After traveling to 6 continents (including Antarctica), and more than 25 countries, I have finally managed to perfect my techniques for packing light and layering. Whether you want to carry-on in order to avoid baggage fees, are worried about having your luggage lost, need to make a tight connection, or just want to escape the airport quickly once you land, here are a few tips that can help you get all of your necessities into a small bag.
We believe in saving money, and that may come by way of saving baggage fees, or using a coupon on a hotel, car rental or airfare. Baggage fees can be an expensive addition to your ticket price, and by packing light, you can save yourself quite a bit of money – especially if you are flying with your family!
Some current baggage fees as of February 2017 are:
- Alaska Airlines: $25-75
- American Airlines: $25-150
- Delta Airlines: $25-150
- Jetblue: $20-100
- United Airlines: $25-150
- For a more comprehensive list of fees, take a look at Travelocity’s page
STEP 1: FIND THE PERFECT SUITCASE
Depending on where I’m traveling to, I will either use my Burton Flight Deck bag, or a North Face Base Camp duffel bag.
How I choose? The North Face is my choice when I am going somewhere that I want to carry a bit of my snorkeling equipment or if I know that I will be on a tiny airplane that may have requirements about soft-sided luggage. If you don’t carry a normal backpack with you, the backpack straps work particularly well and help mask the size a bit.
If I’m traveling to a city, or know that I will be moving the bag from place to place, I have come to love my Burton Wheelie Flight Deck travel bag. You can fit a ton into this bag, but it still meets most airline restrictions.
These are my preferred bags, but any bag that meets carry-on requirements will do.
Here’s my Burton wheelie flight deck bag ready action for my two week trip to Ireland and Morocco:
STEP 2: DECIDE WHICH CLOTHES TO TAKE WITH YOU
The key to packing light is layering. I recently went to Morocco for two weeks with a group of 16, and I was proud to say that I had the second smallest suitcase – and was only one of only two people who could carry-on. This was essential because I knew that I would be making multiple airline changes, and would need to clear customs in a hurry to make my connecting flight.
How did I do it? By layering and packing clothes that coordinated well together (stick to one or two color families) and layering.
First, I grabbed my must haves:
- Two pairs of jeans, plus one pair of more lightweight pants that I could wear on the plane and for more rigorous hiking
- Two sweaters: One thin and one medium weight sweater that I could wear in the evenings
- Two shirts: One linen for the heat, and one cotton for the evenings
- T-shirts (Cariloha bamboo v-necks are my favorites)
- Socks and other undergarments
But the layering magic came in to place when identifying the items that could help me remain comfortable in the desert evenings and daytimes in the cities:
Patagonia Houdini jacket
This is an extremely thin and light jacket that blocks wind and rain. I kept it in my camera bag every day just in case I got chilly, and it works well as both an outer and inner layer. I found that wearing it under my hoody (see below) provided a lot of warmth when walking around near the coast or in the mountains, but it was also comfortable to wear with a t-shirt when needing to cover up a bit and not overheat.
Arcteryx Covert Hoody
One of my favorite pieces because it feels like a fleece, but looks much more presentable.
It looks much more like a sweater than a sweatshirt, and it’s great for the plane ride if you get chilly. The cut allows you to fit quite a few layers under it, so this is a key layer when you don’t have a jacket with you.
Patagonia Nano down vest
This is a very thin vest, but is really warm. I wore it over a tshirt on some days, and over a sweater when I needed a bit more warmth. This works great as a second layer, but also when combined with multiple layers because it is so thin. You can even wear this under or over the fleece if you need additional insulation, and the interior pocket is handy for excursions where you want to keep some items a bit more protected. Shopping today? Here are some Patagonia coupons.
Smartwool long sleeve shirt
When reviewing the itinerary for my trip, I noticed we would have a night in the desert where it would get chilly. Rather than packing a separate jacket that I would only use once, I decided to bring along a smartwool long sleeve shirt. When you think of these, you probably imagine snow, but these make a great layer over a tshirt or under a jacket in lieu of having to bring a jacket along. Even though it was only needed once or twice, it still took up much less room than a jacket.
Toms Classic shoes
When I need to travel light, I generally wear my bulkiest shoes on the plane (generally sneakers), but I know that I sometimes feet need a break. The original TOMS shoes fold down to an almost flat state, so they are very easy to pack (and light). While they are far from dressy, you can often get away with these in the evening if the rest of your outfit is put together well, and save yourself from bringing yet another pair of shoes.
ExOfficio Give-N-Go undergarments
If you are a traveler, you’ve likely run across ExOfficio. I first discovered them before heading to Africa because I was aware of their BugsAway line, but I love their underwear because they are easy to wash in the hotel room and dry quickly.
A scarf is a perfect accessory to throw into your suitcase. While I don’t often wear one at home, it makes it very easy to dress up a pair of jeans for a nicer night out and doesn’t take up much space in your bag.
While my packing list is more geared toward adventure travel, you can follow the general premise and look for layers that suit the weather conditions and your activities.
STEP 3: FIGURE OUT WHEN YOU CAN DO LAUNDRY
Look at your itinerary. Do you have more than one night at a hotel? If so, that’s a great time to have a pair of jeans and shirt washed.
Yes, it can be expensive to do laundry at a hotel, but when you think about the cost of washing a pair or two of jeans versus the cost of checking a bag, it still works out to your advantage both in terms of time savings and usually in terms of money, as well.
I often wait until the last couple of days to do laundry so that I have something clean and fresh for the trip home. Long haul flights are bad enough, but long haul flights in jeans that you’ve worn even once make the journey home that much worse.
Once you’ve considered this, take a second to purge anything that you may not need now. It’s a perfect opportunity to leave that extra pair of pants or shirt at home.
I have also started bringing some of the small Tide laundry detergent packets along on long trips (usually available at Target, Walgreens or CVS) for washing unmentionables in the sink. The packets take up minimal space, and you’ll feel better about wearing the clothes you wash with real detergent.
STEP 4: MAXIMIZE THE SPACE IN YOUR SUITCASE
We’ve talked about clothing, and I’m assuming that you have pruned and rationalized your selections a bit. Now, let’s assume that you’re going to need every last inch of space.
if I’m using the Burton bag I mentioned above, I’ll open it up and stick socks and undergarments in the wheel well area until it becomes flat.
you’ve likely heard about rolling clothes, and it’s true – it does take up much less space. I roll all of my t-shirts, especially around the sides of the bag that often go under-utilized. This can be your second layer.
while shoes can go on the sides, I have generally found that placing them top down in the center area fits better (this way the flat soles are up). Belts can also be snaked around the side of the suitcase.
In general, I always put shoes on the side of the suitcase that has the hard back so that the soft side doesn’t bulge and cause flight attendants any reason to measure my bag. Make sure to put your most “squishy” clothes on the bottom of the soft side (which becomes the very front of the bag) for the same reason, and place your more rigid items in the middle of the bag.
Think of packing light as a game of Tetris. Alternate rolling clothes and folding them to ensure you don’t leave any open nooks & crannies in your bag. My bag has two separate sides, so I tend to put my folded clothes on one side and rolled clothes on the other.
You’re ready to go, but here are 7 more tips!
1. Minimize the need to iron.
Covering your folded shirts with a thin plastic dry cleaning bag can keep them looking much more crisp when you arrive at your destination.
2. Easy access to toiletries.
Even though I have TSA pre-check and Global Entry, I usually put my toiletries toward the top of the bag, just in case I need to remove them.
3. Pick up some packing cubes.
If I happen to be traveling with a duffel bag, I have found that packing cubes are a great way to maximize space. While I use them occasionally in my regular suitcase, I think that ability to stack actually works better for me in the duffel and keeps things organized for easy unpacking/repacking.
4. Bring snacks from home.
I like to pack snacks from Trader Joe’s in my suitcase whenever I travel internationally because the occasional hankering for American food hits. If you can manage to fit these in your bag, it creates a bit of open space for souvenirs.
5. Carry a dry daypack.
When traveling there are days that you want a backpack, but trying to pack a spare when you’re traveling light can take up much needed space. I found this Sea to Summit pack, and it now makes it into my suitcase nearly every time I travel and takes up essentially no space. It allows me to keep my camera backpack or laptop bag in the hotel, but gives me quite a bit of flexibility and is water resistant. Get the Daypack on Amazon.
6. Balloons make great gifts.
One of the best tips I received from a fellow traveler was to bring balloons with me for kids in impoverished areas. They are easy to pack, are much healthier than candy, and made the kids smile!
7. Sign up for Pre-Check and Global Entry.
This will save you time and make your time in the airport slightly more tolerable! Some of the Amex credit cards will even refund your enrollment fees for Global Entry.
Ready to take off? Find some hotel deals here.