Airlines love charging travelers fees for checking their bags, which can add hundreds of dollars to the cost of travel for families. Most major U.S. carriers still allow passengers a free carry-on, and consumers unwilling to pay must cram everything in to take advantage. The International Air Transport Association recommends luggage no larger than 22 by 18 by 10 inches. With a few packing tips and tricks, travelers can fit all the necessities and save money.
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For packing efficiency, keep shoe soles facing the bottom or outside of the bag and stuff underwear, socks, or jewelry inside. Roll T-shirts and undershirts rather than fold them and alternate the direction that heavier folded items, such as pants, dress shirts, and skirts, are facing. When deciding which clothing to bring, try to make each piece work in multiple outfits by sticking to neutrals and compatible colors.
SQUEEZE OUT THE AIR
For travelers who need every last inch to count, compression packs are the way to go. Sold in multiple sizes and available at most sporting goods stores, these plastic bags zip shut and have valves that let air out but not in. They're easy to use and can reduce volume by up to 80 percent. (Some high-end carry-ons have compression systems built in.) Be careful not to over-pack; most airlines impose a weight limit for carry-ons.
ORGANIZE WITH POUCHES
Stay organized while traveling by grouping items such as toiletries, electronics and cords, makeup, and medication. Place them into small pouches that are see-through or easily distinguishable. With this system in place, it's easy to grab what you need without disturbing the rest of the carefully packed contents.
MAXIMIZE THE PERSONAL ITEM
In addition to a carry-on bag, airlines let travelers bring along one personal item, such as a purse, laptop bag, or backpack. Filling a roll-on bag to the brim is perfectly acceptable as long as it can fit under the seat in front of you.
LEAVE LARGE LIQUIDS AT HOME
Toiletries take up lots of space, and liquids in containers larger than 3.4 ounces must be checked. Buy small travel-size containers and fill them with a favorite sunscreen, moisturizer, shampoo, conditioner, and other products to avoid checking a bag. Consider switching product formulations — bringing a bar of shaving soap rather than cream, for example. Depending on the length of the trip, it might be easier to buy products upon arrival.
Hard-shell carry-ons have their advantages: They're usually waterproof and sturdier than soft luggage. But they also can be hard to fit into some overhead compartments. Unless the bag is clearly within the size limits, consider a carry-on with a soft shell that can be squeezed into a tight space.
CHECK A BAG FOR FREE
Although most airlines charge for checked bags, there are exceptions. International flights often include a free checked bag and Southwest — alone among the major U.S. airlines — allows passengers up to two checked bags at no extra charge. JetBlue also allows two free checked bags for passengers traveling on BluePlus and BlueFlex fares. There is a way to avoid baggage fees on other airlines: Paying for a flight on the credit card associated with the airline often gives travelers a free checked bag.
WEAR THE BULKY STUFF
It's much easier to travel with only a carry-on in the summer, when you can bring sandals instead of boots and skip the outerwear. To further limit the contents of a suitcase, wear bulky shoes and items such as jeans instead of packing them. Don't bring more than a week's worth of clothing, even for longer trips. Doing a load of laundry is cheaper and easier than hauling around a large suitcase.
GET A TRAVEL JACKET
Travel jackets are designed with extra pockets (sometimes more than 20) to let travelers carry as much stuff as possible on their person. Some transform into a bag with a handle, while others can pass as just another vest or sports coat. Travelers worried about space, and especially about the weight of their bag, can fill up the pockets and walk everything on board.
WATCH OUT FOR BUDGET AIRLINES
Ticket prices often appear low, but once baggage fees are added in, airlines such as Allegiant, Spirit, and Frontier don't look so cheap. Depending where and when the bag is paid for, even a carry-on can cost $40 or more. In some cases, checking a bag actually costs less than bringing a carry-on. The cheapest option is to pay for any suitcases when buying the ticket; the most expensive is waiting until arrival at the departure gate.