5 Steps to a Perfectly Packed Suitcase

Your trip will be easier—and cheaper—if you take less and pack efficiently.

By Beth Braverman, Tobie Stanger

Carolyn Fox of Colorado Springs, Colo., started traveling light after a taxing family trip to Europe 20 years ago.

“We couldn’t fit four suitcases into the trunks of the small cars, we couldn’t get them onto trains," Fox recalls. “Hauling a full-size suitcase up and down stairs? What a hassle!”

From then on, Fox, her then-husband, and two teenage daughters became carry-on converts—traveling with just one carry-on bag, no matter where they went. Decades later, Fox still travels with just a single carry-on—whether it’s for short jaunts to Seattle or for the multiweek journeys she’s taken in Australia, China, Costa Rica, Egypt, the Galapagos Islands, Israel, Jordan, New Zealand, and throughout Europe.

“My secret is to pack for no more than two weeks and assume I’ll do laundry,” she says. “You can always do wash in a hotel sink.”

Saving Money, Space, and Time

Traveling light is more convenient and can save you money: Checked bag fees on domestic flights with major U.S. carriers—American, Delta, JetBlue, and United—are $30 for a first bag, and can run to $40 for a second and $150 for a third. But traveling with nothing but a carry-on can seem daunting to anyone who’s used to cramming a big suitcase full of “just in case” items for every trip.

So you have to be smart about what you take and how you pack. The goal is not only to pack a suitcase that isn’t bursting at the seams but also to leave some room for souvenirs or other items you’d like to bring home with you, says Anne McAlpin, author of “Pack It Up: The Essential Guide to Smart Travel.” Otherwise, you’ll have to buy or take an extra bag to bring things home.

Follow these steps to pack your suitcase like a pro.

1. Make a List—Strategically

The key to making sure you take what you need is to start with a packing list, says Jennifer Snyder, a certified professional organizer who often helps clients pack for trips. The list should not include everything you might need but rather the items that you will need, including clothing, electronics, medications, toiletries, and documents such as your passport. Bonus: Take your list with you on the trip so that nothing gets left behind when you’re packing to return.

While a paper list works fine, a notes app on your smart phone can work even better, says Phil Dengler, travel blogger and a co-owner of The Vacationer travel website. “My list always has an unpacked and a packed section,” he says. “After packing an item, I move it to the packed section, also taking into account the order it is in the suitcase. That’s important for efficiently taking things out later.”

Think through your itinerary day-by-day, check the weather, and be realistic about what you’ll do while away. You probably need fewer shoes than you think, And you don’t need a week’s worth of workout clothes if you’ll go to the gym just twice.

2. Pare Down Your List

Rather than packing a completely new outfit for each day, take items that you easily mix and match into multiple outfits, so you can wear as many pieces as possible more than once. McAlpin recommends limiting yourself to three pairs of shoes and following a 3-to-1 ratio for clothing: three tops for every bottom.

“The bottoms should be generic colors, dark navy, denim, neutrals,” she says. “And then you can go wild with the tops. You can pair any fun, color top with those bottom combinations.”

Also, look for ways to save space. Use travel-sized toiletries instead of full-sized bottles and take makeup or perfume samples in place of large cosmetic kits. Remember that Transportation Security Administration rules still require that liquids be in containers of 3.4 ounces or less and that all of them fit into a quart-sized resealable bag.

3. Pack in the Right Order

Once you’ve established your list, be tactical about the order in which you place items into the suitcase. Put heavier items toward the base of the suitcase near the wheels to help prevent it from tipping over, McAlpin says.

Next, fill in the suitcase with your clothes. For soft clothes that don’t wrinkle easily, rolling items will free up more space, says Nneya Richards, a style and travel expert based in New York and Bergamo, Italy. “The best option is to purchase wrinkle-free travel clothing available online through vendors such as Athleta, Chico’s, and L.L.Bean,” she says.

Slide wrinkle-prone items into a dry-cleaning bag or a large trash bag and lay them flat across the top, McAlpin says. Or use tissue paper. “Tissue paper reigns supreme when packing silks, linens, and other wrinkle-prone materials,” Richards says.

4. Use All Available Space

The key to efficient packing is making sure that no valuable space goes unused. That means flattening scarves and belts along the perimeter and filling a half-empty dopp kit with rolled up underwear or socks in a small plastic bag, McAlpin says. Pack shoes toe-to-heel, and don’t leave them empty.

“Place small items of clothing or accessories in sandwich bags and tuck them inside each shoe,” says Elizabeth Avery, Founder of Solo Trekker 4 U and SoloTravelPricingTracker.

Experts also recommend using compression bags or cubes to get even more space (although they won’t reduce the weight of your suitcase). These will also make it easier to find what you need in a large suitcase. “Just be careful to select the type you can compress on your own without the aid of a vacuum,” says Jenn Lloyd, a who runs the blog Sick Girl Travels for disabled travelers. “It might be easy to compress your wardrobe at home with a vacuum, but it will be significantly harder from your Belizean overwater bungalow.”

Or skip the extra cost and opt for resealable bags of different sizes, says Carlos Grider, founder of the travel website A Brother Abroad. “Ziplocs are effective, can be purchased on any continent, and are incredibly cheap,” he says.

5. Think Outside the Bag

Another idea: Take along some of the items you’ll need on your trip without putting them in your bag. Wear the bulkiest stuff—hiking boots, jeans, winter jackets—even if the weather outside doesn’t call for it. “Wait until everyone has a chance to put their carry-on in an overhead bin first,” Dengler says. “If all of the overhead bin space is taken, just take the jacket off and put it behind you.”

If you carry a purse, put that inside a larger tote bag for more space to carry on if you’re flying. The tote can go under the seat in front of you, while your suitcase will go above.

How to Pack a Suitcase

The best start to a stress-free vacation is knowing what to pack and how to pack it. On the “Consumer 101” TV show, Consumer Reports expert Octavio Blanco explains how a perfectly packed bag can save you money.

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