Open suitcase with clothing in the bedroom. Summer holiday concept.

There’s a science to packing, and once you start learning, you’ll be able to bring so much more…

Though packing means you’re going somewhere, which is inherently exciting – it can also be a huge pain. The art form known as packing, often involves jumping up and down on bags and breaking zippers while trying to squeeze every last ounce in. For some, it then means trying to take things out at check in.

But really, it shouldn’t be nearly as frustrating and painful as it is.

Packing should be a well orchestrated concerto, lead by a master conductor. That conductor, by the way – is you – or it will be soon. With decluttering as the hot new craze and dynamic new luggage options changing this travel ritual, it’s important to take a step back and realize that packing a suitcase is a system of well thought out ideas.

It should never be like throwing trash into a garbage can, particularly if you want to look more elegant than disheveled upon arrival. Here’s how to pack your suitcase with simplicity and brilliance, every time, and bring more with you…

Start In Order Of Importance

Open your suitcase and pack one item at a time, in order of importance. Scratch that. Before you even open your suitcase, start by plotting out your most important items only. This will also help to ensure you don’t forget the “one thing” you need.

Declutter guru Marie Kondo’s Konmari method suggests going a step further, only adding things which are either necessary or bring joy.

Socks and underwear are always amongst the first necessities. Best decluttering tip? Aim for flexible clothing items which can be both casual or professional. For example, a blue blazer turns t shirt and jeans into a fashionable evening outfit, but also sharpens up a professional look as well.

To be a true packing wizard, take things further with flexible shoes too. Finding a fashionable sneaker, boot or slip on which fits more than one purpose and eliminates the need another pair is massive space saved.

Get A Suitcase That Doesn’t Suck

Sucking at packing is a temporary thing. In fact, you shouldn’t fall into that category after reading this. But if you have luggage that lets you down you’ll never be able to realize you full packing guru status, and will always fit in less than you should. On that note: don’t just get a suitcase that’s great, get a “small personal item” that’s great too, to maximize your allowance.

Here are a few of the best carry on options for all budgets. We personally swear by the Away Travel brand, and here’s one of the best “small carry on item” options too, which matches seamlessly.

A good carry on is an investment in never having to check a bag again, so even a more expensive option will probably save you money versus checked bag costs over time.

Stop, Fold And Roll Your Clothes For Max Packing

Going item by item, it’s important to sit, think and ask yourself… “am I actually going to wear this?”. If the answer is yes, then fold the item in half along the most logical line and roll it tightly.

Yes, before you ask, it’s scientifically proven that rolling clothes while packing creates more space, but also helps with wrinkles. By rolling things into one layer of lots of “little items”, you’re also able to see your entire packed wardrobe and sort through it more easily. This take a bit more time, but it’s worth it.

Maximize The Full Carry On(s) Rules

When you travel, there are many rules you’re forced to play by, but use them to your advantage. People forget to put effort into their “small personal item”, which is allowed in addition to a carry on bag. This is where you can put your iPad, headphones, snacks and change of outfit for the plane, leaving your main carry on as the workhorse for wardrobe.

By shifting (and rolling) a few items into something such as a backpack, in addition to a full sized carry on, you may be able to ditch the checked bag entirely, making travel both faster and cheaper. That’s a lot of upside.

Don’t forget, each checked bag typically costs at least $50 round trip these days on economy airline tickets, so finding the bag combo that keeps you from ever paying checked luggage fees ever again is a great value.

Think About What You Can Get When You Get There

There’s hardly a hotel worth staying at which doesn’t offer complimentary shampoo, soap and other things which take up space. Whenever possible, think about what toiletries or basics you can easily get at your destination for free, or with a quick trip to the pharmacy.

If it’s the difference in paying $50 for a checked bag, or paying a cool $10 at the local pharmacy for a few goods, it’s not hard to figure out the smarter play.

But don’t stop there, many hotels now provide loaner work out gear and other practical travel conveniences, even including shoes. Never miss an opportunity to leave something behind, if you can easily acquire it where you need to be.

Best way to find out? Email your hotel, Airbnb or host in advance, or pick up the phone and call the property.

Actually Use Those Packing Straps For Once

Any great piece of luggage has straps inside. They’re not designed to make packing any more miserable, or create additional hurdles for you to climb through, they are there to compress your stuff down, taking a big pile and making it smaller.

Un toggle them, pull them to either side of the bit you’re about to pack, and once you’ve got everything in – latch and pull.

Visualize: both ends of the straps outside of the area you’re going to pack. Then latch over your clothes and yank. It’s actually amazing how much more you can pack if you give these compression gems a good yank. Just don’t pull your back out, or the pool might be less enjoyable.

Now, go practice for your next big trip. What’s your best packing tip?

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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16 Comments

  1. My wife and I recently did a 22 night winter trek across Spain and Italy – each of us had a backpack and the Away Bigger Carry-On and that was it. We managed without having to do laundry or go without anything that I would deem essential. I even packed our Nikon DSLR in my carry on for most of the trip so I would have had room to spare without it.

    For us, the key was to brings clothes that could be worn multiple times – jeans, silk slacks, and sweaters / button-downs for me and leggings, skirts, and blouses for my wife. I pack a small toiletry bag and then just pick up stuff in amenity kits / hotel housekeeping as we go. We don’t buy things when we travel so we don’t plan to take them.

    If you told me several years ago that we’d be carry on only for such a long trip I would have said you were crazy. It made everything so much easier, though. Public transit is easier to navigate with a smaller bag and a backpack.

  2. We first tried flying without checking bags 10 years ago out of necessity: a family trip included a flight on RyanAir. We had scored a great fare for our family of 4, and checking bags would have more than doubled the cost. So we embarked in a mission to lean how to pack for two weeks with a carry-on and a very small personal item that could be stuffed into the carry-on. (One bag allowed.) Since that time, we have learned more about the flexibility afforded to us by not checking luggage, including being able to quickly rebook after cancellations or grab earlier flights. So far, we’ve taken 2- and 3-week trips to China, New Zealand, Patagonia, and several countries in Europe with just a carry-on and a backpack. As the old saying goes, try it, you’ll like it!

  3. My family pretty much always flies business class (I earn a ton of points through credit card spend for my business), and yet we travel almost exclusively with carry-ons and backpacks — no checked bags allowed as far as I’m concerned. I will second the importance of GOOD cabin bags — Rimowa and Tumi are our weapons of choice. Expensive, but worth it if you travel alot. The only exceptions to the no checked bags rule are ski vacations and the occasional return trip home. We often pack a foldable duffle that allows us to check clothing on the way home if needed so we can carefully pack souveniers in our carry-ons.

    I will add two other things about not checking bags: 1) No chance of lost luggage. Have that happen to you once at the beginning of a trip and you’ll do anything you can so it never happens again. 2) People forget that bypassing baggage claim gets you to the rental car, shuttle, train, whatever well ahead of the crowd. It’s true that security is more painful when you can’t check liquids, but a little bit of planning goes a long way in that regard.

    We have managed hundreds of thousands of miles across 25 countries and five continents in every season with this philosophy and have never once regretted it.

  4. I’m surprised you didn’t mention packing cubes in this article. They defy logic, I realize. But these things somehow turn the same amount of stuff into much smaller and organized cubes of awesomeness. I combine my packing cubes with a 40L Osprey Farpoint backpack, which fits perfectly in even domestic overhead compartments. I have packed for 3 weeks using the methods you describe like rolling, but then packing the rolled items into an assortment of cube sizes and configurations (pants/shorts in one, socks/undergarments in another, tops in the last) … once I get everything in the pack, there are top and bottom internal straps as well as top and bottom external straps that compress the pack (seriously) like 6 inches (yes, I’m a Yank)!

    Great article, just wanted to add the cubes as another weapon to be used against checked bag fees!

  5. Yes, cubes. I, too, couldn’t understand how essentially adding something to my case would give me more space. And makes retrieving things much easier. Also enables one to differentiate between worn stuff and not.

  6. My top tip – no wheels on carry ons. Once inside of Europe, even if your flight is to the US, they will often try to apply the very low-weight carry on restriction of your intra-Europe connecting flight (violating an international treaty, but good luck arguing that). Something like the Billingham Weekender can carry more than a 21″ wheeled carry on once you factor that in.

    1. I don’t know why I wrote international treaty, it’s actually a DOT regulation but applies to any itinerary ending or starting in the US, even if your role in that itinery is just a codeshare connecting flight, but point stands, good luck arguing that at the counter.

  7. My best tip. A week or so before you do final pack, set out a container and put things in you will or may want to take as you think of them (such as small umbrella or hat) . This includes items to go into backpack, carry on, purse, suitcase. If something very important, such as Rx drugs, that you need to have out – put a note in the container to remind you. When to start packing, you can determine what things in the container you really need and sort out what goes where.

  8. Sounds weird, but I’ve started saving my empty toothpaste tubes and refilling them with various toiletries like shampoo and sunscreen. As they empty, they take up less space than a rigid bottle. I go carry-on only and don’t buy big souvenirs, so the toiletries space can now fit the occasional magnet or mini-alcohol from my travels. I also try not to be high-maintenance and limit hair/makeup products. Sephora’s birthday freebies are perfect travel sizes.

  9. Under normal circumstances I’m a 100+ night a year hotel stayer.

    My wife and I went away for our first couple of nights since the pandemic started (Jan 2020), also my first hotel stay.

    Turns out I completely forgot how to pack, literally taking everything I didn’t need and nothing I did. When we got to the hotel and unpacked, hilarity ensued as we both laughed at our ridiculous packing attempts. Despite going away for ONLY 4 nights I managed to take 12 pairs of boxers and zero pairs of socks (other than the ones on my feet? !?!?!?

  10. Regular packing rules go out the window for some trips where you’re not permitted to take your regular carry-ons, like for puddle jumper flights to lodges in Africa that don’t permit hard sided luggage and which impose very strict weight restrictions. Add that to the need to carry the extra long safari lens that wouldn’t allow my Rimowa to close (if I could take it), and which doesn’t fit into my camera bag that serves as my personal item and things get complicated for those local flights. I find myself frantically looking for the perfect lightweight soft sided bag that apparently doesn’t exist for my month long 2020 [edit, backspace] , 2021 [edit, backspace] 2022 [let’s hope no more editing, backspacing] trip to various countries. I do keep a couple of different packing lists of essentials saved to double check before closing the luggage and leaving home, but the list for traveling to the middle of nowhere with no corner pharmacy is by necessity far longer than it is if one only travels to cities.

  11. I’ll admit it, Im super rusty as a result of the global pandemic- but nobody should suck at packing anymore with all the tools out there and GSTP articles!! But experience ( good and bad) are still the best teachers. Depending on your phase of life and purpose of trip packing will be different but doesn’t have to suck. In addition to all the great mentions in this article and the various comments I would add… a great roller carry on like Away or Tumi plus a solid back pack with strap to attach to carry on can take you far. I also like to think of helping the environment in tandem with bringing some basic toiletries. Today you can surely find bar soap style shampoos and conditioners and bring your own water bottle you can refill almost anywhere ( saves money and the environment). Instant score as you go through TSA no liquids!! I always include a stylish reusable shopping bag that folds up and fits small enough to fit in my pocket as a day bag or beach bag for my destination and of course for my baby blues must have my sunglasses ( even if no )! And if your like me and have a bunch of supplements (or medicine) take the extra time to sort them into a weekly pill organizer that will neatly fit in carry on. Never check your meds!!
    A little extra time in the planning /packing phase will save you lots of money and frustration on the other side!! Also train your kids early.. they don’t need that much and should only bring what they (or you when they fall asleep in transit) can carry!! Happy Packing…

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