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Best Tips for Packing to Travel

By travelanswerman | May 4, 2009

Gearing up for that big trip to Europe? A bachelorette party in Vegas? Or just going down the road to Grandma’s? If you’re planning to stay overnight during your next trip, you’re also probably getting yourself pumped up for that inevitable fight with your suitcase. Packing for any kind of trip can be frustrating, so we’ve assembled an extensive list of easy tips that will save you space and time and help you avoid another packing nightmare.

Clothes

Start thinking ahead of time about what kinds of clothes you’ll need for your trip: going out clothes, beachwear, outfits for fancy occasions, etc. Go shopping if you need to while you still have time!

  1. Match up outfits before you start packing. Lay out the clothes you want to pack before setting them in your suitcases. Organizing your clothes by day and occasion will prevent you from forgetting certain items, realizing you brought nothing that matches another clothing item, and forgetting to bring enough appropriate outfits. Evaluating each outfit ahead of time will also save you time once you’re on vacation, since you’ll already have an idea of what you plan to wear each day and night. 
  2. Put the heaviest items in first. Heavier items like wool, corduroy, and denim should be place in your suitcase before other items. They are more wrinkle resistant, so piling the rest of your clothes on top of them won’t matter as much. Jeans, khakis, and heavy tunics are also harder to stuff into your suitcase if you’ve already got it mostly full, unlike tank tops and slinky dresses which can be easily stashed in corners or laid out on the very top layer. 
  3. Use underwear and socks as fillers. Stash your underwear and socks anywhere they’ll fit. They’re great to use as filler space between bulkier clothes to make sure you’re not wasting any space. Also, who cares if your Calvin Kleins are a little wrinkled? Just be sure to count out enough pairs before you start packing…especially if you won’t be able to do laundry at any point during your trip. 
  4. Take clothes that can be worn over and over. If your closet will allow it, try to pack as many clothes that you can wear at least twice without washing. Jeans, denim skirts, and khaki shorts usually withstand a couple of wears, provided you’re not doing any rock climbing or have to stand out in the sun all day. If you limit the amount of heavy clothing items, you can stock up on plenty of layering pieces like tunics, lightweight tees and tanks, and shawls or windbreakers to give lots of variety to your vacation wardrobe. 
  5. Avoid packing easy-to-wrinkle items. Material like linen does not travel well. Unless you plan to do a lot of ironing during your trip, avoid packing linen clothing, and instead opt for similar, cool materials like featherweight cotton, seersucker, or eyelet cottons. You may have to fight some wrinkles, but at least you won’t be spending all your time slaving away a hot iron instead of enjoying your time off. 
  6. Wear only one sweater or jacket the whole trip. If possible, try to pack only one sweater and/or jacket for your whole trip. Unless you’re going to Paris Fashion Week in the winter, you should be able to get away with sporting the same outerwear for a few days. You can jazz up your outfits with different accessories to keep your look from getting too tired out too quickly. You’ll be saving yourself a ton of extra packing space, so you can stock up on more fun items like shoes and shirts. Even better if you decide to wear or carry your jacket on the plane instead of forcing it into your luggage. 
  7. Start rolling. Most experienced packers already understand the significance of rolling your clothes to save major space in your suitcase. Fold each of your shirts in half lengthwise, then start rolling it up from the bottom hem up to the neckline. Do this with as many cotton and casual tops as you can in order to leave space for your dressier items that need to lie flat. Plus, rolled-up clothing items are more likely to fit side by side, allowing you to easily spot your outfits once you’re ready to wear them, instead of having to dig through layers and layers of stacked items. 
  8. Tuck plastic around the top layer. Even if there’s no rain or snow in the forecast, tuck plastic around the final layer of clothing before you zip it closed. Old dry cleaning bags work especially well, and won’t take up any extra space. You’ll need the protective layer to prevent water from seeping in and damaging your clothes. 
  9. Take outfits that you can mix and match. Picking out outfits days or even weeks ahead of time seems like a foolproof way to organize your packing, but it can be problematic. The weather can change suddenly, or even more probably, your mood will alter and you won’t feel like wearing whatever it is you picked out for that day. Pack plenty of mix and match pieces so you’re wardrobe is flexible enough to match your mood. Try shopping at stores like J.Crew or Polo Ralph Lauren, which supply new twists on classy basics. 
  10. Pick day-to-evening outfits. If your trip requires you to constantly change your clothes from one type of event to the next, you’re probably pulling your hair out trying to find a way to fit double (or triple) the amount of clothes into your bag. Instead of packing separate outfits for each occasion, select simple ensembles that transfer easily from day to evening. Stick to neutral shades like black, gray, or even white during the summer. Changing shoes, accessories, and hairstyles will allow you to pack less but still look appropriate, no matter the occasion. 
  11. Bring Ziploc bags for dirty clothes and underwear. To keep your dirty socks and underwear separate from your clean supply, bring a few large Ziploc bags. Store them in a separate pocket of your suitcase so you’ll never wonder which ones you should wear and which you already have. 

Accessories

To avoid looking the same each day, have fun with your accessories. Stick to one color palette to minimize the amount of extras you bring.

  1. Stick to one color palette. To avoid bringing enough accessories to satisfy both black-based and brown-based wardrobes, limit yourself to one color palette. Black belts, bags, shoes, and hair accessories will go with most clothing items. If you simply can’t decide, try going metallic. Silver and gold mix and match more easily than solid blacks and browns. 
  2. Bring one evening bag. Now that you’ve narrowed down your day bag to just one purse, it’s time to do the same for evening. Try a color like off-white or emerald that will go with many outfits but still make your look pop. 
  3. Jewelry: Use a separate bag just for jewelry and place each earring, bracelet, and necklace in its own pocket to avoid tangling. Just as you decided on one color palette with your other accessories, try to stick to either gold or silver-based jewelry. Jewelry is easier to mix and match, but limiting yourself to one general color scheme will keep you from adding to the pile and taking too much. 
  4. Perfume/cologne: It sounds simple, but picking just one perfume or cologne to bring with you on your vacation will save you a lot of trouble. Take another look at your outfits and determine which of your scents best compliments your style, as well as the predicted weather pattern during your stay. (Hint: overly sweet scents are nauseating in extremely warm, humid climates.) Put your bottle into a plastic bag and then slip into a thick ankle sock for added protection. Surround with other stable but soft items to prevent breakage. 
  5. Silk scarves play up repetitive outfits. If you look into your suitcase and all you see is boring shades of black, white, or brown, don’t let the blandness of your vacation wardrobe frustrate you. Toss in a couple of light, easy-to-pack silk scarves to add punch to your look. Brightly colored scarves can work tied around your waist, neck, or even shoulders. The best part? They don’t take up any room in your bag! 
  6. Wrap shoes in plastic. To protect your shoes and your clothes, wrap each shoe in a plastic grocery bag or dry cleaning bag. You’ll keep your clothes cleaner and prevent shoes from scuffing against each other. Pack your shoes anywhere they will fit, alternating between layers of clothing and using socks and underwear as fillers space. 
  7. Minimize swimwear. Bathing suits hardly take up any space at all, but if you get carried away with different cover ups, beach towels, and totes, you’re going to end up taking up way too much room. Minimize your beachwear by throwing in no more than 4 bathing suits and no more than 2 cover ups that can only be used at the beach. If you want more variety, pack a couple of extra tank tops that you can wear on or off the sand. 
  8. Pack a case for your glasses and/or sunglasses. If you’re not going to wear your glasses or sunglasses on the plane or in the car, make sure you pack them in a special case for protection. Your bags are probably stuffed with clothes, shoes, and other odds and ends that could topple on top of your pricey shades and scratch or even break them before you arrive at your final destination. Save yourself the heartache and invest in a simple case like one of these, from the Sunglass Hut.
  9. Personal items. Don’t forget to pack your extra special personal items. Whether it’s prescription medicine, sanitary items, or anything else, you may or may not have a chance to restock your depleted supply as fast as you’d hoped. Carry medicine with you on the plane, making sure that the amounts correspond with the strict carry on restrictions. 
  10. Evaluate your lingerie situation. Unless you’re headed on a romantic honeymoon or anniversary trip, you probably don’t need to stuff your suitcase with hoardsof fancy lingerie. If you can’t sleep unless you’re dressed to the nines in a favorite teddy, pack your silk and satin pieces, foregoing other, heavier items like fluffy terry robes and loungewear. 
  11. Make a list of what goes with what. To avoid pulling your hair out trying to decide which shoes are supposed to go with what pants or which tie your wife picked out for your poor, color-blind self, make a list of items as you pack that go together. If you really think you’re going to be confused, delicately pin a tie to its corresponding shirt in an inconspicuous place, or loosely tie a belt around its matching pants. 

Makeup & Personal Hygiene

Stick to the basics and go mini to avoid overpacking unnecessary items.

  1. Use a separate bag or tote. Pack your personal hygiene items — shampoo, deodorant, dental care, shaving items — in a separate bag from your clothes. You’ll reduce the risk of spilling all your gooey products on your clothes and shoes, and it will help you stay organized. 
  2. Buy 2-in-1 Frizz control shampoo and conditioner. 2-in-1 shampoo and conditioner will alleviate the burden of lugging around an extra bottle of hair product. Choose a frizz-control kind, like this one from Pantene, to reduce the amount of time and product you’ll have to spend on your hair outside the shower. Most of your frizz fighting battle is won with your shampoo anyway, not with waxes or sprays. 
  3. Go mini. Whoever invented trial size beauty and bath products was a genius. Stock up on mini lotions, shaving creams and gels, toothpaste, loofahs, and more to make packing personal hygiene as easy as possible. 
  4. Only bring product that will shorten your beauty prep time. If your hair is normally wavy but you like to wear it straight, chances are you have to enlist the help of a blow dryer and hair straightener each day. To avoid weighing down your travel totes with unnecessary hair care items, only pack products that eliminate steps in your usual regimen. For instance: try letting your hair go wavy during vacation. Bring a styling mousse that lets you skip the blow dryer and straightener, yet keeps your locks looking luscious. 
  5. Stick to one makeup trend for day and one for night. Think of your makeup as being another accessory. Stick to one trend for daytime and one for nighttime. You’ll save yourself a lot of space if you only bring half your makeup arsenal with you on vacation. 
  6. Go oil-free. Laura Mercier’s stick foundation is heavy enough to cover up bad blemishes but light enough to keep your facefrom breaking out and looking greasy. Traveling can make pimples appear easily, so using a makeup that’s fresh and simple will not only save space in your makeup bag, it’ll help your skin adjust to its new surroundings more smoothly. 
  7. Use the same product for lips, cheeks, and eyes. All-purpose makeup is a traveling girl’s best friend. Use the same product for lips, eyes, and cheeks and watch your beauty prep time be cut in half. You’ll also be able to perform quick touch ups more easily if you’re dealing with one little make up case, instead of a whole trunk full of goodies. 
  8. Stick to the basics. Whatever your morning hygiene and beauty regimen, it’s best to stick to the basics when you’re traveling. There’s no need for a pumice stone or time for an all out wax. Bring moisturizing lotion that’s appropriate for every part of your body, use tweezers to get through your in-between days, and bring disposable razors instead of an electric one, if possible. If you can get away with it, wash your hair every other day to save yourself time and make your trial size shampoo bottles last longer. You don’t want to look like The Ugly American as you make your way down the streets of Paris, but sticking to the basics will make your suitcase lighter and give you more time to enjoy the sights. 
  9. Wrap liquids and gels in plastic. Wrap each liquid and gel product in its own Ziploc or plastic bag. If anything spills, every item that’s packed in the same bag will get sticky as well. 
  10. Double check carry on restrictions. Before you start packing, check the Transportation Security Administration Web site to double check with items you can and cannot bring with you on board the plane. After stocking up on all those trial size items, you won’t want to have to throw them away because they’re not packed in a see-through plastic bag! 
  11. Keep like items together. To keep you better organized, keep like items together in different travel bags. Pack makeup and jewelry together, ties, belts, and bags together, and shower items together. This system is to help you avoid bringing 3 separate bags into the bathroom every time you shave your legs or fix your hair. If your shampoo isn’t packed alongside your bath soap, you’ll be hopelessly confused. 

Extras

Get organized to avoid getting frustrated.

  1. Keep your library at home. There’s a right and a wrong way to do your summer reading. Pack a book and/or a couple of magazines to read while you’re in transit to your vacation destination and to look over during down time, but don’t be tempted to throw in the entire contents of your bookshelf. Select a paperback book to stash in your carry on bag, and if you happen to finish it way ahead of schedule, pass it along to another reader or donate it to the local library in the city you’re staying. Feel free to pick up a new one, but keeping several books in your suitcase will take up unnecessary space and add major weight to your load. 
  2. Stash portables in easy-to-reach pockets. If you have to store your carry on bag in the overhead bin, chances are it’s going to be shoved to the back of a number of other bulky bags, or located somewhere 12 seats ahead of you. To avoid having to go to even more trouble finding your in-flight entertainment, make sure you know exactly where you’ve packed your iPod, reading material, and snacks. Designate a certain bag and specific pockets for all the items you’ll want to reach during the plane ride. 
  3. Invest in an iPod or mp3 player. Schelpping around dozens of CDs in a bulky binder and keeping track of an oversized Walkman or Discman is sooo 10 years ago. If you travel frequently, go ahead and invest in an iPod or mp3 player. They’re not even that expensive anymore, and you’ll save yourself lots of space in your bag, not to mention the frustration of searching for CDs every 30 minutes. 
  4. Sneak in a portable iron. Even though you decided to ditch the linen in the packing process, you may still need an iron. Some fancy hotels provide one for you, but you might want to call ahead to make sure. If they don’t, bring a portable iron that won’t take up much space in your suitcase. Instead of wearing wrinkled clothes during your vacation or business convention, you’ll look and feel crisp, savvy, and professional. 
  5. Small first-aid kit You can never be too prepared. You should also keep a small first-aid kit in your suitcase or carry on (if the contents comply with security regulations) just in case. You might grumble about the extra room it takes up, but as soon as someone slices their finger on an unruly suitcase lock or gets stung by a bee waiting for the ferry, you’ll be glad you have it. 
  6. Snacks As if peanuts could ever fill you up. Now, many airlines are only serving tiny snacks to hungry passengers, no matter how long the flight lasts. Pack some snacks to take along with you to fend off nausea and irritability. You can choose to buy them at the airport, but you’ll be paying a lot more than you would at your local grocery store. Try Nabisco’s 100 calorie snack packs or Nutri-Grain bars to keep you going. You’ll stay satisfied and won’t be as likely to cave in to the greasy fast food during your long layover. 
  7. Save a little room for the presents you’ll bring home! Reserve a little extra space for the goodies you’ll be bringing back after your vacation. If you can, fold up an empty, soft duffel bag that you can fill up just for souvenirs. 

Things to Buy Once You’re There

Not everything should be packed ahead of time.

  1. Laundry soap If you’re going to be able to do laundry wherever it is you’re going, wait until you get there to buy laundry detergent. Liquid soap will undoubtedly spill and ruin your belongings and your luggage, while powdered versions also risk spilling and causing a mess. 
  2. Sunscreen You should never forget to pack the sunscreen before you head out to the beach, but you don’t need to pack it in your suitcase next to all your pretty beachwear. If there’s a beach nearby, practically every store will carry sunscreen, so just wait until you’ve arrived to make the purchase. If you don’t use it all during your stay, leave it with friends or relatives, or just throw it away. 
  3. Kitchen, food and beverage items Perishable items might spoil in your suitcase, or even worse, spill. Wait until you’re at your final destination to buy things for the kitchen, food, and alcohol. Unless you plan on consuming it during your flight, it’s probably best not to bring it at all. 
  4. Anything you’re not sure you’ll need. If you’re not at least pretty certain that you’ll need to bring your own beach towel or other unwieldy items, don’t bother packing them. If you have to shell out a few extra dollars for an item you didn’t know you needed to bring, that extra room in your suitcase will more than make up for it. 

Packing for a trip shouldn’t take away from the excitement of an upcoming vacation. Start planning your outfits ahead of time to give you enough time to go shopping for anything you might need. Stick to one or two color palettes for clothes, accessories, and makeup, and keep your beauty and body care regimens as simple as possible. And most importantly, don’t forget to pack that extra duffel for presents and souvenirs!

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