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How to Pack More in your TSA Approved Liquid Carry On Bag

On some trips, the liquids you need can determine whether you’re able to travel with only hand carry or must check a bag. I avoid checked bags whenever possible because they’re expensive, take more time to deal with, and I assume that anything I check will be lost or damaged. Yes, I have had checked bags arrive on time and mostly undamaged, but I’ve also had bags delayed, an Apple USB Super Drive stolen, a pair of nice polarized sun glasses destroyed, and many other “minor” problems too numerous to list. I am a firm believer in traveling with only carry on bags whenever possible, and I’ve even started paying the extra few dollars for priority boarding to make it less likely I’ll be forced to check my bag at the gate.

Carry on liquid restrictions can be problematic, especially for women and on longer trips. That’s why today I’m going to show you how to pack more in your TSA approved liquid carry on bag. Yep, that’s right: more liquids in your hand carry luggage! I can practically hear you thinking from here: “But wait! The limit the amount of liquids you can carry on, so how I can I possibly fit more in my carry on liquids bag??” The overall size of your liquids bag is limited to one quart (this is true in almost every country today), but how you pack it has an enormous impact on what you’re able to bring in your carry on bag. In this post I’m sharing my very best space-saving carry on liquids tips to help you avoid checked bags.

How to Pack More Carry On Liquids

Although some of these tips are probably old news to experienced travelers, I think I have a few new ones to add. There are a lot of links in this post. Some of them are informative, but many of them link to specific products on Amazon. These are all products I use, so I decided to go ahead and link the items because I’ve been getting comments/questions on other posts from people looking to find exactly what I picture.

First, I’d like to clear up a misconception a lot of people in the US seem to have about the liquid restrictions. The rule is actually not that each bottle must be 3 oz or less. TSA calls it the 3-1-1 rule because it’s catchy, but each bottle can actually be 100ml, which is 3.4 liquid ounces. Isn’t that nice to know?

Now on to the first tip! Everyone knows about “travel size” bottles, right? A lot of different lotions, shampoos, conditioners, toothpastes, etc have ready-packaged, TSA-compliant bottles of product available for a dollar or two. They’re a great place to start if you want to travel with a carry on instead of all your full sized bottles in a checked bag. However, as a general rule, I do not run out to buy lots of travel sized items when I’m planning a trip. Why not?

  • Prepackaged travel sizes are far more expensive by volume.
  • Even though many products are available, you can’t get everything in a travel size.
  • Many of these travel size bottles are still unnecessarily large.
  • Most travel sized containers are designed to be disposable/single use, which means you’ll be stuck buying more again soon and throwing away extra (plastic) trash.

Here are a few things to try instead of the usual prepackaged travel sized products:

  • Save your last travel sized bottles if they’re still in good shape and are refillable. Refill them and use them again!
  • Check to see if the lids come completely off any of the little hotel-provided shampoo/conditioner/lotion bottles and, if they look refillable, take the ones in your room with you when you check out. Not all hotel bottles are refillable, and these ones are really designed to be disposable, so they’re not the greatest option. This is, however, very cost effective! Just try to refill the bottles with like products – you probably don’t want lotion residue in your shampoo.

reuse hotel containers

  • Buy some reusable travel sized bottles. For a long time, I used some cheap-y plastic ones, but they started to break and were still kind of too big. Although they are more expensive, silicone bottles are far more durable and come in a  variety of sizes, so they’re now my go-to travel bottles. I like the Go Gear assorted sizes because, well, they’re assorted sizes! I can pack my conditioner in the biggest one and shampoo in the smallest. Plus, they’re dishwasher safe, which is pretty cool.

go gear silicone travel containers

silicone go gear

I do not recommend repackaging things like contact lens solution that need to be sterile. Just pack your travel size, instead!

travel size contact solutoinUnderstand that you don’t need to bring something in its original package just because it is technically allowed. Many women use facial lotion and foundation, and a lot of these containers are 100ml or less. Think about it – will you use that entire container of foundation on your trip? That whole thing of facial lotion? Probably not. Save yourself a whole lot of space by transferring these items from containers like these:
repackage things that are already travel sizedTo containers like these:

5 gram plastic jarsI purchased a set of 25 5-gram containers on Amazon for about 6. They also come in slightly larger and slightly smaller sizes, so you can pick out whatever size you need. They’re clear, so it makes it really easy to tell the lotion apart from the makeup and the lids screw on instead of pop off. They can also be a good choice for things like face wash and hair gel. If plastic isn’t your thing, check out these lovely silicone 20 ml containers!

repackage lotion and foundation in smaller continers for travelSimply transfer a portion of your liquids from their original container to the tiny container and you’re good to go! They make these little spatulas specifically for this purpose that help you transfer things like foundation without using your fingers and potentially contaminating what you’re trying to move.

The same goes for essential oils. I know lots of people love to travel with their essential oils, and all this bottles are legally-sized. Once again, you probably don’t need the whole container on your trip. Consider picking up some little “sample size” bottles and transferring what you need with a pipette.

transfer items to smaller containersPack multi-use liquids. Have you ever used conditioner as shaving cream? It tends to work pretty well. Additionally, Dr. Bronner’s Soap is a great example of a multi-use liquid. You can use it as shampoo, body wash, or even to wash your clothes! Plus it smells pretty awesome. I have peppermint, but they also make lavender, tea tree, and more. I have a (literally) Costco-sized bottle of peppermint, so I just transfer some of it to one of my handy silicone bottles. I think there is a travel sized Dr. Bronner’s Soap, but buying the larger size is far more economical and then you’ll have extra at home. I think the last travel bottle I saw was priced at $2/3 oz, but you can get 32 ounces for as little as 51 cents/ounce on Amazon!

dr bronner's soapGo smaller than travel size. Travel sized toothpaste is very easy to find, but for a shorter trip why not consider toothpaste packets? They’re frequently billed as “single use,” but they tend to have enough toothpaste for two or three brushings. If you can’t find any locally, try Amazon for products like Grant’s of Australia toothpaste sachets or look for DoTerra OnGuard sample packets.

travel toothpasteFind solid alternatives. I know marketing has done a great job of convincing us body wash is awesome, but it’s a liquid and a bar of soap isn’t. There are also some very nice shampoo bars available, like the J.R. Liggett bar shampoos. I always, always bring hand sanitizer on planes with me, but I frequently choose hand sanitizer wipes instead of liquid bottles. Okay, who am I kidding – I actually usually bring both, but the hand sanitizer liquid is one of the first things I remove if I’m running short on space! You can get individually wrapped wipes, like these ones from Purell, or larger containers like these Germ-X wipes. If you think I’m being paranoid, check out this recent article on how dirty airplanes are. It repeatedly recommends sanitizing your tray table before you use it!

Especially for shorter trips, I also love using those single use toothbrushes instead of traditional toothpaste.

consider solid alternatives to save space in your carry on liquid bag

I also found this at the store the other day. I haven’t put it to use yet, but I’m excited to try it soon!

body wash spongeEvaluate whether you need it or want it. Do you really, truly need that hairspray, gel, mousse, etc? Maybe you’re going to an important business meeting and you feel that it really is necessary. Or maybe you’re staying in hostels and you really want to earn a reputation as a “flash packer.” In my opinion, if you’re going backpacking, trekking, to the beach, on an amusement park vacation, etc., maybe you don’t need products like these. As someone who’s lived near the ocean for much of my life, I can assure you the humidity is probably going to wreck whatever you just did with your hair. And, trust me, the fashion police don’t stay at backpackers’ hostels. If you really need some hair product, consider transferring some pump (not aerosol) hair spray into a reusable glass spritz bottle.

Leave it and find something at your destination. This tip is last on the list for a reason – I’d personally rather not be running around buying things I already owned and simply left at home. Here in America we’re accustomed to hotel shampoo and conditioner freebies and, depending on where you stay, they can be perfectly usable. If you’re staying in more budget accommodations, guest houses, or in another country, you might not be able to expect complementary toiletries and will have to go buy anything you didn’t bring. As I said, I’m not big on buying things I already own just for the fun of it! With that in mind, if the choice comes down to check a bag or buy shampoo once I arrive, I’m going to go with buy the shampoo.

carry on sized liquids

This post deals exclusively with making the most of your carry on bag of liquids. If you need more tips for how to pack your carry on/hand carry luggage, please stop by my post filled with packing light tips! Traveling with just a carry on now only helps keep your items safe, but it can also save you quite a bit of money.

When it come to packing liquids, what is the hardest thing for you to give up or fit it? What items give you the most difficult time when you’re trying to travel with only hand carry luggage? I know my blanket takes up way too much of my bag, but I just can’t give it up!

natashal

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{ 38 comments… add one }
  • Edi June 18, 2015, 12:55

    Great tips about taking things like bar soap vs. body wash and hand wipes vs. liquid hand sanitizer. Thing like that really save space in the bag for other necessities. And good tip about hotels usually having shampoo and conditioner.

    • Natashalh June 22, 2015, 20:59

      It’s really easy to forget that solid alternatives exist because the liquids are more convenient! I definitely used my wipes to clean off my tray table on my recent flights, though. One of them had something unidentified stuck to it. Ick.

  • Duni June 18, 2015, 22:35

    Wow, you really packed your liquid bag well! Personally I think the 100 ml per traveler is ridiculous, but oh well. I also use that small opti-free contact solution! Instead of my usual liquid foundation I use a wet/dry compact. I also bring make-up remover pads instead of the liquid. Now, if I can only find those teensy essential oil bottles I’d be really happy on my next trip 🙂

    • Natashalh June 22, 2015, 20:58

      I got the bottles on Amazon, just like pretty much everything else I own! Yep, I’m an Amazon addict. Having separate travel makeup is a really good idea, especially when it saves you liquids space!

  • LeAnn June 19, 2015, 15:21

    I always feel like I’d like to pack more shampoo and sunscreen. Great tips about NOT buying the travel sizes. I usually just buy sunscreen at my “destination” and leave the leftovers with the kids. (My only travel is to visit kids and grandkids.)

    • Natashalh June 22, 2015, 21:01

      I hate wasting extra at the end of a trip, but having family use the ‘leftovers’ is great! It’s crazy how travel sizes usually cost just about as much as the “full sized” containers.

  • Judy Nolan June 21, 2015, 14:05

    These are really great suggestions, especially for short trips.

    • Natashalh June 22, 2015, 21:05

      Yes, unfortunately after about three weeks (for me) it just gets nearly impossible to not purchase some extra liquid items!

  • Paige June 22, 2015, 04:45

    I travel so much I already do a lot of these, but I never thought of getting the plastic 5 gram containers! Genius! Adding some to our Amazon list right now. 🙂

    • Natashalh June 22, 2015, 21:04

      I have to admit I only thought of it because I had a couple sitting around from a ‘touch up kit’ from my wedding makeup! I needed to bring a small amount of lotion with me on my trip to SC in April and I spotted the totally unused container of powder from last year, dumped it out, and filled it with lotion, instead.

  • Katrinshine June 22, 2015, 06:43

    Great idea about small containers from Amazon! I think I can use bead ones.

    • Natashalh June 22, 2015, 20:57

      As long as they can hold liquids, bead containers should work perfectly!

  • Lana June 24, 2015, 03:21

    Great way for packing! I’m going to Russia next month so this is perfect. …. but I smiled to see you anti – aging moisturizer here… you must be joking!!! 🙂 lol

    • Natashalh June 25, 2015, 13:42

      I always wear pretty heavy-duty lotion with SPF in Hawaii because the sun is so brutal. I got a slight sunburn walking to the post office once when I forgot. It’s only a mile round trip!

  • Kristie February 22, 2016, 08:41

    Contact lens containers are good for small amounts of stuff too. I use one for lip gloss and pomade, but they would be excellent for foundation, lipstick, moisturizer…the options are endless.

    • Natashalh February 22, 2016, 09:03

      That is so true! I’ve even used them for a little of something I wanted on the plane when I had more in check luggage (like face lotion!). Thanks for stopping by. =)

  • Adela May 22, 2016, 14:47

    Thank you Natasha for your very helpful article on a very complicated airport rule! I will now know how to pack the liquids. I just found out another problem related to the present one and hope you and/or others on this site could help?

    Same as you, I won’t check my luggage as the overnight roller suitcase case will suffice. But I found United Airlines’ required size is 22″x 14″x 9″ while mine is 23″x 14″x 9″ (I chose them because their prices are the lowest to my destination). I bought this case last year and never used it yet. Should I change airlines? Buy another case? When I bought it I was so sure I bought the airlines’ (or FAA’s) approved measurements… Thanks ever so much for an opinion. :o)

    • Natashalh May 22, 2016, 15:26

      Honestly…I would probably just try to bring the bag you have on board! It could be a little risk – there is always the chance they’ll decide to be super strict and not let it on board – but it is extremely close to the required measurements. I would just make sure the bag is not visibly stuffed, doesn’t have anything bulging from the front pocket, nothing hanging off the top, etc. and I’d guess you’ll probably be okay. Though, if you’re concerned, going with a slightly smaller bag would probably be less expensive than changing airlines if you found the best deal for your situation on United! I’ve frequently seen really great prices on luggage at stores like Ross and TJ Max. I hope my opinion is at least a bit helpful!

      • Adela May 22, 2016, 15:44

        Thanks so much Natasha! I’ll have to play it by ear since my travel date is in July 5 (1 week for surgery) and hopefully I’ll find a competitive airline price by then; meantime, I’ll be looking slowly for another suitcase since the operator may check it in and this case is not appropriate for sending as a checked luggage – it might arrive only in threads if at all!!!

        Many thanks again! Adela

        • Natashalh May 23, 2016, 07:42

          Best of luck!!!

        • Allison June 29, 2016, 23:12

          If you’re not too far from the airport you can take it there to check! They normally have test boxes of some sort so you can make sure it fits.
          Hope it works out for you!

          -Allison

          • Natashalh June 30, 2016, 06:29

            That’s a great suggestion. =) I feel a little silly for not thinking of that! Thanks for stopping by.

  • Rebecca May 24, 2016, 05:49

    Aloe Vera gel is a must-have travel item for me. I use it instead of shaving foams/gels/soaps, etc. I am very pale and have super sensitive skin, so I also use it as a sunblock, and as a carrier for my essential oils. I mix the Aloe & my oils blends together in my hand each time I use them. It makes kind of a creamy lotion. So, I can condense sunblock, shaving gel, lotion, and EO carrier, into one bottle of Aloe. Definitely saves room in my 3-1-1 bag! And WISPS, YES! I love those things! Disposable toothbrushes and floss can replace your toothbrush and toothpaste, and are both considered dry/solid items. I was a dental assistant for 16 years, and I use wisps for travel. Another option, is to simply ‘dry brush’ and skip the toothpaste. Yes, it freshens your breath, but the actual cleaning is accomplished with brushing.

    • Natashalh May 24, 2016, 06:50

      Great tips! I love aloe, but I didn’t realize it can help as a sunscreen. That’s awesome! Also, great tip about the “dry brushing.” =)

  • Beth May 29, 2016, 14:06

    Great tips! I used contact cases for my face creams and foundation etc, they fit quite a bit, seal well, and stack nicely. Also you can get tsa approved clear plastic cases on Amazon, the one I have is the shape of a train case, just the appropriate size. It had a handle and a zipper that lets the top open all of the way, I can fit a ton of stuff in there 🙂

    • Natashalh May 30, 2016, 10:41

      Contact cases are great to use! I just flew yesterday and crammed a lot into my liquids bag. =) Weirdly, though, I actually had a check bag and was able to put large items in there, too. It’s very rare for me to travel with a check bag!

  • kathy June 29, 2016, 10:03

    The typical travel size toothpaste is useless for a 2 week trip, but you can buy 2.7 or 2.9 oz toothpaste but very hard to find, one place that seems to carry that size are the dollar stores, but nearly impossible to find at major drugstores like Walgreens, although I have found it online. Also the liquids rules differ outside the US, was recently scolded for not putting lipstick and solid stick deodorant in the liquids bag. We recently applied for Global Entry which includes TSA pre, makes domestic travel far more pleasant, and re-entry to USA much faster, definitely worth the $100 for 5 years, even if we only travel a couple of times per year.

    • Natashalh June 29, 2016, 10:11

      I always put my deodorant and chapstick in my liquids bag. Sadly, even though theoretically they’re allowed in the US, I’ve found that a lot of security checkpoints do like to argue the point. When I travel with my husband, we have Pre Check and it makes life so much easier! We’ve looked at the Global Entry before because it has so many advantages, but we keep forgetting to apply. Great tip about the toothpaste!

  • romina August 13, 2016, 21:53

    Great blog! Thanks for the tips. I was having trouble fitting my liquid foundation into my liquids bag, but I think I’ll use those 5 gram containers(that i happened to buy last week!!). Great suggestion :). Is it frowned upon to have the plastic bag completely stuffed?

    • Natashalh August 13, 2016, 22:38

      The bag can be pretty full, but it has to close completely and not have things visibly straining the bag, if that makes sense. I’ve had it very full before, but as long as the zipper fully closes and nothing is visibly straining the bag (like so you can see the entire outline of the container sticking out!) it should be okay. Those little plastic containers are so handy! Glad you found them. =)

  • Kathryn August 19, 2016, 14:40

    Working on packing this weekend. I’m using 2×3 inch plastic ziplock bags designed for pills as cream containers–one for toothpaste, one for daytime lotion, one for hair gel. Foundation and liquid blush go in tiny Chanel sample bottles. Cleanser goes in a 5 gram jar as you show. Shampoo and conditioner go in the smallest silicone travel container (1 oz, I think). This leaves plenty of room for stuff I can’t decant, like mascara, Woolite wrinkle relaxer, etc. This should give me 4 days’ worth of stuff without running to the store. And I always take advantage of the allowance for medical liquids for contact lens fluid, eyedrops, etc.–they go in another bag marked “medical liquids.” And for the liquids bag I love the one Sephora sells–sturdy, good zipper, and TSA approved.

    • Natashalh August 20, 2016, 09:17

      So you’ve had success putting contact solution in a separate bag for ‘medical liquids?’ I’ve never been brave enough to try and risk getting separated from my contact solution! I’ve heard some people say it worked and other people say it didn’t. I guess it probably depends on the agent. Thanks for the tip about the Sephora bag!

      • Kathryn August 21, 2016, 05:12

        I use a 2nd baggie with “medical liquids” written on the label and that gets my contact solution (small travel size bottle) nose spray for allergies, eye drops, and tube of Rx ointment. I’ve had Pre-clear the past couple of years but even before, it was acceptable. I have read even flight attendants say a TSA agent could be in a bad mood and not allow it but I fly several times a year and even when they take away a souvenir pocket knife or a duty-free bottle of hot sauce, they’ve been fine with the medical bag plus the 3-1-1 bag. Disclaimer: I start out from a small Southern airport where people in general are pretty easy-going.

        One more tip: if you can’t find travel sizes of your fav contact solution, try Amazon. I use Bausch & Lomb Comfort and couldn’t find travel size in stores but got a 3-pack (2 oz each, I think, plus a tiny bottle of cleanser and new case) from Amazon.

        And when all else fails, I google-map the nearest drug store to wherever I’m staying 🙂

        • Natashalh August 21, 2016, 10:06

          “Small Southern airport” makes me think of Augusta, Georgia. It’s probably the nicest looking airport I’ve seen in the US! I’m frequently in the pre-check line, too, so that could help. I may test it out on my upcoming trip next month! Thanks for the tips!

  • Florence Cerone October 21, 2016, 14:06

    Can I put my compact powder, foundation, eye brow powder, lipstick, eye shadow in my purse to board plane or does it have to go in plastic bag in my carry on ?

    Thank you

    • Natashalh October 21, 2016, 14:32

      It depends on whether or not they’re liquid. If it’s a foundation powder, it’s fine in your purse. If it’s a cream, it counts as a liquid and must go in the ziplock bag. That’s why those small plastic containers are so handy! That way you can only bring what you need for the trip without lugging the whole container. I’ve gotten away with lipstick and chopstick in my purse, but a really picky TSA person might want it in the bag. Eye shadow as a powder is fine in the purse, if it’s one of the cream types you’ll want it in the bag.
      Hope that’s helpful!

      • kathy October 22, 2016, 05:23

        In the US, have never been hassled with lipstick, solid deodorant being packed in my carryon But on a recent trip through Manchester UK airport, the agent went ballistic when he found the Speedstick in our carryon, and then kept asking why we had some many small items in the plastic bag….which BTW is none of his business and there is no limit as long as it fits in the bag.

        • Natashalh October 22, 2016, 10:37

          Wow – weird! Yeah, individual agents will sometimes get upset about things for no apparent reason. I totally agree with you – the number doesn’t matter as long as they all fit! And solid deodorant clearly isn’t a liquid, but I’ve had too many “petty tyrants” get made about it to try putting it outside the bag anymore. =/

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