How to Pack Like a Pro
Packing can sometimes be one of the most anxiety-producing parts about travel. Being confident that you brought the right things in your bag will relieve stress and start your trip off in the right direction. There’s nothing worse than walking out the door for a trip and having anxiety about what you packed and whether or not you brought the right stuff. I’ve learned quite a few tips and tricks over the years, so I figured I might lend some advice to those who are packing-challenged.
Without running the risk of sounding self-absorbed, I must say that I am a damn good packer. I almost always manage travel with only a carry on—even for trips that are several weeks long—and I’m here to teach you so that you can too. You absolutely can travel with only a carry-on for every type of trip.
In this post you’ll find my 10 tips for packing light for carry-on travel, as well as several sample packing lists that you can use for different types of travel. I’ve included my sample list for a business trip to Vegas, my packing list for two weeks of winter travel in Morocco, Italy and London (in just a 46 L backpack), my list for two weeks in Bali, as well as for a more upscale trip to Paris in the fall and a girl’s trip in the summer.
I know what you’re thinking: “But I have a ton of different types of events, all requiring different attire! How can I fit formal and casual attire all in one carry-on size bag?” Well, it’s not quite as difficult as you think—as long as you pack methodically and plan it out.
Allow me to provide an example: I go to a lawyer conference in Las Vegas for business in September of each year. September is still hot in Vegas, but the conference meeting rooms are freezing cold and require professional clothing, not casual stuff you can wear by the pool. Even though I generally have a ton of different events—all requiring different attire of course—I always manage to do it in one small carry-on bag and a large purse. I need to have professional clothing for three days of the conference, fancy dresses and heels for nice dinners and evening networking events, golf attire for a couple rounds of golf, pool stuff for pool parties and casual clothes for free time. Keeping it light is always a bit difficult in light of all the different things I end up doing, but I seem to always manage to make it work. In all honesty, I think it’s even easier to pack for much longer trips, as long as your activities aren’t so varied, like in this example.
One of the most common reasons that people pack too much is because of a fear of not having enough “stuff”. Though your go-to is probably to bring more rather than less out of fear you won't have the appropriate attire, you will thank me when you're not lugging a 50 pound giant suitcase over cobblestone streets in Europe or trekking through Asia. It takes some strategy, but it certainly can be done. Here are some of my tips:
1. Pick a Color Scheme
By picking a color scheme of clothes, shoes and accessories that are all similar, you ensure that just about everything you bring will match, which allows you to use pieces more than once if necessary and also ensures that if you are not in love with one particular outfit, you are not required to wear it.
For example, I like to either go with a color scheme of black, white and grey (with a few pops of color) or a more neutral color scheme of brown, tan, navy and white. With a black/white/grey color scheme, you can pack silver accessories and black handbags and shoes, which will match with everything you want to wear. For a neutral color scheme, I choose handbags in shades of brown or tan, bring gold jewelry, and pick footwear in similar shades of brown or tan.
For a trip I took to Europe in the winter, I chose to stick with a black/white/grey color scheme. I wore my charcoal grey coat (it was still super hot when I left LA, so I draped it over my arm getting on the plane, then in the overhead bin during the flight) and black riding boots, since they were my bulkiest items. I packed several pairs of black skinny jeans, my black motorcycle jacket and shirts in mostly whites and a few other colors. I chose to bring one large black handbag and one small black cross-body bag. While this might at first glance sound like I am going to wear all black, I'm not. I also brought some white jeans (yes, it's okay to wear white after Labor Day...) and blue jeans, and my tops and sweaters were mostly white and grey, with some color thrown in here and there. I brought both silver and gold jewelry since my riding boots had gold hardware. I brought colorful scarves and a colored top or two to add in some diversity and make sure I wasn’t just in black and white every day.
For a trip to Hong Kong I packed quite a little bit differently. That city is so much more conservative and the attire tends to be quite a bit dressier. Most of the nicer restaurants and lounges won't even let you in if you are wearing sandals and a tank top, they will turn you away. That happened when we wanted to pop into the Mandarin Oriental bar around Happy Hour for a quick drink. So although the temperatures are warm, dressy attire is still required.
That leads to the next point: it's hot in Hong Kong, even in October (which is when I usually go to HK). So the trick is wearing things that are dressy, but not in heavy fabrics, while keeping in mind that tank tops and sandals generally don't cut it. So for that trip, I wore my running shoes on the flight (we were planning to do a lot of hiking while there) with casual, comfortable clothes (because it's a 15 hour flight and damn it, I want to be comfortable). Then my bag mostly consisted of workout clothes for hiking, dresses for nice dinners, 1-2 pairs of comfortable heels that are versatile (think nude or tan pumps that can be worn with a lot of different things; those hot pink tassel heels—though cute—won't match with as much so leave them at home), a couple sweaters to cover my arms in restaurants, and flowy, lightweight but slightly dressy tops and pants for daytime. Since the color scheme I picked was navy, tan, white and brown, I chose jewelry in gold tones. I also packed my tan cross body bag for day, a nude clutch for evening and then brought my large Louis Vuitton bag (which is no longer available but similar to this one) on the plane since it fits my iPad, headphones, wallet and other accessories
2. For Toiletries and Makeup, Travel-Size is a Must
After I started traveling more for work, I went out and got two clear travel bags (clear so that you don't have to take all your liquids out and put them in a plastic bag when you go through the airport). One is for makeup (and is shaped like a small makeup case) and the other is slightly larger and holds toiletry items like shower stuff, face wash, my toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, mini razor, etc. Then I went out and hunted down everything that I typically use on a regular basis and got a second item for my travel kit, often in travel size as long as I could find it. So that way when I would leave for a trip now, I never have to pack what I use at home. I just grab my travel makeup bag or my travel toiletry kit and go.
You may be thinking, "But it would be sooo expensive to go out and get two of all the makeup products I use!" Nope. Bring samples. I am a Beauty Insider member at Sephora and make a point of purchasing all of my makeup and skincare needs at Sephora to rack up points. When I get a lot of points, I use them not to try new items they offer, but to get smaller sample sizes of the items I already use. For example, I love the Make Up For Ever Sens'Eyes makeup remover. The standard size is rather large and I am pretty sure it is more than the allowed 3 oz. for a carry-on. Thankfully I was able to get it using my Sephora points in a travel size (and they now also have it available for purchase). I now have two: one large one that I use everyday and one small one that permanently stays in my travel makeup bag.
You can also use points at places like Sephora to get small mascaras, foundations, primers, eye shadows... you name it, they have it. It may take a while to build up your repertoire, but it is definitely worth it. And most of the time they also sell a lot of the items in a travel size version as well.
For example, in my travel makeup bag I have the following:
Sample size Make Up For Ever Sens'Eyes makeup remover (Sephora points used)
Sample size Dior "Diorshow" mascara (Sephora points used)
Travel size eyeshadow compact by Smashbox (purchase the same one here)
Travel size blush, highlighter and bronzer trio (with travel-sized brush) by NARS. It is called "The NARSissist Cheek Kit." This might be one of my favorite, must-have travel items. That was a promotional item that I used points for, but you can get a cheek/blush duo from Nars here.
Sample size primer by Urban Decay
A multi-tasking makeup brush, like this one.
Sample size mineral veil by Bare Minerals (Sephora points used)
A full size foundation by Bare Minerals (because I use it a lot)
Several perfume samples (This is an easy sample to come by. You can even go into the store and ask a sales associate to make you a sample of whatever fragrance you want)
Travel size moisturizer by Murad (which I purchased in a Murad starter kit, which you can find here)
A mini "multitasker" brush by Sephora. You can purchase it here.
I also have some random one-time use sample packets of foundation, face primer, face sunscreen and lipstick.
In my toiletries bag, I have the following items:
Travel-size shaving cream (you can buy at most drugstores)
Travel-size toothpaste (you can also buy at drugstores)
A full-size toothbrush
A small comb that I took from a recent stay at a Ritz Carlton Hotel
Packets of Q-tips and cotton pads that I also brought back from a Ritz Carlton
A full-size razor (just go out and buy two, it won't kill you!). Or they also make smaller, more compact versions like this one.
A travel size shower ball (in the travel section at the drugstore)
Sample size Kate Sommerville "Exfolikate" body and face wash, like this.
A travel-size deodorant
A sewing kit (that I also took from the Ritz Carlton. Den't worry, I am not encouraging you to steal... they are all free)
Hair ties and/or headbands
A compact brush, like this one.
Travel size sunscreen
They also make travel-size mini flat irons that are great and super small.
Finally, I find that one of the best and most important things I travel with is a good travel-size dry shampoo. Life saving! With these, I can go up to 5 days without washing my hair, and you wouldn't even know it. I like Ouai and Amika Perk Up Dry Shampoo--each available in travel size.
Notice anything missing? You might have noticed that I did not include shampoo, conditioner or body wash. Why? Well if you are traveling to any remotely reputable hotel chain, they will have these things there for you. Unless you have skin sensitivity or absolutely require a particular type of shampoo or conditioner, it will not kill you to use another type of shampoo for a few days.
One great thing about having these two items that are always ready to travel is that you don't have to wait until the morning you leave to finish packing. Before I got these two items squared away, I used to have to wait to finish completely packing until after I got ready in the morning, so I could throw in things like my toothbrush, deodorant, hairbrush, foundation, etc. By always having these two travel bags already packed and ready to go, you can not only pack much quicker, but also can pack several days in advance if you don't need to wear anything that you are planning to pack in between the time you pack and the time you leave.
3. Pick Versatile Items
This one seems like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised. Packing that multi-colored Clover Canyon top is probably not the best bet if it only matches with one thing. Ask yourself, "Do I absolutely have to wear this on the trip?" If the answer is anywhere even remotely close to no, then don't bring it. Stick to neutral items that can be used more than once if necessary and also that will match with more than one outfit.
Jeans and shoes can be worn more than once. It will not kill you to wear a pair of jeans more than once. In fact, I doubt anyone will even notice. And with shoes, any time you can wear the same pair more than once it is a bonus since shoes take up the most room out of anything--especially heels! I will admit, I have a harder time packing in one carry on for a three day trip to Vegas than I do a week long trip to Hawaii. The shoes just take up so much damn space, so the less you can bring, the better.
For business trips, I like to pick one or two "three piece" suits. Not a three-piece suit in the traditional sense, but for women it means a jacket, the matching pant, and the matching skirt. This way I can wear the pantsuit one day and the skirtsuit another day. I also make sure to bring tops in wrinkle-free fabrics (Brooks Brothers makes a great non-iron shirt, like this one here).
Also, be sure to bring a purse that will not only match with everything but will withstand the beating of travel. Though I'm sure you'd love to bring that gorgeous Céline Phantom bag in beige supple calfskin with fuchsia suede interior, not only does it not really match with much but since the leather is so porous that a simple drop of water or rub against the wrong surface can stain the bag, it's not the best for traveling. I usually go with something more heavy duty, like a Louis Vuitton damier azur canvas shoulder bag, which I linked above. It's more durable, won't get ruined in the rain, and can hold a ton of stuff.
4. Plan It Out
If you are having some difficulty determining how much stuff you will really need, map it out. Write it down. Think to yourself, "What am I doing on Monday? What will I want to wear on Monday? Will I need any other outfits (like a nighttime outfit to change into) that night?" Do this for every day that you are there. Then you can get a better grasp of exactly how much stuff you will need.
Then when you are all done, look at some of the “outfits” you have chosen and see if any can intermingle. Ask yourself, “Can I wear those black jeans twice instead of bringing one pair of black skinnies and one pair of blue jeans?” If the answer is yes, take out the pair of blue jeans. Identify things that you are okay wearing more than once but that can match with other outfits so you don’t end up having to wear the exact same thing twice.
5. Be Neat and Tidy
This also might seem like a stupid suggestion, but it is an important one. Be sure to neatly fold all of your garments so that they are in organized stacks. For dresses and things that wrinkle, roll them up and place them against other items so they do not move. The neater you pack your items, the more stuff you will be able to fit, and you will also get the benefit of not having a bunch of wrinkled clothes.
6. Pack Methodically
How you pack stuff matters too. Fill up your bag with all the large items first. I like to put neat stacks of jeans and t-shirts at the bottom, side by side. Then I put any shoes I have along the sides. Then I take the smaller items (things like socks, underwear, bags of jewelry, etc.) and stuff them into the remaining crevices. Things like socks, swimsuits, underwear and small pouches of jewelry can typically fit nicely into the small open spaces.
7. Use Packing Cubes
If you are going on a longer trip, packing cubes such as these will be helpful. They basically allow you to put folded garments into nicely organized cubes that are easier to stack side-by-side or on top of each other. And a bonus is that you don’t have to take everything out of your bag to get to a particular item. You simply take the packing cubes out and only unzip the cube that has the item you are looking for.
They come in all shapes and sizes, but I recommend getting a package of 3 or 4 in different sizes. I like using these. The largest fits things like jeans and bulkier items such as jackets, the middle size perfectly fits folded sweaters or dress shirts, and the smaller cubes are great for things like socks and underwear, charging accessories, etc.
I actually found the large cube really useful for a ski trip that I took to St. Moritz because I was able to fit all of my super bulky ski gear (ski jacket, ski pants, gloves and thermals) into one packing cube. What’s great is that it not only squishes the items down and makes them take up less space, but since I was only skiing a few days out of that trip, I could completely ignore the whole cube of stuff until I was ready to use it. And then when I was done skiing, it went back to the bottom of my bag, never to be opened again during that trip.
8. Bring Travel Accessories (Duh).
I typically do not travel with a hair dryer, because most of the hotels I stay at provide one. However, when traveling to places where I know I will need my own, I bring a travel sized hair dryer. I purchased one by Revlon at Ulta, but you can find a similar one here. It is super compact because it is both small and it folds in half. If you use a flatiron on a regular basis, I would also purchase a travel-sized flat iron such as this one.
I also have a multi-port usb charger outlet that I also just keep with my travel stuff. Typically this is the only charger I will bring. It has the ability to charge both my iPhone and my iPad at the same time, which is all I really need usually. It also has two additional ports for my Apple Watch charger and the charger for my Beats wireless headphones (a must for the plane but also multi-purpose if you plan to work out). You can purchase a similar charger like the one I use here. What's great about it is that it has interchangeable ports, so when you are traveling internationally, you can just change the port for the destination you're going to and then you don't need a different charger or a converter each time.
9. Make a List
In the days or weeks before your trip, start making a list. I say to start this process because you should allow yourself more than one particular moment to think about this. Doing it all in one fell swoop is how people forget things. I guarantee you that you will make a list a few days ahead of time and over the next couple of days think of additional things that you initially forgot.
I like to use the “Reminders” App on my iPhone because it lets you seamlessly add items to the list and then check them off when you go back through your stuff to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything. This way you can start a list, have it with you on your phone, and then when you think of something else, you can simply add it to your ongoing list.
10. Wear Bulkier Items To and From
I find this to be a very important part of the equation. If you need to bring a big bulky jacket, wear it on the plane (or train or car—however you may be getting to your destination). If it's too hot where you are currently but you are traveling to a colder country (perhaps on a ski vacation, for example), just drape that coat over your shoulder. Even if you are leaving sunny Los Angeles and arriving in near-freezing Paris, you can simply bring the jacket with you on the plane without packing it. Personal items such as coats do not count as carry-ons. And that way you won't take up a bunch of space in your bag with a big bulky coat or down jacket.
Also choose to wear your bulkiest shoe, if possible. For example, for my last trip to Europe I wore my riding boots on the plane. They are comfortable and keep my feet warm, but they take up a ton of space in my bags. So I wore those (and my coat, of course) on the way there and back so I don’t have to pack them in my suitcase, leaving room for other items.
For example, even if you don't need to wear a coat when you leave (which I often don't, since it's usually 75+ degrees in Southern California, even in December), you should still "wear" it on the plane so it doesn't take up unnecessary space in your suitcase. Coats are not included in the item allowance for carrying stuff on the plane, so it makes sense to just sling it over your arm if it's too hot to wear it. Then you can stow it in the overhead cabin with your luggage above you when you're on the plane.
Similarly, hats are always good to wear on the plane as well, as you can wear a big floppy felt hat and then just take it off and stow it away when you don't want to wear it, and that way you don't have to worry about ruining your hat by having to squish it into a bag and have it lose its shape.
Wearing your bulkiest pair of shoes is also a nice way to save space. Any time I plan to travel with riding boots, I always wear those on the plane because they take up the most space of any item I usually want to bring. And wearing your bulkiest pair of shoes on the plane is particularly helpful in wintertime when you might need thick, bulky weatherproof boots. You can always take them off when you go to sleep for extra comfort. I always remember to wear a comfy pair of thick socks so my feet stay warm even with my shoes off. For this trip, I will be traveling in waterproof, fleece-lined hiking boots like these (which are not only super bulky but also rather heavy) so I plan to wear them on the plane.
I also like to sling my headphones around my neck before I board the plane so that they are ready when I want them and I don't have to go digging through my bag to get them.
Follow these helpful tips and you should be on the right track to being able to fit more stuff in a smaller bag, hopefully a carry-on so you can avoid waiting for your baggage or worse--losing your luggage.
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