01/28/2015 11:19 am ET Updated Mar 30, 2015

A How-To for Carry-On

You may have noticed it: Boy, do those luggage fees add up.

So long as airlines continue to jack up the prices on anything not nailed down, consumers are going to do whatever they can to keep expenditures to a minimum. One of the tricks is to cram as much as one can get into a carry-on and still be below the weight limit.

Rolling, folding, or flat, people all have little tricks to break the laws of carry-on physics. But you should find out first what those physics are, because different airlines have different standards. The average limit for a carry-on is 14 x 12 x 22 inches (although you should check your airline; you may manage to wrestle a few more inches, depending), but the average weight is anything but: TAM restricts you to just 11 pounds, while AeroMexico allows up to 22 pounds; Delta allows you 40 pounds to play with, and United has no restriction. Even more confusing: You are allowed more or less weight depending on what class you fly. Do your research.

Personally, I play it safe and am a less-is-more traveler. The ironic thing about traveling is that the actual traveling is actually fairly stress-free, but the departure and arrival process can be murder. I take only as much as I need, but also know full well I have to lug my luggage through an airport, and X-ray machine, and taxi bay. Less means lighter.

The saying goes that you should lay out the money you plan to take along with the clothing you plan to bring, then half the clothes and double the cash. That's actually not a bad idea, but let's start with the basics, and by that, I mean making a list of what you unequivocally must have. We can all thank our lucky stars that the three-outfits-a-day era of "Downton Abbey" is long gone, so why pack such in 2015? Judicious use of some of your standbys means an endless recycling of looks.

Depending on who you are and what state of health you are in, there are some things that non-negotiable. These can be anything from meds for high blood pressure to insulin. Also musts are things like passports, money, and keys -- I advocate those as things you should wear on your person, but some people swear by packing them.

I also consulted David Perry, a fellow traveler writer and friend of mine who has even less space to work with. Since his laptop goes with him as the personal item, he has to pack his camera -- case, lenses, and all -- into his carry-on, leaving him with a nook just 14 inches wide, nine long, seven deep. This guy gets creative.

If it is bulky and/or heavy, like a sweater, he wears it. If he needs a suit, it serves as his travel outfit, making him possibly the only man on the plane outside the flight crew wearing a tie (and like a LBD, a good suit jacket can be used repeatedly for different looks). His shoes blur formal and casual. Instead of briefs, he wears his bathing suit. But those are all fairly well known tricks.

Packing a carry-on is all about nooks and crannies, he says. You know those grooves running down the back of the luggage formed by the holster for the extendable handle? Dave unfurls his socks and lays them flat in two, and tank tops or other "small clothes" in another. He can stuff about a week's worth of socks in the groves alone.

Then go a single pair jeans or denim shorts, which will be worn over and over again.
"Denim is the one thing I don't roll up," Dave says, who simply folds it over and lays it flat. "I find it swallows up space."

As most hotels have a cornucopia of bathroom products, his toiletries consist of a toothbrush and a travel-size tube of toothpaste, and, he says, "I'm almost never going to a distant corner of the Earth. If I forget something, a drug store is never far away."

He rounds things out with a few t-shirts ("black, white, or gray. They'll go with anything"), a button-down just in case, and viola! A week's worth of outfits in a minimum amount of space. There have been times, he says, where he ends up with room left over.

"I'm not a fashion plate," he says of his admittedly rough-n-ready travel wardrobe. "On a trip, I am usually moving from one place to another so quickly I don't worry too much about repeat 'looks.'"

For a lot of people, it is not what you pack, but how. Rolling seems to be a favorite (unless it's something denim, it seems), either around a cylinder, or stuffing things in actual paper towel and toilet paper tubes. The U.S. military has rolling or bundling clothing into bite-sized pieces down to a science bordering on origami. Rolling, for the most part, also tends to be the packing style that results in the least amount of wrinkles.

Another trick are those storage bags you use your vacuum to suck all the extra air out. It allows a lot more clothing and a certain level of organization usually foreign to carry-ons, but if you go this route, be prepared to use your hotel's iron to steam out all the wrinkles that are sure to form, especially if you are on a long-haul fight. Also, with all that space saved, resist the temptation to pack more to the point you are over your carrier's weight limit.

And then there are those people who just throw up their hands at the whole thing and send through the mail everything they would otherwise pack. Personally, I call this cheating, but in this day and age, however you do it is how you do it...