Travel Tips

Keep Calm and Carry-On: Helpful Tips for Packing

December 7, 2016

“This flight has been cancelled due to mechanical issues.” 


Both infuriatingly vague and panic-inducing. I suppose it’s preferable to going down in a fiery plane crash but no anxious, novice solo traveller – excited to embark on an adventure – wants to hear an announcement like that.

My gut sank into the floor at Toronto Pearson as I realized that if I missed this flight to New York, it would set off a domino effect, making me miss my connecting flight to Costa Rica and therefore missing the bus I had booked upon arrival to Monteverde and the cloud forest excursion I had planned for that day.

The airline employee who was rebooking my flight schedule informed me that my trip – that had previously been a simple, one hour layover in New York – was now two layovers AND I’d have to stay overnight in Miami. Not. Ideal. 

I was concerned about my checked bags. Were they going to be transferred appropriately? Did I need to speak with someone specifically about them? Did they need to be retrieved and rechecked? The disinterested United Airlines employee informed me that they would be at my final destination and I didn’t have to worry about them.

Somewhat mollified and armed with a $15 food voucher and a token for an overnight stay at the airport motel in Miami, I began my exhausting and convoluted journey to San José, Costa Rica.

When I touched down in New York, I asked a flight attendant whether my bags were on the plane as this wasn’t my original path. She checked her computer and confirmed that they were. Upon arrival in Miami at midnight – before even finding food and making my way to my overnight accommodations – I repeated this process with another airline employee and received the same, reassuring answer.

It turned out that my food voucher was useless as it was only for restaurants IN the airport and by time I arrived, they had all closed down for the night. I waited and hour for a shuttle bus to take me to the flea-ridden airport motel where I’d be spending the night with only my carry-on shoulder bag and the clothes on my back.

By the time I arrived in San José, the capital of Costa Rica, I had been on three planes, was sleep-deprived, and had been wearing the same clothes (because I refused to take them off to sleep in that disgusting motel) for 36+ hours. I eagerly waited in the baggage claim area for my suitcase to appear.

Luggage and passengers on my flight came and went and after an hour of watching the same bags rotating on the conveyor belt, I inquired after my MIA suitcase.

Despite having persistently and conscientiously confirming that my luggage was being redirected on the correct path in Toronto, New York AND Miami, apparently my suitcase was still back home, along with my patience.

The airport employee advised me to wait in the airport for my things to arrive but I was tired of waiting! I had put off my adventure for long enough and I had plans in Monteverde that couldn’t be put off a minute more. I left behind the address that they could ship my luggage (if it ever arrived) then caught a four hour bus to my hostel in the Costa Rican cloud forest.

By time I reached Monteverde, I was lacking sleep as well as my sanity – having abandoned it at the counter in the San José airport – so I was on the verge of hysteria when a group comprised of a couple of American guys, German girls, and an Aussie chick walked in.

Clad in the same grimy t-shirt and jeans that I’d been wearing for the last 48 hours, we decide to dance the night away at one of the three bars in the little town. It was probably one of the best nights I had the entire trip! My suitcase deigned to make an appearance at 9AM the next day.

I walked away from this (mis)adventure with new friends, a deeper appreciation of clean laundry, and a lingering, post-traumatic fear of checking my luggage. My travel mantra since then has been: Keep calm and carry-on.



If I have terrified you into adopting the same mantra, here are some tips for travelling with only a carry-on:



You have to be able to fit all your liquids in one clear, quart-sized, plastic, ziplock bags and no container within the bag can exceed 100ml in volume. Be selective with your products and repackage in smaller bottles if need be (I get little bottles from the dollar store). You can even get creative and get solid versions of items like solid shampoo from Lush to save some space.



While it’s tempting to hang back and avoid the fray make sure that you’re first in line when your zone boards. If you’re last, you run the risk of having to check your luggage due to the limited overhead space. Plus, if you’re one of the first people to board, you have your pick of where to stash your carry-on suitcase which would ideally be right above you.



Packing cubes come in a variety of shapes, made of a mesh material that is thin enough to not add bulk to your suitcase but structured enough that it keeps everything organized. You’d be surprised how much space you can save when it’s more orderly versus looking like your suitcase imploded. Pro tip for packing clothes: Roll, don’t fold. Rolling clothes saves more space than folding, minimizes wrinkling, AND it takes less time.



Do your research and check your specific airlines carry-on policies. Some smaller airlines may charge and arm and a leg. Or the size limitations vary so you don’t want to get busted trying to wheel in a suitcase that is a couple inches too big. Size restrictions don’t only apply to height and width but depth as well. I try not to overfill the front pockets, opting instead to store items that are more flat like floppy sandals.



Be strategic with the clothes you bring. Just like how I decide which articles of clothing to buy in the store , I try to bring pieces that I can use to create 2 or more outfits. For example, if I bring a collared shirt that I can wear with jeans, I can get double the wear out of it if I can also pair it with a skirt that I was planning on wearing with a tank top. Less clothes but more outfits.



What clothes takes up the most room? Bulky jackets? Thick jeans and sweater? Chunky boots? Wear them on the plane, this way they’re not taking up prime real estate in your carry-on. This always makes me think of the Friends episode where Joey tries to get back at Chandler by wearing everything in his closet.