to Pack Your Checked Baggage

Finally, checked baggage is for anything you didn't need with you mid-flight or can afford to have lost for a few days. That said, there are some important steps to packing a suitcase efficiently. Here's how I do it.

Step One: Lay long trousers and dresses over the sides of your suitcase

How to Perfectly Pack a Suitcase and Carry-On

Leave them hanging half-in and half-out of the suitcase. These will serve as “wrapping” for the rest of the items in your suitcase.

Step Two: Roll clothes into packing cubes

How to Perfectly Pack a Suitcase and Carry-On

Rolling clothes takes less space than folding them, and packing cubes are great for economizing space as well. You can see more hacks for efficient packing here.

Step Three: Fill your suitcase with cubes

How to Perfectly Pack a Suitcase and Carry-On

Use the cubes to fill your suitcase. I mark the contents of mine using painter's tape so that I know what's what when unpacking.

Step Four: Add shoes and anything to fill nooks and crannies

How to Perfectly Pack a Suitcase and Carry-On

Use shoes, undergarments, and any other small items to fill the nooks and crannies in your suitcase. I stuff my shoes with socks and undergarments, and keep them in a hair net to keep them from dirtying my clothes. You can read more packing tips here.

Step Five: Wrap the remaining ends of clothes over your luggage

How to Perfectly Pack a Suitcase and Carry-On

This will help condense your luggage even more. After folding your remaining clothes over the packing cubes, you can clip any elastic bands or braces that are sewn into the suitcase.

That's my strategy for how to pack, but I'd love to hear from you – do you pack this way? What do you do differently?


  1. Reply


    January 23, 2017

    I always love seeing what people pack. I’m such an overpacker.

  2. Reply

    Summer @ Coffee With Summer

    January 23, 2017

    Totally saving this and sharing this, Sara! I have never flown before, but I think I might be sometime this year. This is super helpful!

  3. Reply


    January 23, 2017

    These are wonderful packing tips, I shall need to try these next time I go away.

  4. Reply


    January 23, 2017

    These are such great tips! I’m going on a trip in April and can’t wait to implement these tips.

  5. Reply

    Tilley Hanson

    January 23, 2017

    OMG you are so organized! Pinning for future reference because we are flying in a few weeks!

  6. Reply

    nicole leigh

    January 23, 2017

    whoa, those rolling tubes are awesome – I’ve never seen them before! I normally just roll my clothes, but those are real space savers. x, nicole //

  7. Reply

    Rachel Ritlop

    January 23, 2017

    SO helpful! I have been ditching the checked bag and only taking a carry on so this is a game changer for my organization haha

  8. Reply

    Alix Maza

    January 23, 2017

    Omg, I ALWAYS pack an extra outfit. One time the airline stranded us without our luggage and we spent there days in the same clothes. Ew.

    Alix |

  9. Reply


    January 23, 2017

    These are some great tips for packing! I definitely have an extra t-shirt or something on me at all times because you never know!

  10. Reply


    January 24, 2017

    Great post! I haven’t actually seen the “wrapping” method, but it’s very clever! I think the main thing I need to learn how to do is to not OVERPACK, haha!
    -Anna |

  11. Reply


    January 24, 2017

    oh my gosh! this was so helpful!! thanks girlie. xoxo

  12. Reply


    January 24, 2017

    My boyfriend and I are just planning our trip and we think we will do 1 checked bag but it will only cost us 25$ each way to check it!

  13. Reply

    Ali @ Ali in Bloom

    January 26, 2017

    Okay, seriously, you are an AMAZING packer. I’m so impressed with how organized your bag looks! I’ve been seeing a lot of people rolling their clothes to pack them lately, so there must really be a science to it.

  14. Reply


    January 30, 2017

    I LOVE your tips! I’m such an over-packer, but it really is easier to put bags together when you break it down!