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Packing Light: Ten Ways to Fit it All in a Personal Item

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Air: Passengers waiting in line (Photo: iStockphoto/Gene Chutka)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on May 29, 2010. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, baggage, JetBlue, Kate Sitarz, packing, Spirit, taxes and fees.

Spirit's latest fee for carry-on items got us thinking: Is it possible to vacation with only a 16x14x12-inch bag? The answer: Yes. Get your ruler out, and prepare to dodge baggage fees, because this is how to do it.

Use your pockets. JetBlue poked fun at Spirit's fee with a photo of a man wearing a suitcase-turned-shirt. However, the airline's idea wasn't far off the mark.

Scottevest travel clothes include reasonably stylish coats that are designed to hold a carry-on's worth of items. The company claims the jackets prevent potential pickpocketing by having interior compartments, and make it easy to go through airport security since you can remove your jacket without taking everything out of its pockets. The Essential Travel Jacket comes with 19 pockets (18 on the women's version), is wrinkle-resistant, and has removable sleeves. Other options include waterproof jackets, sweatshirts, tops, and shorts, all with tons of pocket space.

No matter what type of coat you're traveling with, wear it on the plane and make the most of the pockets by packing them with any items you'll use during the flight, such as books, snacks, and music devices.

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Reuse clothing. Packing neutral-colored clothes (think blacks, whites, and grays) makes it easy to mix and match; a couple of interchangeable tops and bottoms can create infinite combinations. For inspiration, consider Sheena Matheiken, who wore the same dress for an entire year by accessorizing with items such as scarves and belts. Jewelry is also another way to change up the same outfit.

Pack the right fabrics. Worried about wrinkles? Remember, some fabrics travel better than others. You can purchase clothes made with travel in mind, but chances are there are items in your own closet that will do the trick. Pick knits over woven items, and opt for blended fabrics, especially those with a bit of spandex or polyester.

Do a load of laundry. If you don't have access to water to wash your clothes, you're likely not the type of traveler that's concerned with having a new outfit for every hour of the day. Washing, whether by hand, at the hotel, or around the corner at a Laundromat is a quick way to get more mileage out of the same outfits.

Leave (some of) the toiletries behind. If you're staying at a hotel, chances are you'll find soap, shampoo, and conditioner in your room. Many hotels also offer extras such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, razors, and shaving cream upon request.

But if it's a challenge to go without your favorite products, brush up on the 3-1-1 rule to avoid any unpleasant surprises as you go through security. Also consider non-liquid toiletries to avoid the 3-1-1 hassle all together.

Check, and recheck, the weather. Lay out everything you think you need for your trip at least one week before you leave. As it gets closer, look at current weather reports to see temperatures and forecasts for your destination, and determine what items you can definitely remove. Wear your bulkiest clothing items such as pants, a coat, sunhat or baseball cap, and shoes on the plane. Pack smaller, lighter items such as your t-shirts, shorts, swimsuit, and sandals. Skip items you can go without or that you can find at your destination, such as hair dryers.

Use compression bags. Several of our readers are super-light packers, and already use compression bags to pack a lot into a little space. If you set out everything you think you absolutely, without-a-doubt must bring and it still won't fit into your bag, try putting your clothes in a vacuum bag to reduce the volume. It may even free up some space for extra items.

Pack nothing. It takes guts to take off to a new destination with nothing, but you might feel a sense of liberation. Bring an empty backpack or small duffel with you for the return trip to hold anything you bought. Purchasing necessities at your destination may be more expensive, but it's also a great way to ensure you bring home useful souvenirs rather than a bunch of tchotchkes. You can always rent items at your destination.

Excluded items. There are, thankfully, several items you can take that do not count toward your baggage allowance, including umbrellas, cameras, infant diaper bags, and outer garments, including hats and coats with stuffed pockets. Bassinets, child car seats, strollers, and wheelchairs are accepted as checked baggage at no charge.

Ship ahead. Have must-pack items that won't fit in one bag? Consider sending them to your destination in advance via UPS, USPS, or another carrier. You'll pay a fee, but the cost is sometimes more reasonable than the exorbitant airline charge, depending on your carrier and what you're packing. This is also a good option to consider for any souvenirs.

Limiting yourself to the essentials will provide you with a vital tool: mobility. You can tote your bag through the airport with ease, and can start sightseeing immediately without having to schlep luggage into museum coat-checks. Instead of packing all the items you might need, pack only the items you will need. Chances are you won't miss what you leave behind.

Have you ever packed for a vacation using only a personal item? What are your tricks for packing light? Share your tips and advice by leaving a comment below!

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