Thursday, August 19, 2010

How to pack your carry on

Most of the time when I go on a trip, friends and family remark, "That's it?" when they look at my luggage. Yes, it shouldn't surprise you that I'm a light packer. And I tried out a few new tricks when packing for our European vacation that really helped me organize and take stock of my stuff.

First of all, before you can pack well, you must achieve one important quality that many of us female travelers lack: decisiveness. Being indecisive can often lead to over packing, the old "I'll decide what I feel like wearing when I'm on my trip." Bad idea. You need to lay out your outfits and stick with your instincts. If you're going somewhere for a week, for example, label each outfit for each day of the week, and add no more than maybe one extra top.

Additionally, ask yourself, even though this shirt or a dress or pair of shoes is totally cute, is it really travel-worthy? Is it versatile? Never take on a trip something that you don't normally wear at home. (This is a rule I broke with important item I packed that I'll share more about later in this post.)

I much prefer traveling in the summer to fall or winter (or sometimes even spring) travel because it's so easy to pack a bunch of lightweight cotton dresses, have a complete outfit, and call it a day. For our three weeks in Italy and Spain I packed:
  • nine dresses (one of which is a little bit fancier than the rest)
  • two skirts
  • one pair of jeans
  • one pair of white capri pants
  • one pair of yoga pants (solely for lounging in the hotel room)
The verdict? I wore the dresses, skirts, jeans and yoga pants many times over, but I only wore the capri pants once, so those could have been left out.

When I put my dresses in my suitcase, I rolled them up and wound up having plenty of space to spare.
I only brought a few shirts to go with the pants and skirts I brought, but I knew I should bring a couple jacket and sweater items. I brought:
  • five shirts (pink tank top; white tee; blue tee; two casual T-shirts for hiking/lounging in the hotel)
  • jean jacket
  • brown short-sleeve jacket
  • white light-weight short-sleeve cardigan
The verdict? I wore all five shirts a couple times each. I could have kept the jean jacket and brown jacket at home because I wore each just a couple times whereas this versatile cardigan I wore for a few minutes almost every day. I never got cold because Europeans do not seem to blast their air conditioning the way that some Americans do. Having the light-weight cardigan, though, was the perfect item to throw in my backpack and put on before entering a house of worship.

I know that shoes can be the packing downfall of even the most low-maintenance traveler. Thanks to summer, I could reasonably pack flip flops that take up approximately zero space. But I still made some mistakes here. I brought:
The verdict? I wore the brown flip flops every day, and they're the shoes I wear most often in the summer at home. I wore the black flip flops less often, but still enough to justify bringing them. I wore the Privos some, but most of the time my feet got too hot -- we were in 95-100 degree weather most of the trip. And I never wore the heels. So, even though I had the space for them, I should have left the heels at home and I probably shouldn't have even purchased the Privos, not because they're bad or uncomfortable, but just because I don't typically wear shoes like that (and by bringing them on my trip I violated my very own "Never take on a trip something that you don't normally wear at home" rule).

Those items take care of the bulk of the stuff in my suitcase, but here are a few more strategies I used for travel:

I have a little bag from my friend Lindsay that is the perfect size for travel jewelry. I managed to throw in here several pairs of inexpensive, fun earrings and three necklaces, and that was all I needed for the trip. (Sidenote: I decided to leave my engagement ring at home and just wear my wedding band on the trip so as not to draw undue attention to myself or make anyone think we have a lot of money...which we do not.)

I took three weeks' worth of underwear because I knew by doing so I could probably avoid doing laundry, and that plan worked. I also brought a bathing suit I never used, but I don't regret bringing that because it takes up so little space and one of my other main travel rules is always bring a bathing suit no matter your destination. (You just never know when a hot tub may present itself!) I placed these items plus my night clothes into a plastic case that used to be the packaging for a set of sheets. I had never used this organizational system before, but now I will be sticking to it as it's a perfect way to corral all those small items that can shift around in your luggage.
I love my three-pocket toiletries case. It holds a lot and folds up nicely.
In the top portion I have duplicate items that I never take out: cotton balls/Q-tips, travel-sized toothpaste, toothbrush, floss, razor, barrettes. 

In the middle section I carry my make up products, the only items that I do not permanently store in my toiletries case. I also tend to wear less make up on vacation -- mascara and eyeliner are usually it. This time I made the mistake of bringing the Laura Mercier tinted moisturizer that I really like, but I forgot that I rarely wear it in the summer (and therefore could have left it at home). For this trip I threw in a tube of antibiotic cream just in case we had any bumps or scrapes on our journey, and thankfully we did not.

In the bottom section I have airplane-sized bottles of the items I'm kind of attached to (and therefore don't want to use the hotel samples). These also always stay in my toiletries case so they're ready for my next trip: moisturizer, conditioner, shampoo, body spray, sun tan lotion, and two hair products. So as to avoid exceeding the liquids and gels quota I pack make up remover pads rather than bringing my usual bottle of liquid eye make up remover.

Electronic gadgets
Because we were traveling to Europe and would be gone several weeks, we needed to carry along some items that we wouldn't normally need for a short domestic trip. So, I took an old Clinique cosmetics bag (that I've never used) and threw in:
  • the international adapter we borrowed from Matt's brother
  • iPod charger
  • two camera chargers (we took a point-and-shoot and a DSLR)
  • camera cord for loading photos (both of our cameras use the same cord)
  • flash drive for storing photos in case our memory cards got full
I wound up loving this travel organizational system as well and plan to use it in the future.

In addition to packing our carry-on-size separate suitcases, Matt and I each packed a mini-backpack with those more expensive or important items you don't want to lose should you have to check your luggage (and we had to check our luggage when flying between Venice and Barcelona and Barcelona and Sevilla):
  • travel documents, which came in a zippered pouch courtesy of our awesome travel agent
  • passports
  • wallets
  • sunglasses
  • two cameras
  • telephoto camera len
  • iPod Touch, which was especially useful for having internet access abroad
  • headphones
  • books: Lonely Planet guides for Spain and Italy and several novels and nonfiction books we shared between us
  • travel journal and a couple pens

Even though there were a few items I packed and definitely did not need (two pairs of shoes, two jackets, one pair of pants), there was only one item I forgot: a cardboard poster tube. I bought a vintage map of Italy in Florence. It didn't come with a tube, and we couldn't find a place that sold them until several cities later. The stupidest part of all this is that I have several small poster tubes in our office closet that I've saved primarily for travel, so I felt silly having to buy another one aboard.

With this packing plan in place, I didn't mind living out of a suitcase for three weeks.

But, folks, I know I didn't cover it all. What are your packing secrets?


  1. Hi! I found you through my Google reader recommended blogs. Great post! I remember watching an Oprah show that talked about how to pack:

    Check out "my" blog whenever you get a chance (It's not really mine, I just write on it with a couple other girls):

  2. Hello there! I've jusst discovered your blog and am enjoying reading your past posts. What caught my attention was the title "Literally Organized". As a former English teacher myself (in Virginia) I can identify and, indeed, have ranted on many an occasion about the sad decline in language skills.

    On to this topic, however. I've recently become a fan of, and have successfully packed carry-on for all of my last 5 trips. One item I can recommend is a large scarf/sarong (got mine in Hawaii). It can serve so many purposes, from airplane blanket, to pool wrap, to emergency robe in case your pensione fire alarms sound in the middle of the night... And for the most amazing way to pack, even better than rolling, check out for the "bundle" technique. It made at least 25% more room in my bag the first time I tried it. Not that I added more clothing...just that I had that much more room for bringing home souvenirs!