I don't claim to be a travel expert, but when it comes to packing, I'm awesome. Most people dread packing; I enter into a state of packing nirvana. For me, it's like fitting the pieces of layered puzzle together. The prize? Getting to go on an exciting trip, of course!
OCD-like raving aside, these days an efficiently packed suitcase gets you more than an easy trip up the escalator. Airlines continue to tack on new fees for both checked and carry-on luggage, and these pesky costs can eat away at your budget before you even arrive at your destination.
Below is a collection of 10 simple tricks for squishing in all that stuff. Unfortunately, there's no miracle solution for a well-packed suitcase. You have to put in some time and thought (and patience) to reap the benefits. But if you do, you'll be sashaying past that flight attendant and dropping the extra $60* on the perfect Paris dress instead!
*Actual amount saved by Travel Girl due to packing efficiency
Roll With It
Neatly folded shirts are great for clothing store displays, but they still take up space in your suitcase! Instead of making your clothes perfectly square, fold them in half and then roll them like you would a towel. Rolling not only saves room, it saves time, minimizes wrinkles, and allows you to fit items into smaller crevices.
Now that your clothes are rolled and ready, it's time to stack them. Larger items like pants and sweaters make up the bottom row, with items getting increasingly smaller as you approach the rim of your suitcase. Keep all of your clothing in groups by type; pants with pants; long-sleeve shirts together, and so on. You can easily snatch a tank top out of your bag if you already know where it lives.
Ball up that plastic bag from your last grocery store trip and stuff it somewhere accessible in your suitcase. When your clothes get dirty, you can just throw them in the plastic bag until you're home or able to do laundry. Separating dirty items prevents you from rifling through your luggage in search of clean clothes and turning order to chaos. This trick works especially well for shorter trips when you don't plan to unpack much. It's also really easy to dump dirty clothes straight from the plastic bag into the washing machine.
You Won't Wear Those
We all like to imagine strutting through the streets of Milan in our trendy red pumps, but ladies, a well packed bag requires altering your fashionable travel fantasy. Heels don't fit into each other like other shoe styles, and the pointy spines are difficult to pack around. And then there's the truth we try our hardest to ignore: high heels hurt! They're great for a fancy dinner, but terrible for a night walking around a foreign city (especially those European ones with the cobblestones — ouch!). Substitute a pair of sophisticated wedges or flats for your stilettos. Both are more packable and wearable, and they can be dressed up with the right outfit and accessories. If you absolutely must bring heels, invest in brands like Aerosoles or Naturalizer, which offer shoes made specifically for comfort. These companies have recently revamped their lines to offer more stylish designs.
You Won't Read That
Vacations seem like the perfect opportunity to finally tackle the stack of books you've been meaning to read. They're not. Unless you plan on plopping down on the nearest beach for the entire trip (totally fine if you do), you'll likely be too busy exploring your destination to make much progress on Tina Fey's new biography. Books eat up room and add bulk, making it more likely you'll be charged for exceeding an airline's luggage weight limits. I'm a book lover, so I would never want to deprive you. Pack the book you've been wanting to read most so you'll be more likely to read it. Paperbacks and shorters novels are always preferable. Long flight ahead of you? Consider downloading books on tape, which will spare your eyes from poor airplane lighting and also shrink your suitcase.
Woman With A Plan
You've mapped out your entire itinerary, so why wouldn't you extend the same courtesy to your wardrobe? Lay out staple items (cardigans, skirts, etc.) from your closet to see what clothes will combine with other pieces to be worn multiple times. Check the weather forecast to pinpoint what you'll need to bring and then start planning. Using a 2-week trip as an example, plan a week's worth of outfits that repeat your outfits. If you're backpacking or traveling to a country where a washing machine is a luxury, do your best to predict a realistic laundry schedule and adjust your planned outfits accordingly (e.g. pack more t-shirts to wear with the same pair of pants.)
Need more ideas? A dark-colored dress in a light weight fabric is low maintenance and can be dressed up or down. Pants and shorts can be worn repeatedly without getting too dirty, so always keep them to a minimum. Statement jewelry is better left silenced at home in your jewelry box. Opt instead for a simple pair of faux diamond studs for everyday wear and one pair of fancy earrings for nights out. Only bring jewelry that you always wear and/or won't miss if it's lost or stolen.
No Size Fits All
When deciding how many bags to bring, stick to the Rule of 3: one large suitcase (the checked bag), one medium bag like a backpack (the carry-on bag), and one small bag (the personal item.) An over-the-shoulder purse with a zipper will hold your important documents and work for daily travel without getting in your way. Your carry-on bag should hold other important items that you want to keep near you like iPods and cameras. Carry-on sized bags are also great for weekend trips if you plan to leave your larger suitcase behind. Low-cost airlines like Ryanair and EasyJet only allow one personal item, so make sure your purse fits inside your packed carry-on bag. For trips that only require a carry-on, pack your toiletries last so they're easy to take out before you go through security.
I hate looking like a tourist, but I'll make the sacrifice if it means saving suitcase space. Wear heavier items like jackets and sneakers on your flight to lighten your luggage. Both are easy to remove and place in a security bin without too much extra hassle and also easy to change out of once you arrive at your destination.
Follow the instructions! Immediately after you book your flights, go on your airline's website and read their luggage requirements. If you don't know the proper luggage measurements and weights before you start packing, you're already sabotaging a successful suitcase. Use your bathroom scale to check whether your bag is the proper weight. Eliminating some items ahead of time is always better than being shocked when your bag pulls big numbers on the airport scale.
Love It or Leave It
We all have them: those articles of clothing that just hang in our closets, waiting. We swear we'll wear them when the perfect occasion rolls around! While it'd be a nice surprise if that opportunity were to occur on your trip, the chances are unlikely. You probably haven't worn it because it's impractical, and there's no room for the impractical in an organized suitcase. My motto: if you have doubts, leave it out! Yes, it's painful at first, but you'll forget all about that sparkly tube top when you're using the extra luggage space to bring back a colorful Indian sari.
Final note: Efficient packing is all about editing. Focus on what you definitely need, not what you think you might use. You can always make up for packing too little, but you'll end up paying more if you overpack. Think of your suticase as a representation of your trip: bring some of home with you, but be open to the place you're about to visit. Happy travels!