I have two friends who frequently travel together. One of them makes a list for each trip, even overnight jaunts. She checks off items one by one as she neatly places each carefully-thought-out garment into her suitcase. The other friend? One day she casually mentioned in passing, “I suppose I should go home and pack; I’m leaving for the airport in three hours.” So she was—for a two-week trip to Africa.

What’s your packing style? Are you a planner or a procrastinator? Do you take everything you own “just in case” or stuff a few things into a backpack and call it good? I’ve gone both routes and while each has merit, I find a combination of the two works best. So with summer vacation season upon us, here are a few of the tips and tricks I’ve learned that may help you avoid a packing disaster.

Just Enough but Not Too Much

In a perfect world, every suitcase would hold everything needed for the entire trip and not a single sock more. That standard of perfection is probably unattainable, but a little thought and a list will help you remember necessities like “toothbrush” and “phone charger.” There are basic lists online (from a multitude of sources) you can use as a starting point. Sure, it takes the adventure out of arriving at your destination only to find you’ve forgotten, say, the medication that keeps you breathing, but you’ll find other adventures, I promise.

That being said, a little rational thought will help keep you from overpacking. For example, you may be going to London but what are the odds you’ll be invited to tea with the Queen? (Hint: slim to none.) What are the odds you’ll be walking for hours every day over uneven pavement and ancient floors? (Hint: pretty darn good.) So leave the killer heels at home and take the walking shoes. If Her Majesty should happen to issue an invitation, you’ll no doubt have time for a quick trip to the shops—and if not, feel free to call and tell me I was wrong. (I’d love to hear THAT story!)

Folders, Rollers, Bundlers, and Stuffers

Which one are you? Folding is the traditional method, but it’s not necessarily the best. Folded clothes take up a good bit of space and they’re pretty much guaranteed to wrinkle, if only along the fold. Assuming you want to look well-groomed at your destination and don’t want to spend precious vacation time ironing (do people still iron?) you may want to try another tactic.

Taking a hanging bag? Tuck each outfit into a plastic bag from the dry cleaner. It will reduce friction and thus reduce wrinkles. Plus, if anything spills on your luggage your clothes have an extra layer of protection.

Many swear by the roll, and it has a lot going for it: Fold pants in half, stacking one leg on top of the other, and roll bottom to top. Fold t-shirts into long rectangles, then roll. It’s often a better use of space than folding, though you can certainly go with a combo of the two. I like this method myself, but have also been known to use ...

The bundle. This one’s a little complicated, so stay with me. Open your suitcase all the way, then starting with the largest garment—jackets, then pants or skirts, then shirts—layer each one, flat, centered over the suitcase. Then—leaving everything hanging out for the moment—make a bundle of toiletry items and plop it in the middle. Now fold each item of clothing, one at a time, over the bundle. (You’ll find detailed directions at www.onebag.com/pack) While this seems odd at first, when I tried it my clothes actually did survive the trip relatively wrinkle free.

Of course, if you’re pressed for time or just don’t care, you can just wad up your clothes and stuff them into your luggage willy-nilly. It’s not pretty, but it will at least get your wardrobe in your luggage, more or less.

Tips for All Types

Bag It!

  • If you’re traveling by air and the thought of a random government employee fingering your underwear gives you the creeps, pack your unmentionables in a clear plastic bag. (You don’t have to spend top dollar on premium travel bags; gallon-sized freezer bags work nicely.)
     
  • Zip-top bags are also good for swimsuits (in case you want to pack it up before it dries) and dirty things (in case you don’t want them mingling with your clean clothes).
     
  • While we’re on the subject of bags, if you’re tempted by the nifty vacuum-sealed variety, remember: they squash your clothes into a smaller space, but don’t make them any lighter. You can, however, fit more into your case … which makes it even heavier. With airlines charging a premium for bags over the weight limit, be sure to factor that into account.

Mark It!

  • If you’re traveling with a laptop, iPad, or similar device, label it. Tape a business card to it or stick on an address label or something—at most airports you’ll have to send it through the scanner all by itself, and you don’t always get through at the same time. If someone accidentally picks up your laptop thinking it’s theirs, it could be on the other side of the world before you discover the switch.
     
  • Ditto small electronic devices you might be inclined to use in-flight … and then accidentally leave in the seat pocket in your hurry to get off the plane.
     
  • Speaking of ID, put some kind of information inside your bag, not just on the luggage tag. If the tag comes off (and sometimes they do) your bag will have a better chance of returning to you. I keep an old driver’s license in mine. When travelling overseas, tuck a copy of your passport in the bottom of your bag just in case something happens to your original ID.

If Your Luggage Goes AWOL

I recently flew from New York to Dallas; my luggage flew from New York to Chicago to ... I’m not really sure where. It eventually came home, but not without multiple inquiries, assorted claim numbers, and an over-the-phone ID of my bag. (“The bottom pocket has sheet music, cute black shoes, a fabulous blue scarf … Don’t open that top pocket, you’ll be sorry. Trust me on this.”)

All that to say, if you’re traveling with a friend, consider packing one outfit in their luggage and vice versa. That way if only one bag gets lost you’ll at least have one change of clothing each. Also, if your bag does go missing, be proactive in contacting the airline and staying on top of the search. It wasn’t until the third call that I finally got through to someone who actually seemed to know what to do about my missing bag.

Do you know what happens to lost luggage that isn’t claimed? After 90 days in the airline version of the dog pound, it goes to the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama. This treasure trove is bigger than a city block and boasts “Over one million items pass through the store annually.” No need to pack for a trip there—you can buy a suitcase on site and fill it from the vast array of clothing someone once tried to take somewhere. They say over seven thousand new items go on their shelves every day. Hmmm ... anyone up for a trip?


 

Susan Ellingburg is a natural-born Texan who sings at every opportunity, reads as much as possible, and cherishes every day she gets to spend with friends.  She's a serious foodie and not-so-serious gardener who is determined not to let being single stand in the way of living an amazing life.  Read Susan's blog at TastingGod.wordpress.com.