The Secret to Carry-On Only Travel: How to Use Packing Cubes to Save Space

This is an excerpt from my book, The Carry-On Traveller: The Ultimate Guide to Packing Light, which is available for Amazon Kindle.

The difference between people who travel carry-on only and those who don’t is not necessarily what they pack but how they pack. This post shares my tips on how to use packing cubes to fit more in your carry-on luggage.

During our seven years of travelling with just a carry-on backpack, we’ve learnt that how you pack is hugely important. Most carry-on travellers agree that the best way to stay organised and save space is to use packing organisers. They could be simple zip-lock bags or more durable packing cubes or compression bags. By using organisers, you can compartmentalise your gear with each bag or cube containing a different category of item.

Using packing organisers has many advantages:

  • Pack more efficiently – It’s easy to pack when you know what goes in each cube and how each cube fits in your luggage. It’s like a game of Tetris—rearrange the cubes and other items until they fit perfectly into your bag, and then stick with your system. You’ll feel less stressed when packing, as you know everything will fit.
  • Find things easily – Your cubes work like drawers at home. You know what’s in them, so you can take out the relevant cube rather than rummaging around at the bottom of your suitcase.
  • Save space – You can squeeze a surprising amount of clothes into a cube, so you can pack more. Compression bags are even better as they remove excess air.
  • Keep clothes clean and dry – Some organisers are water resistant and all offer protection from dirt. They can also be used to protect clothes in dusty hotel drawers.
  • Prevent overpacking – Limit what you pack by choosing an organiser for each category. I know that one large cube is enough for all my clothes. If I buy a new item and it fits in the cube, I can take it with me; if not, something else has to go.
How to use packing cubes to save space -All Simon's clothes

All the clothes Simon took to Finland…

Eagle Creek Pack It compression cube review

Fit in one Eagle Creek compression cube.

Creating your own packing system will make carry-on travel much easier—I highly recommend trying it. There are a number of options.

Compression Bags

If you are struggling to fit everything into your carry-on, consider compression bags. These are sealable plastic bags with one-way pressure valves that let air out but not in. By removing excess air, your clothes are compressed, and you save space. They work particularly well for bulkier items like fleeces and sweaters, so they are useful for cold climates.

As the bags are airtight, they keep your clothes clean and dry—good to know if you get caught in a heavy rain shower or on a small boat with sea spray.

Compression bags are simple to use. You fold your clothes and lay them flat inside the bag, seal the zip-lock top, then roll the bag, squeezing out all the air. It helps to do this on the floor and perhaps kneel on it to use your body weight to squeeze out as much air as possible.

When choosing a compression bag, make sure it is suitable for travel—you should be able to remove the air by rolling it rather than with a vacuum cleaner. Some compression bags are flimsy and tear easily; it’s worth investing in a durable bag, as it’s difficult to find replacements abroad. Compression bags come in a range of sizes. You can choose a large bag for all your clothes or smaller bags to separate items.

The downsides of compression bags are that your clothes get a little creased; you have to uncompress the bag to access items—not very convenient if you need something on a travel day—and they can tear, which is why it’s worth paying more for a sturdy bag. It can also take effort to roll the bag, especially if it’s full. I admit I got Simon to roll mine whenever possible, as he was better at removing the air than I was.

The Best Travel Compression Bags

Eagle Creek compression sac review

Eagle Creek compression sacs

I’ve tried a range of compression bags. My favourite is the robust Packmate travel roll storage bag (UK only), which comes with a five-year guarantee and free replacements of the slider that seals the bag. The Eagle Creek Pack-it compression sac is also excellent—the plastic is nylon reinforced, and it is covered by Eagle Creek’s lifetime warranty.

Don’t confuse plastic rollable compression bags with nylon compression sacks, like those used to store a sleeping bag. Some travellers use these, but you are better off with compression bags, which remove more air, or packing cubes, which keep your clothes more organised and accessible.

For five years we both travelled with a large compression bag for our clothes. They worked well, but we eventually tired of rolling the bags and switched to a new type of compression packing cube.

Packing Cubes

Packing cubes are zippered fabric containers, usually in a rectangular shape, for organising your items and making them easier to find in your luggage. They come in a range of sizes and are often sold as sets. Unlike compression bags, you can use them to organise all kinds of gear, not just clothes. For example, you could have one large cube for your clothes, a small cube for underwear, and another for your electronic accessories—chargers, cables, etc. You know exactly where each item is kept, and when you need it, you just take out the appropriate cube.

Packing cubes have some advantages over compression bags: it’s easier to access your clothes, as you don’t need to release the air; they are more durable; they stack neatly in your luggage; and your clothes will be less creased.

The downside is that, although they take up less room compared to packing your clothes loose, they don’t compress as much as a bag designed for that purpose.

How to use packing cubes - keep things organised in your backpack.

A packing cube makes it easy to pack. The blue cube contains all Simon’s clothes and underwear, so he can quickly pull it out when he needs something.

How to Choose Packing Cubes

Popular packing cube brands include Eagle Creek, eBags, REI, and Sea to Summit. If you have a Tortuga Outbreaker Backpack (Simon’s backpack), you can buy a set of three Outbreaker packing cubes that fit perfectly inside. Tom Bihn also sells custom cubes for their bags.

When choosing packing cubes, durability is the most important attribute—you want a strong material with quality zips so that you can stuff as much in as possible without them breaking. The size and other features come down to personal preference and how you want to organise your things.

Many cubes have a mesh top for breathability and so you can see inside—I don’t find this necessary as I know what’s in my three cubes. If you buy cubes in different sizes and colours, identification is easy. This is useful for families sharing a suitcase—each family member could have a different coloured cube.

The Best Packing Cubes: Eagle Creek Pack-It Cubes

How to use packing cubes -Eagle Creek Pack It cubes review

Eagle Creek’s compression cubes (dark blue), regular cube (red), and Specter compression cubes (pink and light blue).

I’m a big fan of Eagle Creek’s packing cubes. The build quality is excellent, and they come with a lifetime warranty. I have used a half (small size) Eagle Creek Pack-It packing cube with a mesh top for over seven years of constant travel, and it’s still going strong.

When we decided to switch from compression bags to packing cubes, we tried Eagle Creek compression cubes, which are like ordinary cubes but with a compression zipper around the side that squeezes them into a smaller size. They turned out to be the perfect compromise. We could fit everything we needed into the cube, but it’s easier to use than a compression bag, with quick access and no need for rolling.

Simon uses the Eagle Creek Pack-It compression cube with a mesh top—he uses one medium size cube for all his clothes and underwear. The advantage of the classic design is that it has more structure and unzips on three sides for easy access.

I use the Eagle Creek Pack-It Specter compression cubes—a medium cube for my main clothes and a small cube for my workout clothes. The Specter cubes are the lightest on the market, made from ultra lightweight, translucent silnylon ripstop. They are more expensive than the mesh cubes but are water and stain resistant, and are amazingly light. A full Specter cube weighs just 28 g (1 oz) compared to 113 g (4 oz) for the mesh cube. The Specter compression cubes are heavier (57 g/2 oz) but still much lighter than the mesh compression cube (134 g/4.7 oz).

The downside of the Specter cubes is that they only unzip part the way around, not on three sides like most cubes. This makes clothes slightly less accessible, but as I roll my clothes, I can reach in and grab what I need.

Eagle Creek Pack It Specter compression cube review

My three packing cubes fit in one half of my backpack – the large compression cube is at the bottom, and the small compression cube and regular mesh cube are on top.

Packing Cubes or Compression Bags?

Packing cubes are easier to use than compression bags, so I recommend starting with them. If you are struggling to fit everything in or are travelling in cold weather or on a ski trip, try a compression bag instead. A compression bag could also be used to bring home clothes purchased on your trip. Even if you use a compression bag for your clothes, packing cubes are useful for organising other items.

We’ve been using our Eagle Creek compression cubes full-time for over two years and they are perfect for us—even when I pick up extra clothes or travel in the winter, I can still fit everything in.  

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter which bags or cubes you decide on—you could even use simple zip-lock bags—but make sure you do have an organisational system. It’ll create more space in your luggage and make packing and finding items so much easier. They really are the secret to carry-on only travel.

The Carry-On Traveller Book

The Carry-On Traveller BookIf you struggle with packing, my book, The Carry-On Traveller: The Ultimate Guide to Packing Lightis here to help.

The Carry-On Traveller will teach you how to travel anywhere without checking a bag, whether you are travelling for a week or a year (or seven like us!). It will help you save money, time, and stress by packing light and travelling carry-on only.

It includes the basic principles you can apply to any trip, how to choose your luggage, what to pack (including detailed packing lists), and how to pack. Plus I include many bonus tips such as the best travel apps, how to keep your gear safe on the road, and the best bank accounts for travel.

You can buy The Carry-On Traveller for Kindle or paperback on Amazon US, Amazon UK, or your local Amazon store.

Please note that some of the links in this post are affiliate links, so we earn a small amount if you buy anything through them, at no extra cost to you. We only recommend gear that we use and love ourselves. Thank you for supporting this site!

Are you planning a trip in 2017? See our Gear and Resources page for our favourite tools to help you plan the perfect trip. 

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18 thoughts on The Secret to Carry-On Only Travel: How to Use Packing Cubes to Save Space

  1. Pingback: Proving Mom wrong by packing “carry-on only” for two months! – Daly Travels

  2. I don’t have a Kindle and would like to purchase a hard copy of your book. When will a hard copy/paperback be available?

  3. Pingback: The ultimate guide to stress-free packing that also saves you money | My GTD System

  4. you know it is not good idea, don’t need to carty all the staff, just Take necessary clothes and in your bag will be enough room, it is very simple

    • We do often go overweight (mostly because we have a lot of electronics to work on the road), but we never have our bags weighed. We find that compressions bags help make your bag look smaller, so the airline doesn’t notice it.

  5. I love the Eagle Creek compression cubes! On our last trip to the US, we bought two sets of them with our R.E.I. dividend – best idea ever 🙂 Makes organizing clothes so much easier, and saves space to boot!

  6. I use compression bags and didn’t know that compression cubes existed. I will give the cubes a try for easier access to my things. Thanks! I always learn something new/interesting from your posts.

  7. What a great post. Loved the idea. This reminds me of our last trip to Singapore with our Daughter. At that she was 1.5 years old and she was hooked on a particular brand of milk (that we were sure that it won’t be available in Singapore). We ended up packing 27 quarter litter bottles for her. Customs officer at Changi was bit nervous and curious why so much milk.

    Any way will definitely give compression bags a chance during my next trip

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