I get questions regularly from family and friends on how to pack since I have evolved into a semi-pro. Since I am packing for a 2.5 week vacation I thought this would be the perfect time to share my process. This particular trip includes stops in DC, North Carolina, and a tour through California from San Fran to San Diego. And I managed to pack in carry-on sized suitcase. Full disclosure: this does not include cycling clothing & gear as that gets packed in the bags with our bikes but it does include my other “stuff” for the 2.5 weeks!
Minimal packing is a skill. Seriously, I wish I had learned it years ago as I get flashbacks to my first trip to 10-day trip to Europe in which I took two massive suitcases that covered every single possibility that might occur and proceeded to haul them through planes, trains, and automobiles. Across multiple countries. And countless walk-up apartments in Europe. This is the trip where I became intimate with packing regrets.
In the many years since my packing style has been forced to evolve. Forced.
- Reason 1: Years of being a business traveler made over-packed bags obnoxious. Especially when everyone else I was traveling with had carry-on luggage and had to stand around baggage claim impatiently waiting for my bag to arrive. And then when I did have a carry-on I had to be sure I could lift it into the overhead compartment without giving an innocent bystander a concussion.
- Reason 2: Multi-week cycling trips in Europe in which we literally had to carry all our possessions on bikes from location to location. The very first time I went on one of these trips and my hubby announced that I could only take 4 outfits for 2 weeks (2 cycling outfits, 2 regular outfits) I almost had a meltdown. And you can just imagine what he said about my items for my daily beauty routine. Our relationship almost came to an end over this discussion…but as usual in the end he was right.
And let’s be honest…I usually didn’t even use 50% of what was in my suitcase.
So after coming to grips with my ridiculous packing habits, I began to hone my skills in minimalist packing. It took some trial and error to get it right…leaving out things I really did need and bringing things that I still didn’t use. Today I am pretty good at efficient and minimal packing. I spent 3 months living in France in just one regular sized suitcase and a super small carry on (really backpack with wheels for my weekend excursions). Even I was impressed with myself. But I used everything I had and because of picking mix and match pieces never felt deprived with my outfit selection (and a few purchases in French boutiques helped :-).
- Pick things that mix and match. Everything should be able to be part of a least 2 outfits if not more. So pick your colors and patterns carefully. For example as my packing came together for this trip I ended up with a navy, off-white, and black theme with a few pops of color added by tank tops, scarves, and accessories.
- Lose the idea that you can’t wear an outfit more than once during a trip. Yes you can. Just plan the when carefully.
- You don’t need multiple outfits per day unless there are special events going on. So pick clothing pieces that are versatile between activities.
- Workout clothes take up a lot of space so be honest with yourself…are you really going to use them on this trip? If you are then definitely pack them, but if it is an overnight work trip jam packed with commitments you could probably save the space that those shoes will take.
- For longer trips, try to choose an AirBnB or hotel that has access to a washing machine so that you can easily wash undergarments and work out clothes. That means that you can limit your multiples. I generally keep a small packet of laundry detergent in my bag in case I have access to a washing machine (which sometimes turns out to be the bathroom sink in a pinch)
- Shoes, shoes, shoes. Still my biggest challenge. I just can’t have enough shoes but gosh they take up sooo much room. So keeping it to 2 – 3 pairs can be tough but this is where outfit coordination can also come in handy.
- Formal Shoes: 1 pair of dress/work shoes or 2 if a multi-day trip.
- Comfortable Shoes: Generally flats but something good for lots of walking in airports or events outside of work.
- Flip-flops: Thin and bendable so they don’t take up much space but usually they are needed for hotel rooms. Some people do pass on these but I have seen too many hotel rooms not to pack them. Or perhaps in the summer months or warmer locations flip-flops and comfortable shoes can do double duty.
- Sneakers: If you are going to work out or perhaps these are another option to perform double with your comfortable shoes.
- Tip: To save space, if possible stuff the shoes with things like socks or tights. Not only does this help keep the shape of the shoes it saves tons of space!
- Warm layer: Often it is necessary for a warmer layer in the plane, mornings and evenings. So try to pick one scarf, jacket or sweater that will look nice with every outfit because like shoes they take up a lot of room.
I keep a permanent bag of toiletries ready to go so I just have to move it around between suitcases and never spend time putting it together. This has been one of the practices that really lowered my stress for packing!
Tip: Buy a clear TSA compliant bag that you keep everything in so that you can just grab it and throw it in the security bin if carrying on your luggage.
- Liquids: Lotion, body wash, shampoo, conditioner, hair styling products, skin care products, toothpaste.
- Tip: Regardless of if you are checking luggage or not the 3 oz rule is a good one for liquids to also minimize space. So invest in lots of bottles and keep them full of your must have liquids.
- Tip: Even though hotels usually have items such as body wash and lotion I still always transport with me for simplicity so that my toiletries bag does not have to be changed each trip. Plus sometimes they just don’t and I am not willing to sacrifice my moisturizing routine.
- Other suggested items for your permanent toiletries bag include deodorant, toothbrush, nail clippers, nail file, and tweezers.
- Beauty Routine: My on-the-road and at-home beauty routines vary. My on-the-road routine is much simpler with fewer steps to save time and space. However, If you are like me you are not willing to compromise on things such as skin care so find a good, but simpler set of beauty products for travel. When I travel I use the Josie Maran argan oil products.
- Tip: Pick multi-functional products as much as possible. One of the reasons I love the Josie Maran line is because in addition to simplicity they are also multi-functional. I use the classic Argan oil as moisturizer for my face, hands, and lips but I also replace my Moroccan Oil hair product with the Argan oil and it works fabulously.
- Hair Styling Equipment: These take a lot of space so think about if you can substitute yours with the equipment from the hotel. If you are staying in accommodations that don’t offer these items then pack as few as possible (do you really need a dryer, curling iron, and straightener). Or if you travel enough I really suggest investing in travel size items.
There are things that I just keep in my suitcases at all times so I don’t have to worry about forgetting them:
- ID tags
- Lint Roller
- Dirty Clothes bag
- If you have a trip coming up that is creating packing stress (seriously, it’s a thing!) start pre-packing in advance, especially for big trips. This way you can add items to the pile and take away as you change your mind. When I recently took a trip to Iceland and was only taking a small carry-on I began pre-packing 2 weeks in advance as ideas came to mind. When it was time to pack I just threw it all in the suitcase and zipped it up. Bonus: No stress at all and I didn’t forget anything critical or pack anything unnecessary!
- Keep a master packing list so that you don’t have to recreate a list each time you travel wracking our brain to make sure you didn’t leave anything off. I have multiple master packing lists depending on the types of trip: Business, Vacation, Camping, etc. and I cannot tell you how much easier they make my life when getting ready for a trip.
- If you can’t carry it don’t pack it. Seriously. Do a weight test on your luggage before you walk out the door and if you cannot lift it enough to carry up a set of stairs…unpack something. Big mistake is to assume that someone will help you with it and then before you know it you in the metro station, after midnight, stuck at the bottom of the stairs because the escalator is broken and you have to figure out how to climb 57 stairs with a suitcase that feels like Shamu is stuffed in it. Been there done that (multiple times because sometimes it takes a few times for me to really learn a lesson). Not fun.
Honestly packing is no one’s favorite activity and it creates stress, anxiety, bad moods, and excessive wine drinking. So anything that eliminates stress is awesome because no one needs to start an important work trip or a fun vacation as a stress ball. Minimal packing provides so many benefits that for me it is a no-brainer. Easy-peasy to get around with my bags, daily outfit selection much easier each day when you have minimal choices, and you get to be creative and stretch your wardrobe limits!
If anyone has any tips that make their packing process just a bit easier would love to hear them so I can steal them for my process and add to this suggestion list for others.
P.S. For anyone wondering how I survive 2 week cycling trips with only 4 pieces of clothes…there is a secret. After my first melt down over the 2 outfits for 2 weeks rule my hubby gave me a compromise. After the trip was over he would take me boutique shopping to buy new outfits. DEAL! Oh and I lose the hair routine…completely lose it…I refer to this time as “hair-cation” where anything can and will happen with my hair style.