Postcards & Passports

Packing for Success: A Step-by-Step Tutorial

This post was most recently updated on November 4th, 2017

One thing that all travel requires is packing.  And whether you’re using a backpack, suitcase, duffle bag, or something else, there’s a right way and a less efficient way.  Over the years, I’ve made a lot of mistakes and learned some valuable lessons.  Let me pass them on to you so you don’t have to learn the hard way! You can be packing for success in no time at all…

Make and use a packing list

I use a google docs spreadsheet with headings like “electronics”, “toiletries”, “clothing”, “food” (for a camping or condo stay), or “other”.  I share it with all who will be taking the trip with me, so everyone can add their input.  (Two or more heads are generally better than just mine!)  I then print out the list and check things off as I pack.  If there are last-minute items that need to be thrown in as we’re jumping in the car, for example, I highlight those items and leave the list on my steering wheel so we can’t possibly forget them.  I will access the list again on my smartphone so I can re-pack everything for our return.

Use the right bag

If you’re taking a road trip, bags that are flexible (backpacks, duffle bags) make the best bags. They can be squished into nooks and crannies of your trunk and floor space without compromising seating space.  If you’re traveling by plane, you want the least amount of baggage possible.  Most domestic carriers charge for checked baggage now, so if you can get everything you need into a carry-on piece of luggage, you’ll save both money and time.

Even if your airline checks bags free, you have the added concern of whether or not that bag will make it to the same destination as you. There are lots of tutorials on how to pack a lot of things into a small space, but I will tell you the key is to roll your clothes.  You can get almost twice as many clothes into a bag if they are rolled vs. folded, and rolling prevents a lot of wrinkling. You’ll love this online video demonstration!

Get rid of the air

A lot of air gets packed into that bag of yours! Something I do is put several rolled items in a gallon-sized zip-loc bag. You can group several like items together (like shirts or underwear, etc.) or you can put one day’s complete outfit in a ziploc bag. Zip it up most of the way, then set it on the floor and sit on it. Yep! Just sit on it — and finish zipping it up. Sitting on it will press out all of the extra air and completely flatten the bag of clothing. Once you zip it up, it stays that way until you unzip it! Clever, right? And now you’ll be able to put even more in your carry-on. This works better than using expensive vacuum packing bags because you might not have a vacuum at your hotel when it’s time to pack for your return.

Pack light

At some point you’re going to be carrying or pulling whatever you packed.  I can testify that carrying an oversized duffle bag in a crowded city is a nightmare.  A heavy piece of luggage is going to wear you down fast!  Plan a wardrobe around layers that can be mixed and matched.  Wear an outfit more than once.  And if it’s possible to wash clothing during your trip, pack half of what you need.  Chances are, you won’t be seeing the same people every day anyway, so wearing the same outfits again won’t matter.  Use your shoes to store small items like socks, underwear, chargers/adapters, or jewelry.  Wear your heaviest items on the plane so they don’t have to be packed. I always wear my coat and bulkiest shoes on the plane. Even it’s too warm to wear the coat in the airport, you can carry it over your arm.

Expect a complication

On a trip to NYC with my husband and two teenagers, we arrived on time, but our luggage was delayed. We were told it would be delivered to our hotel room the next morning. Unfortunately, our checked baggage included pajamas, toiletries, and the twin air mattress we’d planned for my son to sleep on.  We made do by sleeping in our clothes and piling all the extra blankets on the floor for my son, but we definitely learned a few lessons.

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Had to laugh when I saw this tag on our bag when it was delivered to our hotel room!

If you’re checking luggage, you should have everything you need for the first 24 hours of your trip in your carry-on.  Your carry-on should have a change of clothing, PJ’s, medications, toiletries, your trip itinerary and hotel information, your camera, and any valuables, including ID or passport.  If your bags never arrive, at least you will have a clean pair of clothes to wear while you shop for more. (And be sure to fill out baggage claim forms at your airline’s customer service desk if this happens.)

Mark your luggage well

Be sure to have identifying tags on all of your luggage, especially orange carryonif it is being checked on.  Include your name, email address, and cell phone number, so you can be easily contacted.  Tie a colored ribbon to your handle to make your bag easier to find on a baggage carousel.  Avoid using black luggage since it is the most common color–a bright red suitcase is going to be a lot easier to spot on a baggage carousel.  Grab your cell phone and take two photos of your packed bags—one of the outside for identifying and one of the inside so you can remember what you packed in it.  If your luggage is lost or delayed, those photos will be invaluable.

Remember the “personal item”

That’s the extra piece of luggage that airlines let you bring onboard in addition to your carry-on. This could be a small backpack, a large purse or tote bag, or computer/messenger bag.  I use a fabric tote bag I’ve designed (tutorial here) to hold my passport, credit cards, cash, hair brush, quart-sized zip-loc bag of allowed fluids (it’s easier to get to when going through security), cell phone charger, reading book, iPad, trip itinerary, and medications.  Since a personal item is allowed without charge, you might as well take advantage of the extra space.  And it helps to distribute the weight between a carry-on and a personal item.

If you use all of these tips, you’ll be “packing for success”. Enjoy your trip!

Do you know any packing tips I’ve left out? Please share them in the comments below!

If you’d like some advice on how to plan your next trip, whether it’s domestic or international, you might enjoy reading How to Plan a Trip.

And please be sure to share this pin so others can benefit!

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19 thoughts on “Packing for Success: A Step-by-Step Tutorial

  1. Heather

    I totally agree with these suggestions! It seems like every time I fly, I try to only pack a personal item and a carry on; that way I don’t have to wait in line to check on a bag AND wait after the flight to pick it up (if it arrives at all). And, the rolling idea you suggested for packing REALLY works! I roll every time I pack now and am always able to pack way more than I had originally expected.

  2. Angela

    Roll, roll, roll! I tell everyone it really does save space. We’ve been trying to pack light every time we travel and bring only a carry-on which is great for walking around with our packs. The only time I find it hard to do is when there are multiple types of things we are doing like hiking + nice dinners. It’s easier when it’s all one type like a beach vacation.

  3. Jo

    As I started my travel blog, I just can’t seem to pack light (as I have to carry a lot more gear / clothes than usual). I used to be a kick ass packer but not any more. Tips noted and surely will come in handy.

  4. Dave

    Great tips. I always try to travel with a carry on these days so I always tend to have what I need with me. I also have marked my luggage with a tag so in case it is checked in by the airline I can identify it immediately

  5. Vicki Louise

    Great tips! It’s so important to have a packing list and to stick with it! It really helps to keep everything in perspective and to help people pack light. It’s so easy to overpack which you think in terms out outfits instead of individuals items!

  6. Sandy N Vyjay

    The dilemma that we always face while packing is what to take and what not to take. I think this is the eternal question of balance that we all face. but we always prefer to travel light as far as possible, but some stuff is unavoidable, especially on long trips. And yes complications do happen all the time, we have had our share too.

  7. Laura Lynch

    I always prefer packing light, no matter where I’m going. It’s just such a burden to carry around all that stuff. I can’t ever imagine why people do it. Great point about the flexible bags fitting better in the car. That’s so true.

  8. Reshma

    I mostly carry my backpack with me on all my trips, but one thing that I learnt early on is pack light, and I couldn’t agree more with you on this! The luggage can easily turn into a burden in no time, especially for a solo traveler like me. Loved your other great tips!

  9. Debra Schroeder

    Nice tips. A packing list is a great idea. I use one but usually bring the exact same things every time so it’s become habitual and nothing gets left behind. Good point about using a duffle bag. I prefer not to check bags – saves time.

  10. Megan Jerrard

    Great tips – totally agree on finding the right bag as the most important thing – I think most people underestimate this, or don’t worry about it’s importance, but it really can make a huge difference to your packing success. Personally I love a bag with many compartments and pockets which allow me to separate my things and know where everything is, as opposed to an empty shell where you just have to haphazardly throw everything in!

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