Vacation Guide to Effective Holiday Packing; Check in and Carry on Luggage
Notice About the Limits of this Web Page
This page only contains general advice. It does not include advice about travelling with babies, or detailed information about roughing it with camping gear, or carrying specialist items such as sports gear. However the advice is, I think, applicable to the great majority of holiday makers, and will hopefully be of benefit to some.
This page covers the packing of luggage. A checklist of things to take, and some advice about other aspects of holiday preparations which will ensure your peace of mind whilst away from home are to be found in two further travel pages. Please check these out.
N.B: Please note, all my articles are best read on desktops and laptops
This is web page is devoted to the subject of holiday packing for long haul flights and vacations of more than one week. According to one Post Office survey, 37% of travellers admit to being disorganised in the way they pack their bags, and yet effective luggage packing is one of the first steps towards an enjoyable trip, as it allows problems to be anticipated and solved before they ever occur. I have travelled to many countries across the world, from Cuba to Costa Rica and Singapore to South Africa, and I've stayed in hotels and lodges, in private houses and on cruise boats, while using a wide variety of different transports. As such, I have gradually learned a few lessons about good packing practice from my own experiences and errors.
1) Luggage Choices - hard suitcases, soft holdalls, backpacks and hand luggage.
2) Things to Take on Holiday - essential and useful items to pack.
3) Weight and Space Saving - how to fill your bag, and yet keep it under the weight limits.
4) Effective Packing - how to keep everything safe, clean and tidy.
5) Additional Advice - other useful points to consider, not covered elsewhere.
6) Comments? - nice ones I hope.
The Main Luggage. The first decision is what sort of luggage to buy. Of course these days there is a multitude of options. How much usage is the luggage going to receive? Once a year or several times? Is it just going to be packed and unpacked once on holiday in a nice comfortable hotel? Or is it going to be hauled around from plane to train to coach to boat, or maybe carried everywhere on your back? A rigid hard suitcase will give maximum protection from baggage handling damage and theft, but it may be inflexible and very heavy, adding several kilograms of weight. Soft sided cases are lighter, but may be less durable, and less waterproof, so make sure you buy a quality product. A canvas holdall is even lighter and more flexible, and may be squeezable into whatever space is available in a car or cabin. But again, get a good quality bag - one that I bought lasted just one trip before the holes started appearing. Having said that, expensive designer luggage may be good, but is just as easily lost in transit, and may be more likely to attract the attention of thieves. I favour a soft holdall, but it’s a matter of personal choice. There’s no right answer.
Most people will find suitcases and holdalls easier to manage than a backpack, but backpacks may of course be better for a trekking type vacation, where you have to carry your worldly possessions everywhere you go. With backpacks there are options for padded shoulder straps, padded compartments for delicate equipment, additional pouches, even wheels, so it is important to decide what you want the backpack for; to carry your camping gear across the Himalayas? Or to carry an expensive laptop?
Hand Luggage. For hand luggage on the plane, and for day-to-day portability, small backpacks are again an option, as are specially designed flight bags, but the choice is wide and should be determined by your own personal needs. I use a large camera bag, mainly because I am into photography, but also because it is well constructed (for protection of cameras, lenses etc), has comfortable yet strong shoulder straps, and has numerous pockets (intended for camera accessories, but useful for small but important on-board items such as passports, pills, spectacles, sweets, ear plugs etc).
Case design. Whatever case(s) you buy, get bags with at least 2 or 3 compartments; it is much easier to keep things tidy and safe from damage if you can compartmentalise your luggage. Many big cases these days have wheels - why lug a 20 kg case around when you can wheel it? A collapsable or telescopic handle is also preferable for minimal strain in pulling the case. Quality of zips is very important with canvas holdalls filled to the brim - the strain put on the fasteners can cause them to break. And of course put a padlock on the cases - I think combination locks are best, because then you don’t have to carry a key which can be lost. DON’T get a black case! Last time I was waiting for my bag to come off the conveyor belt, I did a quick survey of the luggage going through; more than half the suitcases were black or dark grey. Why?! It’s silly!! Why make it difficult for yourself to recognise your black bag among hundreds of others? And if you must get a black bag despite this advice, at least cover it with distinctive straps or coloured tape to make it easily identifiable.
Things to Take on Holiday
OK - obviously you need clothes, money and probably a passport, but if you need me to tell you this, then maybe you should really think about spending your next vacation in your back garden! So this section is intended to help you think about those rather less obvious items which you should also consider. See also my checklist suggestions.
Items which may come in useful, or even indispensable, include a small alarm clock, adaptors and chargers for electronic equipment, phone and memory cards, toilet paper (don’t ask why), spare glasses, and also simple entertainments such as a pack of cards. Think about whether you need your driving licence. And what about laundry detergent, a money belt, and a hat (for keeping out both heat and cold)? A sarong may be useful - not only as a garment, but also because it could double up as a bed sheet or a blanket, or folded to form a pillow.
There’s a lot of other potentially very useful things which take up almost no space whatsover. A few toothpicks, safety pins, rubber bands or tie tags, a sewing kit, plasters, small scissors, a Swiss army knife, mini screwdrivers (for spectacle screws), a little torch, headache pills - all of these could be fitted into a bag the size of a small purse. And any one of them may be a lifesaver (not literally, I hope).
Obviously think about the country and climate you’re going to, when it comes to clothing, but bear in mind - cold climates have warm hotels requiring light clothing, and warm climates may well have mosquitoes, sunburn or religious customs, all of which may require you to cover up with long sleeves and long trousers.
It is always handy to have a few plastic bags and carrier bags. These may have a multitude of uses. They can be used to seal in toiletries and prevent spillage. They can be used for dirty laundry and shoes. They can be used to protect some valuable electronic equipment and cameras from rainfall, and they can fill in suitcase space to prevent shaking and damage to delicate items.
Now some useful paperwork to take. You want to take a list of the phone numbers or email addresses of relatives. Also, contact details for your workplace (God forbid that your flight home gets delayed and you have to spend an extra day on an exotic tropical beach). Also take emergency numbers for cancelling credit cards etc. Check the internet before you go, and print up any useful advice about the destination’s laws, culture, and tourist attractions; 20 carefully selected pages of useful tips from seasoned travellers may be of more value than a bulky guide book.
Now some personal favourites of my own. I'll usually take a laminated, weatherproof map. I also usually take a guidebook to local birds because even if you only have a passing interest in nature, it can add something to the enjoyment of the holiday if you can identify the wildlife you encounter. Similarly, a guide to coral reef fishes may add to a diving holiday, I also take a notepad to record details of places visited and sights seen; it will help to jog the memory when you return. I'll also take a few sweets (chewies rather than meltable chocolate).
BUT! - DON'T take anything valuable - particularly anything of sentimental value - if it is not absolutely necessary. Apparently more than 40 million suitcases were mislaid by airlines last year - that's 40 million good reasons for this piece of advice.
Checked-in luggage is NOT well looked after by airlines! As much as possible, line the bag sides with undamageable items which will protect other more delicate items. Anything breakable can also be wrapped in clothing or placed between layers of clothing for protection. Even if your bags are not fully laden with your personal possessions, fill them anyway with lightweight stuff like carrier bags or newspaper - material which can be discarded at your destination. A full suitcase will stop your possessions being messed up, shaken, or broken.
Usually it is sensible to put heavy items at the bottom of the case, but with a backpack, apparently the bag will feel more comfortable with the heaviest items closest to you. Regardless of this, with a backpack it makes sense to put the most frequently used items on top.
Make sure items such as toothpastes, lotions, and shampoos are tightly sealed; if you are in any doubt, put bottles and tubes into polythene bags and seal the bags, and then cushion them as much as possible - there isn't anything worse than opening up your suitcase and finding all of your clothes covered in sticky suntan lotion! Jobizz (in the Comments section) suggests a plastic box as a more solid, protective container. Such a box can also be used for foods to seal in freshness and protect from ants.
If you’re travelling with company, or with more than one suitcase, divide essential items and clothes between the cases. That way, if one case gets lost, you will still be able to get by for a while with the contents of the second.
Pack as much into your hand luggage as possible; not only to reduce checked-in luggage weight, but also to cater for needs on the flight, and for emergencies (for example if your flight is delayed after you've checked-in, or your checked-in luggage happens to go missing at the destination). Of course it is essential to keep important papers like passports and flight tickets in the hand luggage for Customs. Other essentials may be any medication you are on, spectacles, and maybe a fresh set of clothes, especially when you are on long haul flights with transfers. If the in-flight entertainment doesn't appeal, novels, puzzle books, electronic games or even a laptop may help to pass the time. Also take a pen, and some sweets. Lastly, please be aware of current restrictions on liquids and sharp objects in hand luggage.
Weight and Space Saving
Don’t pay unnecessary excess weight duties, so learn the weight restrictions for checked-in luggage at the airport you are travelling from. Usually it is about 15-20 kg. It’s a good idea to use a simple household weighing scales before you are ready to leave, just to make sure you’re not over the limit.
If weight is at a premium, wear the heaviest clothing you can on the plane, and pack the lighter stuff. Wear the boots - pack the flip flops. Having said that, you may need to compromise, because you want to be comfortable if you’re stuck in economy on a ten hour flight. Of course the very heaviest stuff like cameras and books, carried in hand luggage, will reduce the weight of checked-in luggage.
Speaking of hand luggage, check if you can take more than one item through to the cabin, and what size restrictions there are - the more you carry, the less you need to worry about checked-in luggage weight.
You can buy small, travel-sized tubes and bottles of toothpaste, lotions, shampoo etc, though these will often be expensive. Alternatively, pour small quantities of liquids such as shampoo into screwtop bottles to take with you (but see the note in 'Effective Packing' about fluid leakage).
Pack tidily, and fill in gaps around the corners and sides of the bags with small items of clothing like socks and handkerchiefs. Some items can be put inside others (for example stuff a pair of shoes with small items). This way, you can fit more in.
Remember - most tourist destinations are civilised! If storage space is really at a premium, maybe you don’t even have to take things like suntan lotion and sunglasses, and batteries - you can buy them when you arrive.
Whilst on holiday, you may want to buy souvenirs to bring home. That means making space in your bag. So either make sure you've got some space in your luggage before you go, or else take a few things which perhaps could be discarded before your return. For example if you’re roughing it a bit, you could take some old clothes you’re on the verge of throwing out anyway and then just leave them behind (without wishing to sound patronising, in some poorer countries there will be plenty of locals grateful for your discards).
1) Make a checklist of all the things you might want to take on holiday - all the clothing, cosmetics, medical items and washing supplies, camera and cell phone accessories, stationery such as pens, notepads and maps, batteries, money, and the all important travel documents. These days of course a template list can be stored on file, and printed off shortly before your holiday. Then just tick off the list as you pack. A second webpage in this series is an example of such a checklist.
2) Don't leave your packing until the last day! It's a recipe for forgetting stuff, or finding you haven't got that vital battery you thought you had. It helps to ease the stress if you pack early.
3) If you are putting anything which uses batteries like torches or razors into your checked-in luggage, remove the batteries first. It will prevent the equipment accidentally switching on, wasting the battery. Also, an alarm clock suddenly going off in Customs may be slightly disconcerting!
4) Make sure you know what on board cabin restrictions exist. Also there will be restrictions on what can be taken into or out of the country you visit. Some of these are obvious (drugs); others may be less so (foodstuffs).
5) Make sure you are aware if you can use your mobile phone in the country you are visiting, and how much it will cost you, before you bother packing it.
6) Take two credit or debit cards, or at least one other different money option, and don't keep all your money or cards in the same bag just in case it gets lost or stolen (you know the proverb about eggs and baskets).
7) And continuing the theme of the last paragraph, take photocopies of any important documents such as your passport, insurance etc - and keep the copy separate from the originals in your hand luggage. That way, if you lose the originals, you have copies to show to the authorities. Alternatively, you could store these important details in a web-based email account to access if necessary.
8) It may be a good idea to put some personal identifying information into your suitcase. If you don’t want to divulge your home address, then put your destination address, or your e-mail address or home airport inside the case. At least that way if your luggage gets misplaced, you may one day be reunited with it.
9) Not a nice suggestion to make, but when on holiday a dirty washing bag may be an excellent place to hide your valuables. This most likely will not be the first thing to be searched by thieves.
10) If possible buy your souvenirs at the end of a travelling holiday - there's no point in lugging your valuable, delicate or heavy purchases all over Asia or South America if you don't have to.
11) If you’re carrying wrapped presents, be prepared for them to be unceremoniously unwrapped (torn open) if Customs want to inspect the luggage.
More advice may come if any comments are received containing useful ideas. Please feel free to comment on the page contents, or to make suggestions on how to improve it.
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