How to Pack a Suitcase

How to Pack a Suitcase To Maximize the Space

If you’re anything like me, packing is the most stressful part of your vacation.  How to pack a suitcase and maximize the space, whether you are going away for a weekend or an extended trip to Europe, is often the most challenging part of the journey.

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It’s Easy to Spot the New Traveler

I hauled a 26″ suitcase and a smaller carry-on around for two weeks on my first trip to Europe.  You may be thinking that you need outfits and shoes for every day of your vacation. How will you ever fit what you need into a small suitcase?

How to Pack a Suitcase

I’m here to tell you that pulling a 75-pound bag behind you over cobblestone streets for days on end will surely make you rethink your whole choice of wardrobe necessities.

Since that first trip, I’ve been fortunate to have many opportunities to improve my packing skills.  Below are some of the packing basics I’ve learned that will keep you looking sharp and help you avoid muscle strain and fatigue.

First, Choose the Right Suitcase

Choosing the right suitcase means starting with the end in mind.  Think about luggage as an investment.  If you buy right, you will likely have this trusty piece of traveling gear with you for a while. 

You want a suitcase to be durable enough for the baggage handlers to throw it into the airplane’s luggage hold and still protect your precious belongings.  But you also want to ensure it is lightweight (pounds saved in the bag’s weight = pounds you can use for more clothes).

There are as many different types of suitcases as there are people: duffle bags, backpacks, 4-wheeled, 2-wheeled, hard-sided, and soft-sided. Take your time and find what is most comfortable for you. I’ve used Briggs & Riley for over ten years now. It is one of the more expensive lines, but I’ve never had a broken suitcase during my travels.

Ensure the Suitcase Fits in the Overhead

If this is a carry-on bag, make sure its measurements fit both US and European standards (yes, they are different).  By the way, the wheels count in the bag’s overall size.

Be sure to check the bag over carefully:  Do the wheels roll smoothly? Is the handle the right length for your height?  Is it expandable?  What is the warranty from the manufacturer?

Now that you’ve found your perfect suitcase… How do you know what to put inside?

How To Pack A Suitcase – Start By Making a List

I was never much of a “list” person.  I didn’t make grocery lists; I didn’t make to-do lists; I generally didn’t make lists.  But as I matured, I realized my lack of lists means I continually re-do things. 

I go to the market, and when I get home, I realize I have forgotten an essential item for my dinner and have to return to the market.  I head out to run errands and come home to realize I forgot to pick up the dry cleaning.  These are annoying outcomes of not making a list.

Why You Should Make a List

If you are in Budapest, and for months, have been looking forward to partaking in one of the best bath experiences in Europe, and you find you forgot your bathing suit…This is more than annoying!

How to Pack a Suitecase

Well, you get the drift.  Make a list.  You can make your own list, and yes, there are many you can download online.  You can even have my fully interactive packing list But please make a list.  You will thank yourself (and maybe me) in the end.    

Check it Twice (or more)

Now that you have your list, it’s time to winnow it down.  Most likely, you checked everything!  You aren’t going to need all that.  Unless you are a “Fashion Influencer” on Instagram, consider this the perfect time to practice your “capsule wardrobe” styling.

Mix and match, my friend, is the key to keeping your bag light. Each top should go with each bottom.  If you have four tops and two bottoms, you have eight outfits.  By adding coordinating accessories and the all-important “third piece,” your four tops and two bottoms can now be even more outfits.

Women's Outfits

How to Pack a Suitcase – Don’t Forget These Items!

Don’t forget to list your medications, glasses, electronics, favorite toiletries, etc. I’ve spent way more time in foreign pharmacies looking for make-up wipes than you can imagine.

If you need a specific item for a not-to-be-missed event (remember those Baths in Budapest), make sure you have that item on your list.

If your trip is longer than a week, plan on doing laundry in your hotel room sink or a laundry mat.   So don’t forget to bring laundry soap. “TruEarth” sheets are great for doing laundry on the road.  These sheets are eco-friendly, easy on sensitive skin, and, most importantly, are not liquid.

How to Pack a Suitcase – Use Packing Cubes

You made your list, gathered your items, and are ready to put them in the suitcase.  How to start?  For me, the only way to go these days is “packing cubes.” I’m a little OCD, and packing cubes makes my life on the road much more organized.

When deciding on what “cubes” to use, make sure to measure the inside of your suitcase (length, width, and depth) and buy “cubes” that will fit. 

Packing Cubes – Packing Methods

Make sure all your suitcases and bags have luggage tags if they are lost.  Keep essential or valuable items to a minimum and make sure they are easily accessible if you need to transfer them to your personal item or your pocket in a hurry.

Suitcase and set of travel organizers with belongings on floor
A suitcase and set of travel organizers with belongings on the floor

There are several methods used to pack with “cubes.” Approach #1 is to put like items together.  i.e., all bottoms go in one cube, tops go in another cube, undergarments together in yet another cube, and so on.  Approach #1 is the one I generally choose.

I recently read about using cubes to manage outfits.  If you don’t subscribe to the mix-and-match capsule wardrobe I recommended above, using cubes to organize outfits may work for you.  If you choose this approach for your packing, you will probably need many smaller cubes.

Folding or Rolling

Should you fold or roll your clothes?  Both methods have merit, but ultimately, whether you fold or roll depends on the item’s material.  For knits, jerseys, and other things that do not readily wrinkle, rolling is an excellent way to go.  This method uses less space to get more stuff in your cube.

However, for cotton or linen (button-down shirts and the like), you probably want to fold.  You will have fewer wrinkles in the end.  You may want to add tissue paper or plastic in between the creases to minimize fold lines when folding.

How to Pack A Suitcase – Work From the Bottom Up

Start with your heaviest items at the bottom of your suitcase, usually your shoes.  To keep any dirt from your footwear from soiling the rest of your stuff, wrap them in plastic bags (I use the shower caps you get in hotels to cover my shoes).

You should use the space inside your shoes to hold your socks and other small items. Don’t let any space go to waste. Once you have a good base, work your way up, keeping the top of the suitcase for your most delicate items.  Be sure to have any liquids in leak-proof bags. 

Weight and Size Are Always Key

Even if your carry-on suitcase meets the airline’s size limits when empty, you can quickly exceed the parameters if you overstuff the bag or use any of the expandable features. In Europe and Asia, there are often weight requirements for carry-ons.  In both of these cases, as well as if you are just on a full flight, you may be forced to check your bag. 

Using a small luggage scale to weigh your bag before leaving home can save you some cash by ensuring your bag meets the weight guidelines.

Person using a hand held luggage scale to weigh suitcase

I like to lock my bag even if I am doing carry-on. This will deter wanna-be luggage thieves from rummaging through your bags. Don’t forget that all locks must be TSA-approved in the US. If not, the TSA will just cut off your lock.

What Can You Bring in a Carry-on?

You don’t want to be that person everyone is staring at in the line at Security.  So check out to see what you can and can’t bring in your carry-on, and remember these crucial tips for your bag. 

  • In the US, you can only have liquids in containers that are 3 ounces or less, and all liquids must fit in a single quart-sized bag.
  • You may need to remove laptops, tablets, and e-readers from your bag for screening.
  • Keep these items and anything you may want with you in your seat on the plane easily accessible.

How to Pack a Suitcase – Summary

If you spend some time and follow the lessons learned by others out there on the road, how to pack a suitcase will become second nature.

Bellman's Luggage Cart

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