Some travelers jam two weeks’ worth of gear into their bags for a long weekend. Others pack a bit too lightly and forget important things like medicine or passports. Savvy travelers strike the perfect balance and bring just what they need—with a little help from this list of road-tested travel packing tips. Read on to become a packing expert.
Before You Start: Make a Packing List
When it comes to packing, procrastinators fall short. Start your packing process days or even weeks ahead of your departure date; this gives you time to craft a packing list, plus purchase any additional items you might need for your vacation. Creating a packing list is a fail-safe way to ensure that you never, ever forget to bring something important.
SmarterTravel’s ultimate packing list is the best place to start. You can also consider the following lists for specific trips:
- The Essential Beach Packing List
- The Essential Carry-on Bag Packing List
- The Ultimate Holiday Packing List
- The Ultimate Cruise Packing List
- The Essential International Packing List
- How to Pack for an African Safari
- The Ultimate Ski Trip Packing List
Packing Tips to Avoid Wrinkles
When packing your clothes, in many cases you don’t want to neatly fold them individually as you would in a dresser. If you do, they will often crease when compressed. Here are a few alternatives.
Backpackers swear by this method. Rolling works well with pants, skirts, and sports shirts. Lay the item face down, fold back the sleeves (if applicable), and then roll from the bottom up.
Folding Clothes Together
Take two or more garments, for example a couple of pairs of jeans, and lay half of one pair on top of the other. Fold the one on the bottom over the pair on the top. Then take the other and fold it on the top. This gives each pair some cushion where you’ve folded it so it’s less likely to crease or wrinkle in the folds.
The Bundle Approach
We learned this ingenious method of packing from Judith Gilford, author of The Packing Book. It’s a bit difficult to explain without a demonstration, but we’ll do our best. You need luggage that opens up and lies flat to do this. You will also need a flat, soft, pouch-like rectangular “core” with dimensions that are at least 1/2 to 3/4 the size of your luggage compartment. This can be a packing cube filled with underwear or something similar.
Start with a sports jacket, dress, or the longest, most wrinkle-prone item you have. With the collar or waistband flat, place it against the bottom edge of the bag and drape the rest of the garment over the opposite side of the bag. Take another garment and place it in the opposite direction, flattening and smoothing out both garments in the bag and draping the remainder over the side. If you have pants or other narrow items, do the same with them in the narrow direction of the bag. Keep alternating your items, ending up with the most wrinkle-resistant clothes you have.
When you finish, place your “core” in the middle. Now you’re going to start folding the garments over the core and each other in the reverse order you put them in. If you fold something over and there’s excess draping over the sides of the bag, tuck it underneath the bundle you are creating.
What you will end up with is a bundle of all of your clothes that looks like a pillow. You can pick it up in one piece. It’s compactly packed and doesn’t waste any available space in your luggage. Plus, because of the way things are folded, your clothes will wrinkle less.
To find something in the bundle, lay it flat and unwrap until you reach the layer you want. Take the item out and refold the remainder. If done properly each layer should result in a self-contained bundle at each layer.
For delicate items, consider using tissue paper. Lay the item face down and place tissue paper on top. Fold it up with the tissue paper inside. Use additional layers of paper as you fold the garment so it is completely wrapped in and around paper. This is easy enough the first time you pack, but becomes a pain if you have to keep repacking. For that reason, it’s best to use this approach only for evening clothes you don’t want to crush.
For more tips, see How to Avoid and Remove Clothing Wrinkles While Traveling from What to Pack, SmarterTravel’s sister site.
Space-Saving Packing Tips
To avoid baggage fees and make your luggage easier to carry, use the following packing tips to organize and cut down your load.
Use Packing Aids
Use Eagle Creek Compression Sacs to shrivel your clothes into a vacuum-packed, tiny, tight bundle that takes up minimal suitcase space. Other packing aids that can help you organize better and fit more into your bag include garment folders and packing cubes. A cheaper alternative? Ziploc bags.
Layer and Pack Dual-Purpose Garments
This space-saving advice is twofold: Wear layers and pack in layers. First, your on-the-road wardrobe should feature plenty of layers, which will help you jetset through multiple climates in style and comfort. Second, the items in your bag should be packed in neat layers for easy screening. According to the TSA, “Pack items in layers (shoes one layer, clothes one layer, electronics one layer, etc.)” so that the security agent screening your bag can get a clear picture of what’s inside. The faster the TSA agent can screen your stuff, the faster you’ll get through the security line.
If it’s two-in-one, it’s one less thing to pack. Convertible clothing, such as pants that turn into shorts or dresses that can be worn multiple ways, is worth its weight in airline baggage fees.
Wash Your Clothes on the Road
Laundry facilities are one of the best parts about staying in vacation rentals. If you know your accommodations will have free laundry facilities, you’re golden. You can wash and wear just a handful of outfits for the duration of even very long trips.
If you’re staying in a hotel, check in advance to see if laundry services are available and how much they cost. Travelers staying in properties without laundry facilities or taking cruises—cruise lines are notorious for charging an arm and a pant leg for laundry services—can wash clothing in sinks and hang them to dry. Consider bringing a travel clothesline, a small packet of laundry detergent, and a universal sink stopper to make your own travel laundry kit. You can also consider packing the Allurette wash bag for delicates.
Air Travel Packing Tips
To keep from running afoul of security regulations, keep this essential packing advice in mind.
Follow The 3-1-1 Rule
What happens if you don’t follow the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) 3-1-1 rule for carry-on luggage? Attempt to bring a large bottle of shampoo or a full-size gel deodorant through the security line and the TSA will likely confiscate your stuff, holding you up in line in the process.
You may not pack liquid or gel substances in your carry-on unless they are in individual containers of 3.4 ounces (100 ml) or less and enclosed in one clear, quart-size, plastic, zip-top bag per passenger. Any larger containers of liquids and gels must be packed in your checked luggage. For more information, see Airport Security Frequently Asked Questions.
It also helps to know which items are considered liquids or gels and thereby subject to the 3-1-1 rule. This isn’t as simple as it sounds. Foods such as peanut butter, pudding, mashed potatoes, and icing are classified as gels. Mascara, lip gloss, and aerosol items are also classified as liquids or gels. But keep in mind that liquid prescription medication is exempt. Check whether certain items are allowed on the TSA website.
Know Your Airline’s Baggage Fee Policy
Figuring out the airlines’ often-befuddling baggage fee policies is key to any budget-minded packing strategy. While most airlines permit travelers to check at least one bag on international flights, the majority of U.S. carriers charge fees for bags checked on domestic flights—and some even charge for carry-on bags as well.
Before you begin packing, take a peek at your airline’s website and read its baggage policy. This is something you might even want to do prior to buying your plane ticket, especially if you’re set on bringing a checked bag or two. Consider flying on Southwest, which still permits up to two free bags. (For help packing lighter, see Ultralight Travel: How to Pack Light Every Time.)
It’s standard for airlines to permit each traveler to bring one carry-on bag and one personal item onboard planes. This personal item is subject to specific size requirements (these vary by airline), but something like a purse, laptop bag, or backpack is generally acceptable. Consider bringing a personal item that’s on the larger side to maximize space (though it should still fit under the seat in front of you).
Never Check Essential Items
It’s important to keep your valuable and essential belongings in your carry-on bag, not in your checked luggage. Your passport, identification, money, credit cards, jewelry, electronics, and other valuables should always be brought onto the plane with you. If the airline loses your luggage (or if a TSA agent gets sticky fingers), you’ll regret stowing your expensive watch in a checked bag.
If you’re inclined to secure your bag against unwanted intruders, use only TSA-approved locks; otherwise, if your bag is selected for random screening, agents will have to break the lock to get inside. Do not stack books and other documents on top of each other; instead, spread them out throughout your bag.
Readers’ Best Travel Packing Tips
Over the years, our well-traveled readers have shared their own packing tips and tricks.
It’s in the Bag
“I buy two-gallon Ziploc bags to use when packing. I pick out a complete outfit (shirt, pants or skirt, underwear and socks to match—all wrinkle-free materials) and pack them in the large bag, removing as much air as possible. This prevents having to rummage through the clothes to find coordinating items and messing up the suitcase. I make sure that I have one bag per day or event, then just pull out a bag and get ready!” —Debbi G.
“Being ‘of a certain age,’ I take quite a few daily medications. Rather than take bulky hard plastic containers, I pack all my pills in miniature zip-lock bags. I label these with permanent marker and put them all in a sandwich bag. They take up no room at all!” —hari
“I went to Japan last year, and took one of the extra huge zip-top bags with me and used it as a washing machine! I was able to get a LOT of clothes into it at once. I just put in the clothes, poured in the soap, filled it with water, and then agitated it around in the tub until the clothes were all clean. It made the washing and rinsing a breeze, and my clothes got much cleaner than if I was just washing in the sink.” —USRoadTripper
“Instead of packing toner or astringent for the face, I put cotton balls in a heavy zip-lock bag and pour toner or astringent on it—one ball or two per day. That is one less plastic bottle to pack. Same format for moisturizing lotion: Buy a cheaper quality lotion just for the trip. Put it in a heavy-duty plastic bag and use it from this bag morning or night while on the trip—one less container.” —Carolyn S.
Make a List and Check It Twice
“Create a master packing list that includes everything you might need for any trip, and then highlight the items you will need for a particular trip. My list has been invaluable and helps me to remember things that don’t readily come to mind.” —Tim H.
“My best packing tip is to tuck your packing list into your carry-on when you are done packing. If your suitcase gets lost, you have a list of everything that was in it. On a more positive note, I also carry a photo of our suitcases. That is invaluable when trying to answer the question, ‘And what do your suitcases look like?’” —BonnieC
Reduce and Reuse
“I ask my older relatives to save for me the plastic bottles where their prescription pills come. These usually have childproof caps which means that you can put liquids in them and they won’t spill. So I use them for all liquids I need to pack. The small ones are good for one-time use of shampoo, cough medicine, liquid laundry soap, etc. The medium and larger sizes I use for longer trips, because I can put enough liquid in them to last for a few uses. When they empty, I just throw them away. And when I return home my relatives have a few more bottles waiting.” —Conchy
“Preparing for a three-week cruise, I decided to go to the back of my closet and pull out the clothes that I would not necessarily have chosen as ‘the pick of the day.’ They were all right, but not my favorites. I chose either to donate to charity along the way or to chuck the items. WAHOO! Loads and loads of weight reduction, not to speak of extra space for shopping and/or souvenirs.” —Joko
“My tried and true trick for keeping special fabrics and/or items of clothing wrinkle-free is to use the plastic from your dry cleaning (save those plastic wraps). Lay it out flat on the bed, place your item of clothing on top of the plastic (use two pieces if you must, but the longer pieces of dry cleaning plastic, like the kind for coats and dresses, always work), and begin to carefully fold your clothing so that each fold is wrapped, i.e., every bend has a piece of plastic in it. Once done, carefully place the clothes in the part of your suitcase that has those ‘X’ straps on one side—OR, if you don’t have that, put the wrapped pieces on the bottom of your suitcase. THIS WORKS!” —Host Bonjour
“I always work out how many days it takes to go through my favorite shampoo, conditioner, and deodorant and then take half-filled bottles because I know that I will run out on the last day of my trip. I can always use the hotel-provided ones for one or two days if required.” —pookyandjo
“Have a ‘travel’ bag filled with duplicate lotions, shampoo/conditioner, slippers, etc. put away for trips. I keep mine in a small shopping bag so when my next trip comes up, all I have to do is reach in, pack what I need (seasonal items like suntan lotion don’t always go), and I’m ready! When you return from each trip, refill or purchase what has been used. It saves so much time.” —Sallie J.
Outsmart the Airlines
“With the airlines weighing bags to increase their fees, you can put many heavy items in your pockets. You could even sew extra large pockets inside of your jacket to carry more onto the plane and transfer them back into your carry-on later.” —hbuhr
“After having checked luggage go missing on a trip, my partner and I always mix items in the bags. Day and evening wear, underclothes, and footwear for each of us in both bags, that way we each have something to wear until the lost luggage turns up!” —Vee
“I always pack my carry-on as if it’s the only bag I’m taking. I know all my essentials are there, including a change of clothes. Then I pack my checked bag. It’s a bonus when it arrives with me.” —Wendy
Everything in Its Place
“I like to pack a foldable suitcase inside my regular suitcase. My husband and I can’t stand having our dirty clothes mixed in with our clean clothes. The second suitcase works great; we just dump our dirty clothes into the second bag and don’t have to worry about odor or remembering which layer is the dirty layer. It also gives you more room for souvenirs.” —traveljunkie6987
“I have two absolute favorite jewelry tips. For necklaces and bracelets, INDEX CARDS! Tape the end to an index card and wrap it around the card, then secure with a hair tie. For earrings, safety pins, bobby pins, and other random items, wash out an Altoids tin. They are metal, snap securely shut, and pack just about anywhere in a suitcase. (Also worth doing: Make a sewing kit and pack it in an Altoids tin.) —gotsparkly
“I always bring a sheet of bubble wrap—small bubbles—for any breakable items I might buy along the way. I am sure it’s saved more than one treasure I have gotten home safely, and it takes up no space at all.” –sunnyflies
It’s Good to Have Options
“I always pack two different pairs of comfortable walking shoes, because no matter how comfortable the shoes are, after a full day of walking, your feet will hurt somewhere. By alternating the shoes, you never get to the point where your feet are hurting so much you can’t enjoy the trip.” —chrisnjeanne
“I make sure all my tops go with all my bottoms, so I can mix and match them. I also avoid prints and try to stick with solid colors … if I want to add some color, I add a scarf or some inexpensive local jewelry. I also try to bring lightweight layers, so I can add or subtract them depending on the weather.” —gypsychick
What are your top packing tips? Share them in the comments below.
More from SmarterTravel:
- 10 Things Not to Do When Checking a Bag
- 3 Genius Packing Hacks for Plastic Wrap
- 7 Things Not to Do When Packing a Carry-on Bag
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Sarah Schlichter, Caroline Costello, and Margaret Leahy contributed to this story.