It’ll Fit: A Master Course in Packing

Illustration by DWITT

Illustration by DWITT

You never need as much as you think you will when traveling. A travel pillow, your electric toothbrush and charger, that cute outfit you swear you’re going to wear that needs matching shoes: it’s all extra, and it’s all going to add up in weight and bulk. 

Successful packing starts with a few considerations: 

  • Check the weather forecast
  • Make a list of the activities you want to do and/or plan on doing
  • See if there are dress codes for sites you plan on visiting
  • Look up the carry-on size and weight requirements for any airlines you’ll be flying with

Think hard about what you enjoy wearing. It’s tempting to pack items from outside of your regular wardrobe, because: You’re in a new city! You’re on vacation! But the odds of you wearing that flashy blazer or that pair of high-heeled boots currently gathering dust in your closet are low—very low. The odds of you wanting to feel comfortable and confident, on the other hand, are high, and the best way to accomplish that is to rely on the clothes that make you feel good in “regular” life. 

This first tip is crucial: wear your bulkiest, heaviest clothing and footwear on the plane. You may not be able to carry on a bag that exceeds the size limits, but no one is going to bar you from the plane for wearing a jacket over your hoodie and wool socks with your waterproof boots. I always wear the pair of jeans coming with me (yes, one pair) as well as a sweater and jacket.

Using those three key pieces of clothing, I plan the rest of my outfits accordingly. Choose pieces that can be layered and coordinate with each other, plus a few basic accessories (nothing valuable, ever; think scarves and cute earrings, or an inexpensive-yet-handsome watch and belt). Put everything you think you might want to wear on your bed, then make outfits. For a week-long trip, aim for a total of three different outfits made up of pieces that can be mixed and matched and that accommodate for any potential weather swings. For anything longer than a week, add another skirt or pair of pants and another layer of choice. If at all possible, only pack one pair of shoes; better yet, wear the pair of shoes on the plane that you plan to wear on the trip. (I spent 147 days in Europe with just one pair of boots—trust me, it’s possible.) If you must bring more than one pair of shoes, wear the less flexible pair on the plane and pack the other pair by aligning the soles with the edges of the suitcase and wedging the heels into the corners.

Photo by Aaron Job

Photo by Aaron Job

Now it’s time for a practice pack. No matter how tempted you are to put off packing until the night before or morning of, do not do it. Not only does a practice pack tell you how heavy your bag will be and whether everything will fit, it also reveals which pieces of clothing you thought you wanted to bring but don’t really care about. Do not second-guess yourself—leave them.

Packing Tips: 

  • Invest in two or three small- to medium-sized packing cubes. It’s amazing how much can be crammed into these: all your socks and underwear, rolled T-shirts and tank tops (which also prevents wrinkles), leggings, sleepwear.
  • Roll, roll, roll. Stack together all of your tops, tuck in the sleeves, and roll the pile from top to bottom as tightly as possible. Tuck the shirt-log along one side of your suitcase. Repeat this process with pants, and tuck the pant-log next to the shirt-log. Fill in the extra space with your packing cubes, Ziploc baggies of toiletries, and miscellaneous items (scarves, hair straightener, belt, hats, etc.). 
  • For even greater efficiency, invest in hand-roll vacuum compression bags. Just stack folded clothing into the bag, seal, and roll out the air. You’ll get double or triple the space without sacrificing your extra layers.
  • Pack as few toiletries as possible. You can always buy something you forgot or that didn’t fit (think hairspray or other aerosols) at your destination. Pro tip: hair conditioner doubles great as shaving cream.
  • Lightweight wool socks are the way to go. They dry quickly, are durable, and resist odor.
  • Forgo spill-prone items like perfume and anything oil-based. Even when packed well, they are more likely to make a mess than they are to come in handy. 

Following these tips should allow you to travel using carry-on luggage the majority of the time. (Major exception to this rule: airlines that have severely lowered bag size and weight limits. Again, be sure to check ahead of time what these criteria are.) Not only will this save you money, it will also save you the headache and heartache of lost luggage, and the sore muscles of lugging around 50 pounds worth of stuff when 20 pounds neatly arranged into an easy-to-tote bag will do.

Related: Eight Travel Must-Haves (and Two You Should Ditch)

Ellen Burkhardt About Ellen Burkhardt

Ellen Burkhardt is a freelance writer. When she's not writing, editing, or interviewing, chances are she's on the road seeking out good food, drink, and fodder for her next story.