HOWTO: Packing

Whoa. Hi there! Nice to see you again. Sorry I missed a couple days … I've been traveling a LOT, like, three-cities-in-three-days-lot, which accounts for my recent absence. (And for this post, a packing how-to.)

First off, a disclaimer. There is, of course, more than one way to pack for a trip, and more than one kind of trip. These instructions will be of no use to you if you are planning a six-month scientific expedition to the Arctic or the Amazon, have to attend four black-tie balls in five days, or have a lady's maid or valet. (if you have a lady's maid and are packing your own suitcase/valise/trunk … why do you have a lady's maid?). These instructions are really only good for fairly boring businessy-type trips, or short vacationy-type trips. But, that said:

1. The first rule of packing is to know your own strength. If you are planning to carry on a bag and cannot lift it above your head, you should not be carrying on that particular bag. (Obviously, if you are disabled and know you will have help in any case, this doesn't apply to you.) But packing more than you can lift is a recipe for disaster and will cause irritation to all your fellow travelers. In a similar vein, if you cannot drag your suitcase without it toppling over, you might want to rethink that eighth pair of shoes. Not only will your transit to the check-in line be wobbly and fairly ridiculous, the airline WILL charge you for the overweight.

2. The second rule of packing is to know your own style. This, of course, is something you should know for your whole life, not just for traveling, but you should especially know it for traveling. I hate and despise those traveling clothes that strip every last ounce of your personality from you in the service of being "easy to pack". (That dress in the link doesn't even have pockets! How is that travel-friendly?) When you travel, you should look like a concentrated version of yourself, in that your clothes are the ones in which you feel most like you. You'll be out of your natural element, so you can't rely on environmental clues to give folks an idea of what you're like.

For me, this means I usually pack a lot of dresses (duh), bright cardigans to wear over them, and, for the airport, A-line skirts with pockets.

Wearing the same thing every day (and/or washing things in hotel bathrooms) is not worth it. If you wash something, it never dries (and who wants to spend their time doing laundry on a trip?), and if you plan to wear something every day someone spills something sticky or stinky on you. Better to just pack an extra dress.

3. In my opinion, jeans are overrated. Unless this conflicts with Rule 2 for you (in that jeans are the clothing in which you feel most like yourself), ditch the jeans. First off, jeans are boring. I don't care how designery they are, or what unique combo of leg width-wash-waist level you've chosen, they are, in the end (and on your end), just a pair of jeans. My other beef with jeans is that they often act as an (overused) safety net. How often do people pack a week's worth of clothes but then end up wearing jeans every day? Travel should be broadening! (And, I hate to say this, but if you're going to a major metropolitan area, wearing something OTHER than jeans and sneakers will help you not look like a tourist, if that is a goal for you.)

4. Check the weather. Seriously. You'd be surprised how many people just assume the weather where they are going is just like the weather where they are. (You can't assume, for instance, that San Francisco in June is going to be warm.) There's this thing called the Internet, and a large part of it is just weather forecasts. I also understand there is an entire cable television channel devoted to the weather. Don't just check the forecast — check the average highs and average lows, too. And, on top of that, bring a sweater. Just in case.

5. Make a list. In fact, make several lists. I like to print out a calendar page (you can do this from Google Calendar pretty easily) and write down, for each day, what I'm planning to do, which then guides what I'm going to wear. A day spent in meetings will have a different wardrobe than a day spent traveling, sightseeing, or working in a hotel room. Pack the list! If you're traveling for more than a few days it's easy to forget what you were planning to wear when. Make the list very detailed, right down to your underwear. If the dress needs a slip, write "slip" on the list.

Make another list of things that you need that aren't clothes. I like to bring my vitamins (in an old-lady case), Emergen-C, a stretchy exercise band (to help me counteract bad office chairs), a little sewing kit, etc. If you travel a lot save your "extras" list and print out a new copy for every trip. Why remember more than you have to?

Do the same thing for toiletries — there's no percentage in taking up mental space remembering whether you packed a toothbrush or not. Make a list and check "toothbrush" off it. If you travel more than once a month, keep a toiletry set all packed and ready to go. (When you come home from a trip, replenish it right away.) I like to keep two sets packed: one in a quart ziplock bag for carry-ons, and a larger one for when I check baggage.

If it's a work trip, you should also have a work checklist: laptop power supply, charger for phone, ethernet cable, etc., etc.

6. Use packing cubes. I know they seem gimmicky, but they are so useful. First of all, they make life easier for the TSA, and you really don't want to piss them off. Which would you rather have a stranger do: pick up your nicely-packed cube and peer under it, or rummage through a suitcase full of loose clothes, possibly dumping them on the floor? I've seen that happen, and it's ugly.

7. Shoes. Here's my rule for shoes: For any trip longer than three days, you need two pairs of shoes, but no more than three. (Four, maybe, if you have to bring a pair of fancy shoes for a party.) Two pairs is so that if your shoes get wet, or cause a blister (which they shouldn't because you have also packed an anti-blister stick to use on your feet), you have a pair to switch off to.

Also, if you bring the bare minimum of shoes and develop a sudden need for another pair, you now have an excuse to go shoe-shopping.

I don't have to say again that you shouldn't be wearing flip-flops in the airport, right?

You should not be bringing more handbags than you bring pairs of shoes, unless you are Judith Leiber.

8. Miscellaneous suggestions:

— if you haven't worn the thing you are going to pack in more than a month, try it on before it goes in the suitcase.

— always bring one more pair of underwear and socks than you think you will need.

— don't stress about wrinkles. Most hotels have fairly decent irons and ironing boards, and it takes less time to press something than it does to worry about what's going to wrinkle and what's not. I can usually iron everything I've packed in less than half an hour, while watching the hotel television (and there's always an episode of Law and Order playing in every hotel room, everywhere, at every hour of the day or night).

— shoe bags are nice. I'm just saying.

— special travel pillows, special travel alarm clocks, special travel hair dryers — all overrated. Unless you have a serious princess-and-the-pea sensitivity, you'll get along just fine with whatever's at your destination. (I don't get travel candles at all. Raise your hand if you think it's a good idea to light small smelly fires in a hotel room.)

— think: what would be the most inconvenient and irritating thing to have find in the city where you're going, on the trip you're planning? ("sanitary" supplies? A spare power supply for your laptop? Your special moisturizer? ) Bring extra of that.

— if there's any chance that you will be getting in late, make sure your toothbrush, face wash, and pajamas are the easiest things to find in your suitcase.

My suitcase from trip before last:

erin suitcase

I know I haven't said anything about rolling vs. folding, or how to cram your socks into your shoes to save space, compression bags, etc. I find I rarely need to do any of that stuff. I put the clothes in the cubes, put the cubes in the bag, take one last look at my lists, and go to sleep early enough that I can wake up in time to make my flight in the morning.

Have a good trip! Send me a postcard.

0 thoughts on “HOWTO: Packing

  1. Thanks Hana! I’m thinking of bringing leather flat boots as well, and waterproofing them. Not everywhere we’re planning on going actually gets snow, so I don’t want to rely only on one pair of boots. I love cardigans too, but this winter it’s been really hard to find them without stupid little pockets near the waist. Melbourne can have some pretty miserably cold weather when it blows straight in off the Southern Ocean, but we keep our snow on the mountains, where we can ski on it :-)Yvonne, that’s how I plan my wardrobe (OCD? who, me? ;-), or at least try and identify the gaps. I also do that when trying to decide what to make/buy next – see what gets the most hits, or what matches with orphan garments. I’d like to do the graph in at least 3D, so jackets/coats are on the third axis, but I end up just doing them separately.Actually, I mostly do it while sitting down the back of very long and boring meetings. Writing a series of lists doesn’t get as much attention as doodling, and I can’t get away with knitting, even though I don’t knit with my ears.


  2. De-lurking to say… I have become a Law & Order fan specifically thanks to the round-the-clock showings on multiple basic cable AND primetime channels (TNT, A&E, etc.) in hotels. I never watched any of those L&O shows until I couldn’t escape them!… Back to lurking…


  3. Yes, love the Wardrobe Grid, Yvonne! That kind of obsessiveness is right up may alley.I must stress, however, that it is not enough to just eyeball your clothes to match them. I do a kind of paperless wardrobe gridlay everything I’m considering taking out on my bed and shuffle it all around to see what goes with what. But before I make my final decisions, I always try each outfit on. Because quite often two garments that seem to go together perfectly when laid out flat next to each other look like a dog’s breakfast when combined on my person, or with the shoes I’m planning to bring. You don’t want to find that kind of thing out when you’re a thousand miles from your closet.


  4. A pre-packed toiletry kit is *especially* useful if you don’t travel often. I keep mine always ready to go, and this way it’s easy to remember what to bring and where it all is. (I’m not a list person – having all my stuff physically in one bag is like a 3-d list I won’t lose!) My top tips not mentioned here: * Be ready in case of lost luggage: your toiletries, a change of clothes, and anything you can’t live without should be in your carry-on. * bringing 2-3 days worth of clothes (all stylistically compatible with each other) is a good compromise between the nightly laundry approach and the large suitcase approach.* Bring a laundry bag, even if it’s just a pillowcase or plastic grocery bag. It separates your clean from dirty clothes, and makes laundry easier when you get home (just dump the bag into your hamper).


  5. Oh, another thing – always pack for one notch colder and one notch hotter than the weather forecast says you will need. Several times my destination hit a cold spell just as I arrived, even though I had checked the weather and packed appropriately. Layering doesn’t help when all you packed is t-shirts and short skirts!Another time I went to Eugene, OR, in late summer, and thought I would spend a day hiking in Crater Lake. I packed shorts and tank tops since I usually get hot when hiking in the summer. CRATER LAKE IS IN THE FREAKING MOUNTAINS WHERE IT SNOWS IN THE SUMMER. Now I know. 🙂


  6. Great tips – I travel a lot for my job too, and have ready packed toiletries for 1 week, 2 week and 3 week trips. I’ve just come back from Mumbai, and would add another essential to the packing list – a bin liner! The rain was so torrential, and luggage left outside, that by packing my clothes inside a binliner in my suitcase meant that they stayed reasonably dry!


  7. Awesome tips, from Erin and everyone. Whenever I’m traveling to a city, or somewhere where I might want to dress up a little for dinner, I pack two or three silk chiffon blouses. They roll or fold up to nothing, and any wrinkles pretty much shake out once you hang them. Also, if you’re limiting yourself to a neutral color scheme, with chiffon you can throw in a few crazy colors or patterns to mix it up a little bit, without using up too much packing space. Just remember to pack a camisole to offset the sheerness factor. I always bring a few silk scarves too — sometimes that little pop of color makes you feel as if you’re -not- living out of a suitcase. Cheers!


  8. Wow, Erin, those are great tips for just staying in one place, never mind travel! How have I lived this long without hearing of BodyGlide? The knowledge that it exists has transported me, like a religious experience or something.


  9. lanne,You are on the right track, black, black, black and tights. You will look chic, you will not look like a tourist. The perfect travel coat would be a black mohair (if you are a sewer you can make your own). Mohair is light and super warm. I’d also take a raincoat, I have a large crinkled shell that fits over the coat. I’ve had this raincoat for 20 years (Babette). If you are in Venice in winter it can rain where you need to walk around in boots (waterproof).


  10. I saw an interesting coat in Miss Sixty yesterday; it was a tailored trench style, with a slight sheen. When I touched it, I realised it was made from Soft Shell; it is related to polarfleece, but has more of a woven cloth look on the outside, and is brushed on the wrong side. This would be perfect for travel (apart from the $$, but I have seen soft shell type fabric for sale on the internet) – it didn’t look like something from a camping store, yet it is stylish, water resistant, very warm, and washable – great for someone who’s not the tidiest of eaters ;-).I love the idea of a chiffon blouse – I could put that under my sleeveless dress if we go to a restaurant. I’ve always thought of chiffon as something that crushes easily, which is silly – I’ve got bits in the stash I’ve bought years ago that still look great, despite being packed/unpacked each time I move house. My main worry about a mohair coat (apart from the fact that I haven’t seen any in my local fabric stores) is that it would probably be bulky, and I need space to bring stuff back. DD has just discovered vintage (and my vintage pattern stash), so I think we’ll be going to that market in Paris whose name escapes me.Somehow I don’t think DD will let me go fabric shopping ;-(


  11. I am an avid fan of rolling. Ever since I tried fitting everything I owned after living in France for a year back into one suitcase I have been a convert. 50% more stuff! I like to losely throw everything in the suitcase on the way there and roll for the way back (automatic space for buying stuff) or the opposite if I am bringing gifts and stuff for people I’m staying with.I’ve always thought the packing cubes were a little silly since I basically roll together outfits for each day and they function like little cubes but are more versatile (and cheaper!)


  12. i don’t doing laundry on long trips. We went to Italy for our honeymoon and knew we should pack light because no elevators, cobble streets and lots of walking with a 50lb bag is NO fun.We just hung things to dry in our hotel and were fine.


  13. Why A-line skirts with pockets for the airport? Does it have to be a skirt & top, or does an A-line dress with pockets work? Pockets I can guess why, but what about an A-line skirt makes it ideal?


  14. Minya, I like A-lines because they’re easier to move in than pencil skirts and aren’t as bulky as circle skirts … and if I spill something down my front (which has happened) I can usually swap out a new t-shirt from my luggage quickly (not the case with a dress).


  15. This is an invaluable list. However, I do want to make a comment regarding this statement:”Raise your hand if you think it’s a good idea to light small smelly fires in a hotel room”Usually (but not always)people traveling with candles are doing so for religious purposes. (Jewish people who will need to celebrate a yardtzit (anniversary of a loved ones’death) or other religions in which prayer is daily and candles are an offering.The best “travel candles” are battery powered and do not require flame; allowing folks to celebrate their rituals without bothering hotels and others.-SUZE


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