We all do it at one point or another, or maybe still do – over pack. Packing can be tough for so many people, and I used to over pack a TON. If I was going on a week-long cruise, I would bring one of those HUGE suitcases filled to the brim, over the 50-pound mark, and still have a garment bag with me as well. Talk about excessive! Basically, I would have been prepared with enough outfits for the ship to go missing in the middle of the Atlantic. Needless to say, I have learned a lot about packing from my travels and even lived out of only a carry on and college-sized backpack for a month traveling in South Africa (in winter too!). If I can do it for a month, I promise you can do it for your vacation! And as a special bonus, get your own free printable packing list at the bottom of this post!
If you’re going to be packing in a huge suitcase, you will feel obligated to pack it full! If you start with the mentality that you have to fit everything into a small carry on roller or duffle, you will immediately start prioritizing what you actually need to bring, and what things you are willing to sacrifice.
You don’t need to make this huge jump right away, I know we are all partial to our “creature comforts” and love habit, this is no different than any other habit. If you’re used to checking a huge suitcase and bringing a carry on, try downsizing slowly. Consider checking a smaller and smaller bag each time you pack, until you aren’t checking a bag at all! Start paying close attention to each item you bring in that huge suitcase, which ones you don’t use at all, and which are your staples. This is a big part of realizing what you can reasonably leave at home on your travels.
When you’re ready for just a carry on, I recommend a hard-shell roller bag. They always fit in the overhead bins on flights and are sturdy enough to protect any fragile items you may have. Plus a roller bag is easier to carry than a duffle that can be heavy and awkward. I also like to stack my personal item on top of my roller when I’m walking, to take any extra strain off my back! This is the one I’ve been eyeballing for a while now!
We’re not getting into the logistics of playing Tetris with your clothes and suitcase just yet (but don’t worry, that is coming in a second!) We’re talking about the things you do and don’t need. Don’t pack 3 outfits per day because let’s be honest, you’re not going to use them and then you have more laundry to do later (and who likes doing laundry). I can almost guarantee you don’t need 3 pairs of jeans – colored or not. Traveling is about the destination, not the fashion, so plan to pack things that work for the location.
A general rule of thumb that I like to use for outfits is to pack outfits that can be used interchangeably. I typically pack with a lot of whites, denim, and some colorful pieces that can be layered on the neutrals. I like to pack a couple dresses, ONE pair of jeans (I promise, you don’t need more), a couple pairs of shorts, and use the two-piece outfits to my advantage! Packing a two piece is super useful because you can interchange a plain top with the skirt/short bottom, or vice versa! Remember, less is more: if you can use one pair of shorts with 3 tops, you’ve got three different outfits! Check out how I was able to use one top for two completely different trips, in two completely different seasons in the images to the left! It was hot and sunny in Bermuda, so I paired it with some light cotton shorts, but cold in South Africa, so wore it with jeans, booties, and had a leather jacket on top (not pictured). You want to have lots of outfit options but want to keep the amount to a minimum, so it will all fit in your carry on! I don’t want to bore you with lots of lists, so I’ve made a printable list that you can use on your trips! The list is designed for a 1 - 2 week trip but is about the same amount that I packed for a month in South Africa, I just did one load of laundry in the middle of the trip. Check out the packing list that I use as a starting point for all my trips below!
For toiletries – only bring the essentials that you can’t live without or that you can’t replace on your trip. For example, pack your toothbrush, a mini toothpaste, a face wash (it’s best to keep your skincare routine the same to prevent breakouts or reactions from a new product), deodorant, etc. Leave the shampoo, conditioner, and body wash at home and purchase a travel-size when you reach your destination! If you do want to bring your own shampoo and conditioner, consider a solid shampoo bar to save on space and reduce plastic consumption! You can check some out here!
Makeup is a similar situation – don’t bring ALL your makeup, you’re not going to be using it! Bring your everyday staples and a small eyeshadow palette (I bring the Tartlette palette, small and has every color I could need!). Only bring the brushes you know you need, and if your palette, bronzer, powder, or other product has a small brush that fits in the packaging – use that one instead of bringing a full sized brush!
How to fit it all in your bag
Now that you’ve cut down the amount of stuff that you are packing, here’s how I manage to fit all of that into one rolling bag. I promise it's possible, and you might be surprised that you have some extra room!
Packing cubes – these will be a Godsend if you’ve never heard of them. They help to organize your clothes into easy-to-remove packs and help fit everything back into the suitcase when you’re all done! The ones I use are pictured to the right, and I love them! While they are not the ultra-compressible ones, like some are, I find that they help me prevent bringing too much in the first place! I typically use the smallest one for my toiletries and makeup, then try to use the smallest cubes first to avoid over packing. I use the “shoe” bag for all of my undergarments – bras, undies, socks, and even my bikinis! It helps keep the loose ends organized and separated from my actual outfits. Another tip from (@flying_behind_thesun) is to use vacuum sealed bags – they work as a great alternative to packing cubes!
When packing your cubes full of your clothes, the best method that I have found (along with many other travelers) are to roll them! Rolling your clothes helps to prevent wrinkles, and saves a ton of space! When you roll your clothes and put them in your packing cubes, you will be amazed how much space you have even though you’ve packed all of these versatile outfits into your carry on! Another piece of advice from me is to fold your bulkier items, rather than roll them –things like coats and jeans seem to pack better lying flat on the bottom of the packing cube.
Bulky, odd shaped items like shoes can be a hassle when it comes to packing, but I’ve got a couple options for you here. First of all, definitely wear your bulkiest shoes – that way you have maximized the amount of space in your carry on. For the remaining pairs – you have two options. The way I like to pack my shoes are stacking them one on top of another, toe to heel. My friend Courtney on Instagram (@little.brave.travels) offers another solution: pack your socks and undies into your shoes! This helps minimize space and also maintains the shape of your shoe! She has another tip for a popular bulky item – hats. While I don’t travel with hats most of the time, bringing a hat to a warm and sunny destination is sometimes necessary. If you’re going to be packing it, she suggests turning it upside down and filling it with bikinis to protect the shape! Great idea!
Time to sit on your suitcase and try to zip it!
Just kidding… if you follow the above tips, you should actually have a little wiggle room in your suitcase still if you put them in there correctly. Since I’m referring to the hard shell carry on - I’m going to explain how I pack the cubes into the suitcase itself. Most hard-shell suitcases have two distinct sides. The “bottom” which has the bumps from the handles and elastic straps, and the “top” that has a zipper that closes off that whole section. Everyone has their own way of packing, but this is what I’ve found to be most effective.
On the “top” section, I organize all of my packing cubes that contain clothes, with the largest at the end with the wheels, and lighter items (like blouses, undies, or bikinis) at the other end. That section should zip up pretty flat, with maybe some extra room. Use that extra room to your advantage and pack a lightweight, foldable duffle or travel bag to use for souvenirs (if you need it!) Another option suggested to me by (@maarjaressar and @osbronlikelebron) is to bring a lightweight bag to use for laundry, to keep them separate from your clean clothes (or here’s an idea – use that big packing cube that comes in the package)!
On the “bottom” section, I use the ridges from the extendable handle to my advantage. I place shoes parallel with the handles down by the wheels. Since I have 2 pair with me, and one on my feet, that leaves the third section open for my cosmetics bag. My toiletry bag goes towards the other end of the suitcase, and if I have extra room or a packing cube that just doesn’t quite fit on the other side – I can place it there! That space is also good for packing your charging cables, universal adapter, hat, or other miscellaneous items you may have.
But wait, what about electronics?
As I mentioned early on into the post, I usually have a personal item with me (like this floral backpack I used in NYC) as well as the rolling carry on. This is where I put my valuables. Not only does it ensure that they are with me in the event my roller gets checked at the gate, but it gives me something to do on the plane. Everyone’s personal bags are always packed differently, so I won’t go into too much detail, but this is typically what’s in mine. Cameras and lenses, laptop and charger, over-ear headphones, reusable water bottle, phone and charger, a book to read, wallet, and any other personal items I usually carry in a bag. If I’m bringing a cross body bag or a little backpack for a day pack, I’ll usually stick it in here too (if there’s extra space in my carry on, it’ll go in there instead). There is more on packing a personal item in the printable packing guide.
I hope you find this helpful and that you can learn to slowly overcome the packing dilemma that we all face at one time or another! Did I miss any tips? Comment down below and share yours so we all become better packers! Don’t forget to look out for my YouTube video at the bottom of this post!
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