‘Tis the season when we head to the airport for a holiday getaway, elbow our way onto a packed plane…and search desperately for an empty spot in the overhead bin.  What with all the heavy winter coats and bags stuffed with holiday gifts, onboard storage space is at a premium. How to pack so light that your stuff will fit too?  Your strategy will differ depending on the type of trip, of course—the bag, clothing, and gear you need will depend on whether you’re headed to grandma’s house, a beach resort, a ski lodge, or holiday parties requiring dressy clothing—but there are certain strategies and items that, no matter what type of trip, will make it easier for you to fit everything into one carry-on.


  • An ultra-light, compressible jacket that folds into its own pocket.  For warm-weather destinations, consider a rain jacket with a hood. For colder destinations, consider a windproof, water-resistant Patagonia Nano Puff or Uniqlo Ultra Light Down jacket.  You can fold it into its pocket for use as a pillow on the plane.
  • Your heaviest shoes.  A pair of sturdy, comfy walking shoes is always good to have. Make sure they’re broken in and black or brown. (No white sneakers because those are a dead giveaway that you’re a tourist.)
  • Glasses you can’t lose. Clic readers mean you never have to fumble through bags for your reading glasses.


  • An iPhone that’s an all-in-one alarm clock, flashlight, map, and magnifying glass (use the camera zoom).
  • A mini-flashlight for finding things in the dark. Or get the flashlight app for your smartphone.
  • A short 3-outlet extension cord that turns one electrical outlet into three, so you can easily charge all your devices in one spot at one time, including in airport outlets when your flight is delayed.
  • A headphone Y splitter. It connects two headphones to one jack, enabling two of you to use the same device (e.g., two kids can watch the same movie on one iPad).


  • Only two or three colors. That way everything mixes and matches. Add color or pattern with a scarf.
  • An ultra-light duffel or day pack. If you’re forced to gate-check your carry-on wheelie, you can move your valuables into the day pack to keep with you on the flight.  You can also use it at your destination when sightseeing and shopping. If the holiday gifts and souvenirs you collect can’t fit into your wheelie for the flight home, use the duffel or day pack as your carry-on and check the sturdier wheelie.
  • Multi-purpose toiletries (e.g., facial moisturizer with SPF; shampoo-plus-conditioner that you can use as shaving cream) and liquid toiletries in disposable packets rather than bottles (e.g., makeup remover). Look here for possibilities.
  • Eyedrops, eyemask, earplugs, Vitamin C, moisturizer, hand sanitizer. Place them in a sandwich-size zip-top bag, and you’ve created your own business-class amenity kit.
  • Travel-size detergent—e.g., Woolite packets or Tide singles for washing items in your hotel-room sink.
  • Crushable, non-wrinkle hat. I like Wallaroo hats because they’re UPF 50+.
  • Extra camera battery and memory card. Don’t waste hours of precious vacation time searching for a store that carries them. 
  • Gaffer’s tape for on-the-fly, temporary repairs of shoes, bags, hems, and the like. (Alternatively, use a portion of the adhesive-paper bag tag that the airline affixed to your checked luggage.)


  • A carry-on bag with as few buckles, zippers, organizers, and doodads as possible.  These add weight and take up space. I use a wheelie because I always have dressy clothing or business attire that must lie flat so it doesn’t wrinkle.
  • Plastic drycleaner bags. You know how garments come back from the drycleaner on wire hangers, covered in plastic? That’s how they should go into your wheelie. Make sure each item of wrinkle-able clothing is encased in its own plastic. Hold all the hangers in one hand and then, atop everything else in your wheelie, fold the layers two or three times, so that the garments lie flat at the top. Nothing ever wrinkles this way.
  • Transparent zip-top bags of varying sizes. They’re weightless and bulk-less, and they can hold all manner of small items that you want to organize and find easily. I place my liquid toiletries in one (for easy removal at airport security), my dry toiletries in another, my electronic cords and chargers in another. They can hold a wet bathing suit too, and I even bring a two-gallon-size one for compressing clothing (a wool sweater will compress to half its size).  Because they’re plastic, they don’t wrinkle fabrics they rub against.
  • Plastic grocery bags. Like the zip-top bags, they weigh nothing, take up no space, and don’t wrinkle clothes they touch. I use them as shoe bags, and they can also hold laundry and, in a pinch, protect a camera from rain and snow.


  • Wrapped gifts. If you’re flying with gifts, wait till you’re at your destination to wrap them because TSA officials might need to open them during the security inspection. Ship gifts ahead when possible.
  • Foods that are semi-liquid. Leave homemade jams or cranberry sauce at home.
  • Toys that are semi-liquid. Leave snowglobes at home too. Here are the TSA’s tips for holiday travelers.

If you’ve got questions about packing for holiday travel, feel free to click on Ask Wendy above.  And if you’ve got advice to share, we’d love to hear it. What are your holiday packing strategies?