Travel Hacks 101: A Cheapskate’s Guide to Fitting All Your Travel Essentials into One Free Carry-on

Do you have a serious travel addiction? Then it’s quite likely you also suffer from chronic cheapskate-edness—a common side effect of travel addiction with, alas, no known cure. Fortunately, we have all the travel hacks you need to make it to your destination without blowing your overly frugal budget.

Welcome, friends, to the first edition of Travel Hacks 101.

Today, we’re going to focus on fitting as much s*** as humanly possible into the smallest free carry-on known to mankind. Yes, you guessed right, we’re talking about the free personal item offered by the budget bros of the skies: Spirit Airlines. With a whopping 18 x 14 x 8 inches allotment and a nasty habit of sizing up bags at the gate, it’s clear that someone in Spirit’s big cheese department is a fellow sufferer of chronic cheapskate-edness. That’s cool, though.This is a no judgment zone; we’re just here to help you fight fire with fire.

Step 1: Choose Your Bag


Listen up, because this is really, really important. You need a bag that expands. We’ll get more into the “why” of this in step two, but for now you’re looking for a basic backpack that measures 8 inches in depth when packed normally, but also features an expandable pocket. Other must-have features include:

Side Pockets: For handy access to your water bottle(s)

Padding: If your backpack isn’t comfortable when fully packed, it isn’t the right backpack.

Support Straps (top and bottom): These help to distribute the weight of your backpack more effectively and are an absolute must if you plan on wearing your backpack for any significant length of time.

Waterproofing: You don’t want to miss out on seeing the sights because you’re hiding from the rain. You only get one chance, so come prepared.

Step 2: Minimize What Goes into Your Bag

Important: This image is for demonstrative purposes only. Packing a full-size lint roller is generally inadvisable when you are attempting to travel light.

Okay, here’s why you want that expandable pocket. For the purposes of getting on the plane, you’re going to be decorated like a human Christmas tree. In short, as many of your belongings as possible are going to be distributed across your person. Since this method is not comfortable for prolonged travel, all of said belongings need to fit right back into your backpack afterwards.

  1. Invest in a jacket with extra-large pockets
  2. Wear your jacket to get on the plane: If it’s too hot, you can tie it around your waist
  3. Fit is much as you can into your jacket pockets: Your camera, tablet, kindle, notepad, etc.
  4. Wear your heaviest shoes and clothes: (i.e stomp around the airport like the abominable snowman).
  5. If you’re bringing a sweater, choose one with zip-up pockets: Go ahead and throw a few more bits and bobs in there. Same goes for any trouser pockets you may have.
  6. Add two or three camping clips to the exterior of your backpack: Use these to secure mid-size items. This is a great way to bend the rules without breaking them (see example above)

Step 3: Liquids, liquids, liquids


The bane of any woman’s (and some men’s) packing experience. Cosmetics, lotions, perfumes. They’re all so darn bulky. Not to mention the 100 ml, one plastic baggie max. Let’s talk about how to keep the damage to a minimum:

  1. Just a quick travel hack for ya: If you can freeze it, you can bring it even if it’s over 100ml (actually learned this tip from a TSA agent). It has to still be frozen solid as you pass through security, so this is really only practical if you live close to the airport and aren’t expecting an extremely long line. Note: Australia and New Zealand are exceptions to this rule.
  2. Bring powdered sunblock: Don’t waste your liquid space on sunblock. The powdered version works just as well, packs much more compactly, and is actually really great for helping to reduce sunblock sweat.
  3. Go travel-size: Get the travel-size version of anything you can. Toothpaste, lotion, hairspray. You get the picture.
  4. Order sample boxes: If the products you need don’t traditionally come in travel-size versions, try ordering a cosmetics sample box. Sample-size products almost always come in sizes of under 100 ml, and you generally get a good quality product for a negligible price.

Step 4: Bring Only What You Actually Need

Please note: This image is intended comically. Muscular men rarely qualify as free carry-ons. Please contact your airline for details.

This step is a lot harder than it sounds, even for seasoned travelers with a full repertoire of travel hacks up their sleeve. Some things to think about:

  1. A trial run can be really helpful. For example, pack your backpack with everything you think you’ll need for the week…while you’re still at home. Then, spend the next week living exclusively out of the backpack you packed. Add anything you missed at the end of the week, and nix anything you didn’t wear/use (unless it’s relevant specifically to your destination).
  2. Will you have access to laundry? If you haven’t booked your accommodation yet, this is something to think about. For example, some Air BnBs come equipped with a washer/dryer—without costing you any more than the accommodation next-door. If you know you’ll have access to laundry at some point during your trip, you can cut back on quantity when it comes to your every-day clothes. If you’re a real trooper, you can also just wash your clothes in the sink and hang them out the window to dry. Either way, calculate accordingly.
  3. What can you downsize? Do a quick audit of everything you plan to pack and ask yourself: “Can I pack a smaller version of this?”For example, if you’ve packed jeans and a sweater just to see the cathedrals of Italy — nix ‘em and throw in some palazzo pants and a light-weight shawl instead. This is the kind of thinking that will take you from monster-pack to mini-pack.

That’s all for today, folks. Any travel hacks you’d like to see us cover? Don’t be afraid to shoot us a note, or reach out to us on Twitter at @three_whales. Good luck, and happy travels. We salute you, fellow cheapskates.

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