A messy suitcase replete with junk weighs you down, begets baggage fees, and wastes your time (when you’re continuously rifling through your stuff in search of one thing or another).
Further, it exacts an emotional toll: Clutter can affect your mood, causing you to feel overwhelmed and frustrated. So dump the junk. A combination of careful planning and ruthless purging will help you get rid of items you don’t need to bring on your travels. (And watching a few episodes of Hoarders probably won’t hurt either.)
Here are eight simple steps to streamline your suitcase and lighten your load.
How to De-Junk Your Suitcase
Have you ever thought about cleaning your suitcase? Not just cleaning it out—cleaning it. A fresh, hygienic bag is the best foundation for organized packing. In Budget Travel‘s A Neat Freak’s Guide to a Clean Suitcase, Chuck Horst, president of Margaret’s Cleaner’s in San Diego, advises wiping down suitcases with Lysol: “Every time you use your luggage, I would take a damp rag with Lysol and just give the bottom of the bag and the handles a quick once-over.” Lysol Disinfecting Wipes would work well, too. Suck up crumbs with a DustBuster or a vacuum attachment, and spritz some Febreze inside your bag to deodorize it. (This is particularly important if your pets like sitting inside your suitcase.)
While you’re at it, clean out your wallet (remove any credit cards you won’t use during your trip), your purse, the pockets of your travel jacket, and your packing organizers.
Set a Goal
Set clear intentions for the quantity of items you want to bring on your trip. Whether you plan to cart a single carry-on bag or a small army of checked suitcases, determine the amount of luggage you want to accompany you on your trip before starting the packing process. Consider the following: airline baggage fees, the length of your trip, the weather in your destination, the activities you foresee undertaking, and the amount of poundage your arms and back muscles (and those of your companion) can comfortably wield. By setting a goal prior to packing—and sticking to it—you can make sure that the volume of stuff you pack is predicated on careful logic, not some last-second shoe-hoarding impulse.
You’ve decided on the number of bags you want to bring. Now start scheduling. Do you follow a smartphone calendar or use a day planner? Add your packing process to your agenda. Set aside a few hours one or two days prior to your trip to pack and organize your things. Slow and steady wins the best-packed bag. Delay until the day you depart and you’re left with little time to pack a carefully de-junked set of suitcases.
Even when traveling, keep packing in the back of your mind. Did you stumble upon the perfect airplane outfit or a winning ensemble for a daylong hike? Take a picture of your best travel getups, and keep them in a folder on your computer or tack them to the inside of your closet door. When a pair of shoes or an outfit really works for you on the road, you’ll want to remember to pack it for future trips.
Make a packing list. Then, arrange the list in order of what you need most to what you need least. The stuff toward the bottom? Perhaps you should leave those items at home with the cats.
Consider the 10 or so things at the end of your tally and ask yourself some questions: Can I travel without this? Can I buy this for an affordable price on the road? Will this take up a lot of space in my bag? Have I packed this on a previous trip, and did I use it? Adopt a take-no-prisoners approach to purging your packing list. If you are strongly questioning whether an object will be of use during your travels, it’s safe to say you’re better off just axing it from the packing list.
Invest in Travel-Specific Products
Stock up on quality travel supplies and you’ll be less inclined to pack junk. Think like a backpacker. Backpackers have some admirable packing skills, which are enhanced by the fact that they tend to get ahold of the right products. They maximize minimal bag space by investing in expert gear: lightweight bags, quality walking shoes, breathable travel clothes, multipurpose toiletries; this is how they manage to fit weeks’ or even months’ worth of equipment in a single pack.
You can replace armloads of superfluous effects with the right kind of products, from smart multipurpose travel clothes to e-readers, which eliminate the need to pack bulky books. Read our product reviews for more ideas.
Use Packing Organizers
A place for everything and everything in its place: It’s not easy to fit a ton of junk in a well-organized bag. So create suitable places for your things by using packing organizers. Option one: Purchase packing cubes, packing envelopes, or other such bag organizers sold everywhere. Option two: Get creative. Rubber bands, plastic grocery bags, pillow cases, bubble wrap, tissue paper, lightweight Tupperware, trash bags, large (and small) zip-top bags, etc.—you don’t have to spend money on packing organizers if you have any of these items sitting around the house. I save the plastic zippered cubes in which bedding is packaged to use as suitcase organizers when I travel; they’re sturdy and clear, so it’s easy to see inside each cube.
Create a Place for Essential Items
Now that you have your suitcase organizers, decide how you want to arrange your things. The process of creating a dedicated space for each item will help you to eliminate needless junk. Some ideas: Put preplanned outfits in packing cubes. (For the sake of simplicity, we’ll say “cubes” here, but this could be a bag, an envelope, etc.) Put clothes for the first leg of your trip in one cube and clothes for the second leg in another cube. Or just put socks with socks, shirts with shirts, and so on. Do whatever works for you.
Most importantly, make sure you have a dedicated spot for your passport, wallet, keys, identification, boarding pass, medications, and other essential items, as well as any items that you might need to access quickly while in transit. Keep your umbrella in an easily accessible zippered pouch on the exterior of your suitcase. Put your wallet and passport in a secure, zippered jacket pocket or in an easy-to-access zippered pouch in your carry-on. Get more ideas from the Best Ways to Carry Money While Traveling.
Create a Place for Things You Will Accumulate
Commit to de-junking your bag throughout the duration of your trip—not just while packing.
Consider what you might add to your bag during your getaway: receipts, souvenirs, dirty laundry, magazines, newspapers, spare change, brochures, postcards, snacks, etc. Then set aside a space for anything you intend to keep. Pack a plastic envelope for papers such as receipts and postcards, designate a compartment in your suitcase as a travel laundry bag, or slip a gallon-sized plastic bag in your purse for storing snacks. This will help keep your bag neat and organized while you’re on the go. And it’ll discourage you from squirreling away random pieces of junk in your suitcase.
How do you de-junk your suitcase? Share your tips in the comments!
More from SmarterTravel:
- How to Pack for a Week in a Carry-on Bag
- 9 Unusual Travel Tricks That Really Work
- 10 Things to Do the Day Before Your Trip
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2013. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.