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Carry-On Packing for the Unorganized Traveler

carry-on packing for the unorganized traveler

If you feel unorganized when you pack your carry-on, don’t panic – you’re not alone! Despite writing for a site about packing, I actually consider myself someone who is more on the unorganized side when it comes to the packing process.

What I’ve discovered over the years is that the standard packing rules are just not for me. Sure, being super organized can help in a lot of ways, but the most important thing is to find a system of your own that makes you feel comfortable. Here’s how I do it.

Get a carry-on sized backpack with built-in organization

If you can’t seem to get organized yourself, let your backpack do some of the organization for you. Being unorganized is probably why I only buy backpacks with lots of pockets. The pockets are like forced organization for me, otherwise my stuff would all get lost in that main compartment black hole.

I use the biggest pocket of my backpack for my underwear, that way it’s always easy to find each day. Smaller pockets hold things I want to access easily like make-up, nail clippers, solid perfume, toothbrush, pen, etc. Sometimes I use a small packing cube for these things, usually on a longer trip when I take a few extras like non-liquid laundry detergent, Tiger Balm, and first aid items.

I love packing cubes in theory and I even own a set, but I find that I almost never use them. I feel like they don’t fit well into my backpack (though many backpack travelers use them all the time) but if I were a suitcase person, I think I’d use them more often.

If you’ve tried them and they don’t feel helpful, don’t feel pressured to use them just because all the cool kids are doing it. We’re all different.

carry on packing for the unorganized traveler

Put less used items on the bottom

I lay out all my clothing first and pack what I won’t need often or early in the trip at the bottom. Shoes (other than flip flops) also go at the bottom. Things I will use more often or earlier in the trip go at the top. I put my flip flops in an outside pocket that’s mostly meant for a water bottle.

After the bigger items, like shoes, pants and shirts, are in the bag, I start shoving in the smaller items. Socks, bathing suit, bra, I make them all fit into the little gaps in between the rest of the clothes.

Packing for security check

Knowing I have to deal with security at the airport also forces me to be a little more organized. You don’t want to be digging to the bottom to find the things you’re required to take out to be scanned.

It’s best to pack things that need to be taken out of your bag at security towards the top for easy access. I slide my laptop into the back of the backpack but still make sure it’s close enough to the top that I can grab it quickly. My liquids bag is one of the last things I put in my bag so I don’t have to dig around for it.

Space saving hacks

This might sound a little silly, but I like to pick up my backpack and give it a few shakes vertically. Things settle into the bag a little more, and suddenly I have a few extra inches here and there. Not that you should over pack your bag, but I find that my stuff settles and takes up less space after just a few days of travel anyway, so why not speed up the process.

Despite the wonderful advice on this site about not strapping things to the outside of your bag, I do this quite often. Oops. Usually it’s a jacket that I don’t want to wear, but I don’t want it taking up precious space in my backpack. (And let’s be honest, I’m too lazy to carry it.)

Don’t go overboard with this though. Having too many things hanging off your bag can make your backpack fit awkwardly, and it will draw attention from airline employees who might think your bag is over the carry-on limit.

carry-on packing for the unorganized traveler

So that’s my own minimal organization system for packing. It might not follow all the packing rules, but it works for me. Don’t worry about not being as organized as other travelers. Follow as much advice from the experts as you can handle, find a carry-on packing system that works for you, and embrace being an unorganized traveler!

Written by Ali

Ali Garland is a freelance writer, blogger, and travel addict who made it to all 7 continents before her 30th birthday. She enjoys travel planning, encouraging others to see the world, and packing carry-on only. She and her husband are expats living in Berlin. You can find Ali at Ali's Adventures and Travel Made Simple.

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Gear We Use

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Speakeasy Hidden Pocket Scarves


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Eagle Creek Compression Packing Cubes


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Tom Bihn 3D Organizer Cube


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Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Daypack


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Travel Resources

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Reader Interactions


  1. Leah says

    Great post! I’m trying to pack for Costa Rica right now using just my pack, but I worry it’s too large. What size pack do you use as a carry on?

  2. Rachel says

    My husband has that bag and took it with him as his 1 bag for our last trip to a few destinations in Europe. I was SO jealous of all his pockets and amazing organization! It just didn’t not fit me at all, even the smaller sized one. If only the women’s version came in black…

    He used a single 18L packing cube for all his clothes and the rest of the organization was via the pockets, whereas my bag is one big hole so I ended up with 7 various bags inside it for a similar level of organization. Waaah. 🙂

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