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How to create a packing list for travel - without forgetting anything

Updated on April 26, 2013
Packed and ready to go!
Packed and ready to go! | Source

I travel. A lot. And sometimes it's for little things - two days at a writing convention. Three days for work. Other times, it's bigger things - seven days for a vacation. Ten days for a writing residency. But whenever and where-ever I go, there are always some things that I need. Rather than risk forgetting about them, I've created a general packing list that I can adjust, based on how long and where I'm going. It tends to make me the most prepared person anywhere I wind up, and I'm proud to say I have yet to suffer the embarrassment of not having something I need with me.

To make your own packing list, I suggest using either Word or Excel (or an equivalent program) so that you're able to add and subtract items easily. You may even find yourself making multiple lists based off the first one if you have one place you go every year. You can choose to make a list that you can cross off, or, if you prefer, you can also add in little check mark boxes that will allow you to be able to still read the list while knowing that you have it all under control.

When you pack, how often do you forget something?

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First, figure out your categories.

For me, categories include toiletries, clothing, medication and OTC drugs, work, school, technology, food, hobbies, and financials. These categories are important because they will help you keep things organized, both when you're finding the items to pack and when you're packing them. Personally, I find that I often carry my medications in my purse or carry-on luggage, so making this list and being able to check it off or cross it off matters quite a lot because otherwise it's easy to overlook something that is so small but really matters quite a bit.

Second, come up with the basics for each list item.

Let me give you some basics:

Luggage carousel at Ben-Gurion International Airport.
Luggage carousel at Ben-Gurion International Airport. | Source


Under toiletries, include anything you would use in the bathroom. This means your toothbrush and toothpaste, floss, deodorant, razors, shaving cream, lotion, shampoo and conditioner, and, of course, a first aid kit. If you're traveling, you may be doing more walking than you're used to, so having those band-aids for potential blisters or even some soothing first aid cream and a bit of gauze can help up for any emergencies that might arise. For women, this would also include items like feminine hygiene products. (Even if it's not due, there's nothing wrong with having a maxi or tampon or two on hand, just in case of surprises.) Another thing worth bringing is a file or nail trimmer, as well as some clear nail polish. It doesn't take up much room, and it's handy in a pinch for more than just nails!


Under clothing, I tend to have some line items that I can adjust, based on where and when I'm traveling. Basic sub-categories include clothing for "x" numbers of days, pajamas for "x" number of days, underwear/socks for "x" number of days, workout or yoga clothes, shoes (and that is where I'll put sneakers, heels, sandals, water shoes, etc., so that I can select the ones I need or want), and a swimsuit. Don't forget to include things like sweater and jackets, depending on where and when you plan to travel. Umbrellas and rain gear would fall into the "clothing" category as well. This is also a good place to list if you need to bring any jewelry. I know that not everyone wears it, but personally I collect watches, and I love necklaces, so I always bring a few along to swap out. Of course, while you may only need clothes for three days, it's not a bad idea to pack for four. On a recent trip that last three days, a friend happened to bring only two shirts, and we had to go shopping. Okay, so the shopping wasn't too bad, but it does cost money to need to buy something when you've forgotten it, especially when it's a larger item like clothes.

Medications and OTC

Under medications and OTC drugs, think about anything that you might take in a week. This would include your vitamins, headache and other OTC items, like Motrin or aspirin, some form of antacid, and any medications that you have been prescribed and/or take on a regular basis. Be sure that you have the bottles for any prescription medication, just in case.


Under work, bring anything that you think you might need. Now, not everyone works while they travel, and everyone's job is different, but things to think about to place in this category include printed copies of important files, notepads and pens/pencils to jot things down, and any work-related printed materials you may already have, such as employee manuals or, in my case since I teach English, the appropriate textbooks for any classes I may be teaching. Depending on your needs - and what you have - you may also choose to bring a printer with you. If you bring a printer, remember to also add its accessories: paper, spare ink, a cable to connect it to the computer, and its power plug. And, for the sake of being over-prepared, bringing a USB key so that you can copy and move files from one computer to another is never a bad idea! You can also keep electronic copies of any files that you think you may need to access.


Under school, I would list my textbooks, any print outs of research papers I was working on, a USB key if I had work on it or just as a back-up, and plenty of paper and a few pens. Of course, not everyone is in school, and so this doesn't apply to everyone, but if you do happen to be working on a degree, make sure that you look at your due dates and figure out what you may need to work on while you're gone.


Under technology, I would list my computer and its charger, my cell phone and its charger, and my iPad and its charger. Headphones, especially if you're flying. If I was bringing a camera, I'd include it here, too, and, of course, some extra batteries for it. When you write your list for technology, always remember to bring some way to keep it working! There's nothing worse than getting to a hotel and realizing that you can't charge your computer and have to run out and buy a new charger. And, no, that didn't happen to me - but it did happen to a friend. Nothing like a Wal-Mart run at 10 p.m. to keep the computer working!

Bespoke red custom baggage
Bespoke red custom baggage | Source


Under hobbies, you want to include anything that you do for fun that you might need for while you're gone. This may include things like books, cross stitch (or other needlecraft supplies), drawing or art materials, or anything else that you know you like to do in your downtime. Just remember to make the list complete - you may want to write down the hobby, and then go ahead and plan for what project it is you think you'll be doing. For example, if you enjoy cross-stitch like me, I would look at what I'd been working on, and then plan accordingly. I'd want to bring the pattern, extra floss, scissors, needles, my hoop and fabric, and then maybe even some extra fabric and a new pattern, in case I got extra time and was able to start something new. This is also a great place to include cards, puzzles, and even movies that you may want to watch.


Under food, consider where you're going and how long it will take to get there or how long you'll be there. This part of the list is the one that will potentially change the most. For example, if you're flying, you won't be able to bring any open containers or open food. But, at the same time, if you're flying you may want to make sure you have gum or candy for the flight. If you're driving and spending time at a hotel, check and see if you'll have a mini fridge and microwave. You can bring your own water and soda so you don't have to buy it once you're there, or you might be addicted to microwave popcorn. You can also pack your own fruit or other snacks to keep from succumbing to the candy vending machines.


Under financials, you'll want to figure out how much cash you want on hand, whether or not you'll bring - or have - a checkbook, and what debit/credit cards you need. I always make sure I bring at least one credit card to hold in reserve, just in case there is an emergency. This is also where you'll want to make sure you have other cards, such as a AAA card or any sort of discount card that may be applicable to the trip. In the case of discount cards or coupons, even if you're not sure if you need them, bring them. It never hurts to realize that you can get a discount on dinner or get a tow if your car breaks down. Cards don't take up much space, and they can make a huge difference in what happens in the case of a shopping - or real - emergency.

Including Children in Packing Lists

Now, if you also happen to be traveling with children, the list is suddenly about to get a lot longer! Each child will need their own packing list, plus you will want to make sure to remember items such as diapers, swim diapers, overnight diapers, children's medications, a thermometer, bath or shower items, toys, and any videos or technology that the child has or enjoys. In cases of long car trips, you may also want to include blankets or pillows to help the child be comfortable, or possibly some magnetic games or a white board with wipe-off markers and an eraser to keep the boredom level down. In addition, if there is any special food or drink that your child enjoys, add it to the list.

Luggage seen at at Tenterden station
Luggage seen at at Tenterden station | Source

Special Packing Lists

You may also want to create "special" lists for particular vacations. For example, if you like to go to the beach on a regular basis - even if it's just a day trip - what do you need to bring? What don't you want to forget? Write up a "beach" list that you can trot out for those fun in the sun days! You'll want to include items like sunscreen, extra towels, water, wet wipes (they never hurt!), beach toys like shovels and sand molds, sunglasses, water wings or floats, goggles, ear or nose plugs, and anything else that your family enjoys. You may even choose to bring flashlights if you like to go for a romantic walk on the beach at night! Keep the list as an addendum, and that way, you can easily throw things together without forgetting anything!

Other special lists may depend on the method of travel. I've traveled by bus, by train, by plane, and by car. Each time, I have discovered that my needs vary slightly. It may be changes in the food I bring, the amount of reading materials I pack, or the comfort items, like pillows and blankets. Remember to look up how much you can bring - there are often size restrictions on luggage, and you may need to adjust your packing list accordingly, especially if you plan on flying and bringing toiletries along.

How To Pack Everything For Your Vacation Into a Carry-on

Final Advice

My final advice to you is this - if you have more than a day to pack, print out your list early and make sure you can find all the items you need. The more time you have, the more chance you have to pack up right. Do laundry to make sure that you are bringing the clothing you want; hit the store if you need to grab some soda or fruit; make sure you don't need to buy any additional batteries or medication. And, just because it’s not a bad idea, bring along a copy of the list so that when you’re re-packing your stuff to go home, you can make sure you don’t forget anything. It's all about being confident and prepared.


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