If creating a packing list and sticking to it was easy and obvious, no one would seek out advice on it.
Our goal is to help you learn the strategies so you can pack exactly what you need for a trip, and focus on enjoying the journey.
Once you’ve decided what to pack for a trip, the next step is to actually pack it. How you approach this is a combination of what bag you bring, how you pack it, and admittedly, how much you plan to carry.
Let’s dive in…
Selecting the Best Travel Luggage
In the last year, we’ve spoken to many people about how they travel and their bags, we were surprised to learn two things:
One, that people own a lot of bags. I can’t think of anyone who shared “this is my suitcase” and only had one. And second, people still feel a deep frustration with what they have.
Why it’s this way, we’re not sure. It could be that the majority of travelers are unorganized, or try to carry too much, which would suggest it isn’t the bag’s fault. Regardless, bags are a sticking point.
We have developed a roundup of our favorite travel bags by carry style, and shared some nitty-gritty details on how to choose between them at Choosing the Best Carry-On Travel Bag.
In the meantime, here is a quick summary on how we think about your choices for travel luggage:
Roller Boards – You probably already know if you’re roller board person. Despite their similarities in that they are all generally boxes on wheels, if you’re looking for a new one, there are a few key points to consider. Mainly: the right size for your type of trip, the bag weight, the type of wheels, and identifying any other little features that could make you love or hate your bag.
Travel Backpacks – Travel backpacks come into play when you’re heading off on an adventure that makes a wheeled bag impractical, or are particularly interested in lightweight and hands-free luggage. There are a lot of travel specific backpack options. The key considerations are size / carrying capacity, daypack options for local travel, and organizational system options.
Duffle Bag + Travel Backpack Combo – A third option is to stick with a backpack for smaller items (probably the same one you use at home and work) and then add a very simple, lightweight duffle bag to carry your clothes when traveling. I like this approach, and in the airport find myself noticing other travelers who pack the same way I do. The benefits are that my daily carry (my laptop, snacks, cords, etc.) are organized as they always are, my travel gear is on my shoulder in as light a bag as possible, and I have options to carry what I need when I’m on the ground on my trip.
Most products are pretty dang strong these days, and come with impressive guarantees, so quality is quite good for most of your options.
Long term travelers are forced to commit to just one or two bags, where I’ve found frequent travelers own a few, and reach for the one that best fits their need for each particular trip. (For example, we showed how a business traveler's capsule wardrobe fits in 3 different bags.)
You can see all of our picks, more detail on how to make your decision for which bag is the best for you, and tables with stats on all of our picks in our post on Choosing the Best Carry-On Travel Bag.
Tips on Packing Bags for Travel
Once you have a bag, it’s time to plan your personal packing approach.
We’ve noticed that after people develop their personal system for this, they hold on to it for dear life. And while it can be good to review your approach every once in a while – thanks to new products on the market, either in clothing or luggage, that may impact how you pack – we find that doing what works best for you is what matters most.
Given there is no single right way to do it, here is a roundup of luggage packing tips that frequent travelers lean on, so you can cherry pick the pieces that fit your overall travel style or individual trip needs.
For many, packing cubes are a godsend. They keep things organized, help with wrinkles, and can bring sanity to an otherwise wide-open suitcase.
Packing cubes come in a variety of forms, and in some cases cost more than you might have expected. We published a rundown of how we see packing cubes – what we love and hate about different approaches to them in Our Guide to Packing Cubes.
It’s not easy to find a consensus from travelers on the best way to pack clothing.
No surprise here: we're partial to wrinkle-free travel clothes that don’t need tremendous attention to how they are packed, and still come out wearable.
But in terms of how you wrangle your garments, from Ranger rolling to nested folding, we summarized the main options in our post on The Best Way to Pack Clothes.
How It All Fits
With the combination of a lightweight packing list, the right travel luggage, and an efficient method of packing, you should be in good shape to fit everything.
Logic keeps this step fairly straightforward: pack heavy items towards the bottom or back of your bag. Place hard or breakable items between softer ones. Wedge socks and other small things into strange shaped spaces, like the inside of shoes or an irregular side of a suitcase.
Essentially, the act of packing is an opportunity to play Tetris in real life.
Keep your critical items (phone, passport, charger) and toiletries accessible, especially if you’re flying. Liquids should go in a clear bag, and stash them at the top of your luggage or in an outside pocket for access in airport security.
If you’ve gotten this far and are sitting on your suitcase to close it, it’s too full. I have something to tell you: a correctly packed bag is one that still has a little room.
Otherwise, you’re going to find that your bag is too heavy, that you won’t have room to add anything, and it will be a hassle to organize every time you change accommodations. Not to mention, overpacked bags sometimes explode, as your zipper goes BOOM. Yikes.
Overpacking is just not the ideal, sane way to do it. And remember that our goal is to help make packing easier, so you can enjoy your trip more.
So if you find yourself in this situation, you could try to slim down by revisiting Part 2: What To Pack For A Trip. But, you might have already read that. In which case, why are you still stuck?
It’s time to move to Part 4: Packing - You Can Do It and generate the confidence that you can pack light, for real.