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Ten Essential Tips for Minimalist Packing

Let’s face it, many people travel with a lot of baggage, and I am not referring to traveling through life. I mean on a trip. Growing up we didn’t travel much via air. It was mostly road trips, so that meant there was a trunk and my mom made sure she packed for any and every scenario, just in case. That’s all I knew until I turned 17 when went on an exchange trip to Germany. During the prep classes for the trip the teachers made it crystal clear, you get one piece of luggage and one carry-on bag, and the luggage must be a size that does not have to be checked and that you could easily haul on your own.

That lesson has stuck with me for over 30 years. There was only one time I deviated from that, the first time I travelled to Europe with my kids for a 19-day trip. At the time 10 and almost 13, each of us had our own roller suitcase and one carry on. The issue, the roller suitcases where large and had to be checked.

Here’s what I learned from that. Each person needs to be able to handle their own bags. My daughter who was 10 at the time couldn’t get her suitcase up and down stairs, lift it onto trains, you get the picture. Luckily my son, almost 13 was a big guy, so he would take his suitcase and his sister’s suitcase, she would take both their carry-ons and I handled my own.

After that trip, I never travel with any bags that must be checked. That doesn’t mean I feel like I am traveling with less than I need, in fact, my husband and I have learned how to choose and plan what we pack and travel light and efficient. This is a critical skill to have especially as you age.

Why? Because we don’t backpack, we treat ourselves to fine dining, and we like to be active so often we are snorkeling, hiking, and walking, so we need variety in what we pack but we want to be able to move around easily without the restrictions that come from large luggage.

Here are 10 tips that will help you pack effectively and ensure you have everything you will need.

1. Use Packing Aids

I don’t personally use packing cubes for clothing, but I do use pack aids for cosmetics, electronics, adapters, and even medications. Many people do love packing aids for clothing too. The key reason to use packing aids is to keep loose items collected, easy to organize and in reach. You can purchase packing aids or if you are like me, you realize you already have them in the form of all those mini zipper bags stuffed in your closet from cosmetic purchases, gifts, etc. I repurpose those and use them as my packing aids.

2. Never Check Essential Items

Plan what goes in your carry-on luggage and personal carry-on bag. Don’t put essential items in your carry-on luggage. It's extremely important to keep your valuables and essential belongings in your personal carry-on bag, not in your luggage. Your passport, identification, money, credit cards, jewelry, medications, electronics, and other valuables should always be with you. There are times, when you think you will be carrying your luggage on board only to find the airline will request that you check even your carry-on sized luggage. You don’t want to be at the gate shuffling items between bags or worse yet, not being able to move items around and then something important is stowed in cargo. I know some items are obvious like your passport, money, wallet, etc. but what if that carry on piece of luggage gets lost (or a TSA agent gets sticky fingers), you will regret packing that expensive watch or favorite necklace.

3. Don’t Travel with Irreplaceable Items

Okay, I admit, I wear my wedding ring when we travel. But that is really the most irreplaceable item I travel with. While traveling I have lost a beautiful jade bracelet that I purchased in Beijing, a necklace from my great-grandmother, and a custom pair of earrings. These weren’t taken from me, they were just lost, misplaced, or in the case of the necklace literally blown off from high winds while walking to a restaurant and I didn’t notice until I was in the restaurant. Lesson, if you love it and can live without it, bring it and wear it. If you can’t, don’t bring it. If you are traveling where bling can make you vulnerable to pick pockets, opportunists or even put you in danger, error on the side of simple, understated and easily replaced. (For women, see my article on traveling with scarfs)

4. Layer

This advice is twofold: Wear layers and pack in layers. First, what you wear while you travel should have at least two to three layers depending on where your travels are taking you. This helps you transition through multiple climates with ease. Think leaving cold weather and going to the tropics. Or leaving warm weather and going skiing. Second, the items in your bag should be packed in organized layers for easy screening. According to the TSA, "Pack items in layers (shoes one layer, clothes one layer, electronics one layer, etc.)" so that the security agent screening your bag can get a clear picture of what's inside. The faster the TSA agent can screen your stuff, the faster you'll get through the security line.

5. Have Choices for Your Personal Carry-On Bag and Select the Right Bags for the Type of Trip

I have watched countless (I must say mostly women) bring a large handbag and try to stuff it into yet another large tote bag that is jammed with items only to see them frustrated, bumping fellow passengers and unable to access what they really need or successfully place the bag under the seat in front of them.

Pro-tip for women: Think in Threes. Have a small wallet sized cellphone crossbody, a easy to pack larger crossbody that you can pack in your luggage, and a tote/messenger bag, large soft-sided crossbody or backpack that holds the majority of your personally carry-on items, your computer and can accommodate the small wallet sized crossbody purse.

Pro-tip for men: Think Two. Have a backpack or crossbody briefcase carry-on that holds your computer, electric devices, book, medicines, and a small inner case that contains passports and important documents, Sentricard or Global access cards.

If you are going on a trip that requires larger gear, think duffle type bag in lieu of the backpack or crossbody briefcase. These types of bags easily fit under the seat, keep your necessary and essential items including valuables, phone, etc. handy and become the go-to bag when you are day tripping, buying items (remember in most countries they charge for bags at grocery and convenience stores) or needing to take your computer somewhere to get a bit of work done during your getaway.

6. TSA Tips

TSA will confiscate your items that aren’t compliant, holding you up and slow others in the line. Get familiar with the agency's rules: All liquids, including toiletries, should always be placed on top of your suitcase, be in 3.4-ounce bottles or smaller and inside a single, clear, quart-size zip-top bag. You never know when the TSA agent may want to take a look. If you are TSA pre-check, or a member of a program like CLEAR, you still need to have your items compliant, you just don’t have to take shoes off or computers and liquids out but remember you will still need to take keys out of your pockets, jackets, scarfs, etc. so make sure you have everything easily accessible and ready.

7. Plan What You Are Taking Ahead of Time

Efficient, planned packing is pivotal to start your travels off stress free. Forget an essential item and you're left disappointed and scrambling to find the nearest store in your destination. Pack too much and you end up disorganized, burdened with heavy bags, and wasting money to pay for pricey airline baggage fees. When it comes to packing, procrastinators fall short. Start your packing process days or even a couple weeks ahead of your departure date. This gives you time to craft a complete list, plus purchase any additional items you might need for your vacation. Creating a packing list is a fail-safe way to ensure that you don’t forget to bring something important.

8. Layout Your Clothes and Key Items

For clothes, think in terms of color coordination, mix and match, and then edit what you layout ruthlessly. Set key items like passports, international adapters, etc. out a couple days before you leave.

Here’s an example of how to pack with carry-on luggage if you are going to a beach destination for 7-10 days:

Women: On the plane wear athletic sneaker type shoes that can double for hikes, walks, fitness center at the resort and keep you moving easily through the airport. This removes that bulky pair of shoes from going in your luggage. Pack a pair of waterproof flip flops that can double as a casual sandal and one pair of a nice/dresser sandal. Avoid heels, you will be in a resort environment, walking on sand, uneven surfaces, think espadrille type wedges. And pack your shoes in shoe bags or plastic bags…you don’t know what is on the souls of your shoes and you don’t want whatever is on those souls rubbing on your clothes or contaminating your luggage. Pack two to three swimsuits, two dresses (no one will remember if you wear them more than once and if one of them is black or navy you can accessorize with scarfs and change up the look), one or two pairs of shorts, a few tops (at least one with sleeves), pareo, cover-up, rash guard and underwear. Remember you can always wash underwear and socks and rinse out the suits to enable you to wear items more than once.

Men: Wear your athletic sneaker type shoes on the plane. And the same shoe advise applies, bring a pair of waterproof flip flop type sandals and a pair of shoes that can be dressed up a bit for nice dinners. My husband brings a pair of canvas loafer type shoes that he can wear without socks. They look good with light linen type pants or dressy shorts for dinner. Men should always have one pair of pants with them, we have run into situations where some restaurants at night require men to wear pants. Think light weight pants and a camp shirt or polo. Then pack three swimsuits (men’s suits can double as shorts), a couple pairs of shorts, t-shirts, rash guard, underwear, and socks.

Here’s an example of how to pack if you are going to a European destination for 7-10 days:

Europeans wear an elevated, sophisticated, and simple wardrobe, making packing for a trip to Europe in many ways simple if you follow these few tips.

  • Do not wear workout clothing, leggings, sweats, etc. as street clothes. Europeans do not do this. If you want to pack them for the gym you can but remember you may not even use a gym with all the walking that you will be doing.

  • No heels ladies, the streets and sidewalks are often cobblestone, you will be walking everywhere. European women wear elegant walking shoes. If you feel the need for a bit of a heel, wear a wedge or a 2-inch max chunky heel closed toe shoe. No flipflops, elegant simple sandals. Keep in mind, in cities, even in the U.S., locals wear closed toe shoes due to weather, dirt, and foot protection. When traveling from fall to spring, keep in mind you will want the appropriate weather-styled footwear.

  • Simple, monochromatic styling. Elegant lines, clothing that can take you from day to evening, scarves, weather appropriate clothing and outerwear. Men do well with jeans or dark pants with leather jackets or blazers. My husband has several pair of trouser styled jeans made from non-wrinkle givable fabric. Perfect for wearing more than once, comfortable and can be dressed up or down.

  • Don’t be too revealing. Keep the idea of timeless styles, sophisticated simplicity, casual elegance.

9. Think Tetris: The best way to fit everything into one bag: Fill every inch of space. For example, footwear should be stuffed with socks. Then lay your shoes together heel to toe at the bottom of your suitcase in a plastic shopping bag to protect clothes from dirt. How exactly you arrange everything in your suitcase is a matter of personal preference. Here are some popular strategies:

  • Roll your clothes, advice made famous from Rick Steves. This helps to maximize space and minimize wrinkles.

  • Use packing cubes. These smaller bags help you keep your clothes compact and your outfits ordered.

10. And the Final Travel Hack--Never Unpack Your Toiletry Kit

I recommend keeping a separate toiletry kit for traveling. Keeping a set of bathroom products already packed also ensures that you don’t forget a toothbrush or contact lens case that you might use the morning of takeoff. I have sample sizes of makeup, mascara, hair products, lotions, etc. that I just keep in my travel toiletry bag. It’s the perfect grab and go packing hack.

Traveling is about the experience, not the baggage. Learning to travel light means you will travel well.


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