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Travel in a Carry-On, How to Fit it All in A 3-1-1 Bag

Have you seen Up in the Air? This is me.

Ryan: You know how much time you lose by checking in?
Natalie: I don’t know. Five, ten minutes?
Ryan: 35 minutes a flight. I travel 270 days a year. That’s 157 hours. That makes seven days. You’re willing to throw away an entire week on that?

I’ve fully established that I am not a light packer. I need a lot of items when I travel, and so many of them are liquid that I can’t even fit what I need for a quick 2 day trip in to a TSA approved 3-1-1 bag. So I check. Always. I’m not quite Natalie Keener (who even packed her own full sized pillow), but I do have shampoo, conditioner, body wash, face wash, face and body moisturizer, toothpaste, concealer, foundation, lip balm…. All in small travel sizes, but still too much to fit into a quart sized bag for TSA approved carry-on travel. So I check it all.

A reader, Deb, commented recently on a post about packing and I had to know more!

Christine, I think we are twins separated at birth šŸ™‚ I was reading your previous travel posts and we both have the same struggle…so much stuff to bring. I travel constantly for my job and have been slowly getting it together.

Yes! A reader that travels and has gotten this whole thing down! She has a system and it isn’t because she needs less stuff than me. It’s because she’s super smart and has figured out how to work within the system to continue her high maintenance ways. I asked Deb to write me with her tips, and she did. She wrote and she was very detailed, which made me even happier.

Deb gave me her own specific recommendations, but she did say that her choices are obviously pretty specific to her. “I have medium thick but very fine, chemically treated hair. I have dry skin and am very fair. My dry skin is both face and body. As I mentioned, I live in AZ. With the dry climate here and the dry climates on airplanes and such, I have to have a pretty heavy duty moisturizer.” So, while your best travel choices might not be exactly Deb’s choices, you’ll likely learn a lot from her tips. I think I’ll be making a trip to Lush soon, it seems that store is the secret to carry-on only travel success.

Deb’s best tip (for me at least) is to eliminate as much liquid as possible. “It took me a while to get over myself and just accept the fact that if all of my favorite products are liquid, then I can either check my luggage every time or figure out a substitute for short trips using a carryon. For travel, these do the job.”

This is exactly my problem! I need to get over myself thinking that I must have my normal, every day favorite items with me when I travel. Substituting in solids and wipes (which don’t need to go in the 3-1-1 bag) frees up a ton of space in the 3-1-1 bag. For some reason this just never really occurred to me. Deb has a lot of solid products and to further reduce bulk she will even cut these in half before packing them.

The most obvious liquids that we all carry are shampoo and conditioner. For solid options, Deb turns to Lush, which features a treasure trove of solid products. I have to admit that I have a few Lush products, but haven’t really broken them out yet. I’ve already pulled them out this morning and plan to review them soon, so stay tuned. Anyways, of the options at Lush Deb’s favorites are Trichomania Shampoo and Jungle Conditioner. Trichomania is a very conditioning shampoo (it is made for dry or curly hair) and Deb says that the scent in very subtle. Jungle is Lush’s only solid conditioner, Deb says that it isn’t too heavy and has a subtle fragrance as well.

At home I’m definitely a body wash girl. I love to squeeze it onto a little poof and create a lot of suds as I wash away the dirt. The suds make me happy. So, while I’ve known that not toting along a body wash is an obvious area to save space…. if I’m checking my luggage anyways, why bother? When on the road, Deb often uses the hotel’s shampoo as a body wash (she brings her own scrubby poof), but she has a stash of Huggies Disposable Baby Washcloths in case she doesn’t like the scent of the shampoo. (Note, these are no longer on the Huggies website so might be gone soon. They have Shea Butter in them and are pretty hydrating.)

I knew Lush would have a solid product that would be a great alternative to body lotion. Deb has a few options that she loves. Lush’s body butters are solid bars that you use in the shower and lightly rinse off. They come with or without exfoliating grit. Deb likes Buffy (exfoliating), Aqua Mirabilis (finer exfoliating bits) and King of Skin (no exfoliation). All 3 are oil based moisturizers but don’t leave her greasy afterwards and they all have subtle scents. Deb likes to alternate between exfoliating and non-exfoliating versions. Lush also has Massage Bars, which are different. These are also oil based moisture bars, but are meant to be used after the shower is over. Deb felt they were more greasy and with a stronger scent, so not quite right for her. I have one of each at home, I’ll test them out and post a review soon.

Toothpaste is something that I hadn’t expected to be available in a non-“pasty” form. Deb likes the Tom’s of Maine dry toothpaste. I can’t find it on-line, but it is one of several dry toothpastes that you can find in stores. Deb will be trying out the Lush Dirty Toothy Tabs, which she’s heard do foam when used. Other dry toothpastes don’t foam and can feel a bit strange (us Americans and our love of the foam that doesn’t do anything!)

Also check out anything in a wipe.
ā€¢ You can buy hand sanitizer in a wipe version (I’ve purchased it in the Target checkout lane).
ā€¢ La Fresh: This website sells pretty much any product you can think of in a wipe version. Deb didn’t have any specific recommendations, but I found sunscreen, facial cleansers, and nail polish removers to name a few.
ā€¢ Biore Makeup Cleansing Towelettes: These are my fave makeup removing towel. They’re the only ones I’ve found that can take off all of my mascara.
ā€¢ Olay 2 in 1 Daily Facial Cloths: I haven’t tried these ones in a long time (I think I tried some a few years ago and liked them, but I can’t remember really), so I recently picked some up as my bonus from my ULTA points. Deb says “these cleansing cloths are the cat’s meow for me. They are dry; wet them and they lather. They are gentle and don’t strip my dry skin but they clean beautifully. If I’m wearing a lot of makeup (like waterproof eyeliner) in addition to sunscreen, I first use Garnier wet makeup remover cloths to get rid of as much gunk as possible. I use makeup remover wipes at home anyway so this isn’t an extra step for me. I put a few of these cloths in a ziploc bag for travel.”

If there are products that you can’t replace with a non-liquid version you’ll need either the smallest version possible (under 3.4 fluid ounces per TSA rules) or you can put it in a travel container. By decanting selectively I mean selecting your travel container with care. This is not the time to head to the local drugstore to pick up the 97 cent plastic bottle.

ā€¢ Nalgene Bottles: These have been my favorite for quite a while. They are available in a variety of shapes and sizes from places like REI and the container store. I label them on the side with a Sharpe, and I’ve never had one leak on me.
ā€¢ GoToob Bottles: I saw these at Whole Foods a few months ago and really wanted to try them out! These bottles are pretty heavy duty but can be easily squeezed to help release the contents (I sometimes have problems getting product out of my Nalgene bottles because they don’t squeeze). Deb says “I’ve used them to death and no leaks whatsoever.” Her experience is enough for me to invest in them before my next trip.
ā€¢ Mini Sprayers: Deb says “these mini spray containers fit TSA regs and are tall and thin. They will work with any liquid that’s not too thick; the spray nozzle is small and fine. They don’t come with labels. Some reviews on the web site complain of leaking; I have not experienced that.”
ā€¢ Sephora Atomizer: Per Deb “I use these perfume atomizers. They are tall and thin. I have the mini or travel size versions of all of my favorite perfumes but I decided to try these to further reduce bulk in my 3-1-1. They are perfect for a few days carryon. They come with a funnel to decant your perfume into the atomizer. The couple of extra minutes it took to do this was well worth it.”

Things that come in small sizes for only a few uses are definitely your travel friend.

My other favorite tip:
Ask for samples from your favorite brands! I am a big Kiehl’s fan, and they are very generous with the samples. You can select quite a few to go with each on-line order, but the key is to head in to their stores. If you are friendly with the staff and buying something else they will be more than happy to give you a few samples for travel. Try to ask for products that you would likely only use once or twice on a trip, like a face mask. The sample (enough for 1 full use) is perfect for a little R&R after a stressful day spent on a plane.

Deb has this advice: “I don’t put any makeup in my 3-1-1 since I don’t use any liquid makeup products. I don’t put my mascara or eyebrow gel in the 3-1-1 and I have never been strip searched by TSA šŸ™‚ I don’t usually take lip gloss with me on travel; I tend to go with my lipsticks. If I do take gloss, that is the one thing I do put in the 3-1-1 in the makeup category.”
ā€¢ Clarins Instant Smooth Perfecting Touch: Deb did specifically mention this primer as a fave.

What is in Deb’s 3-1-1 Bag?
After all these products we’ve mentioned that don’t go in the 3-1-1 bag, is there actually anything left to go in it?
1) Perfume atomizer(s)
2) Mini spray bottle of facial mist
3) 2 Mini spray bottles of mouthwash
4) Mini spray bottle of makeup setting spray
5) Travel size of hair spray
6) Neutrogena foot cream (I haven’t found a solid substitute for this yet)
7) Olay ampules of face lotion
8) Clinique All About Eyes rollerball moisturizer (for daytime use)
9) Latisse
10) Eye drops

Do you have any tips for successfully using only carry-on luggage? Are there any other substitutions or products Deb and I should check out, maybe a great alternative for her Neutrogena foot cream? Let me know!

travel beauty guide
My guide to travel beauty, full of travel tips, tricks and must have products!

PR Sample, Affiliate Links
I feel I should have some disclosures on this post even though it is mostly what Deb likes and uses. I’ve received samples from Lush (though only 1 of those products was mentioned here by name), and because of this post I’ve pulled them out of my beauty closet to start using them. I mentioned Biore wipes, I did get a sample of those as noted on the post I linked to for that product. I haven’t received any samples of any other products mentioned by name in this post, if I have mentioned a product it is because I’ve purchased it myself. I have no formal relationships with any company. And Deb is my travel hero.

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About Me

Iā€™m a doctor, a mommy and a bit of a beauty addict. If you let me, I can take 2 hours to get ready in the morning. Really. I'm on a quest for faster beauty that works!

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  1. 5.31.11
    Lindsey said:

    This is amazing!! So helpful!! I always have to debate between bringing hardly anything with me and having to check my bag, even for short trips. I have actually found that larger airports will let you bring a gallon size bag (somehow smaller airports always seem to be so strict!). The thing that still always gets me is foundation. Do you have any suggestions for good, non-liquid foundation?

  2. 5.31.11
    Christine said:

    I know!! Deb's tips were super helpful. I don't have any trips planned right now, but I will be ready for the next one! I used Lush's Godiva Shampoo bar yesterday and today, and it seemed really good. I'm going to use it more before posting a full review, but so far so good. I need to go and buy the conditioner as well.
    I've never had them let me use a different size bag, though I haven't tried.
    For foundations, I like the CoverGirl Aquasmoothers and I'm doing well with the Mark Min-A-Real that I'm testing now. Both are medium-full coverage depending on how you apply. I've tried Benefit Some Kind-a Gorgeous in the past and liked the formula, but it was too dark for my skin. They've expanded beyond the "original" color since then, so I should probably retest it at some point.
    If you prefer a powder, I've liked MAC Studio Tech which is a powder foundation.
    Hope that helps!

  3. 5.31.11
    Deb said:

    Christine, GREAT job on the post! I never even thought to ask for samples at the counters; that's going in my bag of tricks immediately. Another random tip: I HATE to iron. It's evil. A while back i discovered Downey Wrinkle Release. You spray it on clothes, smooth down with hands and let dry. No ironing. But….it's liquid šŸ™ Here's my workaround. I took some unscented fabric softener sheets, cut them into thin strips, and put in a snack size baggie. I got a smallish spray bottle, one that is a thick, squishy: type plastic and pack it empty. When I get to my hotel, I immediately unpack and hang my clothes. I then put 3 or 4 of the fabric softener strips in the spray bottle, fill with water, and shake. I spray my clothes, smooth out the wrinkles, and let hang to dry. After I'm done, I empty the bottle, take out the spray nozzle, and set it somewhere to dry out while I'm at my hotel. Then it's ready to pack to go home. I've used this method on everything from t-shirts to Calvin Klein suits. When the clothes are dry, they are wrinkle free and ready to wear. I haven't ironed in a hotel room (or at home) for 3 years. Obviously, you have to make sure the fabric is not too delicate for water. My entire unpacking process and getting my stuff ready for the days ahead now takes me between 20-30 minutes. And that's if I move slow.

  4. 5.31.11
    Anonymous said:

    I travel overseas a lot and often to multiple locations on one trip, so I've had to really work on packing efficiently as well. I suggest solid perfumes as another way to eliminate liquids. Many "gift with purchase" items are also travel sized. Finally, some airlines give out travel size toothpaste on board. I often snag one or two and use those for the duration of my trip and I can throw them away when I'm done.

  5. 5.31.11
    Christine said:

    Deb- I agree, ironing is NOT fun! I never would have thought of this trick, I'm trying that one out too!

    Anon- I thought of it this morning too! I love solid perfumes. Some have a lot more staying power than their liquid counterparts. The toothpaste tips is also really helpful!

  6. 6.1.11

    I loved that movie. We waste so much time on various things that when it is all added up it seems crazy!

  7. 6.1.11
    Jules said:

    I can definitely sympathize over the checking of the bag. My friend who I visit in LA several times a year always laughs at me because even for a two day trip I have to check my bag. I've tried decanting, but even doing that I have too much stuff! I'll definitely bookmark this post and reference it before my next trip! Maybe I won't have to check my bag for the first time next time!

  8. 1.31.12
    DivaDebbi said:

    Thanks Christine and Deb! I needed this. The amount of cosmetics and beauty that I hoist with me is out of control…literally weighing more than my clothing suitcase.

    Nice job šŸ™‚

  9. 10.8.13
    Jessica said:

    This is an awesome, super helpful post! Thank you SO much for sharing these tips that you've learned… so we can benefit from them as well. Totally going to pin this and refer to it next time I travel. : )
    -Jess (frosting&facials)

  10. 3.16.14
    Anonymous said:

    I just figured this one out – for liquid foundations, use those little sample jars you can get at Sephora. Squirt some foundation in and leave the bottle at home!

    • 2.18.18
      Jo J said:

      i saw a post on pinterest that shows using contact lens cases for small amounts of liquid makeup or moisturizers

      • 2.19.18
        15mins said:

        Yes, I love that! A lot of department stores also have small sample jars that they can give you that are roughly the same size. I have some great ones that are glass and close very securely, they’re from Nordies. They just sit out on the counter next to the Chanel makeup at my store.