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New packing cubes, toiletry bags and other space-saving gear for your next trip

The latest packing gadgets make it easier to get the most out of — and into — your carry-on.
The latest packing gadgets make it easier to get the most out of — and into — your carry-on. (iStock)

The trick to making everything fit in your carry-on bag is simple, according to Judy Reaves. Just downsize the contents — specifically the toiletries.

Her strategy for squeezing everything into her wheeled suitcase is to pack travel-size shampoos, conditioners, and body and laundry soaps. She likes the laundry strips the best, because they eliminate the need to carry bulky laundry detergent or leak-prone pods.

“There’s enough biodegradable detergent for 60 washes in a tiny container,” says Reaves, a retired fire-prevention specialist from Phoenix.

Airlines may be about to take travelers who check their luggage to the cleaners. They took a break from raising their fees last year and this year for obvious reasons. But to quote John Wayne, “It’s quiet . . . too quiet.” Once air travel picks up again, we’re bound to see more airlines raising their baggage surcharges. That’s going to prompt more people to carry it all on board, like Reaves does.

Fortunately, you have more choices than ever for compressing everything into one bag. They include new packing cubes that help you stuff clothes into smaller spaces, toiletry bags that separate liquids from dry items, and space-saving devices, such as tiny wallets and electric toothbrushes.

As someone who lives out of his luggage, I am a fan of packing cubes. You can have the perfect carry-on bag (I reviewed the newest ones a few weeks ago), but if you can’t fit your stuff into that bag, what’s the point?

There are plenty of options when it comes to packing cubes. The Monos packing cubes ($85 for a set of four) are a standout. They’re made of tear-resistant nylon twill, which is helpful when you’re using that second zipper to squeeze your clothes into a small space. But they’re also thoughtfully designed, so when they’re unpacked, a little fabric sidewall pops up to contain your belongings.

I like the idea behind the Lindsay Albanese Weekender two-sided travel laundry bag ($29). After a few days on the road, what do you do with your dirty laundry? How do you scrunch it into your luggage without mixing your clean and dirty clothes? One side of this canvas packing cube (“Wear Me”) stores the clean clothes; the other side (“Wash Me”) keeps your dirty laundry. They’re separate but compact. It’s much better than hauling around a laundry bag.

If you want to squish everything into the smallest space possible, you might try the BluffCube Pro from Bluffworks ($26-$32). It’s made of a lightweight nylon and uses a strap to compress the clothes as much as you want. Bluffworks has a reputation for creative design, and these cubes do that reputation justice.

For a more resilient packing cube, the Yeti Crossroads packing cube ($24.99-$34.99), made from a thicker nylon material that hews to its square shape, is worth considering. Yeti cubes are durable enough to be used as an external carry-on if you ever run out of space.

When it comes to luggage cubes, there’s no single solution to your compression needs. Travelers may use one set of basic cubes, such as Away’s Insider cubes ($45 for a set of four), and add others for special purposes. For example, I use one of the Six Moon Designs’ SMD packing pods ($30 for a set of three) for electronics and plugs. The bright orange color ensures I’ll never leave without it.

For toiletry bags, you have two choices. Smaller toiletry bags for a few days of travel can fit easily into your carry-on. A larger hanging toiletry bag can squeeze into your luggage, but you can also carry it as a separate bag if necessary. You might think twice before doing that on an ultra-discount airline, however, because the carrier may count it as your carry-on and force you to check your suitcase.

A word of warning about toiletry bags: I recommend avoiding the ones that say they’re waterproof and have no inside compartments. For the better part of the past year, I’ve struggled with such a bag. Items shifted inside, leaking and creating an enormous gooey mess. I recently switched to a hanging toiletry bag, which has compartments to hold lotions and toothpaste, as well as straps to keep everything in place, and it works better.

Among the newest of the small toiletry bags is Dakine’s Revival Kit ($50). It has plenty of internal pockets to keep your shampoos and lotions organized, plus a removable clear plastic pocket for airport security checks. You’ll also want to spend a little extra on some spill-proof bottles and transfer the contents of your liquids and gels into them before your next trip.

For people who travel with more, Travelon’s hanging kit ($38) may be a better fit. It has several inside and outside compartments, as well as elastic loops for your lotions and potions. Once you get the hang of using one of these bags, your inner minimalist may want to use one at home.

Speaking of clutter, one of the bulkiest items on my trips is my electric toothbrush, an older Philips Sonicare with a large charger. If you’re serious about downsizing, you might want to look at a smaller version of everything, including your toothbrush. Philips has a new travel-size version, the Philips One ($39.99 for the rechargeable version). It works as well as the big toothbrush and uses a USB charger, so you don’t have to worry about packing an extra plug. You can also just switch to a manual toothbrush for vacation. (Yes, those still work.)

But maybe the best way of getting everything to fit is Reaves’s tried-and-true strategy: Carry less when you travel. That’s a lesson I have to keep learning.

Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. Email him at chris@elliott.org.

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