Let me start this off by saying that I’m not an expert packer by any means – that inspires confidence, right?! But hear me out. As opposed to proclaiming myself the ultimate packing guru, I instead felt inspired to write this post to help other travelers avoid the hilarious and frustrating mistakes that I’ve made in the past; because even if it’s hard to master the art of packing, with a little know-how you can at least avoid the snafus that will cost you a great deal of time, money and comfort on the road.
Choose your luggage wisely
First things first, familiarize yourself with the baggage allowance on each of the airlines you’ll be flying. Whichever one is the stingiest is the one you should go by in order to avoid being nailed with pesky baggage fees mid-trip.
When I went to Scandinavia last year, I wanted to have carry-on luggage only. I borrowed my boyfriend’s carry-on and didn’t think to compare its measurements with any of the airline requirements – I just assumed that because it was dubbed a carry-on bag, it would automatically be fine. Unfortunately, it turned out to be too big for our European flights and I ended up having to check it several times. It luckily didn’t result in any extra fees, but it was a bummer having to worry about lost luggage and getting held up at baggage claim every time we flew. Since then I’ve realized many “carry-ons” aren’t actually small enough to carry on, so beware when buying!
Another important factor? Make sure that you can handle your luggage on your own. This is especially important for longer-term, solo travel. Consider doing a quick test run at home before your trip.
My first long-term trip was studying abroad in France during college. I had essentially no idea what I was doing while packing and no prior experiences to go off of. I ended up bringing three (three!) rolling suitcases that were all part of a set: one small, one medium and one large. In theory, I felt like it made sense: I’d be gone for six months and needed items for three different seasons and countless occasions. How could I have packed any lighter? Fast forward to the airport and several train stations in France, where I found myself juggling three heavy bags on my own. I still laugh looking back on it: running onto a train to quickly situate the largest bag in a luggage compartment while leaving the other two – unsupervised – outside the train. Being confronted with an escalator and somehow – if only there were video footage – getting all of my bags to the top without killing myself. In the years since, I’ve always prioritized mobility, especially because I’m usually by myself at airports. Plus, even if you’re not alone, who’s going to want to handle your luggage in addition to their own?
Of course, there will also be times you’re actively trying to remedy past mistakes and you end up causing yourself just as much trouble.
Before leaving for my year-long Australian visa in 2014, I spent a lot of time contemplating what luggage I should bring. I had no idea what my plans were but knew I would likely be moving many times throughout the year. Because I was still a little scarred from my three-bags-deep situation in France, I went with this bag instead, thinking it would be so easy to maneuver one large rolling bag. In reality, it was so large that whenever it was packed full, it weighed way more than was allowed for flights, leading to its fair share of nightmare airport scenarios, not to mention being dubbed a “body bag” by friends I met along the way. Oops!
Organize the sh*t out of your carry-on
And by carry-on, I mean the “personal item” that you’ll stow under the seat in front of you during your flight. I honestly have so much fun organizing this bag before a flight – it’s the one part of packing I actually enjoy. There’s something really satisfying about having all of your essentials in one place.
I always make sure to have my entertainment at the ready (in my case, my Kindle, my phone and headphones, and usually some magazines that I can recycle afterward to lighten my load) along with any corresponding charging cables. For longer flights I also keep my toothbrush, toothpaste, contacts and/or glasses, and makeup remover wipes on hand in order to avoid feeling like a complete wreck when I land.
Don’t forget to keep other essentials handy, too, like prescriptions, tampons, Tylenol and extra underwear and socks (just in case you have a checked bag that gets lost in transit).
And one more thing: don’t waste your personal item allowance on something small. If you’re anything like me, you’ll need all the space you can get! I pack my everyday purse into my suitcase – empty – and transfer the purse contents into a larger personal item for the flight (usually a backpack). That way you have fewer bags to keep track of, everything is in one accessible place in-transit, and you’ll still have the option of using your purse once you arrive.
Capitalize on your in-flight outfit
If you’re short on space in your bags, it can be helpful to wear heavier items during your flight: keep your coat with you instead of trying to squeeze it into your bag, wear your bulkiest pair of shoes, etc.
One time I wore Toms on my feet while flying and felt like I had finally cracked the code on the best footwear for air travel. I quickly realized I was incorrect, however, when I had to take my shoes off at Security and found myself walking barefoot through the airport – no thanks! Plus, Toms take up so little space in your bag, that’s really where they belong!
Consolidate your beauty products
I have a makeup bag and a beauty products bag that I use basically every day. Sitting in my linen closet at home, they inevitably become full of random items I only use here and there. Before every trip I go through them and make sure I’m only taking exactly what I need, instead of taking up precious space and weight in my bags with multiple lotions, old makeup, bottles of nail polish, etc.
You’ll usually be able to buy beauty products once you arrive at your destination, but bring any items that you’d be lost without in case you can’t find them right away.
I still remember traveling with a few friends to Spain while I was studying in France. We were only taking carry-ons and one of my friends mentioned the 3 oz. rule regarding liquids. Being such a flight novice, I thought she meant that you could only take 3 oz. IN TOTAL. I wear contacts and felt like I had to prioritize my lens solution if I wanted to, you know, see. So that’s what I brought: one tiny bottle of contact lens solution. When we got to our hostel, one of my girl friends took a Ziploc bag full of beauty products out of her suitcase. I felt so confused about how she could have brought all of that with her, and then my mistake hit me. At the time it felt like such a revelation! I still think about that and laugh whenever I pack my liquids for flights.
Check the weather to plan outfits accordingly, but try to pack in layers
Let’s face it, we’ve all been there: checking the forecast and feeling super prepared, only to experience completely different weather when you arrive. These days I plan layered outfits as much as possible to be better prepared for any outcome. And after a heartbreaking experience ruining my favorite pair of suede boots during a flash blizzard in New York City, I avoid taking anything that would be completely ruined by rain or other inclement weather.
Make sure the items you bring can be worn interchangeably and mentally plan outfits as you’re packing
For a long time, I simply packed all of my favorite items of clothing into a bag (or, erm, three rolling bags) and hoped for the best. To be perfectly honest, I still sometimes do this; but I try more and more to bring neutral items that can all be worn with each other, instead of something that only matches one other thing I’m bringing. I’ve also started to lay out my clothes in full outfits as I pack instead of separating them by category (i.e. piles of shirts, shorts, jeans, etc.) in order to make sure that what I’m bringing actually makes sense.
The most recent trip I went on was a road trip where I had the luxury of being much less careful about my bag than I would have been for a flight. I packed in a somewhat rushed and last-minute manner (as per usual) and once we were on the road I was so confused about my choices! I had so many patterned tops and bottoms that didn’t match one another, leaving my actual outfit options super slim…Oi. Like I said, I try to put these rules to good use but don’t always succeed, even now!
Bring a good pair of leggings
Leggings are my favorite go-to versatile item of clothing. Depending on what you wear with them, they can work for a casual outfit, a dressier ensemble or a comfy athleisure option. I never leave home without a pair or two. My all-time favorite everyday pair is by River Island, and I just got this pair from Uniqlo for workouts and am loving them. (Both options are super budget-friendly, too.)
Prioritize low-maintenance features
You often won’t have access to things like an iron while traveling (I direct this largely at my fellow backpackers) so skip the high-maintenance, wrinkle-prone, dry-clean only items that will end up just being a pain on the road. Speaking of wrinkles, roll your clothes instead of folding them while packing. This helps avoid deep creases being left in them while they’re stuck in your bag for days on end.
Be kind to your feet
More power to the women who dress to the nines and wear beautiful and fashionable shoes while they’re traveling, but that’s never been my thing. Since I know I’ll be walking more than usual, I always prioritize function over form, even if it means my outfit doesn’t look as nice as it could.
That said, it’s easier than ever to find fashionable kicks these days, so you’re not totally out of luck if that’s what you go with! I’m in love with this pair of Adidas.
Leave room for souvenirs and repacking
It’s one of those age-old rules that you’ll never be able to repack your bag on the road as well as you packed it originally, so if you can avoid stuffing it to the point where you’re sitting on it to zip it, you’ll thank yourself later. Plus, you’ll likely pick up some souvenirs along the way that will need some room!
More than once, I’ve been so desperate to clear room in my luggage (speaking again about long-term trips here) that I’ve given clothing to friends or donated items to local thrift stores. I ended up doing this several times in Australia: even though I felt like I had such a limited wardrobe, I somehow never had any room in my bags!
Consider packing cubes or an undergarment organizer
I’ve never actually used packing cubes before but recently bought myself a set for my upcoming trip to Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. I’m excited to try them out and ideally be able to keep my clothes more organized, have a specific place for clean underwear and socks, etc. At this point I’ll do anything to minimize the time spent digging through my bag looking for a specific item!
Pack a pair of plastic flip flops
Last but not least, a cheap pair of plastic flip flops will take up very little space in your bag and will come in handy for any number of things on the road. A go-to use for mine is wearing them in showers, especially in shared bathrooms at hostels.
Now that I’m staying primarily at Airbnbs, I often thankfully feel comfortable enough with the level of cleanliness to skip the shower shoes; but unfortunately my most recent Airbnb stay in Asheville reminded me that they’re always good to have just in case.
I’m always on the lookout for tips to make packing easier as well as fellow travelers’ funny packing stories. Leave one (or both!) in the Comments section below.
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I’m sharing this post for the Wanderful Wednesday blog link-up, hosted by Lauren of Lauren on Location, Marcella of What a Wonderful World, Isabel of The Sunny Side of This, and Van of Snow in Tromso. Follow the links to look through their sites!