Continuing my series on travel planning to make 2020 your best travel year ever, let’s talk about one of the most foundational travel skills: packing.
Don’t groan. This is where the magic happens! I know packing sounds like a chore, and in some ways it is. But you don’t have to spend the entire run-up to a trip worried about what could go wrong and what you might have forgotten.
Table of Contents:
Go into this with the right tools and a good plan, and you’ll be halfway to a great trip already.
TOOLS for GREAT PACKING
Interested in a lifetime of great traveling? Invest in good luggage, one piece at a time. No need to drop a mortgage payment on it, but you do want to build up to high-quality pieces that are rugged enough to last many years.
1. A good suitcase
Lots of folks write suitcase reviews; you don’t need my input here on specific brands and models. I do have opinions about the type of suitcase you want:
- keep it small to force yourself to pack lighter
- high-impact wheels, sturdy handle, and well-made fabrics or plastics aren’t cheap.
- I’m not sure hardside (plastic) vs soft side (sturdy nylon fabric) really matters. I’ve carried both, and I’ve never had anything broken in either type of luggage. Learn to pack so your things don’t bounce around, and never put something fragile on the outside edge (any outside edge)
- uniquely colored, or blaze it with colored duct tape if you buy a black suitcase that looks like everyone else’s. For years, my black soft side suitcase has traveled the world blazoned with yellow and red strips of duct tape across the back. I spot my bag instantly.
You might catch a sale (or a combo of reward points or Kohls cash + a sale) to take a good suitcase down to $100-150, but you should be wary of inexpensive luggage in general. Materials matter!
I did finally pick up a 25″ “spinner” style case from Samsonite on sale from Kohls for about $100 (half price), and it’s been perfect! I’ve seen similar cases on Amazon for much more, so watch Kohls for a good sale if you shop there and use your Kohls Cash. These good quality cases cost at least $150 (for a decent cheap one) to $250-300 for an entry-level Samsonite, so watch for sales.
I don’t think I’m going to return to the more traditional “straight wheeled” suitcases. The spinner case can roll beside me, upright, regardless of what direction I’m headed or where I need to walk. More importantly, it doesn’t “pull” on my back or shoulder as much as traditional cases do as I’m rolling it along, and after a long airport or sidewalk trek, I’m very grateful.
2. A great carryon
We’re moving away from handbags and toward wheeled carryon packs for longer trips. On short trips, I just pack a handbag (see below).
Wheeled carryons like the one here (Amazon) are getting better and better, with many integrated pockets, optional USB chargers (be careful of airline battery rules though), and the peace of mind that you will have at least one pair of underwear handy if your luggage were to get lost. More on that later.
If you’re just starting out: You don’t have to pour precious funds into a special carryon bag. Clean out your school backpack if it’s still in working order. The pockets will help you keep everything organized, it fits great under the airline seat, and the straps make for easy toting of stuff!
….or a great bag that doubles as a carryon
I bought this bag off Amazon for under $30 on a lark a couple years ago before traveling, hoping I could find something that would double as a large purse for normal life (when needed) and a small carryon / day bag while we were in Barcelona. Holy cow, did I hit the jackpot!
I absolutely adore this bag. Handles are long enough to go over my shoulder but short enough to carry like a purse too. The many pockets inside and out keep my stuff organized, whether small change or documents or a camera. It looks like a day bag and not luggage, which is another win.
Optional: Travel-safe Purse
I carried this purse (Amazon, $45) as my main day-bag for several years after taking it to France in 2015. It’s very comfortable as a cross-body bag with a slim profile. The handle is knife-resistant (no one will cut your bag off your shoulder) and the multiple pockets and zippers can be locked down if you’re especially worried. There are plenty of internal pockets for all your foreign coins, random dollars, and travel documents.
These bags are relatively inexpensive given the high-quality materials, look good, available in many colors and styles, and hold up well. Mine eventually picked up too much dirt for me to continue carrying around, but I’m willing to pull it out for trips because it packs so flat in my suitcase.
3. Packing Cubes
These Shacke Pak nylon packing cubes (Amazon, about $25) revolutionized my travel life. I’m not exaggerating.
The smallest cube is about the width and length of a box of granola bars. The largest is 12x17x2″ which nearly covers half of a small carryon.
Instead of throwing everything into your suitcase, or even rolling and packing (which is a great method), carefully rolling and packing your clothes into the cubes then packing the cubes into your bags keeps your overall packing job much more organized.
In other words, packing cubes give you the organizational benefits of pockets inside your suitcase, but they also let you subdivide your clothes into smaller subsections. I tend to put jeans/pants in one and shirts in another, and undergarments in the smallest. You might use one for shoes or throw your makeup bag and toiletries in the smallest. My husband and I split one set between us when we travel – his clothes tend to take up more space than mine in his suitcase, so he uses the largest size for pants or shirts.
4. Extra bag / Day bag
This is a must for international trips or anytime you’re flying.
If you expect to buy souvenirs or are traveling for the holidays and aren’t sure what you’re going to be bringing home, throw in a foldable nylon tote bag like this one (Amazon).
These take up zero room while you’re traveling, but they’re a lifesaver once you’re on the road and you run out of suitcase space. They also give you a daytime carry-all that doesn’t add any weight to your suitcase (unlike packing an actual tote bag), plus having a second bag means you don’t have to pull everything out of one of your other (well-packed) bags to do a day trip.
Sometimes you can find these on sale at places like Books a Million or department stores for $5. If you are so lucky, grab 2 or 3.
5. Other Essentials
Quick round-up of what we never leave home without:
- Combo set: Power converter & Plug converters: If you’re traveling to where they use 220 current instead of American 110 V, you need a power block converter that’ll step down the current by half before plugging in devices like hair dryers, curling irons, or device chargers. NOTE: Many iPad, laptop, and Android phone chargers do this already – do some Googling for your charger’s specs and read the fine print on the block (if you can read it.
Even if you have the 110/220 thing handled, most countries use a totally different plug style than we use in the US. You will need little plastic plug converters to fit over your plug so it can go into the wall. Most converter kits come with multiple plugs. Just throw them all into your bag; things can get crazy out there.
*We use this all-in-one block: Amazon, $22
**You’ll each need a converter, unless you use no electronics while traveling.
- Travel document belt /holder: You need to protect your passport with your life. Credit cards too, but those are replaceable in “worst case scenario.” Losing your passport means giving up everything you planned to do so you can sit at the American consulate instead. FUN! Avoid this horrible outcome by carrying your passport on you at all times and in a safe place away from the prying hands of pickpockets.
*There are many great document holders out there. This one is $15 at Amazon and works great. Get one for each person traveling. Spread out your hard cash and credit cards so a single theft or loss doesn’t mean a miserable trip.
- Laundry sheets: These little gems will enable you to pack actual laundry detergent for a quick load on the go (or a batch in the sink) without having to pack any liquids at all! The sheets dissolve in the water and then do their job. You can get cheaper ones for $7 for 30 at Amazon that just provide detergent OR step up to a fancier model with some fabric softener included on the sheet for $8 for box of 10
- Travel-sized toiletries, including gels, creams, and liquids, packed into a 1 quart bag: If you’re flying, you must adhere to current FAA rules for liquids on carryons. Currently that means no bottles (or tubes or jars) of pastes, liquids, or lotions (or makeup) above 3 oz each, and collectively everything fits into a 1 quart ziplock bag. See below for more on carryon vs checked luggage information.
You can find pre-made travel packs, but I hoard the toothbrush & little travel toothpaste my dentist gives me, then pick up a sample-sized contact lens solution at the eye doctor, travel-sized shampoo and deodorant, and pack only the most essential makeup items.
- Photocopies / scans and photos of your critical documents: These don’t take much space, but you should safeguard your passport, driver’s license, travel documents, and credit cards by traveling with backups.
At least shoot photos of each document with your phone under good lighting and store them on your phone if you’re bringing it with you.
I’ve heard that if you lose your passport, you can expedite the replacement process by traveling with photocopies of the document plus an extra set of passport photos. That’s probably overkill, but I do travel with a print copy of my passport tucked into my carryon, with my real passport stowed carefully in my safest pocket, and keep photos of my credit cards in a secret place on my phone.
- Every electronic charger: Just writing this here so you don’t forget charger cords and power blocks for your phone, camera, and anything else that requires a charge. (Apple Watch? Earbuds?)
You’ll also want your earbuds, plus wireless or regular-plug earbuds (old Apple style, not the Lightning connector) that’ll plug into the plane’s sound system, or you’ll end up buying a set from the airline for $5-10.
I also travel with a cellphone battery pack so I’m always charged up. Traveling eats my phone battery right quick. I’ve had great luck with Anker products for charging and batteries; maybe try this dual-port battery brick.
- Contact numbers for your credit card companies (the cards you’re traveling with), the customer service number of your bank, and emergency contact information for at least 3 people. Put this with your critical documents and also take a photo and hide it on your phone. Make sure your trusted travel companions know where to find this information on your behalf.
*If you bought travel insurance, bring that information too.
Packing Principles: Make the most of the space you’ve got
There are great guides online already about packing, so get on YouTube or Google and find yourself a guru and a method you like. Roll ’em up, pack ’em tight!
I’m not fussy about packing, and I’ve packed so often that I don’t even need a list anymore for close overnight trips. But I recommend making a written list anyway, and it’s a must if you’re traveling far from home.
Bare minimum packing list
- Underwear (# days of travel +1, up to 8 pairs). Longer trips probably doing laundry or carrying a bigger suitcase, and I never choose bigger.
- Bras: I carry two and swap back and forth each day. During longer trips or hot weather, wash one out in the sink every couple days and let it dry while you’re out.
- Outerwear: Obviously, the weather matters here. If you’re carrying winter clothes (ski trip?), you need a bigger suitcase because they take up so much more room. I’ve done weeklong beach trips in a small duffel bag, by comparison.
Summer: At minimum, buy one of those tiny nylon jackets that fold up into a packet and throw it in your suitcase. Easy to carry, peace of mind. Also, having a nylon hood means you don’t have to mess with an umbrella when it’s raining.
- Shoes: My rule is “the pair on my feet plus one” unless it’s a short weekend trip without anything fancy, in which case I’ll probably just wear one pair of shoes the whole time. Tennis shoes are heavy and internationally they make you look like a tacky American. Invest in a stylish, comfortable pair of walking shoes for nice events and a pair of sturdy walkers (Merrills, Chacos, etc) for cobblestone streets.
*I avoid losing space to socks by going everywhere in Chacos sandals unless it’s actually cold outside. On long trips, I do like to swap back and forth between two pairs of shoes to give my feet a break.
- Flat, foldable extra bag (see above) if traveling internationally or taking a trip where a day bag would be handy for shopping, souvenirs, carrying your water and camera, going down to the beach…..
- Outfits: Pack smart, people. Make do with less; do more with a few pieces that mix and match well. I pick a color family and throw in long pants, shorts, long-sleeve and short-sleeve shirts, and a lightweight sweater that match that color family. You also want wrinkle-resistant clothes, and you want to avoid sequins on flight days (sets off the machines) or anything that’s going to be uncomfortable if you wore it all day.
- Documents (see tips above), wallet, credit cards, photo ID and a holder to carry them privately and securely. I use my purse and keep a tight rein on it. My husband uses one of the under-clothes document pouches. We split our cash and credit cards between us.
- Toiletries: Remember to get <3oz bottles for anything that needs to travel in carry-on luggage.
TIP: Inside my suitcase, any bottled items like contact lens solution, shampoo, or sunscreen are bundled together into a large ziplock bag to protect against leakage due to the changes in cargo pressure. There’s nothing like opening your suitcase at a destination and finding everything soaked in shampoo…..
*I use a nice fold-out makeup bag that keeps everything organized, similar to this one that you can get on Amazon for $15.
- Medications and copy of Rx: If you’re flying, it’s wise to keep any essential medications in your carryon instead of checked luggage so they aren’t lost. Also, you may want to bring along a printed copy of your prescription in case you’re challenged about carrying medications into the country.
Carryon vs Checked Luggage Principles
This is a short section, but it deserves its own spot if you’re inexperienced in packing for flying. Sometimes you need to check bags (for convenience or because it’s a long trip), and then you need to strategically split your items between checked and unchecked bags.
If I can get away with flying only with carryon luggage, I do because I’m guaranteed to land with all my belongings in tow. But airline rules about size and weight of carryons (especially in Europe) can make this hard. Also most short-hop flights in the US are using tiny airplanes now with little luggage space. Large roller carryon bags can’t all fit, and you end up gate-checking the bag anyway. So if you absolutely must keep your bag with you at all times, make sure it’s small enough to fit under the seat of any airplane on your route.
I’ve not suffered many luggage losses, but you should always pack a carryon as if you’ll never see your checked bag again, at least not while on the trip. If you actually lose your luggage, you’ll probably need to buy some clothes
With this principle in mind, here’s how I pack for a carryon + checked luggage flight:
In a small carryon bag:
- Essential toiletries for freshening up, all in travel size, including face-wipe or makeup remover cloth, contact lens case & solution, deodorant, brush & hair ties, safety razor (disposable), and toothbrush + toothpaste. I don’t wear a lot of makeup, but it’d go here too, including lipstick — everything in a single Ziplock bag that you can pull out during TSA check
- Glasses or sunglasses in their case
- 1 pair underwear
- 1 lightweight shirt (folded around the underwear)
- if rainy, pocket-sized raincoat; I keep larger coats over my arm
- phone charger cable, plug, and battery pack; power converter & plug adapter if headed overseas
- travel documents, ID, money
- necessary medications
- book or magazine or tablet
- camera if I’m carrying one
Sometimes I can use a large purse as a carryon (like the brown leather bag linked in the first section above) and that’s all I carry onto the plane! This is extra handy if I expect to need to use my spare expandable tote bag to get home with everything later — the tote bag might become my actual “carryon” and my purse (which has been functioning as my carryon) is now just a purse….. a very full purse. 😉
In checked bag:
- full range of outfits, extra shoes, underwear! all the underwear
- Laundry supplies, fine mesh bag
- actual coat or winter gear
- bag for dirty clothes (I always throw in a few extra plastic grocery bags)
- supplemental fold-out bag in case it’s needed
- large-sized toiletries, full makeup bag, hair brush.
- if traveling to hostels, my own towel & washcloth
- supplies for packing souvenirs*
- scissors, nice razor – these are usually part of larger toiletries bag
- extra charger cable, battery pack for camera, etc
- swimwear, any specialty clothing
*Plan ahead for packing souvenirs
- roll of bubble wrap if you anticipate buying ceramics, glass, wine, fine tableware, etc
- gallon-sized Ziplock bags – you can put liquids in here (wine bottles, liquor, perfume) after wrapping them in bubble wrap or pack food items
- roll of scotch tape (or packing tape)
- pair of scissors
- a packing plan – what needs to stay in your carryon vs packed flat in your suitcase?
You can get home with nearly anything if you pack it tightly in a suitcase so nothing bounces around once the case is closed and locked. I’ve carried home wine, rum, fresh coffee, jimon from Barcelona, olive oil, crystal glasses from Prague, fine glassware ….
My travel-tested packing tips:
- Set aside an hour for the job, prep yourself mentally, make a list, and pack at least the night before so your brain has time to “remember” the stuff you’re forgetting.
- Lay everything out on your bed before you start putting things into packing cubes or into your bags. Get a sense of the whole before tackling the parts.
- Identify fragile and breakable items and make sure they’re either in your handbag / carryon or packed tightly in the inside area of your suitcase (not packed against one of the outside edges). I’ve successfully carried fragile items in the corners of a hardshell suitcase, but it’s still a risk.
- Are you flying and checking a bag? Pull out critical toiletries in travel size (toothbrush & paste, stick deodorant, contact lens case & solution, maybe a face cleanser) and a pair of underwear (consider a shirt too) and plan on packing them in your carry-on. Also medications. Always pack your carry-on in preparation for a common mishap: your luggage is lost for 24 hours (or more). You can buy more toiletries and clothes if the worst happens and you lose your clothes (it’s happened to me!), but you will be less miserable if you’ve got a plan B right in hand.
- Before packing, reconsider everything sitting on the bed to be packed. Overpacking is worse than under packing. You can always buy something on the fly (unless you’re camping in the wilderness), but once you’ve hauled unnecessary items with you, you can’t get rid of them without throwing them away.
BONUS TIP: As I mentioned above, blaze your suitcase with a brightly colored strip of duct tape if your luggage isn’t a distinctive color already. Thankfully, colorful cases are becoming the norm, making it easier to spot your luggage on baggage claim and prevent others from grabbing the wrong bag accidentally. Doing anything extra to “make it yours” adds another layer of protection from accidental loss, and it also gives you an additional way to identify your bag to airline personnel if it’s lost in transit. “Black 26 samsonite” means nothing; “green hard shell with an L in red duct tape on the back” makes your case easy to spot.
Test drive your suitcase’s weight load
OK, so you’ve got good luggage, packed it firmly, and are ready to embark? Wait just a minute. Take that suitcase out and put it in your car (yourself), then drive to a nearby parking lot. Park on the edge and get out your suitcase.
Now. Walk the entire perimeter of the parking lot, towing your suitcase. I mean the whole way around, all 4 sides of the big rectangle. Get back to your car, lift your case back into your trunk, then get into your car and rate how much you hate your life right now, on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being “that was fun!” to 5 being “I will never leave my house.”
You will often walk miles inside an airport or when taking public transportation in a big city or internationally. Whatever you think you need to take on this trip, remember you’ll be carrying it by hand the entire way. If that parking lot excursion left you panting and hating life, go take half of the stuff out of your suitcase.
I promise you’ll thank me later.
I’m planning to do at least one more post in this series to round up some of our tips and tricks earned through 20+ years of worldwide travel. Stay tuned!
I write. I design. I cook. I read. I make music. I talk to people -- all kinds of people.
I used to teach and hopefully will do so again someday.
My dream job would be a cross between barrista and consultant, with a large helping of international travel and bohemian wandering through concerts, museums, galleries, and open spaces.
Somewhere back in time, my students started calling me "RameyLady" and the name stuck. I like it. There's a Ramey-man too. He's a much better writer but he seems to be too humble to share it with the world....at least, not yet.