How to Pack a Suitcase Like an Expert

These little packing tips will go a long way.

Person packing her suitcase and preparing for vacation
Photo: Getty Images

Vacations are making a major comeback, which means it's time for you to pack your bags and head out on that trip you've long been dreaming of. But hang on, do you even remember how to pack a suitcase anymore?

We wouldn't blame you if you forgot. After all, it's likely been a minute since you've thought about deciding between a checked bag or a carry-on, which toiletries fit the TSA sizing guidelines, and if you should or shouldn't bring your packing cubes along for the ride.

If you need a little help getting started, Lydia Mansel, travel writer and founder of Just Packed, a traveler's resource for packing lists and product recommendations, is here to share her advice. Here are 10 packing tips straight from Mansel that will have you packing like a pro in no time.

Think about your mode of transportation.

According to Mansel, she allows her mode of transportation to dictate just how overpacked her bags can get. "The way I pack a suitcase depends on how I'm traveling," Mansel explains. For example, if she's driving or flying but only bringing a carry-on, she allows herself to overpack a little. Like Mansel, your mode of transport should help you decide just how much you can feasibly pack and which size of luggage you should choose.

Know your airline's weight limit.

"If I'm flying and checking a bag, I know the 50-pound weight limit comes quickly, and I'll need to be mindful of how much I'm actually packing into the suitcase," Mansel says, noting the average weight limit for checked luggage across major airlines. "In this instance, I'll use my Away suitcase, which is just under 12 pounds. I'll then pack normally and weigh the bag with a handheld weight scale. With a couple of pairs of shoes and my toiletries, I typically average 47 pounds, giving me a little wiggle room if I pick up any souvenirs on my travels."

Don't worry about rolling vs. folding — just do what works for you.

Which type of traveler are you, a roller or a folder? According to Mansel, it really doesn't matter.

"I've done the research — both IRL and on YouTube — about the pros and cons of rolling vs. folding, and there's a general consensus across the travel community: there's no major difference," she says. "I personally prefer to fold more casual pieces, like jeans and cotton tops, but I'll roll the clothes that are more delicate or tend to wrinkle." Moral of the story, pick the packing method that's right for you, and don't stress about making the trendy choice.

Do make every inch of space count.

No matter which method of packing you choose, Mansel says it's critical to make use of every inch of space you have in your luggage — including some often-overlooked spots.

Each piece of clothing, she says, should be folded or rolled as tightly as possible and squeezed into "every square inch of extra space, including inside my shoes." Yes, you read that right. If you can, try rolling up socks, underwear, or smaller t-shirts and stuff them inside boots or sneakers. The little added space really can make a huge difference.

Invest in packing cubes to stay organized.

A chaotic bag can kill a travel mood, which is why Mansel says investing in packing cubes is a good idea.

"I'm a recent packing cube convert and have been using them for about a year. Even if I'm just packing for a short weekend trip, packing cubes are involved at some level," Mansel says. "I've found they make my life exponentially easier; my suitcase is more organized, and the unpacking process is a breeze."

And invest in packing cubes to sort your laundry.

Speaking of those all-important cubes, Mansel says it's smart to pack an extra empty one that you can fill on your trip with all your dirty laundry.

"Once I arrive home, I can simply throw the contents into my laundry basket instead of deliriously searching through my suitcase for what needs to be washed," Mansel says.

Give outfit planning a try.

Take your packing to the next level by re-thinking your travel wardrobe.

"My outfit planning for trips usually starts about a week out," Mansel says. "At this point, I'll start a list in my Notes app on my phone. Here, I'll begin to formulate what I'm wearing each day, and I'll jot down the specific items I need to bring — like an adaptor, toothbrush, or extra contact lenses — as they come to mind."

According to Mansel, this list initially includes more than what she'll actually bring, but she's found it's the perfect way to begin to whittle down a packing list.

"When it's written out, you're able to see that no, you really don't need three different pairs of 'just in case' jeans. Giving yourself a few days before your departure ensures you have time to order anything you're missing, like thick socks, a white t-shirt, or even a bathing suit."

Think twice about every item of clothing you've packed.

When it's time to actually do the packing, Mansel has a clear idea of what she needs to find in her closet, thanks to her handy list.

"These pre-planned pieces then are folded into packing cubes, separated out by shirts, pants, dresses, gym clothes, and socks and undergarments," she says. "As I place each piece into the cubes, I ask myself again: Will I really wear this? I usually veer toward overpacking, so at this stage, I try to remove at least two items that I won't miss on my trip."

Go ahead and splurge on toiletry capsules.

Toiletries can be the bane of every traveler's packing experience. Finding the right size and the right amount of space for all your serums, creams, and cleansers can be annoying, which is why Mansel says this one Insta-famous knick-knack is actually worth it.

"In my opinion, packing toiletries is one of the most annoying and difficult parts of traveling, especially if you have a specific skin or hair care routine," she says. "If you, like me, need to have a more extensive list of products with you at all times (contact solution, Vitamin C serum, leave-in hair products, etc.), the Cadence Capsules you've probably seen all over Instagram are worth the investment. These small, magnetic, TSA-compliant containers hold at least five days' worth of products. Plus, the labels are customizable, and the capsules themselves are refillable and leak-proof. Since I started using them to hold my travel toiletries, I've avoided the last-minute panicked trips to the drugstore in search of a decent travel-sized shampoo or face lotion."

Don't forget the steamer.

No matter how you pack — roll, fold, use cubes, are minimalist, whatever — your clothing will inevitably get wrinkled in transit. And that's why Mansel says it's critical to always leave room for a steamer.

"Buy a travel-sized steamer. It's nearly impossible to avoid all wrinkles, no matter how you pack, and a steamer is key to keeping your travel clothes fresh and wrinkle-free," she says. "No one wants to haul the iron and ironing board out of the hotel closet, then spend 20 minutes pressing out any lines in your clothes. The steamer is worth the extra space it takes up in your suitcase – and then some."

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