How to Pack Smart for a Trip


February 20, 2011   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

With skillful packing, you can avoid checking a bag (and the fee) when you take a short trip. For longer trips, you can save money and hassle by checking only one bag.

If I travel by myself for three days or less, I bring only a carry-on. Four or more days require checking a bag, especially in the winter with bulky sweaters.

If you must check a bag, assume your luggage may be lost or ransacked. To ease the potential pain of packing, fees, and the overall frustration that gets in the way of a great trip, consider a couple of these!

    1. Never check any valuables.
      Luggage gets opened after it is out of sight; it takes just one dishonest bag handler to put your valuables at risk. Airport employees robbed celebrities Lil’ Kim and Sarah Ferguson of their jewelry. I didn’t think it would happen to me until it did. 
  • Don’t put cash in your luggage.
    Sounds stupid—who would do that? I did once. As I walked out of my apartment, I worried that I had too much cash in my purse and I stashed half in the side pocket of my suitcase. My suitcase disappeared for nine days. Unbelievably, the money was still there, but my vacation was over.
  • Carry essentials on the plane with you.
    Absolute essentials might include medication, contact lens solution, make-up, a clean pair of underwear. If your luggage gets lost, and is not returned to you the same day, you can avoid making a midnight run to a drugstore.
  • If you are traveling with a partner, discuss your joint luggage strategy.
    If you must use two bags, there are two methods of packing with a partner. One, each person can pack all their clothes in their own suitcase. Two, each person can pack some clothes in each bag.I like separate bags because I stay more organized. But, if a bag gets lost, one person will have no clothes and the other will have all their clothes. Method Two balances out the risk of lost luggage.
  • Conserve space and avoid wrinkles by rolling—rather than folding—your clothes.
    An old navy trick, I’m told. Fold shirts, pants, and skirts in half the long way. Then roll them up tightly like you’re rolling a burrito.
  • Stick to one base color for your wardrobe.
    All my tops can go with either a brown or black base. Pants, skirts, shoes and purse should be only one of the base colors. Mix-and-match outfits will be a breeze, if you don’t stray from the foundation color. White can also work as a base color.
  • T-shirts in neutral colors can be your best friend.
    Bring at least one black and one white t-shirt. T-shirts in basic colors go with everything. Dress them up with a skirt and jewelry for the evening.
  • Lay all clothes you are considering on the bed before you put them in the suitcase.
    Count the days you will be gone, plus the evenings you will go out. Count your outfits. The same number? Then that’s too many.Put a few things back in your closet. Wear basics several times; no one will notice. Exception: do not skimp on underwear. Always throw in a couple of more pairs than the number of days you will be gone.
  • If shopping is on your destination agenda, save room in your suitcase.
    If you must sit on your suitcase to close it, it is too full. If you plan major shopping, consider packing an empty soft duffel-type bag in the larger bag to carry home your purchases.
  • Pack shoes in plastic grocery bags.
    Avoid getting your clothes dirty from the bottoms of your shoes. Shoe bags can be purchased for this very purpose, but why? It seems wasteful–a reused grocery bag works just as well.
  • Assume that anything that can leak, will leak.
    I am a fan of the Ziploc. Pack anything not solid in them, especially goopy stuff like sunscreen. I learned this lesson the hard way and I learned it many times. Once, I had an aerosol hairspray spray its entire contents inside my suitcase.
  • If you travel frequently, keep your toiletry bag packed between trips.
    I like the cosmetic bags designed for travel, the ones unzip a bunch of different ways. With the strap, the bag can be used as a carry-on. Or remove the strap and pack it inside your luggage.
    Buy duplicates—preferably miniatures—of all your necessities: hair styling product, cotton pads, QTips, etc. Use the short Ziplocs (the ones that hold carrot sticks) 
  • Tuck a written list of toiletries in your bag
    This tip sounds neurotic I know, but I swear it works. I used to forget the same thing every time I traveled. Why do I have a mental block against packing a razor? Now before a trip, I check my bag against my list and I’m done. And I never forget anything. 
  • Pack a few remedies for unexpected ailments and accidents
    My toiletry bag includes a few Band-aids, Immodium, Tums, etc. Feel good and enjoy your trip.


Written on 5/21/2009 by Kate Mortell. Kate is a graduate of Marquette University and lives and works in New York City. She writes the blog,, a collection of travel journals and commentary on real estate, animal rights, gun control and whatever else might be under her skin at the moment. Republished on 2/20/2011. Photo Credit: mararie

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