Being prepared is crucial for packing using only carry-on bags. You need to have a good sense of what you’ll be doing at your destination so you can plan outfits and shoes around activities, events, meetings, etc. Step one: create a carry-on only packing list using my sample below as a guide. Step two: study my how to pack using only carry-on luggage video.
Carry-on only packing list
If you’re not already a list-maker, you need to become one — even if it’s only for packing lists. Because without one, you’re either going to take too much or too few things that match once you arrive. And no one wants to be caught looking like a big ole bruise because you only packed a navy top to go with your black skirt. Or, worse, find out when you land that you brought all the wrong underwear.
Let’s start with the outfit for the airplane. I like to save on space by wearing the same thing in both directions (with fresh undies, of course) as long as the flight is less than, say, six hours.
What NOT to wear:
If it’s fall or winter where you live, leave the coats, mitts/gloves and boots behind. Suck it up, buttercup. You’ll be outside for maybe 10 minutes getting from your vehicle or airport shuttle into the airport. This crap will only weigh you down, and what the heck are you going to do with it at your sunny destination anyway?
Leave these in your vehicle, for example, so they’re ready for you when you come home.
What NOT to pack:
- Razor/shaving cream
- Body lotion (unless you have super-sensitive skin that requires something special)
- Extra wet bag for swimsuits
Need to shave or moisturize those gorgeous gams of yours? Sure you do. But chances are really good that your hotel or resort will either (a) have these items available FOR FREE at the front desk or (b) have them for sale in the onsite gift shop. Get them, use them, then leave them behind when you pack to come home. No shaving cream available? Use the shampoo in your shower!
Even if your resort doesn’t offer towel service, you’ll have bath towels in your room. Use ’em for the pool.
Those wet bathingsuits you have kicking around from the day before (or day of) departure definitely need to be wrapped up in something waterproof or they’ll soak through a bunch of other things. But instead of carrying a wet/dry bag, use the plastic hotel laundry bag or ask the front desk for a garbage bag. It doesn’t need to be fancy — it just needs to do the job.
What to wear on the plane:
- Convertible dress
- Vinyasa, pashmina or sarong — ideally something you’ll also use at your destination
- Running shoes
- Merino trainer liners if you must wear socks
I have been obsessed with the METAmorph dress by Thieves for years (which is convertible and can be worn multiple ways) and it’s my ultimate plane dress when travelling from cold to hot weather. It goes from long-sleeved tunic over leggings to sleeveless dress in a flash. I just take the leggings off before we land and change out of my runners into flip flops. Then I do the reverse on our way home.
What to pack in your carry-on bags
First of all, the key to successful carry-on only packing starts with the right carry-on baggage. Know your airline dimensions and weight limits, because you want to really maximize your personal item. This is where the magic happens because you can cram a lot of stuff into a good-sized personal item!
Many people underestimate how big this “personal” bag, in addition to your actual carry-on bag, can be. Taking your little evening purse as your personal item simply isn’t gonna cut it. You need a bag like the LUG Puddle Jumper or LUG Via Travel. Then you add on your carry-on bag; in the video, I used the LUG Cruiser Wheelie Bag, and I showed you how to strategically pack your things using these bags to get as much in as possible.
Use this list to plan outfits and make sure you don’t forget a thing on your next Caribbean getaway:
- A compact passport wallet (like the LUG Pilot Mini Travel Wallet) to carry
- A pen
- Your smartphone – unless I know I’m going to have to shoot professional-level photos in low light, this is also doubles as my camera
- Smartphone charger
- Headphones (if you know you’ll only use your smartphone and you don’t have a long flight, I love the rechargeable Sudio Tre headphones which connect via Bluetooth and alleviate getting caught up in wires when you need to hit the bathroom; use code MOMMYGEAREST to get 15% off any pair of Sudio headphones. However, if you want to connect to the in-flight entertainment, you’ll need a pair that can be wired into your seat. I use Skull Candy earbuds because they’re designed to fit a woman’s ears and they’re really compact)
- Hat — all you need is one! I like my lululemon visor because it can go in the pool or ocean and allows me to wear my signature top knot all day
- Sunglasses — you might want a looking-hot-at-the-swimup-bar pair and a less expensive can-get-eaten-by-the-ocean pair
- Eyeglasses — if you wear glassses, that is
- Contacts — only enough for the length of your vacation and not a lens more
- Flip flops — pack these in your personal item so you can change on the plane!
- Ballet flats — they go from day to night and are as comfortable for a shopping day as they are for a night of dancing. If you’ve spent any time on my site, you know I’m fully addicted to Tieks. They’re the perfect travel shoe! For my sixth pair, I chose Lovestruck (which you can see in the packing video) because they’re on the dressier side
- A small toiletry bag — this is where you have to get judicious and really edit down. Most people take way, way too much hair and makeup stuff. You’re on vacation and even if that includes a Michelin-starred restaurant, you can always get a blowout if you absolutely must. But for the average Caribbean vacay, limited makeup and travel-sized toiletries should be just fine. Remember, too, that carry-on bags have limitations when it comes to liquids — so check the guidelines and stick to them. Here’s what I would pack:
- Travel toothbrush and a mini toothpaste, like those from Marvis
- Small body-friendly SPF lotion, cream or stick (you can always buy more, but if you wear rashguards and hats, you won’t need much)
- Facial sunscreen (I’m a diehard fan of TIZO3 tinted mineral sunscreen)
- Travel-sized skincare (Dermologica has all your favourites in tiny bottles — think Precleanse, Special Cleansing Gel, Daily Microfoliant, Ultracalming Mist, Eye Lift and Overnight Repair Serum packed neatly into a clear travel pouch)
- Take the bare minimum when it comes to makeup and if you have travel makeup brushes, all the better. I personally don’t take much but I do like
products that do more than one thing or are unique space-savers. Charlotte Tilbury‘s stuff is legendary for this; from all-in-one makeup kits and multi-look eyeshadow palettes that’ll have you covered for every occasion to under-eye concealer with built-in firming eye cream and glow-inducing primer that’s all you need for an iridescent daytime look — this is a one-stop-makeup-shop that will definitely help you save on space
- Jewelry — no need to go overboard here. A couple of cute pairs of earrings along with two or three bracelets/necklaces planned around your outfits (total — not each!) is plenty
- Bras — you want to be sure you have the right bras for your outfits, but you can also save a TONNE of space if you don’t take too many bras with underwire. Better still, get some reversible Knixwear 8-in-1 bras and you’ll be prepared for just about any outfit, plus they will fold up into NOTHING in your bags. Add a Knixwear Longevity bra for low-impact sports along with your favourite strapless bra and you’re all set
- Underwear — my rule is at least one pair for each day of your trip plus three extras. We don’t scrimp on clean undies! Just make sure you take your outfits into account. I will literally put an outfit together with its perfect bra and underwear match as I’m planning to make sure I have what I need
Outfit check list for packing
Outfits — this is where the real planning takes place and why it deserves its own section.
The list above is great to use for checking off the essentials but to truly become a master packer and get everything you need for your trip into a carry-on bag and a personal item, laying out your outfits like I do in my carry-on only packing video is an absolute must.
I normally spend my sun-soaked days in bathingsuits and coverups so I often curate outfits for fewer days than I have planned to be away because I just never get around to wearing it all as it is, but know that with the right carry-on bags it’s possible to pack for a two-season, 17-day vacation without checking bags. I know because my husband and I did this two years ago when we went to Asia. I still came home with one unworn outfit and I did not do laundry while we were away! SERIOUSLY. You’ve got this…
- Swimwear — I probably pack more swimsuits than I need to, but as I mentioned, this is how I spend most of my days and I absolutely despise putting on a damp bathingsuit! If you’re looking for a HUGE selection of swim- and beach-wear, Swimco is a one-stop-shop. This is what I’d go looking for, either in your closet or at Swimco
- 2-3 swimsuits — at least one should be watersports-appropriate (if, that is, you do watersports)
- Bikini top + 2-3 bottoms that can be mixed and matched
- Rashguard (that can be mixed with your bikini bottoms) — this is an important piece because it’s what will help you stick to a small bottle of sunscreen
- 2-4 coverups — I like to choose coverups that can double as sundresses in a pinch; multitasking clothing is key for carry-on only packing!
- 1 sarong (which you can avoid packing by wearing on the plane as a scarf to keep warm if you’re coming from a chilly climate)
- Note that I showed these pieces in my video, which I’m not hyperlinking as they may not be available season after season — so use the search bar when you shop online at Swimco: Body Glove Winona Standup Paddlesuit, Bleu Rod Beattie Tanked Off-the-Shoulder Bandeau One-Piece (extra-awesome because it’s pretty enough to be worn with pants out for the night!), LaBlanca Horizon Multi Strap Bralette Bikini Top, Ripcurl Classic Cheeky Hipster Bikini Bottom, Raviya Tie Dye Handkerchief Hem Cover Up and the TYR Women’s Belize Long Sleeve Rashguard
- Plan outfits for two day trips
- Tank top, T-shirt + 2 pairs of shorts (or athletic skirt, skort, whatever) — these should mix and match in case you go on a third (or fourth!) day trip
- Plan outfits for 3-5 nights out that you can partly mix-and-match if the occasion arises
- 2-4 dresses
- A skirt
- Nice pants in a light material that’s easy to fold
- 2-4 tops that go mix and match with the skirt and pants
- Plan outfits that can be mixed-and-matched for five to seven days
- Sun dresses x 3
- Shorts + two tops
- Light cargo or linen pants + two tops
- Add a small purse or hip pouch for day/evening and pack it, too
- Your personal item is usually great for doubling up as a beach bag once you check in and unpack
That’s it! That’s all you need.
But wait, there’s more…
Of course there are optional items, and I’ll let you take them *if* you can fit them in without busting your bag’s zippers.
If you need to work at your destination or would rather watch your inflight entertainment on a tablet, add your iPad (or whatever) along with a charger to the packing list.
Heels are, in my opinion, an only-if-you-must indulgence. For me, it really comes down to the dresses I’m bringing along and whether or not I can just get away with my Tieks or even flip flops at night. But if you definitely must have a pair with you, limit yourself to one pair that go with everything. Nude heels are the chameleon of the shoe family and work really well.
You might consider packing a VERY SMALL emergency kit so you can avoid doctor’s visits (and charges) in the islands for something as simple to deal with as a sliver. I like to pack in clear bags (either a Ziploc or the little zip-up bag that came with my LUG Puddle Jumper) so I can see at a glance what I’ve got:
- A few different-sized Band-Aids
- Tweezers (don’t take a second pair if you’ve already packed a pair in your toiletry bag, though!)
- Tide-to-Go stick
- Travel Tylenol (remember to bring children’s Tylenol if your kids are joining you)
- Anti-itch cream for bug bites
You’ll notice that I haven’t listed any workout wear. That’s because my vacation workout generally consists of taking long walks on the beach, frolicking in the ocean and exercising my right arm as it reaches across the pool bar for another drink.
But if you need to factor in a workout outfit — and I did this when we recently went to The Grand at Moon Palace — you’ll use your running shoes you wore on the plane, and get away with just one top and bottom by rinsing them in your room between wears. It’s OK if you smell a little by the end — you probably won’t work out with these people ever again.
Finally, hair tools. You absolutely, definitely do NOT need to bring a hair blower with you. Even two-star motels have hair blowers in the rooms these days. You might want to bring a flat or curling iron and your favourite styling brush. I personally don’t bother trying to blow out or straighten my hair in the tropics. It’s pointless. I end up with mushroom head. Messy buns for the win!
If you really find that you NEED something else once you arrive, just buy it. Perhaps that’ll make you think twice about how much you really need it. 😉
Tell me if I missed one of your MUSTS, and be sure to like and share my video with your overpacking friends and loved ones. Happy travels!
DISCLAIMER: Some (but not all) of the products featured in this list have been provided for promotional consideration. As always, opinions are my own.