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How to Pack a Suitcase: The Ultimate Guide

SmarterTravel

Packing a suitcase may seem like a straightforward task—but do it wrong, and you could end up losing valuables, paying overweight baggage fees, or cleaning up messy spills. That’s why it’s vital to learn how to pack a suitcase the smart way.

The tips below offer guidance on every step of packing a suitcase, from choosing a bag to the eternal debate between rolling and folding your clothes. (Spoiler: You might want to do both.) I’ve also included specific advice for packing a carry-on vs. a checked bag.

Start with the Right Suitcase

The “right” suitcase is different for everyone. If you need a large bag to check, you might prefer a hardside suitcase that’s durable enough to stand up to some rough handling. A softside carry-on might be preferable if you don’t usually check bags and like having a couple of external pockets to stow things like an eyeglass case or your quart-size bag of toiletries. No matter which kind you opt for, test each bag before you buy to be sure it rolls smoothly around corners and that the handle length suits your height.

Keep in mind airline size and weight limits when choosing a suitcase. Remember: Airlines include the wheels, not just the actual packing space, when measuring carry-on height—and many bags that are marketed as carry-ons are technically too tall to fit into some airlines’ bag sizers. For checked luggage, every pound counts; you might want to seek out ultralight luggage that won’t eat into your weight allowance.

For more help, see Choosing the Right Travel Luggage.

How to Pack a Suitcase

Start by making a packing list a few days before your trip so you have time to pick up any last-minute items.

Once you’ve laid out everything you need, start with the heaviest items first. You’ll want to put them toward the bottom of the suitcase when it’s standing (i.e., the side with the wheels) so it won’t be too top-heavy. Distribute heavier items evenly between both sides of the suitcase so it won’t be pulled off-balance when it’s standing.

When packing shoes, don’t let any space go to waste: Fill them with socks, undergarments, or other small items. If they’re dirty, pack the shoes in a plastic bag or put a shower cap over the soles to protect the rest of your bag.

Some travelers swear by rolling clothes; others prefer to fold. But the best way to pack a suitcase is often a mix of the two. Wrinkle-prone items tend to come out in better shape if you fold them, but tightly rolled clothes are easier to work into the little nooks and crannies around your bag. My own strategy is to put my shoes in the bottom half of my suitcase, fill the top half with rolled clothing, and then fold bulky items like sweatshirts or rain jackets and lay them on top of everything else.

Packing cubes or sleeves can help keep things organized, especially in a larger bag. If you’re sharing a suitcase with a partner, you can each use packing cubes in a different color to help you immediately spot whose gear is whose.

If your suitcase has exterior pockets, use them for items to which you need ready access, such as sleepwear for the first night of your trip.

Never over-stuff your suitcase. If the zippers are straining before you even leave home, one of them might break along the way. Open the bag again and see what you can live without.

Tips for Packing a Carry-on Suitcase

For airport security reasons, you may not bring full-size bottles of shampoo, sunblock, or other liquid or gel substances in your carry-on. These substances must be in 3.4-ounce (100-milliliter) bottles or smaller, all stored within a single clear, quart-size plastic bag. Since you may have to pull this bag out at airport security, you should keep it in an easily accessible place—such as an exterior pocket on a softside suitcase or near the top of your hardside carry-on. For more information, see Airport Security Q&A.

Keep in mind that your carry-on may be within an airline’s size limits when empty, but could quickly become oversized if you stuff every compartment full and use any expanding features. Note that some international airlines have weight restrictions for carry-ons as well.

Even if your carry-on is within legal limits, you might still be forced to gate-check it on smaller planes or sold-out flights—so pack accordingly. That means making sure the bag has a luggage tag in case it’s lost, and that any important or breakable items are easily accessible in case you need to transfer them to your personal item in a hurry.

Tips for Packing a Checked Suitcase

Packing too much can cost you dearly in overweight baggage fees, so weighing your bag with a luggage scale before you leave home is always a good idea. If you’re right up against the weight limit, though, keep in mind that the scale at the airport may be calibrated a little differently; give yourself some margin for error.

Never trust an airline with anything important, lest it be damaged, lost, or stolen. That means items such as prescriptions, car keys, cameras, and jewelry should always be placed in your carry-on bag or personal item, not your checked bag.

If you have to transport anything breakable in your checked bag, cushion it with clothing or bubble wrap. Bringing home wine? Use a sleeve designed just for that purpose.

Protect your bag from spills by putting toiletries into a zip-top plastic bag or by putting plastic wrap under the caps of the bottles, as demonstrated in 3 Genius Packing Hacks for Plastic Wrap.

Label your bag with your name, email address, and phone number so the airline can contact you if it loses your suitcase. The address of the hotel where you’ll be staying is also worth including, but you might want to leave off your home address for security reasons.

Do you have a black suitcase that looks like everyone else’s black suitcase on the baggage carousel? Tie a colorful ribbon around the handle or mark it with some brightly colored duct tape so there’s no chance anyone else will mistake your bag for theirs.

Finally, you might want to lock your luggage to discourage theft. Just make sure the lock you choose is TSA-approved so security agents don’t need to cut it off to access your suitcase.

For more advice, see 10 Things Not to Do When Checking a Bag.

More from SmarterTravel:

Follow Sarah Schlichter on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.

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