Another chapter in my How I Travel series. I’ve already shared What’s in My Carry-on, and How I Use Google Maps to Travel, so I thought I’d share how I prepare for and pack for a trip. I’ve been traveling and living out of a suitcase quite a bit —so far this year I’ve been away from my home base 54% of the year— so here are some insights and some tips on my packing list and preparation.
- Use a master packing list for every trip.
I usually like to go through a final checklist once I think I’m done packing. This allows me to quickly check off major items like underwear and sleepwear (the latter I often forget to pack), and sometimes it jogs my memory about something else I should have packed.
I used to write out a list, but really 80% of what I need to pack is the same, so I started using an app which allows me to create a master list I can use for every trip & just add the special items I need for that specific trip. You can even create lists for different seasons so you can make sure to bring those winter boots & gloves in the winter and your sunscreen in the summer.
- Start packing early.
I usually set out my open suitcase a day or two before I’m leaving, and for longer trips, even 3-4 days earlier. This allows for me to throw a few items I don’t want to forget into the suitcase as soon as I think of them, and get them out of my mind and into the suitcase. If you’re space-challenged or don’t want a suitcase sitting out, designate a corner of your room or a chair to pile a few things on leading up to your trip.
- Choose a color scheme for your clothing.
I’ve gotten better at this the more I’ve traveled, and I’m currently very interested in downsizing my closet to a capsule wardrobe made up of few intentional pieces which all work well together (more on that soon). When I plan on packing for travel, I try to choose a few base or neutral colors, and throw in a few accent colors. I happen to wear a lot of black and navy, so that’s an easy neutral base for me, and then I’ll choose some accent colors (like red, forest green, or eggplant purple) to add in some color. You may wear more browns, tans, or grays and you can add in some complementary accent colors there as well. Scarves (I always pack one in my carry-on) are a great way to add color to an outfit. Here are some scarves to give you ideas.
- Every clothing item must be dual or triple-purpose.
This is very complementary to the color scheme point: every top, sweater, or pair of pants should go with at least two or three other items in the suitcase, and if you’re sticking to a color scheme they should be a lot easier to mix & match. If you’re keen on bringing those neon green pants as part of your color scheme, you’ll need to make sure you’ve got enough florescent or black or glittery gold to make 2-3 outfits with them, or they’re just taking up space. The exception to this rule is dresses which are my favorite 1-piece outfits (sorry guys)!
If you’re looking for inspiration for your closet and/or want to capsulize it for travel, you should check out this Building a Remixable Wardrobe series or How to Build a Capsule Wardrobe. This woman packed for 7 (summer) days in Rome with just 9 items.
- Layers, layers, layers.
As I mentioned above, I usually pack 2-3 scarves of varying colors and fabric weights so I can always be covered & warm in flight (I always have one scarf in my carry-on), and also for them to double as shawls or wraps for lighter tops, tank tops, and dresses. A simple cardigan, hoodie or light jacket is also a must to double up a t-shirt, sweater, or dress. Camisoles can be worn under shirts and also double as sleepwear. For guys, solid color t-shirts and zip-up hoodies or sweaters are good for layering.
- Always have a packed toiletries bag. And refill it after every trip.
I used to pack & repack my toiletries bag each time but soon got tired of forgetting that one thing I was using that morning at home before departing, or not remembering I might need a sewing kit or tweezers on this trip. My toiletries bag is pretty well-stocked for eventualities (maybe fodder for another post?) and is ready to go at a moment’s notice. I invested in making sure I have double of a few things that I use every day (toothbrush, toothpaste, comb, razor, tweezers) so I’m not constantly dipping back into the travel toiletries when I shouldn’t.
I also make it a habit of refilling the lotion, perfume atomizer (I use this one), shampoo & conditioner, face wash, and other toiletries immediately when I get home & unpack so that whenever I depart next, I can be sure that everything in the bag is full and ready to be used.
- Pick and lay out your travel outfit the night before.
For the past few years, I have strongly avoided booking any flights leaving before 9am. I’m a morning person, so getting up early doesn’t bother me, but if I have to get up at 4am for a flight leaving at 6 or 7am, I won’t sleep well at all that night, in effect causing me to lose a night of sleep for a flight that leaves only a few hours earlier. So I tend to shoot for a normal amount of sleep, waking up close to a normal day, and then I leave as little as possible to do the morning I wake up (including packing which is verboten on departure day). I always do is pick my travel outfit, from underwear to shoes, and lay it out so I can close up my suitcase completely before going to bed. And in the morning, I don’t have to make any decisions about what to wear. I just put it on.
- Pack some Ziplocs.
I am a huge Ziploc fan, especially since you still can’t get them in Italy (though I did see them recently in France). I always pack a few quart size Ziplocs, and a few gallon size Ziplocs in my suitcase so I can use them to isolate a food item that has the potential of spilling or stinking up my clothes, to pack away a still-wet swimsuit or dirty clothes, to seal up toiletries which suddenly sprung leaks, or to pack snacks or a leftover muffin into your carry-on. More recently I’ve loved the Ziploc Big Bags which I’ve used for everything from storing winter clothes or my duvet cover to packing one in my luggage if I think I’ll be toting back food items or other goods (the XL bags are great for this) so I can protect my clothes. They also have these Ziploc roll-up space bags which I’ve heard about but haven’t tried yet. Do you get that I love Ziplocs? :)
- Roll your clothes instead of folding.
I don’t always roll everything in my suitcase, but if I’m doing carry-on only traveling, it’s essential. I suggest also doing a mix of folding and rolling even in a normal-size suitcase, so you can tuck items into small spaces and pad other items if needed. In any size larger than a carry-on, I usually run out of weight space before actual space. It’s like Tetris. Packing’s just another logistical challenge to me.
- Get more serious and use packing cubes, space savers, or bags.
I don’t often use packing cubes (I usually run out of weight vs. space) but I did when I was backpacking and it can be a smart thing to do to keep your clothes or toiletries orderly and grouped together. You might want to consider packing cubes to keep your undergarments in one place, pack a special outfit together, or even use a packing cube to pack a backup outfit to stash away in your carry-on. Check out Eagle Creek packing cubes or compression bags, or eBags cubes.
- Pack an extra duffel, travel bag, or additional carry-on.
It’s usually hard for me to predict how much I’ll be bringing back with me on a particular journey. I might get some swag from some event, a friend might bring me something I’ve been craving, or I may even organize an online shopping trip prior to my touchdown. I’ve done several trips with two rolling suitcases and a carry-on, and while I’ve been glad to have the extra space, it’s not the best experience, and bringing over a half-empty suitcase sometimes can cause more problems because things can get knocked around quite a bit when there’s room in a suitcase.
I’ve always carried a spare bag which can be an impromptu shopping or gym bag (like the Flip & Tumble bag I always keep in my carry-on) but lately I’ve upgraded that to bringing actual duffels or travel bags which fold up when unused or lay completely flat so I can pack an option with me. Some brands you should check out are LeSportsac, Longchamp, and other foldable duffle bags.
- Always pack a swimsuit.
This really doesn’t need an explanation. Swimsuits don’t take up that much space, and the one time you have a private hot tub, or can go under a waterfall, or can swim in the ocean, or get invited to a fun pool party, you don’t want to have forgotten the suit. Just pack it. Call it a step towards spontaneity…by planning.
- Keep your shoes in a cloth bag.
I save cloth bags purses and shoes come in to re-use for traveling. I usually pack all my shoes in their own cloth bags, or at the very least my athletic shoes, so that I can go for a run on the street and not worry about a little spare dirt being tracked into my suitcase. If you don’t have one, look into getting a travel shoe bag or two.
- Use the space in your shoes for socks or other toiletries.
It’s an easy tip, but one that I often forget about if I’m not pressed for space. I tuck my socks or sometimes my Zip-locked toiletries into shoes before putting them into the bags. If I’m packing heels, this is a good way to make sure the toes don’t get flattened or concave during travel.
- Check the weather. And pack an umbrella anyway.
If you don’t carry your umbrella in your carry-on like I do, you need to pack one in your suitcase. Weather is unpredictable, and the last thing you want to do when you arrive in a new location is do a frantic search for an umbrella, and possibly destroy your clothes and luggage in the process. There’s also the risk of the return home: I spend plenty of time tracking my destination’s weather, and not thinking much about what awaits me at home, until it’s too late. I like this Totes Micro umbrella but there are plenty of compact umbrellas out there.
- After you’re “done” packing and before departure, go back and take 2-3 items out.
If you’re like me, being prepared means trying to prepare for everything. That leads to overpacking. I can’t curb my instincts completely when it comes to packing everything I think I should need, but I do routinely check myself before I close up that suitcase. Not packing at the last minute allows me some time to think about whether I really “need” those items or if I’m honest with myself that they’ll just take up space. I try to remove 2-3 items (or a whole outfit or two) before closing up my luggage for good.
What about you? Does this look like your packing routine? What packing tips do you have to suggest I haven’t mentioned here?
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