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34 Packing Hacks Every Traveler Should Know

I pride myself on being an outstanding packer. The greatest compliment anyone can give me is, “Wow, is that all you brought?” I harshly judge struggle to understand people who drag around luggage larger than mine. I pity my friends whose suitcases explode into chaos upon arriving at their destination – but who still always manage to forget something.

I own one very broken-in rollerboard Samsonite that fits in most overhead bins, and it’s the largest suitcase I have ever used – even for two-week-long vacations to multiple climates. I’m particularly proud of the time I managed to pack only my trusty Samsonite for an eight-day trip that started in Hawaii, where I was a bridesmaid in a wedding, followed by three days in San Francisco for work. (I also lost my driver’s license on that trip, but hey, I never said I was good at everything.)

My ability to pack lightly doesn’t require sacrifice: I still want to look stylish, and I always have everything I want and need. The key is thorough planning, lots of practice, and plenty of tried-and-true packing hacks – some of which I think I invented. To be a light packer, you must first agree to four simple rules:

  • Never pack more than you can carry.
  • Never bring anything you don’t need.
  • Always make a list.
  • Always plan your outfits in advance.

Still on board? Here are my pro tips for packing a better suitcase.

The equipment

  1. One rollerboard suitcase. Preferably one small enough to fit in an overhead bin. At the very least, you should be able to carry it a few feet if necessary.
  2. One carry-on bag. I prefer a large tote or a backpack.
  3. A purse you can use on the trip, packed inside your suitcase or carry-on.
  4. Several little bags for organizing your contents (more on that later).

Making Your List

Although my list-making method has never failed me, it might not work for everyone. All that matters is that you make a list, because every great packer I know starts with a list. Here’s how I make mine.

  • Choose a notebook that will be your dedicated packing-list notebook, and use the same notebook for every packing list you create. That way, you can easily reference the packing list from your last work trip, your last beach vacation, and so on, and use that to make your next list.
  • Start a packing list and write the destination of your trip at the top.
  • Organize the packing list into categories. I use clothing, clothing extras, cosmetics, and other stuff.
  • Under clothing, divide your list by day, so you can think about what you will be doing each day and what your clothing needs will be each day you’re traveling and the outfit you plan to wear. (Note: I often don’t actually wear the “Monday” outfit on Monday; this is just a way to make sure I have every day covered.) If you plan to change clothes at night, divide the day into “day” and “evening.”
  • Tally up the number of days you’ll be traveling and decide how many pairs of underwear, socks, and bras you need to bring. List the totals under “clothing extras” (e.g., five undies, five socks, two bras). I always throw in extra underwear and socks since they take up so little space.
  • Under each day, list the outfit(s) you’ll wear and the items you will need for each outfit. (I do not include socks or underwear, unless it’s a special item I need to remember, such as a strapless bra or nude underwear.)
  • If you plan to wear an item more than once, list it on each day you plan to wear it. This will ensure you have everything you need for each outfit but don’t bring anything extraneous.
  • Once you have packed an item (and only then), cross it off the list. If it’s something you can’t pack until the last minute, circle it so you don’t forget. This includes items you plan to wear on the plane or cosmetics you need in the morning of your departure.
  • Under “clothing extras,” list any clothes that aren’t included in your day-by-day breakdowns. This might include workout clothes, an extra jacket, jewelry, pajamas, a swimsuit, a cover-up, a sun hat, and scarves.
  • Under “cosmetics,” list every toiletry or makeup item you need. This will be easy once you have an older list to reference. Though I keep my travel cosmetics packed when I’m not traveling, I always go through my list to make sure I don’t need to replenish anything.
  • Under “other stuff,” list anything else you want to bring, including necessities like chargers or your passport and fun stuff like books and magazines.

Planning Your Outfits

  • Keep it casual. If you’re going on vacation, don’t overestimate the number of special-occasion or evening outfit changes you’ll need. Usually, you can just wear the same evening items more than once.
  • Only pack clothes and outfits you’re certain about. This is not the time to experiment with new outfits or a dress that sometimes works. Since the goal is only to bring what you need, you shouldn’t need backups.
  • Rely on your current outfit go-tos. Whatever you’ve been wearing lately, pack it, since you know it works.
  • If possible, limit yourself to only two pairs of shoes. Wear the bulkiest shoes on the plane and pack the lightest weight ones. The only time I bring three pairs of shoes is if I bring my running shoes or a pair of heels for a special occasion.
  • If you are bringing a lightweight jacket, also wear it on the plane. Throw on a scarf while you’re at it and use it to accessorize other outfits.
  • Pack your jewelry after you’ve picked out your outfits and have an idea of what you’ll need.
  • Lean heavily on the accessories. A pair of jeans and black pants go a long way when worn with different scarves and jewelry, which take up very little space.
  • Chose weather-neutral clothes and layer in case temperatures change unexpected. My go-to all-climate gear includes loafers, lightweight black pants, jeans, a blazer, and a chambray top.
  • After a while, you’ll start to fall back on the same go-to outfits for different trips.

The packing process

  • Group everything you need for each day in its own pile and lay the piles out on a bed or couch.
  • Cross items off only after you’ve packed them.
  • Pack your bras in your hat so they don’t get crushed. If you aren’t bringing a hat, use a lightweight rubber ball and place it inside your bras.
  • Stuff your socks inside pairs of shoes.
  • Pack your jewelry in individual bags to keep them from tangling, then pack all the bags inside the purse you’ll use on the trip.

  • Bags for everything! I find it much easier to stay organized if I use makeup bags to store items by category: one bag for chargers and cords, another bag for underwear, etc.
  • If you don’t have an e-reader, bring a book you don’t mind leaving behind.
  • Pack anything that has a tendency to wrinkle in plastic dry-cleaning bags.
  • When repacking dirty clothes, fold dirty things inside dirty things. For instance, take your dirty socks and underwear and fold your dirty t-shirt around them. I find that this makes it easier to repack than if you put all your dirty clothes in a plastic bag.
  • If you’re bringing several types of pills, combine them all into one bottle (assuming you can keep them straight) or a pill organizer.
  • Be strategic about what goes in first. Sometimes, it might be what you plan to wear last. Since the bottom of my suitcase is uneven (due to the rolling mechanism), I like to layer the bottom with stuff that won’t get wrinkled, like t-shirts and shoes, to create a flat surface for things I want to keep pristine.
  • Fill in awkward spaces with socks or other small items.

I’ve found this system to be pretty foolproof, though occasionally something does slip through the cracks, which leads me to my final tip: if you do forget something, just throw money at the problem when you arrive at your destination.

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