How to Pack a Duffle Bag as a Carry On, Even on Shitty Airlines

Jessie Beck

Last fall, United Airlines announced a new, ultra budget, barebones fare. Included in the many add-on fees, was one that would charge passengers $25 for stowing their bags in the overhead compartments. While many travelers were outraged at the idea, I took it as a challenge.

“I challenge you to pack everything you need for any trip in a bag small enough to fit under your seat.”
Challenge accepted.

In the past, I’ve managed to pack for an entire weekend trip using just a daybag. Why not pack for longer trips in a slightly larger (but still small enough to fit under your seat) duffle bag? To test it out, I packed the Outbreaker duffle for three different trips of varying lengths and across different climates — with great results.

Are you interested in learning how to pack a duffle as your only piece of luggage? Read on for tips, photos, and sample packing lists to help you rebel against United’s new fee and pack lightly enough to avoid it.

First, What’s the Maximum Sized Bag You Can Bring?

How to pack a duffle bag

On a United flight, the maximum dimensions for your under-the-seat personal item is 9 inches x 10 inches x 17 inches (22 cm x 25 cm x 43 cm). For the new Basic Economy fare, this is the only item you’re allowed to bring onboard. If you have anything larger than this or additional luggage, there will be a $25 fee at the gate for the extra, oversized, or additional bag.

Sadly, if you board with Tortuga’s Outbreaker 35 or 45L travel backpacks, you’ll have to pay the fee. On the other hand, at 17 x 10 x 9 inches when full, the Outbreaker duffle fits within the limit and maximizes the 25L worth of space allowed by the airline to tuck beneath your seat. So grab your duffle — and only your duffle — and get packing.

Demo: How to Pack a Duffle in 3 Trips

Packing ultra-light for a quick weekend trip is easy. Anything longer is more challenging, but you can absolutely pull it off by sticking to a simple list. Using destination packing lists from Packsmith, I packed for three different trips in the duffle to test out this theory.

While I initially thought I’d have to be pretty barebones with my packing list, I was able to fit a lot more than I’d assumed. The Outbreaker duffle is surprisingly spacious, and has two small pockets (one on the outside and one on the inside) that help with organization.

In the end, the bags didn’t look too different from what I would’ve brought anyway (which is, admittedly, less than most normal folks). Let’s take a look:

The destinations:

  1. San Francisco – 5-day trip with outdoor activities
  2. New York City – 7-day trip in the winter
  3. Hawaii – 10-day trip with outdoor activities and beach time

(Note: I’ve limited the list to domestic, U.S. destinations only, since United’s Basic Economy fare isn’t offered on international flights.)

Packing for San Francisco in a Duffle

San Francisco packing list

What Fit in the Bag?

I planned on wearing the Columbia down jacket and boots on the plane. In the bag, I was able to fit:

Packing for New York City in a Duffle

New york winter packing list

What Fit in the Bag?

Similar to the San Francisco packing list, I planned on wearing the boots, jacket, scarf, hat, and one pair of jeans. Inside the bag:

Packing for Hawaii in a Duffle

Hawaii packing list

What Fit in the Bag?

After deciding to wear a pair of sandals and one of the jackets from my packing list, I had a bunch of extra room with the Hawaii packing list. In the bag, I had:

Small Duffle Bag Packing Tips


Regardless of the trip, a few tips for packing in a duffle bag include:

  1. Roll all of your clothes
  2. Stuff socks and other small items into shoes
  3. To keep things easy to find, put your clothes and shoes on the bottom and other small items on the top
  4. Store chargers and small items in one of the duffle bag’s two pockets.
  5. Keep heavy items to a minimum since duffle bags don’t have the same support as a backpack

Additional Tips for Traveling with Only a Personal Item

In college, while flying on ultra-budget airline, RyanAir, I watched as a girl about my age put on every possible item of clothing from her overstuffed bag at the gate. She was trying to put on enough to get her bag to fit into their (equally restrictive) carry-on baggage dimensions.

Although I wouldn’t recommend her strategy (it did work), below are some better tips for when you have limited room in your bag:

  1. Share items with your travel buddy. For example, my partner and I might bring one laptop for the two of us.
  2. Plan on buying items at your destination. Don’t have room for your sunscreen and bug spray? Like traveling with snacks but can’t fit them all? Pick them up at your destination.
  3. Bring a reusable grocery bag like the Baggu reusable bag ($10) to carry extra items at your destination. I’ll also sometimes use it to carry my jacket, cross-body purse, and extra sweater / scarf while I’m wandering around the airport (and feeling hot), then put the extra item or two on before boarding to fit the rules.
  4. Rent gear instead of packing it. This especially applies to sports equipment.
  5. Re-wear clothes or wash them as you go. you can even use a plain bar of soap or Dr. Bronner’s to wash items, instead of wasting money on travel detergent.
  6. Only take clothes you love. If I bring my favorite sweater, I’m far less upset about wearing it every day than if I packed a lesser-loved one that packed better.


Whether you’re using the new Basic Economy fare, on United, for a quick weekend getaway, flying another budget airline with draconian carry on rules, or taking a 10-day road trip in a new part of the U.S., light packers can get away with only bringing one personal item. Just be sure to:

  1. Grab a bag that fits within the personal item dimensions of your airline
  2. Parse your packing list down to just the essentials
  3. Learn a few new packing hacks to make the most of a minimalist list

Who knew packing light would be a form of rebellion? (So punk rock!)