7 Days, 2 People, 1 Carry-On Bag: How to Pack for a Vacation Without Checking a Bag

Every summer, we take a big trip down to Dauphin Island, AL. And when we do, we pack 5 people into our mini van, along with luggage, snacks and food for the week, and all kinds of awesome pool toys. Because of that, it means really limited space for actual, y’know, clothes. Because of this annual trip, and because I’ve had too much lost luggage in the airport (so I never check a bag if I can avoid it), I’ve become an expert at packing in small spaces. That means this carry-on is my best friend when I pack for Zach and I every time. I’ve got some tried-and-true tips to make sure you can do the same!

This is my suitcase, packed and ready to go. As you can see, I have diapers, plus clothing for Zach and I. The first rule of saving space is to roll your clothes. Seriously, it’s not just a sleepover or overnight camp thing– by rolling clothing, you can fit 1/3 as much, or at least, in the three years I’ve tried it, 1/3 is about what I’ve gotten in extra by rolling. You can even roll an outfit together, but since I mix-and-match a lot, I prefer to just roll it as it is.

One big rule I follow is that I never pack jeans. If I want a pair of jeans for vacation, I wear them on the way. Jeans are a space sucker. It’s ridiculous how much space they take up! I measured– in the space I can put one pair of jeans, I could put two maxi dresses, or 2/3 of Zach’s clothing. It’s ridiculous. If you’re giving up jeans, some space-saving options are shorts and maxi dresses! As you can see, I squeezed in 3 maxi dresses and two pairs of shorts for myself. I don’t pack jeans for Zach, either. Also consider the natural space that’s created by other items. For example, I’m a… uh… rather busty chica, which means that, in order for certain, ahem, undergarments to hold their shape, they can be filled with socks or panties or tee shirts. It helps the shape of the undergarment, while also making more room in your suitcase. I fill it with whatever will fit, set it on the bottom of the suitcase, and then place items around it to make sure everything is where it should be and I have plenty of room.

Consolidate! Zach and I share the essentials like toothpaste. No need to pack a kid’s paste AND an adult’s paste, just share one. We packed Cha Cha Chocolate from Tanner’s Tasty Paste because it works well for adults and kids, and fits just fine in our case, perfect for sharing. We also make sure to take travel sizes of whatever we can. I keep a basket of travel sized items on hand that I have gotten free or very cheap. Target sometimes discounts their travel sized items on endcaps, and the shampoo and conditioner I brought were part of a free-with-purchase when I last bought shampoo and conditioner (often brands attach them to advertise a new product line, but they make a great travel pal!) You can also consider 2-in-1 or 3-in-1 items that double as shampoo and conditioner or even body wash, too. I also am a fan of BB cream with SPF that works as my daytime moisturizer, gives me SPF protection, and has tinting powers to even out my skintone– I leave my daytime moisturizer and foundation at home.

Also, in the above photo, you see that I’ve packed diapers, but notice that I didn’t pack ALL of the diapers we’d need for the week. Why? Because we always end up stopping at Walmart while we’re on our way to the Island (mostly to get groceries for the week, since we cook in-condo a lot). If you frequently hit the store on your trip, consider leaving part of your gear at home and picking it up on the way home. Just make sure that you’re only saving things you’ll be making room for while you’re gone– as in, don’t think you’ll be able to take a full carry-on, go buy more clothes, and have a place to put it. But for diapers? Easy, when we’re at Walmart, we buy a new package, then use the diapers, and if we have leftovers, they fit where the old diapers did in the suitcase when I packed.

Finally, laundry. We specifically rent a condo that allows us to wash our clothing for free on-site (in our condo!) so we can pack less and wash halfway through the week. While I pretty much packed enough clothes for our full vacation anyway, having that washer and dryer is really nice because we can wash halfway through, saving even more space. Think about how much more space you’ll save if you’re tossing your clothes into the washer before going sightseeing or to the beach, then throwing them into the dryer before bed and waking up t freshly cleaned clothes? We also love laundry on-site because we can wash all of our clothes on the last day and not drag home wet and sandy clothing, and when we get home, we can just relax– we aren’t starting out having to play laundry catch-up at home! If there are two similarly priced locations with similar amenities, I’ll pick the one with laundry every time. It’s just so much more convenient– and it means that I don’t need an extra bra or an extra pair of jeans because I can work with what I’ve got. Also, you can actually WASH swim diapers, moms! Simply turn them inside out and throw them in the washer, but let them air dry, don’t dry them in the dryer. I’ve gotten 4-5 uses out of EACH swim diaper. Of course, if there’s clear… um… output in the swim diaper, you don’t want to wash and re-use, but if it still looks clean, go for it! That’s another space saver for me– I just pack a few swim diapers and wash them for the week (obviously pool swim diapers will last longer and stay cleaner than beach swim diapers, so I put him in a re-washed one for the beach and dispose of that sandy swim diaper after, but put him in the newer ones for the pool so they stay cleaner and not so sand-covered).

Also, it can sometimes help to pack and then unpack and re-pack, if you’ve built time for it before you depart on your trip. I packed everything, unpacked it for photographs, and then re-packed it. The EXACT SAME items were in photo one and photo two, but packing them differently made me see spaces I didn’t see before, and freed up tons of space in the top corner. I ended up filling that space with some jars to collect sand, and it’s just the right size to bring home a souvenir or two. While I kept the same things in my bag from the first picture to this one, you could also pack, unpack, repack to see what you might be taking that’s a duplicate (that’s particularly important if two or more people are included in the packing job), and get rid of any excess you don’t need. You can also think twice about taking that third tank top just in case, and cut it out if you need the space.


I will note that since we drive instead of flying, I wasn’t concerned about liquids when packing, so you’ll see that I don’t have airline-approved containers for liquids or gels. When packing a carry-on like this for air travel, you’ll want to make sure you’re keeping with airline regulations. If you ARE flying, you can check with your specific airline about the size of carry-ons and if they’ll allow you a carry-on AND a personal item (many airlines will allow you to carry on a bag, as well as having a “personal” item like a purse or laptop bag). I’ve successfully used this size of bag shown for two different airlines, so it IS carry-on sized.

Even if you aren’t flying, packing in a carry-on bag has it’s advantages. It takes up less space to pack in a carry-on bag for two than try to pack in full sized-suitcases, and once you’ve mastered the tips, you might even be able to squeeze a family’s worth of luggage in a suitcase without a problem.

Happy travels!


Where are you going this summer? Do you drive or fly? If flying, do you check luggage? Share in the comments below!



  1. Yes! I love this post, it comes just in time for summer. We’ll have to one-week-vacations, and getting there by car (that’s already quite filled with a stroller and a travel cot for Little Boy) Packing like this would be great!

    1. Squeezing in strollers, travel cots, AND luggage is always a challenge! I know we faced trouble with packing trying to fit in skimboards and boogie boards for the boys, sand toys, and more…. I have no choice but to pack light! Travel safely!

    1. Vacation is the one time where I really prefer e-books… I have always been a paper book girl, but the fact that I can pack unlimited books in very little space with the kindle is a big plus!

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