Flight Attendant Packing Secrets to Up Your Carry-On Game

flight attendant packing secrets
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

Packing a suitcase, like making sushi or flower arrangements, is an art form easily done poorly. A flight attendants’ worst nightmare is the schmo who can’t properly pack a carry-on, and mucks up the entire boarding process trying to force an obviously overweight, over-stuffed bag into the overhead. “It will not fit no matter how hard you body slam it,” one Delta flight attendant tells us. “And no, we will not try to make it fit for you.”

Don’t be that schmo. You know who packs like a professional? The actual professionals. Flight attendants are right up there with military service members as people who spend more hours packing than you probably spend doing anything else. They have it down to a science -- poetry in motion, if you will. Here’s what you can learn from the masters:

Plan around your shoes first

If you want to maximize space and bring as much as you can without checking a bag, adhere to a clothing hierarchy. Not all items are created equal, and at the bottom of that totem pole (and the bottom of your bag) should be your shoes.

“Limit the amount of shoes you bring. These take up the most space in your suitcase,” says one American Airlines flight attendant. A good way to make use of your shoe space is to bring flip-flops or flats, which take up zero space, a pair of boots/sneakers/walking shoes (which you can wear on the plane), and one pair of dress shoes.

“Then,” the flight attendant says, “fold all jeans and pants as you normally would and roll them up, placing them on top of the shoes next to each other. Then do the same for shirts. Lastly, all underwear and socks go on the top or in empty crevices.”

Another American flight attendant also adheres to the rolling rule, and suggests investing in a small travel iron, should you value wrinkle-free clothing.

packing secrets
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

Or opt for the "packing cubes" system

One flight attendant with Virgin America is all about packing cubes: zippered compartments of various sizes that eliminate a lot of drama, like “where should this silk kimono go?” and “where the heck did I put my retainer?” and “why won’t you just fucking close?” The lightweight pouches keep your possessions neat, compact, organized, and easily accessible. They stack in your suitcase like puzzle pieces, so packing is not only easy, it’s a rousing game of Tetris.

Similarly, a JetBlue FA is wild over compression bags. Much like a sleeping bag stuff sack, these nifty space savers suck the extra air out, leaving your clothing tight and compact, with room to spare.

Wrap your fancier threads in plastic

If you’re haphazardly neglecting the travel iron suggestion, packing your dress shirts or luxury fabrics (like caaashmere) in plastic is a good way to keep ’em fresh. “I put my dress and uniform shirts in a plastic garbage bag, or the plastic bag you receive from the dry cleaners,” the American flight attendant suggests. No wrinkles, no stains.

Always bring a swimsuit

“Because… well, you never know,” a Southwest flight attendant says.

Make yourself a portable Rite Aid

If you’re flying long distances or upwards of four hours, make an effort to prepare for bodily mishaps by bringing supplies in your carry-on.

“I bring a medicine kit and an airplane kit,” says a Virgin flight attendant. “The medicine kit has everything from Advil Cold & Sinus and Theraflu to ear plugs and hair ties -- basically anything I might need. The airplane kit has an eye mask, blow-up neck pillow, more earplugs, Dramamine, etc.”

Embrace being basic

One ingenious space saver is to... bring less stuff! If you’re envisioning an elaborate new outfit for every Instagram post, that’s highly impractical -- it will weigh your bag down and probably cost you some dough when you’re inevitably asked to check it. “We always think we can do more. But honestly, you’re tired after traveling and you’re going to lay low a lot more than you think,” says a JetBlue flight attendant. “In general, I stick to all basic colors and clothing items I know that I can re-wear without showing their reuse.”

A good tip is to pack, and then pull a quarter of it out. You won’t miss it.

If it won't fit in the bag, wear it

If all else fails, layer up. Wear your clunkiest, heaviest shoes, which take up a lot of suitcase space, and then pile on the layers. Planes are notoriously chilly, so it’s not like those bulky sweaters will go unappreciated, and they make a swell pillow in the event you’re napping at the airport. Plus, that leaves room in your suitcase for that extra Instagram-worthy outfit.

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Meagan is a travel writer living and breathing in NYC. But if you give her a plane ticket today, she will be somewhere else tomorrow.