Tips for Becoming a Suitcase-Packing Pro

I travel countless times a year for both business and pleasure. While it’s not my favorite pastime, packing is an inevitable part of traveling. And since checking a bag is one of my pet peeves, I’ve become something of a packing expert.

If you’re an over-packer who’s dying to ditch your 50-pound suitcase for a carry-on, you’ve come to the right place! These tips will have you packing like a pro in no time.

What You’ll Need

  • A regulation size carry-on. Check your airline’s website. If you don’t always go through the same carrier, check the size regulations for several companies. Go with the most restrictive size. I recently bought this one and I’m loving it.
  • Another small bag or backpack. As a realist (some may say pessimist), I always carry a “personal item” that I stuff my purse into at the last minute. Why, you may ask? Sometimes when flights are full they make you check your roller bag. I want to make sure to keep any essential items (medicine, contacts, etc.) as well as any expensive or irreplaceable items with me. I either bring this laptop backpack or a tote handbag like this one with this macbook sleeve.
  • A couple small zipper bags to organize things. I usually use make-up bags, similar to this one.

What to Pack

Bring the bare essentials. I realize this isn’t ground-breaking stuff, but it’s the truth. Most people pack way more than they’ll ever need. The hard part is determining what to keep and what to toss. To help you out, I’ve created an sample packing list. For this example, I’ve assumed that you won’t be able to do laundry during your trip. Keep in mind that if you will have access to a washer/dryer you can cut down even further. Score!


Before you start packing, be sure to check the weather at your destination. If you don’t, you may end up having to buy more weather-appropriate clothes upon arrival. Besides being a pain and a waste of money, it also makes it harder to repack your suitcase for your return trip. Here’s what I bring on my trips:

  • Pants. The number of pairs of pants to bring = the number of days you’ll be gone ÷ the number of days you usually wear your pants. I usually wear mine for 3 days before washing. For a 2 week trip my formula would look like this: 14 ÷ 3 = 4.667. And since I can’t bring .667 of a pair of pants (or rather I could, but I may run into issues wearing them) I would round up to 5.
  • Shirts. When deciding which shirts to bring, think about what you’ll be doing. If you’re planning on sightseeing most of the time, pack comfy shirts. Throw in a couple dressier ones if you think you may go out and do something more fancy. I bring 1 comfortable shirt per day plus a dress top or 2.
  • Sweaters/Sweatshirts. I’m a cold person, so I always make sure to bring 1 or 2 of these, no matter what the season (because AC!). I recommend packing neutral sweaters that go with any of the tops you packed.
  • Pyjamas. Everyone has that one item they always forget. For me, it’s pyjamas. Trust me, sleeping in regular clothes is not fun. Make sure to pack something cozy to sleep in.
  • Jackets. Aim to bring 1. If you need both a casual and a dressy one (for example if you’re going hiking in the winter but don’t want to wear your hiking jacket while in town), then bring 2. I usually wear my jacket on the plane/train/in the car so it doesn’t have to fit in my carry-on.
  • Shoes. This is critical people. Always, always, always bring a couple pairs of shoes. I aim for 3:
    • 1 comfy pair on my feet (either the easiest to remove to make going through security less of a pain or the bulkiest, to save space in my suitcase),
    • 1 dressier pair,
    • and a second comfy pair. Your feet will thank you.
  • Underwear. 1 per day plus 1. Because you’re never safe from a period sneak-attack. Unless you’ve already gone through menopause. Or you’re a man. But in that case you could still run into other issues. Just bring an extra pair, okay?
  • Bras. Number of days in your trip ÷ the number of days you wear your bras. Unless you’re a man.
  • Socks. 1 per day plus 1. Because if it rains your feet may get wet and wearing wet socks is the worst.
  • Scarves. If you don’t wear scarves, then you can skip this one. But for me, these are an essential accessory for every outfit. I usually bring 2, making sure they are versatile and go with the outfits I’ve packed.
  • Jewelry. I bring a 2-3 necklaces and pairs of earrings so I have a little bit of variety without going overboard. The key is to find a small jewelry case so it doesn’t take up much space in your suitcase. I have one with a couple zipper pockets that rolls up. Here’s a similar one (with some bonus features that mine doesn’t have…I may have to get myself a new one…).

Other Essentials

Here’s a list of some other basic items I usually bring. You may have more or less depending.

  • Toiletries. Once again, try to bring only the things you absolutely need. If you’re staying at hotels the whole time, don’t bring shampoo and body wash. They’ll have those in your room. Put any other liquids you have in travel sized bottles to save space. If you’re taking the plane you have to do that anyway, unless you’re checking a bag.
  • Make-up. Pare it to down your daily essentials unless you know you’ll need to get dressed up and will want something more. I usually bring foundation, blush, mascara, and some lip gloss.
  • Glasses and contacts. For those of you who weren’t blessed with 20/20 vision (thanks mom and dad!), remember to pack glasses, back-up contacts in case they tear, and contact solution.
  • Hair appliances. If you’re staying in a hotel, you don’t need to bring a hair dryer. There will be one there. I promise. If it’s not in the room, ask at the front desk. If you have to bring a straightener or a curler, see if you can find a travel size one. If you’re traveling abroad, make sure it’s dual voltage.
  • Laundry bag. Bring a mesh bag to put your dirty clothes into to keep them separate from the clean ones.
  • Electronics. Don’t bring your computer unless you have to (if you’re going on a work trip, for example). You’ll have your phone and in most cases that will be enough. If not, some hotels do have a computer in the lobby you can use. You can always call ahead to confirm. If you have a camera other than the one in your phone don’t forget to bring it. The only other electronic device I bring is my e-reader (I have the Kindle Paperwhite and I’m obsessed!). And don’t forget to bring chargers for any devices you pack.
  • Travel pillow. If you’re going on a long plane or train ride, a travel pillow is a must. A friend of mine recently recommended the J pillow to me. While it looks strange, it’s the only travel pillow I’ve ever liked (those U-shaped ones never did it for me).
  • Medicine. If you take any medication or vitamins, don’t forget to bring enough for your entire trip. I also recommend bringing any prescriptions you have with you in case you need to refill them while you’re gone.
  • Other stuff. If you have room, bring an extension cord or a power strip. This is a tip my friend Nicole (shout out to my opposite twin!) gave me and I have to say – it’s come in handy more than a few times! Sometimes there aren’t very many plugins in a hotel room or they aren’t placed in very practical spots. For example, there’s none close to the bedside table. If you’re using your phone as an alarm and don’t want to have to jump out of bed to turn it off, this is a real issue.

How to Pack it

Wow, that list got long pretty fast! But if you know how to pack, you’ll be able to fit it all into your regulation size carry-on.

In your smaller bag or backpack (A.K.A. your personal item)

  • Your purse. If you have a purse, make sure it fits inside. Otherwise you may have to check your roller bag (the horror!) due to having 3 carry-on items instead of 2.
  • Liquids. If you’re flying you’ll want these in an easy-to-access place so you can take them out when you go through security. I like to put them on top of my tote bag or in the front pocket of my backpack.
  • Makeup and toiletries. Put in a separate, leak-proof bag. You don’t want to learn the hard way what it’s like when your contact solution leaks onto your clothes.
  • A change of clothes. If your bag gets lost you’ll want something to change into.
  • Anything you can’t live without for a day or that’s expensive and/or irreplaceable. If you’re forced to check your roller bag at the gate, it’s important you still have the essentials. If you’re lucky, they give it back to you on the jetway. If you’re unlucky, you’ll have to wait for it at the baggage carousel as if you’d checked it. The good news is that it’s usually free. The bad news is that you’ll have to wait and there’s always the off chance your bag will be lost for a couple hours or days (or forever if you’re really unlucky, but that has yet to happen to me–knock on wood!). To be safe, I always put all my electronics, chargers, medicine, eye stuff, jewelry, etc. in this bag.

In your roller bag

  • Clothes. Roll them. If you’ve heard this before and scoffed at it, scoff no more! Try it out. You won’t believe how much space it saves.
  • Socks. Put them in your shoes. It will not only save you space but keep your shoes from getting all bent out of shape in your suitcase.
  • Shoes. Put each individual shoe in a plastic or fabric bag to keep the soles from touching your clothes. Packing each shoe separately helps avoid wasted space. Place the flat side of the shoe towards the outside of the suitcase, so there’s no gap. For high heels, put something small between the heel and the rest of the shoe, for example a pair of underwear. Thanks to the bag, you don’t have to worry about getting them dirty.
  • Everything else. Pack the rest wherever there is room, while still trying to maintain a sense of order. If you throw everything in haphazardly, you’ll have trouble finding things once you arrive. For example: all your t-shirts, all your pants, etc.

Hopefully these tips will help you ditch your heavy suitcase and join the carry-on club. If you’re already an expert packer, do you have any other tips for me? Please share in the comment section. I’m always looking for ways to lighten my load! 🙂

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