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How To Pack Like A Pro And Travel Light

Updated on November 30, 2013
The outside pockets come in handy on carry on luggage.
The outside pockets come in handy on carry on luggage. | Source

How Do Professionals Travel Light?

I used to admire the ability of airline attendants and pilots to travel light and cruise through the airport with just a small carry on and a laptop, whilst traipsing about the planet. But that was before I was a professional traveler - before I had "earned my wings." You see, when I first started traveling, I bought my family of four six matching suitcases that rolled and each of us had a separate bathroom bag. That's ten bags we had! Then, I bought a car carrier. Then, I bought a trailer. Then, I... Well, you get the picture. But there is an art to travel and one of the key components of that art is the ability to pack light.

I have traveled to many other countries and states and, for a long time, I took a break from traveling. But when I returned to traveling, I suffered from road-warrior amnesia. I took everything but the kitchen sink. Now, that I'm living life on the road again, it has all come back to me - like riding a bike again.

Some choose to travel with nothing more than a backpack. Some choose a suitcase. I like the carry on for my choice of baggage. I am older and have a hernia so I can't carry a backpack everywhere. Also, carry-on bags that roll are handier in airports. But if I were as young and fit as I once was, I would opt for the backpack. What really matters is that you are comfortable with your choice because you might be toting around that choice for an hour or two at a time, so be sure it will work for you. Whatever you choose is a matter of personal preference. But the contents should be selected based on a few key pieces of advice.

Much of the following advice is geared for the air traveler but you can eliminate those airline only tips and the rest of the following will still serve you well while traveling by car.

Roll on suitcases have the added benefit of being able to transport small people.
Roll on suitcases have the added benefit of being able to transport small people. | Source
An example of packing light but bringing essentials.  In some parts of the world, you will NOT find toilet paper and must bring your own!
An example of packing light but bringing essentials. In some parts of the world, you will NOT find toilet paper and must bring your own! | Source
Rolling clothes is an often-used packing technique of the frequent traveler, as it can avoid wrinkling.
Rolling clothes is an often-used packing technique of the frequent traveler, as it can avoid wrinkling. | Source

Pack Light - Things To Know

  • Have a basic idea of what you will take on each trip. True travelers have a list to use but once you have traveled extensively, your list becomes integrated into your brain. My list is memorized: Passport, legal docs, tickets (if applicable), 1 ball cap, 2 pants (one dress black pair), 1 skirt, 1 pair of shorts, 3 blouses (1 long sleeve), 1 sweater, 1 dress, 1 swimsuit, undergarments, a light jacket, 1 small bathroom bag that fits inside my carry on (see details below). This clothing list is actually longer than other travelers, who take even less clothes. So, it's very possible to get by on this. You will want to pack shoes but see what I say about shoe packing below. If you are staying as a house guest, it's easier to pick up and pack your thank you gifts in advance (the ones you will leave behind when you depart from their home as "thanks"). I try to leave room in the bag for small items or trinkets that I pick up for myself while traveling.
  • The bathroom bag contains only essentials: toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, soap bar, deodorant (stick - not spray), perfume samplers from magazines (because they are very small, made of paper, and not liquids). Since shampoo is a liquid, I take a shampoo bar because it works just as well. I also may take spray in aerosol shampoo - which is shampoo that you spray into your hair, like hairspray, but does not require washing out (just spray, brush in, and go!) but that depends on where I'm going. Sometimes, I'm in remote locations where store purchases are not an option.
  • The bulkiest items packed are shoes. I take three pairs: flip-flops, tennis shoes, dress shoes (Of course, I'm usually wearing one of these while in mobility mode). You might not even need the dress shoes when traveling in certain regions. If you wear the heaviest shoes, then that will mean less weight in your bag if it is weighed! Some people prefer to use specialty bags in which to keep their shoes but I just use a Ziploc. It works just as fine, without the expense of a fancy bag. Some folks like to put socks in their shoes while traveling but I prefer not to do that because, frankly, you could stink up your socks before you've even worn them. What I do is put inside my shoes are the gift items I will be giving to my hosts when I depart from staying with them as a house guest. These include gift cards, candles, pen-holders, or those itsy-bity novelty books that fit in the palm of your hand. Of course, I wrap them in a separate Ziploc, to protect against the odor factor.
  • Pack wrinkle-free clothing. This will save you from packing an iron or from later pulling out wrinkled clothes you can't wear. Clothing that is color coordinated will keep it easy to pull anything out and still match. If you really want to get serious about your clothing choice, pack specialty clothing that is made for travelers. It dries fast (about three hours) and is very light weight and wrinkle free. It usually wicks away moisture and you can find these clothes sold online or at backpacker/outdoor sporting stores. They don't all look like those made for a safari in Africa. Some look just like regular clothing and are made of cotton. If you're concerned with weight when flying, leave the jeans at home. As for how to pack a blazer, these require a specific methodology to avoid wrinkles.
  • If you like electronic gadgets, then place them in a Ziploc, just in case of a downpour, spilt drink, and just to keep components together. I keep a camera, kindle, phone and their chargers together this way.
  • When doing the actual packing, keep your suitcase or bag tidily packed if you are going through airport security. This is because when your luggage is scanned by the x-ray machines, the security will ask you to open your bag if it's messily packed. This is because they cannot clearly identify the contents with the machine. So, there are two schools of thought: fold and stack or roll and layer. Like most people that are on the road a great deal, I like the roll and layer method because most of my things fit in one layer and then I can put the electronics on top of that layer. While some people like to "sandwich" their electronics between clothing layers, I find no need to do that because my electronics each have their own cases. Plus, it makes the luggage easier to scan.
  • Be culturally sensitive when packing. For example, in Europe and the Far East, wearing shorts is not cool. Even on hot days, everyone wears pants, except at the beach. So, adjust your packing based on the culture you will be visiting. Otherwise, you'll be seen as odd, disrespectful or just plain foolish.

Another example of the rolling-clothes method of packing.
Another example of the rolling-clothes method of packing. | Source

TSA Regulations & Other Packing Tips and Tricks

  • Organize your bag. Some purchase baggage organizers but I use a standard small bathroom bag (clear for airline ease), a Ziploc for electronics and a grocery store plastic bag for dirty clothes, a Ziploc for the 3-1-1 items (more on this below). You can find fancier varieties at your local camp store or sports store but I see no need for them.
  • Take a small first aid kit but be careful not to violate TSA rules (you may need to eliminate contents). You never know when you'll be stranded at the airport, the bus stop or the closed country store with a bleeding hang-nail.
  • Optional: Many seasoned travelers do their own laundry by hand in the hotel sink. If you're that kind of traveler, have a portable clothes line. Mine folds up and fits right in my travel bag. It hangs on a shower curtain rod when in use. You may wish to pack a few of the small boxes of detergent sold in laundry mats or just buy some detergent when you arrive. If you travel with kids, like I do, then make it a fun family activity. It then takes everyone only 5-10 minutes, instead of you doing it all for about 30-40 minutes. Sometimes, we rock out to music and sing while we do it and we try to get our dirty clothes done in "3 songs or less." But, if they don't pass my sniff test, the kids rewash them. That ensures the job is done right. Even my seven year old knows how to wash by hand so this isn't a difficult thing to teach a child and all children enjoy fun games - even those of the teenage variety.
  • Optional: The travel towel can be a lifesaver. In some places of the world, hotels don't supply towels or, if you are in a hostel, do not expect that there will be any available to rent, even though sheets usually are. Here are examples of types of travel towels commonly sold.
  • Optional: sleeping mask and ear plugs. Our family is so conditioned to sleeping through noise and in strange places, we are not affected by light or noise. We sleep like the dead! But, in the event that you don't, you may want to pack these.
  • At the airport: remove your laptop and have it scanned separately. My laptop actually fits in an exterior pocket of my carry on but to have it scanned, it needs to be removed from the bag so as not to delay the security screening process.
  • Follow TSA regulations when flying: Keep anything that is a gel, liquid or aerosol in a container of 3.4 ounces (100 ml) or less. Gels are things like toothpaste or some kinds of deodorants. A liquid includes make up foundation or shampoo. Aerosols include hair spray or some types of deodorants. These items should be placed in a quart-sized Ziploc. This method follows the required TSA restrictions in place in America, known as 3-1-1. To expedite flight time and reduce the possibility of a bag search, just remove the quart-sized Ziploc and have it scanned separately in the airport screening process. The design of my travel bags (see above) provide the perfect sized exterior pocket for just these items, which I can quickly unzip and remove when I'm in line at security. More details are at the TSA website.
  • If you travel often or just want to avoid the airport security line, prepare in advance by getting a Clear card (and TSA pre-check and/or Global Entry pre-clearance, if also desired) and take it with you. They usually work, though I have heard stories of when the person who had them still had to go through security despite having one or more of these. But let me clarify. Clear is to get you to bypass one line but not to avoid security altogether while TSA pre-check allows you to bypass security because TSA has already cleared you. They are a measure meant for you to bypass security and usually, that's the case. It will cost you a bit of money but it can be quite worth it. Check out more details on this here.

I really like these old fashioned carry ons but they may not always meet the airline requirements.  Be sure to measure your carry on!
I really like these old fashioned carry ons but they may not always meet the airline requirements. Be sure to measure your carry on! | Source

Weight of a Suitcase

  • Weight and size matter. My suitcase conforms to every airline's requirements for a carry on. That means it is on the smaller side, ala airline pilots' carry on. I don't have a second bag because many airlines charge for that second bag and depending on what country you're in, many times you'll be charged for the first bag! The right size for your bag should be 9"x22"x14" or smaller and 20 lbs. or less. When it comes to weight, choosing lighter weight clothing can be handy since the bag or suitcase is going to count towards that twenty pounds. For example, my jacket is made of nylon and extremely light weight

All in all, when one does travel, packing less does make for a happier traveler. This concept adheres to the idea of keeping it simple. There's a pleasure to be found in the simplicity of packing light.

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    • Li Galo profile imageAUTHOR

      Li Galo 

      8 years ago from Mainly the USA but Sometimes Abroad

      Thanks Ausemade!

    • Ausemade profile image


      8 years ago from Australia

      Most of my travel so far has been in a 4 wheel drive, so we could travel with just about everything including the kitchen sink and our dogs. Whilst I have not done any air travel where I needed an overnight bag, this has certainly revealed things I did not know or would not have thought of. Thanks


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