How to Pack for a Business Trip in a Carry On

Laura Lopuch

I shifted my weight foot to foot. Watched the crowd growing around me. Shifted my purse from one shoulder to the other. Checked the screen above the frozen conveyor belt.

No bags yet. I hate this.

By this, I mean waiting. I don’t show up early to movies or the required two-hours before my flights. I show up a minimum of 5 minutes before appointments.

So, why oh why, do I choose to check a bag?

Right then, I decided: never again. I control my destiny — not some random conveyor belt that makes a crowd jump like free donuts.

I would zip through the airport like a suave George Clooney in Up in The Air, seamlessly moving from lounge to waiting taxis. No more waiting for the conveyor belt. No more wondering if my bag would get lost among the sea of black Samsonite rollers.

That’s why I pack in a carry on for all my trips — yes, including business trips. Especially when I have places to be and business meetings to slay. Just like you, my friend.

Business Trip Packing List: Template

A good packing list is built around a solid core. That core should be personalized to your needs and style. So, if you prefer 3-piece suits or flowy dresses to a standard black blazer paired with jeans, consider this your permission: pack according to your preferences.

Only then will you pack and travel light, feeling more confident than Batman on a bad-guy-busting day. 

Here are the basics:

Paperwork

Passport

If your business trip takes you across borders, don’t leave home without your passport. Please.

Boarding Pass

After your passport, your boarding pass is your most important document. Mobile boarding passes are convenient, but make sure that you’ll have internet access via your phone if you plan to use one. Or, take a screenshot of the boarding pass and that will be available offline in your photos.

Copy of Your Itinerary

If you’re traveling abroad for your business trip, know that some countries won’t let you in without a guarantee of when you’ll leave. Pack a copy of your complete itinerary, including evidence of when you’ll leave the country, to show border security.

For your own convenience, print out the details of your transportation from the airport to your accommodations (if you’ve booked anything), the address of where you’re staying (for customs forms and taxi drivers).

I use TripIt to save all these details; it’s much easier and more convenient than juggling more random pieces of paper. However, paper copies are better for border crossings and for when you don’t have WiFi access or a local SIM card.

Electronics

Smartphone Charger

Don’t leave home without it.

Earbuds

Bose noise-canceling headphones are a lifesaver on crowded flights. Opt for in-ear earbuds if you want to travel super light, or larger ones that cover your ears if you want more noise-cancelling protection.

Travel Adapter

Choose a travel adapter that you’re sure will to work in the countries you’ll be traveling in.

Power Strip

Pack a power strip so that you can charge all of your electronics through one outlet, instead of packing multiple adapters.

Sure, you could charge your electronics via your computer’s USB ports, but this method is super slow.

The Belkin Mini Surge Protector is a popular choice among travelers. The Wirecutter recommends the Accel Travel Surge Protector.

Laptop

Apple’s Macbook Pro and Macbook Air are the obvious choices. The smaller and lighter, the better. I use a slim-profile Toshiba laptop, but know many frequent business travelers adore their Macbooks.

Dave at Too Many Adapters wrote a helpful guide to choosing a laptop for work and travel.

Laptop Charger 

Bulky and hard to pack! If a travel genie would grant me one wish, it’d be for a slimmer laptop charger that’s not so heavy.

Gear

Carry On Luggage

The Setout Divide is perfect, if your goal is to pack lighter for your next business trip. Smaller than our larger Setout backpack, this expandable, classy, well organized backpack opens like a suitcase and stands out in a sea of black roller suitcases yet doesn’t scream “tourist.” The zippered mesh separator keeps things where you packed them, on one side or the other, and makes accessing what you need easy.

Personal Item

Most airplanes allow for a personal itemin addition to a carry on. Most people think briefcase or purse, but a daypack that fits your laptop might be a better option. However, just because it’s allowed, doesn’t mean you automatically need one. Try traveling lighter.

Luggage Lock 

A small, TSA-approved padlock is a great theft-deterrent, especially if you will be traveling on trains or buses. Make sure your suitcase or backpack has lockable zippers.

Packing Cubes

Once upon a time, I didn’t use packing cubes. And my bag was a disaster. It took long minutes to find the shirt I was looking for or clean socks. Not anymore, thanks to packing cubes. Assign each packing cube a purpose. For example, a smaller packing cube holds underwear. A medium-sized one keeps your shirts organized and wrinkle-free.

Earplugs & Eye Mask 

If you’re taking long flights or overnight trains, earplugs and an eye mask make for all-natural, compact sleep aids. Graphic eye makse are fun. Think of them like socks to express your personality.

Book

I’m still old-school and read physical books instead of using a Kindle. If you’re like me, don’t forget a good book to pass long hours waiting or traveling.

Water Bottle

Grayl is my favorite. Stay hydrated and stave off jet lag. This water purifier works like a French press, meaning your tasty water is ready to drink in 30 seconds in a coffee-to-go-mug style without any weird pumping. Get the filter for tap water and never worry about city water again.

Pen

Obviously. To write down any important notes or messages or contact info.

Clothes

This is where the road diverges as Robert Frost says, according to your gender. Below are two different business trip packing lists, one for ladies and one for men.

With that in mind, here’s Doug Dyment. He’s the author of OneBag, the bible of packing light. He eloquently stated the purpose of a packing list,

“The primary purpose of the list is not to specify what you will take with you on any particular journey, but to serve as a model for your travels, a constraint on your packing exuberance, a personal blueprint that you can refine over time (not change every time).”

So, figure out what your personal style is — jeans + t-shirt? Jeans + blazer? Flowy dress? 3-piece suit? (yes, you can pack a suit in a carry on bag) — and pack items that make you feel comfortable. And, more importantly, like you. 

You don’t want to feel like a caricature of yourself on a business trip where confidence is MVP to new contacts and six-figure sales meetings.

When packing in a carry on for a business trip, look for items that pull double-duty and that can be dressed up or down. Meaning: that black dress looks equally stunning with a scarf for a casual business meeting or a statement necklace for a client dinner.

Business Trip Packing List for Women

Use the above business trip packing list template and add the following for a 3-day business trip.

Tops

  • 2 blouses
  • 1 lightweight t-shirt to dress up or down

Pack two business-appropriate blouses or collared shirts and wear the more casual t-shirt one on the plane. I love J.Crew’s cotton vintage t-shirts as they look chic (and feel comfy) with jeans or slacks. Everlane has fantastic, soft shirts that pair well with anything. 

Blazer

  • 1 dark-colored blazer or suit jacket

It’s no secret that I’m a huge J.Crew fan. Their clothes fit well, look chic, and last a long time. Consider this Crew Tailored Blazer with its silky smooth Italian wool so you’re cool in hot boardrooms and warm on chilly airplanes.

En route, wear your blazer so it doesn’t get wrinkled in your carry on. 

Bottoms

  • 1 pair of slacks or skirt (whichever your style directs)
  • 1 pair of dark-wash jeans: wear on the plane!
  • 1 dress (optional)

Opt for Betabrand’s Yoga Dress Pants for sleek black pants that hide stretchy material like your favorite yoga pants.

I live in jeans, and even on the dressiest business trip, I’d yearn for a pair. If you’re like me, wear your jeans on the plane. My favorites are Lucky Brand jeans with some stretch woven in.

Love your dresses? Swap out your jeans for a dress, like this Draper James one full of Southern charm and style.

Underwear

If you want to hand wash your underwear, you can get away with packing less. However, for a short 3-day business trip like this one, pack one pair per day. Because you’ll save more on time vs packing space.

Shoes

Think small, light, and comfortable for your shoes. Like this pair of classic black heels from Clarks. Or these slingbacks from Nine West.

True, you can wear your heels through the airport, but do you really want to? I don’t, which is why I wear a pair of black athletic shoes that I wear for a run or workout at my destination.

PJs

My fav packing light secret? Make your PJs and workout clothes the same outfit. Snag a quick, sweaty workout in the AM and hand wash your clothes in the sink. By the time you’re ready for bedtime, your clothes will be dried and ready for you.

Business Trip Packing List for Men

Use the business trip packing list template and add the following for a 3-day business trip:

Tops

  • 2 collared wrinkle resistant shirts
  • 1 more casual collared shirt (think: suitable for after-dinner drinks) and wear this on the airplane

Pack clothes that make you feel like you… and ones that don’t need to be ironed.

Bottoms

  • 2 pairs of dress slacks
  • 1 pair of dark-wash jeans

Wear the jeans on your flight and instantly look classy, put-together, and always comfortable. If you don’t live in jeans, then pack a pair of pants that you wear 90% of the time. This pair of pants is meant to be your “off duty” pants.

Consider the good-looking (and rather pricey but worth it) Outlier’s Slim Dungarees. Or Bonobos’ Travel Jeans which are less expensive, made from lightweight 10.5 ounce denim and have a 1% stretch.

Underwear

  • 3 pairs of socks
  • 3 pairs of underwear

The guys at Tortuga love ExOfficio underwear.

Blazer

  • 1 dark-colored blazer or suit jacket

Shawn went deep when he broke down the best blazers for guys, coming up with the wrinkle-free Bluffworks Gramercy (Slim Fit) Travel Blazer as his #1 choice.

Shoes

Think small, light, and comfortable for your shoes. Like the Lenox Hill Cap Toe Oxfords from Cole Haan or Vivobarefoot Porto Rocker.

Packing two pairs? Wear the heavier or bulkier pair through the airport.

PJs

  • 1 lightweight shirt
  • 1 lightweight, athletic pair of shorts

Long 5-Day Business Trip Packing List

For a longer 5-day business trip, be prepared to hand wash your clothes mid-trip. Or, spend a quiet night in your hotel room, working, and do laundry at your hotel’s washer and dryer. Check with the front desk: they likely have a laundry service available for guests.

Not keen on doing laundry? Prepare to pack a little more in your carry on. It’s still doable to pack in a carry on for a 5-day trip, trust me.

Clothes getting a little wrinkled or stinky? Hang them up in the bathroom while you take a hot, steamy shower. The hot moist air eases wrinkles and smell from them.

Pack the following:

  • 1 pair of dress shoes
  • 1 pair of athletic shoes for workouts
  • 5 pairs of socks
  • 5 pairs of underwear
  • 2 bras
  • 2 dress slacks or skirts
  • 1 pair of “off duty” pants like jeans
  • 3 dress blouses or shirts
  • 2  more casual shirts to dress up or down

Short Overnight Business Trip Packing List

Ready for a quick, easy packing list for a 1-night business trip? Reduce the numer of items in your 3 day business trip packing list template by two. Basically, pack an outfit, wear an outfit, and add the non-clothing essentials. Look at you, traveling light and fancy-free.

TL;DR

Steal a page from George Clooney’s well-refined playbook from Up in The Air and streamline your airport experience by packing only in a carry on. Not only will you save time at the airport — no checking bags, baggage claim waiting, risk of losing your suitcase — but you’ll also feel more confident.

Packing light is about trusting yourself to handle any situations that might arise. More stuff won’t win that deal. It’s about you. Just like your carry on.

 

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