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How to Pack for Air Travel

Updated on October 30, 2012

As someone who has flown a lot of miles over the years on both business and pleasure trips, knowing how to pack for air travel has served me well.

My best advice for air travel packing is try to get everything in one carry-on bag. Less luggage means you don't have to wait at that baggage claim area with everyone else.

If possible, avoid checking any baggage if at all possible.

My best advice is to travel with only the things you absolutely need - the basics. Pack light - you never know how far you may have to carry a bag.

I never pack toiletries - I simply buy those when I get to my destination. Always take an extra plastic bag for storing dirty laundry.


Luggage Lessons Learned from a Once Weary Air Traveler

I once had to drag two large bags up and down a very long concourse in Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. I was in a hurry to catch a flight and just decided to carry my bags on board (This particular airline allowed 2 carry-on bags).

After I had dragged these wheel-less bags over half a mile to my gate, I discovered my wallet had fallen out of my pocket at the security checkpoint upon entering the airport. The airline would not let me leave my bags unattended at the gate so I had to drag them all the way back up the long concourse to security.

By the time I got back down to the gate, my flight had left. I had to catch another flight on a different airline. Do you think that other airline was in the same terminal? HA! Of course not. I figured the distance walked in that one hour period was about 4 miles.

By the end of that trip, I hated those bags. The lesson here is pack light and get wheeled bags.


Travel Checklist: Packing to Please the TSA

If you're going to travel in the U.S., you're going to have to pack for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

If you want to get through the security checkpoints faster, then you have to prepare your luggage in a way that makes it easy for them to inspect your luggage.

Pack the way they suggest, get through their security checkpoints faster and on your way - simple.

When traveling by air, I prefer to take just one carry-on bag and a briefcase with my laptop. I do not check any luggage.

Most airlines allow for at least one reasonably-sized carry-on bag (check with local airline for specific regulations for size and number of allowed carry-on bags) along with a briefcase.

Packing light with just a single carry-on and a briefcase or backpack may be easily accomplished but you'll need to pack carefully if you want to travel without checking any luggage.

Here are some of my best tips:


Packing Tips for Airline Travel: Carry-On Bags


Travel Documents - Always carry your traveler's checks, travel documents, jewelry, medication, keys, and other valuables in a purse or other small bag that you can keep on your person.


Laptop Computers - Many air travelers carry a laptop computer in their carry-on luggage these days. Make sure your laptop computer is ready for TSA inspection by being placed in a section of the bag designed to hold laptop computers. Nothing more than the laptop may be packed in this section of the bag. This laptop section must unfold completely and lie flat before being sent through the x-ray machine. There should be no metal adornments underneath or on top of this section like snaps, zippers, buckles, etc. There should be no other pockets on the inside or outside of this special laptop section of the bag.


Roll Things Up - Instead of packing folded articles of clothing, simply roll them into rows lengthwise in your bag. If your carry-on bag needs to be opened and inspected, TSA officials can inspect the contents more quickly if they're organized into rows and sections. Bonus - packing in rows allows maximum use of space available in the bag.


Great Advice for Traveling With a Single carry-On Bag...

Eagle Creek Tarmac 22 Wheeled Luggage, Black
Eagle Creek Tarmac 22 Wheeled Luggage, Black

This bag (mentioned in the video above) is an absolute wonder - I still can't believe it will hold so much stuff! Yes, it is rather pricey but WELL worth the investment. This will be the last carry-on air travel bag you will buy.


Special Handling for Shoes - Thanks to the infamous "shoe bomber," the TSA now wants to inspect all footwear in your bag. Be sure to place shoes on the top of your other packed items to make it easier for TSA officials to inspect.

You can pull a pair of socks over your shoes to keep them from soiling or marking up other items in your bag, but I think a clear zip-lock bag works better IF you can fit your shoes into the largest allowable quart-size bag. Unfortunately, I wear a size 14 shoe and even one of those "gunboats" won't fit into a single quart-size bag.


Expect ALL liquids to be declared and inspected. Leave a separate section in the top section of your bag for fluids, gels and aerosol containers. Group all containers in a clear, quart-size zip-lock bag and place them together. This way, the TSA inspector can remove and easily inspect these items quickly. Remember - all liquids, gels and aerosols must be 3.4 ounces or less. If any one item exceeds this amount, you'll be donating them to the TSA.


Balance the Load - Don't place shoes, books or other heavy items in one end of the bag, rather, spread the weight evenly for balance and ease of handling. This is especially true if you're going to carry or pull a wheeled bag.


Restricted Items - Scissors, box cutters, knives (except for butter or plastic knives) , firearms, guns, explosive materials, martial arts items, etc. are all restricted items for carry-on baggage on domestic and international flights. Disposable razors and disposable razor cartridges are permitted. Screwdrivers, wrenches and pliers -all under seven inches in length - are typically allowed. Be sure that any item with a sharp or cutting surface is securely sheathed or wrapped to prevent injury to TSA inspectors. For a complete list of restricted items, click here.


These bags are similar to the carry-on bags with which I travel. They fit within all airline specified dimensions. Both have telescoping pull-handles and wheels.
These bags are similar to the carry-on bags with which I travel. They fit within all airline specified dimensions. Both have telescoping pull-handles and wheels. | Source

Additional Packing Tips for Checked Luggage

Some of the tips listed above for carry-on bags are meant for checked bags as well. In addition to the aforementioned tips - rolled clothing, containers in plastic bags, shoes on top and even weight distribution - checked luggage should also meet the following requirements:

Restricted Items - Any kind of flare, fuel, self-striking matches, flammable paint, turpentine, etc. are not permitted to be transported in baggage that is checked for domestic or international air travel. Even realistic replicas of Incendiary devices or similar items are restricted and will likely be confiscated. For a complete list of restricted items, click here.

If you are unsure about whether an item should be transported in checked luggage, it may be best to leave it out and have it shipped home using some other shipping method like FedEx or UPS. If an item is confiscated, it may just disappear from your luggage and replaced with a terse note from the TSA. Remember, to avoid travel delays associated with additional screenings or possible violations, be sure to pack according to TSA guidelines.


5 Things to Check Before You Take Off on Your Next Flight

  • Buy lightweight luggage that has plenty of room and is easy to handle or carry - you may have to carry it over long distances.
  • Wheels. You MUST have a carry-on bag that has wheels and a built-in, telescoping handle. Retracting wheels are even better because they are not likely to be broken or knocked off during the rigors of handling. One long walk through a bus, train or airport terminal and you know why wheels are a must-have for travel.
  • Pack light and take only what you need in a single, reasonably sized carry-on bag. One bag means no waiting at baggage claim, quicker processing through customs and getting out of the airport faster.
  • Choose clothing that coordinates well with all your other clothing. This allows you to take fewer clothes and pack lighter.
  • Make a complete list of all things packed. Some folks even take a picture of the more expensive items. This packing list is invaluable if your luggage is lost or stolen.

Find Out About the Latest Air Travel Restrictions

As a kid, I can remember our father walking us onto an airplane, making sure we were buckled in tight and then walking off the airplane - he usually stayed home to work while our mother traveled by air with us. Sometimes, as we boarded, the pilots would invite us into the cockpit of the aircraft.

These days, things are very different. It seems like the rules and regulations for travel are always changing. It is really hard to keep up with the latest information indicating precisely what items are allowed and what items are prohibited.

Some of the new restrictions mandate very specific ways in which luggage must be packed. One of these rules for air travelers is the TSA's "3-1-1 rule" which helps air travelers to remember to use 3.4 ounce containers, one quart clear plastic bags and one carry-on bag per bin in the TSA's security inspection area.

Other rules created and enforced by the TSA are designed to help air travelers consolidate the essentials that are quickly and easily inspected.


For the latest on air travel restrictions, check with the airline or visit the TSA website here.



An Alternative to Pricey Checked Bag Fees

OK, so I was on a trip a few years ago and I had to take a lot of equipment and luggage for a stay lasting several weeks. The luggage situation was going to be a nightmare - not to mention all the extra cost.

Some fees for oversized luggage were as much as $200 (USD) per piece! An associate suggested that I only take things that could not be easily replaced and ship the rest via FedEx Ground to arrive at my destination a day or so after I arrived.

So, I went down to the local FedEx/Kinko's the day before my departure and packed all of my clothing into a large box about the size of a small college dorm refrigerator and shipped it. The day after I arrived, my box showed up at my hotel. It cost around $50 (USD).

When it came time to leave, I did the same thing and shipped everything home. I saved several hundred dollars in airline baggage fees and didn't have to drag a whole bunch of baggage through several busy airports.

I know folks who have had their ski equipment, golf clubs and other over-sized, heavy or oddly shaped items shipped in this way. Check with your specific airline, some carriers have special cases or containers for these type of items and may allow them to be checked at no additional cost.

NOTE: I have only used this method within the U.S. Shipping overseas is another matter entirely. It's always best to check with FedEx, UPS or other international shippers to get more specific information on fees and restrictions.

You can check the latest airline baggage fees here.



Do you think taking all your luggage as carry-on makes travel easier?

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    • MKayo profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Texas

      novascotiamiss - Wow, great comments and helpful as well. I will edit the FedEx/UPS to read "domestic only" - I had not considered that. Thanks for your comments, vote and HELPFUL tip. Best, M

    • novascotiamiss profile image


      6 years ago from Nova Scotia, Canada

      What you say makes absolute sense but unfortunately, I'm one of these travelers who only go away once in a while but for 1-2 months. So I will definitely not be able to jam everything into my carry on. Sending bulky items by Fedex/UPS is a good idea, but what happens if you go overseas? You might end up paying customs duty or processing fees. Also, another important point for overseas travelers is that almost every airline has got different measurements/weight limits when it comes to carry on. On my last trip (booked via Expedia) I had to catch planes of 4 different airlines and their regulations varied tremendously. Your hub is very interesting and useful and certainly making travelers aware that modern-day travel requires a lot of preparation and planning. Voted up!

    • MKayo profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Texas

      Ingenira - the small portable scale is a good tip. Thanks for the read and compliments.

    • Ingenira profile image


      6 years ago

      You must be a very experienced travellers. Lots of useful tips here. A frequent travellers myself, I have always wanted to do a check list like this, but a simpler one.

      P/S, I also bought a small portable weighing scale that allows me to check my luggage weight, so that I don't have to worry about exceeding permitted luggage weight when I check in at the airport.

    • MKayo profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Texas

      Thanks for the read, KatSanger!

    • KatSanger profile image

      Katherine Sanger 

      6 years ago from Texas

      I'm with you - I always buy my toiletries on the other end of whatever flight. It might cost a bit more than packing them, but most hotels that I've stayed at even have the little kits that have a toothbrush, toothpaste, etc. all in one handy package.


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