If looming baggage costs and stronger airport security measures have you in a tizzy, you’re not alone. Things we once took for granted when flying, such as complimentary beverages and checked luggage, are fading fast. Most U.S. airlines charge at least $25 to check a bag, and some even charge for carry-ons exceeding backpack-size—but there’s no need to panic. Learning how to pack efficiently is the key to lightening your load (but not your wallet). Here, our travel experts share their tips to streamline your packing for a stress-free vacation.
1. Plan Ahead.
Avoid packing pitfalls by only bringing items that have an 80 percent minimum chance of being used—but be sure to plan before you pack. “Lay out everything that you think you want to pack on your bed and take a good hard look,” suggests Samantha Brown of the Travel Channel. That way you can avoid packing, say, three floral tops when you only need one. “It’s only when you lay your entire ensemble in front of you that you see where you’ve made mistakes and can make the appropriate cuts.”
2. Put your clothes on a diet.
“Choosing thin clothing that packs flat over thicker, more bulky items makes a huge difference in how much you can fit in your suitcase,” says Susan Foster, author of Smart Packing for Today’s Traveler. Instead of packing a heavy sweater and jeans, try more travel-friendly options like a micro-fleece pullover and pants in lightweight, weather-resistant fabric. Diana Lane, an associate with Geiger & Associates, a Florida-based destination marketing firm, loves the versatility of lightweight sarongs, which can be worn as skirts, various styles of dresses, shawls, swimsuit coverups, shoulder bags or even used as a blanket. “There aren’t many items that give us quite this much bang for the buck,” she says.
3. Wear it on.
Can’t bear to part with that lucky ski sweater or full-length overcoat during the trip? When traveling with bulky clothing items is unavoidable, make it a rule to wear the most room-eating garments on the plane. After all, who can’t use a little extra protection from the chilly on-flight air conditioning?
4. Be a fabric fiend.
The secret to looking great once you disembark has as much to do with the type of clothing you pack as with how much shut-eye you get on the plane. Your best bet? Choose wrinkle-resistant fabrics that dry quickly, such as washable silk, nylon and micro-fibers. Cotton is generally less forgiving, as it wrinkles easily and takes longer to dry—especially denim. However, if you love cotton, Brooks Brothers has stylish lightweight cotton blouses specially designed to withstand wrinkling.
5. Go for spray tactics.
If you arrive at your destination stress-free but some of your clothes aren’t as lucky, try this trick: Hang the item in the bathroom while you take a shower and let the steam work out the wrinkles. If that doesn’t work, try Brown’s secret weapon—a spray-on de-wrinkler. Brown swears by Downy Wrinkle Release, which is often sold at newsstand stores inside the airport.
6. Pack for compatibility.
“Let go of the idea that you have to take a different outfit for each day,” advises Foster. “The key to packing light is selecting versatile and interchangeable pieces.” Foster chooses her clothes by focusing on one basic color, such as black, white, brown or khaki, then adds variety with additional tops and accessories that have more color and personality. This approach allows you to pare down the number of garments you need while making it easy to change up your look with creative mixing and matching.
7. Do a double take.
Increase your packing options with expandable or convertible luggage like this pack from Osprey. In the event that your added gifts and souvenirs leave you facing hefty overweight charges (think $30 and up) at the check-in counter, you can simply unzip the gear bag from the bin and check in two separate bags.
8. Think bling.
Spice up a basic outfit with compact accessories, such as belts,jewelry and scarves. These suitcase space-savers add instant color and can easily take an outfit from day to night. Kelly Vrtis, an organizational travel spokeswoman for The Container Store relies on a lightweight Pashmina shawl as her go-to accessory while traveling. “You can use it over the shoulder, around your elbows or even wear it as a scarf.”
9. Scale back on shoes.
One easy way to gain more luggage space? Reduce the number of you bring along. Brown only packs one pair of flats and one pair of heels for every trip. “Both can be used to make pants, shorts or a dress casual or dressy,” she says. When packing, place shoes toe-to-heel in the bottom of your luggage along the edge, and make the most of the empty spaces inside your footwear by filling them with fragile items wrapped in socks.
10. Ensure clothes stay put.
Specialized packing systems can keep clothes from shifting and rubbing together in your suitcase, reducing the chance of wrinkling. There’s a variety of available products that accommodate everything from socks to sports coats—The Container Store offers the Eagle Creek Pack-It line, which features a great collection of organizer tubes, cubes and folders. Flight 001, a store that specializes in innovative travel products, also carries an organizational packing system called SpacePak. Most of these systems have mesh panels or see-through sides so you (and security) can easily see what’s inside. “Packing envelopes and cubes are extremely efficient and have allowed me to actually add more to my luggage,” Brown says.
11. Take a vacation from your toiletries.
Here’s a novel idea: Leave some of your toiletries behind and use the soaps and lotions provided by the hotel. “I love to try the new shampoos and conditioners when I travel,” says Kelly Vrtis, packing expert and travel spokesperson for The Container Store. “My hair enjoys the break from the usual routine.” Besides, adds Christopher Elliott, ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler and columnist for MSNBC.com, “the one thing people tend to forget is that there are stores where you’re going and you can always buy those items once you get there.”
12. Make your carry-on count.
For ease of travel, choose sturdy, lightweight luggage that’s easy to maneuver and has built-in compartments and collapsible shelves for easy packing. Elliott’s favorite bag is made by Helen Rae. “It has shelves on the inside, the pouches are perfect for your electronics and there’s even room for your laptop,” he explains.
13. Condense your clothes.
Space-saving compression bags like Space Bag let you pack up to double the amount of gear—no jumping, sitting or lying on suitcase required! Available at The Container Store and Walmart, these oversize plastic bags are equipped with one-way pressure valves along one edge that release excess air and keep it out. Compression bags work best for bulky items, such as sweaters, coats, down jackets, pillows, beach towels and even wet garments.
14. Buy travel-size goods.
Remember: Liquids, aerosols and gels that you carry on the plane must be in containers of 3.4 ounces or less and all fit in one 1-quart-sized bag. Need to swap your regular toiletries for ones that come in travel-friendly portions? “Sephora.com offers a whole section on their website dedicated to Airplane Approved Beauty,” notes frequent traveler Kristin Grilli with Green Earth Media Group. Or transfer a favorite full-size beauty product into a reusable travel-size container: Nalgene offers a line of lightweight, unbreakable polypropylene travel-size containers.
15. Lighten your load.
Choosing lightweight suitcases not only makes it easier for you to get about, it also often gives you more space to pack. At 8.8 pounds, Eagle Creek’s Hovercraft 25 features an expandable main compartment that adds an extra 15 percent capacity. If you’re planning on doing lots of shopping during your trip, pack an extra travel tote or daypack that folds flat in your luggage—it can even double as a place to carry essentials on day outings and bring back your travel treasures on the flight back. Patagonia offers an extra-lightweight travel tote that you can hand-carry or wear as a backpack, then stuff into its own pocket when it’s no longer needed.
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