Properly packing a carry-on suitcase is equally about what you pack as it is what you don't. Learn from my mistakes, and leave these not-so-essential items behind.
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A packed suitcase from above on the bed on a holiday or a business trip containing a water bottle, an unlocked smartphone, a cosmetic bag, sunglasses, plane tickets, clothes and keys
Credit: Getty Images

The stakes are high when it comes to packing, especially if you choose just to bring a carry-on.

The standard carry-on size is a mere 22 inches tall, 14 inches wide, and nine inches deep — and that's including the wheels and handle. That means space is at a premium. Everything you pack must serve a purpose — and if it doesn't, it must remain at home. That rule of thumb may seem harsh, but it's a practice that will save travelers from the dread of overpacking.

As a professional packer and founder of travel style site Just Packed, I've come to realize my own overpacking has one main cause: uncertainty. This stems from trying to prepare for too many situations at once, including different weather conditions, dress codes, or what I may or may not be doing at my final destination. (What if I need hiking clothes and my regular working out clothes? I can fit two dresses in my suitcase, but what if they aren't quite elegant enough for dinner?) The process gets exponentially more complicated as the length of a trip increases.

Before I finally perfected the art of the expertly packed carry-on suitcase, I failed. And I failed a lot. In my years of not-so-successful packing attempts, I found myself paying overweight luggage fees, miserably hauling around heavy backpacks, and praying the flight attendants ignored my overstuffed personal item that didn't fit under the seat in front of me. But they say experience is the best teacher, and along with now having a good grasp on what to bring with me for any trip, I also have first-hand experience on what not to pack.

To help you properly pack your carry-on suitcase, I'm sharing everything I've regretted packing in mine. Read on to learn from my mistakes and how to save your valuable suitcase real estate for the items you'll actually need on your trip instead.

Heels I can't walk in

A 20-year-old version of myself thought 6-inch heels were essential for a weekend in New York City. What I didn't realize was how much walking I'd be doing — and how much the heels would weigh down my bag. Not only did they not last through the night, but I could've used that suitcase space for something more practical. These days, if I need to bring a pair of heels, I grab a pair of block heels — ideal for summertime or warmer climates — and slingbacks for a more seasonally appropriate fall or winter style.

A heavy raincoat

I recently spent four months traveling in England, and I didn't use my raincoat once. Umbrella, yes, several times, but the raincoat stayed in my suitcase. My stylish trench coat got plenty of wear, and the weighty raincoat just took up precious room. On my next trip across the pond, I'll bring a packable rain poncho instead.

A bulky neck pillow

Repeat after me: There are better, more travel-friendly options than a standard neck pillow. That hour of sleep you'll get using your pillow is not worth the annoyance of bringing the bulky travel accessory along for the journey. I now leave behind my old travel pillow, preferring the AirComfy Ease pillow for overnight flights. On any non-red-eye flight, I sacrifice sleep and comfort in favor of having extra room in my carry-on or personal item.

The wrong adapter

Doing your research before a trip includes understanding your destination's plug and outlet types. This will save you from arriving in France, like I once did, with an adapter that only worked for sockets in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Now I always bring a universal travel adapter — just in case I get an urge to buy a last-minute ticket to another country.

Dry clean only clothing

If you're planning to re-wear the clothing you bring in your suitcase, then check the tags first. If your clothes get soiled on your trip, you'll want the option of washing them. While your Airbnb may have a laundry room, finding a dry cleaner (and waiting a few days for your clothes to be ready) isn't always in the cards. You don't want to end up with a sweater or dress that not only takes up space in your suitcase but if it gets stained, it can't be worn again. Look for travel clothing that specifically says it can be washed in a washing machine; cotton, spandex, and nylon are usually safe bets.

Excessive skincare products

I have a vested interest in my skincare routine. When I'm at home, I never stray the course when it comes to the order and application of products: toner, Vitamin C, and SPF in the morning; cleanser, retinol, and moisturizer at night. However, bringing the entire skincare routine along in my toiletry bag is a nuisance, especially as most of the products don't fall into the 3.4-ounce and under TSA rule. I can also attest to the pain you experience when the TSA agent disposes of your expensive serums and sunscreen because they're just slightly larger than the liquid allowance.

Now, when I fly without a checked bag, I bring a travel-sized version of an all-in-one product. Augustinus Bader's The Cream comes in a 0.5-ounce bottle, and while on the pricier side, it does the work of a handful of products, including my Vitamin C and anti-aging serums and moisturizer. Fewer skincare products in my carry-on, more room for everything else.

Lydia Mansel is a travel writer and founder of Just Packed, a stylish traveler's resource for packing lists and product recommendations. Most of her frequent flier miles come from trips to the United Kingdom, but she'll fly anywhere in search of a hotel with soft sheets, fluffy robes, and top-tier room service.