Packing light is a sport. Or at least, that’s how I justify being so sweaty at the end of an avid bout.
And between carry-on size restrictions, the avoidance of baggage fees, and an inescapable series of pre-vacation premonitions of me buried under a mountain of sensible walking shoes with not a single clean sock in sight, it’s not exactly one I’ll volunteer to play.
But over the years, I’ve developed some strategies to make packing for a trip a little bit easier. (Mainly in the spirit of reallocating my energy to snack-planning for said trip.)
Here are seven tips, culled from my many failures and triumphs, as well as those of my colleagues:
Find a suitcase that speaks to you in matters of size, layout, and compartment density. (Pick one in each size-family if you regularly travel with a checked bag and a carry-on.)
According to Travel + Leisure: “Though you might find an inch or two of a difference with various airlines, the standard domestic carry-on luggage size is 22″ x 14″ x 9″, which includes the handle and the wheels.” They note that, because various international carriers have different regulations, “To be sure your bag is accepted on all carriers, you’ll want to get a suitcase that stands at 21 inches or less.”
For lightweight, thin fabrics (think: linens, t-shirts, sundresses, and the like), rolling a folded garment really does do wonders for suitcase Tetris.
“I roll all my clothes, secure them with a rubber band, and then squish them into packing cubes,” says market editor Jada Wong, of her evergreen packing strategy. “Soft fabrics like silk or waterproof gear slip around so the rubber band keeps the roll nice and tight. I also use this method to plan out my outfits so I’ll have everything for hiking or a fancy dinner in one spot.”
For structural help, seek out packing cubes: semi-firm rectangles that allow you to organize and compress your items into different compartments. Caroline Mullen, Home52’s Assistant Editor can be heard singing their praises virtually every time the word travel comes up (it’s how she manages to pack 10 different outfits in her carry-on), saying: “They’re lightweight, keep your clothing organized, fit way more than in the suitcase itself, and are (usually) durable enough to last a thousand trips over.”
Whether you’re the type to make packing lists or to freestyle your outfits, always think in terms of what can be layered together. I like to start with one pair of versatile pants and a coat or jacket layer that matches, and fill in the blanks with a few tops and sweater options.
“In the summer, I always try to pack an easy-to-wear palette of neutrals. Usually it’s a blend of whites, naturals, and faded blues—lately a hint of leopard too,” says Senior Merchandiser Aja Aktay, who most definitely looks more put together than I do on any given trip. “A crisp shirt always seems to be the first thing I throw on, and it’s nice to mix that back to some earthy textures like a rattan bag or rope sandal.”
Wong is also a fan of mixing-matching. I’m going on a safari soon and there’s a strict weight limit on our luggage,” she says. “I’m making sure to pack pieces that work in multiple outfits like a khaki shirt that goes with green, brown, and gray joggers, as well as versatile pieces—like long-sleeve utility shirts from Columbia that roll up into short sleeves.”
Packing shoes can be a pain point for even the savviest traveler. One thing you can do: wear the most cumbersome pair (looking at you, boots) on the flight. Bonus points if you do the same with that puffer jacket (OK, you get a pass in the height of summer).
As for packing additional pairs of shoes, “I like to use the cloth bags that are provided with sheet sets. I never know what to do with those bags anyway and they just so happen to fit a pair of shoes perfectly!” says Aktay. Other team members note that shower caps make for handy sole-covers.
You can also use your shoes as their own vessels and fill them up with socks and random small items that otherwise just slip through and fall to the bottom of your bag. Now that’s an idea!
Store your travel toiletries together in a travel case—which can be one intended for that purpose, or if you’re me, a years-old Glossier zip-top bag—so you never need to unpack or repack all those tiny bottles. Also, if you’re like Wong and dread things leaking into your suitcase, carry solid toiletries so you never worry about liquids spilling in your bag or, worse still, not getting them through TSA.
Keep in mind the TSA’s rule for liquids in carry on luggage: “3-1-1 for carry-ons = 3.4 ounce (100ml) bottle or less (by volume); 1 quart-sized, clear, plastic, zip-top bag; 1 bag per passenger placed in screening bin.”
Erin Alexander, Brand Partnerships Editor, swears by a pre-packed laundry bag, whether it’s a true breathable mesh one, or a repurposed one from a recent grocery run.
“My favorite feature of my suitcase is the travel-size laundry bag that snaps into place. Without it, I’d let my dirty clothes just pile up on the floor and, let’s face it, probably lose something. It also makes getting organized once I’m back home that much easier—I can toss dirty laundry straight in the washing machine, and put anything I didn’t wear (I’m an over-packer so this happens a lot) right back in the closet,” she says.
Arati Menon, Editorial Lead, Home52 is a huge fan of also carrying travel-size bottles of laundry detergent on her travels. She explains, “I truly detest having to lug around tons of luggage when traveling, and I’ve discovered the secret to traveling light—doing laundry while traveling! It’s one of the best ways to pack less clothing—all you really need is a clean sink, water, and maybe some lingerie bags for your delicates. And to smooth out wrinkles after all that wringing, just hang your dress or shirt up in the shower—the steam will get the creases out in no time.”
Pack your laptop and bag of toiletries last, so it’s as close to painless as possible to remove for the security screening line. Because the only thing worse than being stuck behind the person fishing around in the bottom of a Mary Poppins-esque duffel for one tiny shampoo is being that person yourself.
What’s your best trick for efficient packing? Let us know in the comments.
This post was updated in August 2021 to include even more tricks, because we’re dreaming about travel again.
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