Flying these days is a different experience than in decades past. More and more airlines have begun charging fees for bringing a carry-on bag on board, which makes packing a challenge if you don’t want to fork out extra cash on top of the cost of your ticket.
Luckily, many of the airlines that now charge for carry-on bags still classify travel backpacks as a personal item — with some size restrictions. As a traveler, there’s plenty you can do to maximize your backpack’s volume for a several-day trip without having to hand your credit card over when it comes time to check in.
We’ve asked people who travel a lot to share their best tips for getting the most out of your backpack’s space. Whether you’re looking to bypass fees or just want to travel light, read on for their best suggestions for packing a backpack on your spring break trip.
Find the right backpack
When it comes to packing for a trip in just a backpack, the most important thing you’ll need is, well, a backpack. There are a lot of backpacks built for travel on the market these days. That said, you don’t want one that’s going to be so large that you’ll be flagged by an airline employee for attempting to skirt around the carry-on policy. Meanwhile, you don’t want one that’s so small that there’s not a chance you could fit everything you need inside.
With size in mind, there are generally two ideal backpack options you should consider: backpacks with a lot of built-in storage areas for lots of little knickknacks and those that are a black hole of volume for better customizing with your own packing style.
Here are some great travel backpacks that fit into either of these categories and — in many cases — are permitted under airline personal item policies. However, you’ll want to double-check with your airline of choice to ensure the backpack that you’re eyeing fits in its acceptable luggage policy.
I'm a big fan of this adventure-ready backpack from Peak Design. It expands from 35 liters in volume to 45 liters and can accommodate four — or more — days' worth of clothing. It also has chest and hip straps for when the load really gets heavy and has some great anti-theft features like locking zippers and secret pockets for stashing your passport or cash. Plus, it zips around the top and on each side, so getting in and out of the compartments is easy, and the side handles make for easy grabbing from overhead bins.
We're big fans of just about everything Yeti does, including this 35-liter backpack. Available in six colorways, this backpack can fit up to a couple of days' worth of clothes and has a separate laptop pocket with padding that can fit most laptops up to 15 inches. Made of durable nylon material, inside you'll find a main compartment as well as some smaller organizational pockets. The outside buckle straps allow you to compress the bag down to a smaller size to fit most airline personal item policies.
This backpack is the perfect companion if you're planning on spending up to three nights — and maybe more — away from home. Its 30-liter main compartment allows you to pack enough folded clothes, and there's also a dedicated laptop sleeve that can fit devices up to 17 inches. We love that this bag's main compartment also features several additional smaller pockets for your electronics and any toiletries you're bringing along.
This durable bag from Cotopaxi is perfect for travelers looking to just bring a backpack on their trip, as it's not a conventional option. Instead of opening from the front, this backpack opens suitcase-style with a full-wrap zipper. Inside, you'll find a large mesh compartment on one side and on the other side, two smaller mesh compartments and one medium-size mesh compartment. It features 35 liters of packing space, meaning this is a great option if you're planning to travel for a few days and want enough room for all of your clothes and gadgets.
Ideal if you're planning on spending only a day or two away from home, this cult-favorite backpack is the perfect personal item. While its standard capacity is 20 liters, it can be expanded to offer 24 liters of packing space. Its exterior is made to withstand the elements, as it's waterproof and extremely durable. Inside, meanwhile, you'll find plenty of storage compartments for all of your essentials as well as space for packing clothes.
Perfect for longer trips, this rugged bag is built for men’s frames and is available in four sizes. Each has plenty of stash points for all your odds and ends, plus a big main compartment to hold packing cubes and equipment with ease.
Founder and CEO of Lugos Travel Shane Mahoney has been curating trips for clients for years, and his top picks are the REI Co-op Traverse 60 Pack and the Osprey Talon 36 Pack for trips of up to five days. Just be sure to check the dimensions of this backpack to ensure it's compatible with your airline's cabin baggage policy.
With a streamlined shape and AirScape back panel for long travel days, this backpack keeps you comfy while your clothes and trip equipment stay organized. Inside, there are even areas for extra jackets, hydration reservoirs and more. This backpack comes in two sizes, and you'll likely want to consider the smaller of the two if you're planning to use this bag as your personal item.
Be strategic with your outfit options
When it comes to packing your backpack, a capsule wardrobe is key says AirAdvisor founder Anton Radchenko. “When you’re packing your clothes, be sure to think of outfits that can be combined,” Radchenko says. “Rather than packing individual outfits, you can mix and match two pants and three shirts and rotate them into different outfits.”
For over-packers, there’s little more restricting than packing for a trip in just a backpack, which is why it’s important to bring your wardrobe staples along with you.
“When it comes to clothes, nothing beats a uniform,” adds Paige Nichols, Argentina team leader of Wild Terrains, a women-only tour company. “I only bring layerable pieces that can be combined in different ways to create versatile outfits.”
For Nichols, a pair of Nike sneakers is the perfect footwear for just about any travel occasion, whether it be traversing a new city or heading to dinner. These sleek black Nikes fit just that bill, as they pair just as great with cropped jeans as they do with your favorite floral minidress.
A lightweight and versatile white top can fit just about any occasion. Not your usual white button-down, this oxford from Everlane packs a lot of style into its minimalist fit — and the oversized front pockets and drop hem keep it loose and classy at once. "It takes me from day to night with ease, and rolls up easily to minimize wrinkling while packed," Nichols says.
Once you’ve settled on the outfits you want to bring, plan to wear your bulkiest clothes on your flight. This goes for winter clothes especially if you’re flying between very different climates. Sure, you might look a bit strange rocking up in Rio wearing the winter coat you flew in from New York, but you won’t be the only one — and the second you’re on board the flight, you can disrobe and put the coat up in the overhead bin.
Use packing cubes
Packing cubes are a staple in many frequent travelers’ wardrobes for one reason: they work! Not only do they help to keep you more organized from your trip’s start to finish, but if you invest in a set of compression packing cubes, they’ll help you to fit more inside your backpack.
“If you want to keep it minimal, you’ve got to reduce the chaos inside your bag,” Nichols says. “There are tons of packing cubes on the market, but [some] have nifty hooks that let you hang them up directly, saving time and keeping you extra organized. I’ve been known to use spare dust bags to achieve a similar effect in a pinch, but once you get the real deal, there’s no going back.”
Plus, packing cubes have multiple uses, as they’re the perfect tool for keeping your dirty laundry separate from your clean clothes. And speaking of laundry, consider doing it at your destination to save money. “Pack enough socks and underwear to last your entire trip so that you only have to launder larger items such as pants, shirts and shorts during your travels,” Mahoney says.
This set of three packing cubes from Eagle Creek is a great starting point for the packing cube novice. You'll get two traditional packing cubes that compress to take up less space as well as a folder, which can fit up to 12 shirts or pants in a wrinkle-free compartment. And when you get home, these cubes are machine-washable so they're nice and clean for your next trip.
Take this set of four compressible packing cubes on your backpack-only trip to fit more clothes and other essentials. In fact, Monos says that because of the built-in compression zippers on this set, you can save up to 60% space when they're compressed. Plus, they're ultra durable, as they're both tear-resistant and water-resistant. We love, too, that they feature a mesh top so you can easily see what's in each cube without fully unzipping them.
If you're looking to stick to a budget but still want to maximize your backpack's space, look no further than this set of four packing cubes from Amazon Basics. Reviewers rave about their durability, and we love that they come in six different colors to match your backpack. Don't need all four? Leave a couple at home and freestyle the rest of your packing, cube-free.
Roll, not fold
So, you’ve got your packing cubes. Now what? If you’re really trying to maximize your backpack’s space for your trip, experts say rolling your clothes will help you fit more than folding them.
“Make sure to roll everything as tight as you can — not fold — so that you allow the most amount of space in your backpack,” Mahoney says.
While you may have some more wrinkles to deal with when getting to your destination, it’s worth it if you can fit all of your clothes inside your personal bag without having to pay for a carry-on — or a checked bag.
Not sure about the rolling? Another option is to “bundle pack,” Radchenko says. “Bundle packing allows you to fold multiple items of clothing together by layering them on top of each other, saving you space in your backpack.”
Worried about wrinkles? Put those worries at ease by taking this 3-ounce wrinkle-release spray with you in your backpack. Best of all, because of its travel size, you don't have to worry about TSA taking it during the security screening process.
If you've got some spare room in your backpack, consider bringing along a portable steamer to get any wrinkles out of your favorite clothes. This option from Nesugar is ideal for travelers, as it's lightweight (it weighs less than 1 pound!) and still packs a punch, offering up to 10 minutes of continuous steaming.
Cut down on the liquids
That little clear bag of 3.4-ounce travel-size goods can take up a decent chunk of space in your backpack. Instead, try solid products like toothpaste tablets, Radchenko says. They’re easy to stash in little corners and gaps around your backpack instead of demanding dedicated volume in a bulky bag.
Once you’ve secured the space-saving alternatives, consider how and where you pack them in your bag.
“Save space by placing your non-liquid toiletry necessities inside [your] shoes,” Radchenko says. “You can pack up travel-size items, including a foldable toothbrush, deodorant or bar soap.”
Radchenko recommends bringing toothpaste tablets rather than liquid or gel alternatives. The tablets can fit in smaller spaces in your backpack and you won't need to worry about fitting a tube of toothpaste in your small plastic bag for other liquids and gels. Similarly, he recommends trying other solid alternatives, such as bar shampoo and conditioner.
And think about what you can do without. Do you need highlighter and primer and setting spray, or will a holy-grail primer carry you through? Consider the climate you’re going to when making makeup decisions — hot and humid weather, for example, might not be compatible with your usual formulations if you live in a temperate, dry area.
“My travel skin care routine is pared down so I’m not fussing with bulky bottles or oversized liquids while away,” Nichols says. “I focus on products that pack a punch and keep me glowing despite late nights and stale airplane air.”
This Underscored editor and reader favorite is a travel game changer. If you can't skip all of your liquids and gels, consider putting them in these magnetic and customizable Cadence Capsule containers, which you can buy individually or as a set of six or set of 12.
Ultimately, it is possible to pack for a trip in just a backpack. By familiarizing yourself with your airline’s personal item policy and using the right bag, a hands-free, fee-free trip could be possible.
Looking for a travel credit card? Find out which cards CNN Underscored chose as our best travel credit cards currently available.