If you’re like 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.
On my first trip to Europe, I hauled a 26″ suitcase and a smaller carry-on around for two weeks. You may be thinking, like I was back then, that you need outfits and shoes for every day of your vacation. How are you ever going to fit what you need into a small 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 re-think 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.
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First Choose the Right Suitcase
Choosing the right suitcase means you have to start with the end in mind. Think about luggage as an investment. If you buy right, you are likely to 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 airplanes luggage hold and still protect your precious belongings. But you also want to make sure it is lightweight (pounds saved in the weight of the bag = 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.
Ensure the Suitcase Fits in the Overhead
If this is a carry-on bag, make sure it’s measurements fit both US and European standards (yes, they are different). By the way, the wheels count in the overall size of the bag.
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?
Make a List
I was never much of a “list” person. I didn’t make grocery lists; I didn’t make to-do lists, I just generally didn’t make lists. But as I matured, I realize my lack of lists means I am continually re-doing things.
I go to the market, and when I get home, I realize I forgot an essential item for the dinner I am making and have to go back 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.
If you are in Budapest, and for months, have been looking forward to partaking of one of the best bath experiences in Europe, and you find you forgot your bathing suit…This is more than annoying!
Well, you get the drift. Make a list. You can make your own list, and yes, there are many you can download on the internet. 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, its 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 Insta, think of this as the perfect time to practice your “capsule wardrobe” stylings.
Mix and match, my friend, is the key to keeping your bag light. Each top should go with each bottom. If you have 4 tops and 2 bottoms, then you have 8 outfits. By adding coordinating accessories and the all-important “third piece,” your 4 tops and 2 bottoms can now be even more outfits.
If there is a specific item you will need for a not to be missed event (remember those Baths in Budapest), make sure you have that item on your list.
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 that you can imagine.
If your trip is longer than a week, plan on doing laundry, either in the sink of your hotel room at a laundry mat. So don’t forget to bring laundry soap. “Wash Eze” sheets are great for doing laundry on the road. These sheets are detergent and fabric softener in one and, most importantly, are not liquid).
How to Pack a Suitcase
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 make 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.
There are several theories of how to pack in “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 in the end, whether you fold or roll depends on the material of the item. For knits and jerseys and other things that do not readily wrinkle, rolling is an excellent way to go. This method uses less space so you can 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. When folding, you may want to add tissue paper or plastic in between the creases to minimize fold lines.
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.
What Can You Bring in a Carry-on?
You don’t want to be that person that everyone is staring at in the line at Security. So check out TSA.gov 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 will 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.
Weight and Size Are Always Key
Even if your carry-on suitcase meets the airline’s size limits when empty, if you overstuff the bag or use any of the expandable features, you can quickly exceed the parameters. 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.
Make sure all your suitcases and bags have luggage tags in the event they are lost. Keep essential or valuable items to a minimum and make sure they are easily accessible in the event you need to transfer them to your personal item or your pocket in a hurry.
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.