The number one piece of advice my friends, family, and readers ask me for when they are planning a trip is how I pack so lightly – or how I travel for so long with so little. While this list is not exhaustive, I’ve compiled my master carry-on travel packing list for women below!
It’s true, I’ve spent weeks on the road in Europe, New Zealand, and Australia with just one backpack on my back. When I traveled “down undah” for six weeks, I brought one carry-on-sized backpack and never checked it once (and considering I took 8 flights in that time, that’s a serious convenience!)
The key to packing light is to maximize functionality of everything you include in your bag. The most common rule of thumb is to only pack items that you will use every day – or almost every day.
An easy way to do this is to spread out everything you want to pack on the floor, then review each and every one individually. Ask yourself, “Will I use this more than once?” If the answer is no, toss it. The benefits of lightweight luggage are priceless – not only for peace of mind, but for your wallet too (think of all the checked bag fees you’ll save.)
After years of experience, practice, and a lot of trial and error, I’ve honed down my packing items to a trusted master carry-on travel packing list for women. But I’m still learning! Even travelers who have been on the road for 10 years adjust their packing lists as they adapt a travel style that works for them. Naturally, depending on the destination, I’ll omit this or bring an extra that. But for the most part, my list stays the same.
Use this as a guide, but determine what works best for you – remember, travel is a personal thing! Don’t base your packing exclusively from this list (nor anyone else’s for that matter), but feel free to use it for anything you may have forgotten or not thought about. Everything on this list goes into one backpack, which I carry on with me everywhere – so everything is carry-on approved. (Remember, you can always buy more of something on the road if you run out!)
And if you have something you always bring that I haven’t mentioned here, please share it with me in the comments!
My Master Carry-On Travel Packing List for Women
Backpack: Rick Steves’ Convertible Carry-On
It’s amazingly roomy, has plenty of pockets, zippers, and compartments, and fits into most airlines’ carry-on restrictions. The shoulder straps are wide and cushioned, with a belly and support strap and pack panel (for minimized lumps in the back.) My favorite part is the dual handles: one on the top of the bag, and one on the side (I’ve found that if the bag is only half full, everything falls to the bottom and makes it fatter. I simply flip the bag onto its side and carry it lengthwise so the weight is distributed more evenly – which gets it past even scrutinizing airline agents.) Plus, the bag is super tough – it’s been everywhere with me, and even been kneaded by cat claws in a flat in Vienna and there isn’t a scratch on it.
Daypack/airplane “personal item:” Matein Travel Laptop Backpack
This is the perfect smaller backpack for shorter trips. It’s perfect to throw in a car for a weekend trip, or pack inside my Rick Steves’ convertible pack (above) to use as a day pack at my destination. It’s surprisingly roomy, and holds all my personal items and electronics. And if you’re just not the all-carry-on kinda gal, it’s the perfect carry-on to accompany your checked rolling suitcase. 😉
Compression packing cubes: these BAGAIL sets are my favorite
Perhaps the most important item on a carry-on travel packing list for women: packing cubes are great for organization, but compression cubes are 100x better — remember, it’s all about maximizing that space, baby!! These compress your clothes down and squeeze out extra air to save room and pack more than you’d believe into small spaces.
- 5 shirts – lightweight 100% cotton, neutral colors.
- 1 long-sleeved top – thermals are best for layering.
- 1 pair shorts*
- 1 pair versatile pants – I prefer gray or beige to match everything.
- 1 pair yoga/workout pants – these can double as pajamas, hiking pants, and comfy airplane and train wear for “travel days.”
- 1 conservative sundress*
- 1 hat
- 1 solid, comfortable pair of walking shoes – you should be able to walk several miles in one day in these, both on semi-rugged terrain and city pavement. Break these in before your trip!
- 1 pair casual sandals*
- 1 pair cheap flip-flops – for nasty hostel showers.
- 7 pairs cotton underwear – underwear can roll up really small, so I’d rather be safe than sorry and bring more
- 2 pair bras + 1 pair sports bra – if I’m going somewhere humid, I generally bring all sports bras, as they stay dry and wick away moisture better than regular bras.
- 4-7 pairs cotton socks – this changes depending on when and where I’m going. If I’ll be on the beach, wearing sandals, or barefoot a lot, I bring fewer pairs. If I’m going somewhere where I’ll be doing a lot of hiking, or wearing closed-toed shoes or boots every day, I bring more. It’s no fun to “recycle” stinky, sweaty socks.
- 1 pair compression socks – for during your flight. Keep that circulatory system healthy!
- bathing suit*
- scarf/pashmina – if it’s cold, I bring it for functionality. If it’s a warm destination, I bring a lightweight one for easy outfit transformation!
*These can be omitted for winter or cold destination travel
- Hanging toiletry kit – I LOVE Mary Kay’s cosmetic bag. It’s small, light, compact, and the perfect size to hang in hostel showers.
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 travel-sized toothpaste
- floss (can double as thread in a pinch)
- 1 bar soap – believe me, ladies, if you’re a body wash kinda gal, suck it up and use a good bar soap when you travel. It lasts much longer than liquid soap, and takes up less space. Get one with a good ratio of shea butter for extra moisturization!
- nail clippers
- travel fold-up brush
- 3 oz. clear plastic travel bottles (shampoo, mouthwash, body lotion, perfume/body spray, sunscreen, etc.)
- homemade first-aid kit – I use a travel soap case and fill it with cotton swabs, cotton balls, a small tube of Neosporin, alcohol wipes, and several Bandaids
- makeup* – personal preference, but remember less is more when traveling! Mascara and eyeliner are my must-haves, but not much else.
- sunscreen – I generally buy 30 SPF and pour some into a small carry-on approved bottle.
- feminine hygiene – I love my Diva cup! It saves so much room over tampons and pads.
- “emergency” medicine kit – I fill this travel case with ibuprofen, Dramamine, Sudafed, Midol, antacids, anti-gas, and Pepto Bismol
- prescription meds
- iPad + cables – my favorite travel piece: bring one device to access social media, email friends/fam back home, publish my blogs, read novels and guidebooks on my Kindle app, and watch pre-downloaded movies. Check out my updated list of apps to download for travel, so you can further maximize your tablet for 21st century globetrotting.)
- smartphone + charger
- noise-cancelling earphones – like my favorite Bose and/or AirPods Pro
- camera + charger
- an extra charged camera battery
- camera memory card
- international travel adapter – all-in-ones are best
- collapsible umbrella
- luggage lock – I prefer the spin dial ones, since I always lose keys
- clothesline + clothespins
- travel packs of concentrated detergent – if you can find them, bring the powder balls – otherwise, liquid works fine since you don’t need much
- earplugs – the first thing I pack!
- small roll of duct tape – trust me, it fixes everything
- vacuum seal bags – I generally don’t need this since I pack so lightly anyway, but they can help if you buy one too many souvenirs for friends and fam back home
- packing cubes (to keep clothes in relatively organized blocks)
- mini sewing kit (bonus: I’ve never had a problem with TSA over the tiny needles in this little bad boy)
- travel inflatable pillow
- Ziploc baggies (you never know when these will come in handy, but it’s surprisingly often)
- rubber bands
- plastic shower caps (I started following this Pinterest advice for your shoes, and it works great!)
- microfiber bedsheet (for less-than-amazing hostel beds, or for budget airlines that don’t offer a blanket)
- body scrubber – I personally stopped using wash cloths and loofahs about a year ago, and I use this amazing silicone scrubby instead! It’s so much more hygienic, and much smaller when packed!
- microfiber towel – microfiber is up to 85% lighter than a cotton towel, quick-drying, and folds up nice and small
- self-filtering water bottle – I love the Brita stainless steel bottle – it won’t purify toxic water, but it makes fountain/tap water taste a LOT better. And the stainless steel version keeps water cold!
Important Stuff (Documents, Finances, etc.)
- credit card – read my guide to my top three favorite credit cards for travel!
- debit card
- driver’s license/ID
- health insurance card
- electronic “cloud” copies of: flight confirmations, travel insurance, passport ID page, health insurance, drivers’ license (God forbid you’re robbed of everything, you can access this information from a computer at the embassy/consulate)
- electronic list of addresses of friends/fam – for postcards!
What would you add to this carry-on travel packing list for women? Let me know in the comments below!
Updated: May 2022