How to Pack: Tips from the Experts on Maximizing Space

As I dusted off my suitcase for my first trip during the pandemic last month, a familiar dread came over me. Despite my track record of packing for two-week vacations in a carry-on suitcase, the process always takes me days of agonizing over every. single. item. Still, as soon as I get out the door, inevitably there’s that one item I wish I had packed that I end up thinking about the rest of the trip.

Before I sunk back into old habits, I reached out to organization experts and flight attendants—the ultimate frequent travelers—to learn the tricks of the trade. Below, 10 of their best packing tips.

1. Use the right suitcase for the occasion

Often, our instincts are to choose luggage based on the length of the trip. While it’s a definite factor, what matters more is the kind of trip. “A compact or medium-sized suitcase is ideal for a city break or beach holiday because you can easily pack a lot of light garments, which you'll need for daily outfit changes when the weather is hot and you've been walking all day,” says Etihad Airways flight attendant Adina Elena Beldie. Hard-sides like Away’s The Bigger Carry-On and Monos’ Hybrid Carry-On, as well as soft-sides like Samsonite’s NuRoad Carry-On Spinner fit the bill.


“On the contrary, an outdoor adventure trip would require a larger suitcase for all of your hiking gear, like thick clothes and bulky footwear,” Beldie adds. Top choices in the category include the REI Co-Op Big Haul Recycled Rolling Duffel or Osprey’s Shuttle Wheeled 130L bag. “Lastly, in my experience, a business trip usually means packing light, although this can vary depending on the duration of the trip,” she says. No matter the size, Travelpro’s Platinum Elite Hardside Luggage fits the chicness and practicality factors with its Compact Carry-On or Medium Check-In.

Away The Bigger Carry-On

$245.00, Away

Osprey Shuttle Wheeled 130L bag

$320.00, Osprey

2. Take the weight off of you

There’s no need for you (or your back) to bear the burden. “If you’re flying to your destination, spinners are a must-have,” travel packing expert Anne McAlpin of Pack It Up says. It’s not just about the luggage itself—it also serves as a way for your carry-on tote to slip over the handle. “The weight of the bag is carried by the spinner, not your shoulders, making traveling through long airport terminals a breeze,” she says.

Though many totes can slip right over the handles of carry-on luggage or a checked bag, sets complete the look, like Delsey’s Chatelet Hard+ two-piece set or Kenneth Cole Reaction’s Chevron Spinner with a Tote.

3. Make a list and check it twice

As with so many essential life tasks, writing out what you need is never a bad idea. “Create a packing list that includes all of your essentials, and then separate ones that are customized to your [trip's] relevant needs,” say the women of The Home Edit, Clea Shearer and Joanna Teplin. One of the biggest mistakes people make, they say, is “just throwing things in a suitcase without a system in mind.”

A list can help you take note of if you’re over or underpacking, Beldie says, adding that, “Proper packing requires time.”

“I recommend adding items to your suitcase about a week in advance—not earlier than that as it’s important to check weather conditions at the destination, which will be more accurate closer to the trip,” she says.

If a handwritten list isn’t your speed, let your items be your visual list. “Lay everything out and start editing,” McAlpin says. “Hang outfits together, so you don’t forget anything.” She says to start two weeks ahead of time and to try everything on. “Part of the stress of packing is deciding what to take and what fits,” she says.

4. Find your own formula

McAlpin says she’s been recommending her packing ratio—three to one, with three tops for every bottom—for more than 25 years. Most trips work with nine tops and three bottoms, especially when they’re in basic colors that mix and match. She also says not to exceed three pairs of shoes: running or exercise shoes, walking shoes, and a pair of sandals or flip-flops.

On the other hand, Beldie is about the twos. For each day of the trip, she says to think of two tops, two shorts, two T-shirts, two pants, and two undergarments. “For a business trip, packing two shirts per day is a good idea—one for meetings during the day, the other for dinner and night events,” she says.

For organizing guru Marie Kondo, it’s less about numbers and more about categories. “I recommend that you lay everything out first and categorize by type of item to give you a comprehensive look at how many items you have for each category,” she says. “Then fold everything into its smallest possible size. At that point, before you start filling the suitcase, pare down and be honest with yourself about what you really need for the trip.”

The most important aspect of the equation is simplicity: “What do you really need to have a joy-sparking trip? If your trip is for leisure, this is the opportunity to free yourself from everyday decision making and perhaps experience a simpler lifestyle. The fewer clothing options to choose from, the more you can focus on the joyful experience ahead,” she says. But there is one number she says to follow, “Leave 10 or 20 percent empty space so you can buy souvenirs and pack them for your return trip!”

Experts recommend laying everything out before packing your bag.

Packed clothes

Experts recommend laying everything out before packing your bag.

5. Consider clothing material and colors

Eva Air senior assistant purser Jennifer Liao says to select the most packable clothing so you’re not constantly thinking about ironing. “Most flight attendants travel with clothes made from wrinkle-free fabrics such as synthetics, wool, denim, and knit—we don’t pack linen because it wrinkles so easily,” she says. Hues can also make a big difference. “The colors we pack are important. The darker the color, the fewer visible wrinkles,” Liao adds.

Tifsit Teferra, a Delta Air Lines flight attendant, says to focus on a wide range of choices, too. She avoids packing too many of the same thing: “Why take up space with six tees when you can bring a variety of tops—variety is the spice of packing!”

6. Less is more

McAlpin’s packing motto is: “Less stuff, less stress.” She once traveled 21 days in a 21-inch carry-on that was less than 21 pounds—covering diverse climates from India and Jordan to New York City. That pack light mentality is echoed across the board.

“People tend to, quite literally, weigh themselves down when traveling,” Kondo says. “Remind yourself that traveling is temporary and should be about the actual trip itself rather than extensive wardrobe selections. Packing just a few outfits that you absolutely love will make getting ready each day a breeze. Select clothes that are comfortable, do not wrinkle easily, and that make you feel good about yourself.”

“Not all items will apply to all people, and not all items will apply to all trips,” Shearer and Teplin say. “So if you absolutely, without a doubt, cannot live without an item, then by all means, bring it! Just remember: You get the item or you get the space, but you don't get both.”

7. Organize your clothes vertically and tightly

Though some packers prefer laying clothes flat, the experts we talked to agree that rolling is key to save space. “Clothes should be folded into their smallest possible size,” Kondo says. “Thin fabrics are best to roll to prevent wrinkles. Another tidy trick is to tuck your folded underwear into bra cups within your suitcase—it keeps the undergarment category together and saves space.”

Think of your suitcase as a table of contents of sorts—you want to be able take one look and know everything inside. “The key here is to pack your items vertically so you can see them all at one glance,” Kondo says. “That way, you don’t have to take out everything to find the one item you are looking for.”

8. Categorize your contents

Take that idea one step further with packing cubes. “They will help use vertical space and adhere to a tidy routine while on the road,” Kondo says. KonMari partnered with Paravel on the Packing Cube Quad, a set of four that makes categorizing easy on the go. Kondo suggests using the smallest one for underwear, the largest for bulky items like outerwear and towels, one of the middle ones for clean clothes, and the other for dirty ones. “What’s great about the packing cubes is that you can place your vertically folded clothes into the cube from your drawer at home, then transfer them straight into the drawers at the hotel, so it’s easy to unpack at the destination,” she says.

The Home Edit team put a different spin on them in the form of pouches. “Packing squares are the real game-changer,” they say of their Zipper Pouch Set. “They are so versatile, which is key when you're needing to pack different items for every trip. The trick is finding packing squares that fit what you regularly pack. We designed our own set with Calpak because we wanted a version that was large enough for storing shoes as well!”

If you want to give your items an extra squeeze, McAlpin suggests Baggallini’s long compression packing cubes, which fit right into that awkward space between the handles of most luggage to maximize space.

Tech cords and chargers might need a slightly different method to remain neat. Kondo’s shop sells a Bellroy Tidy Tech Kit, while Teferra goes more homemade: “I fold cords and then use Velcro tape to secure them.”

KonMari x Bellroy Tidy Tech Kit

$59.00, KonMari

KonMari x Paravel Packing Cube Quad

$65.00, KonMari

9. Wear your bulkiest clothing

Though we’ve heard those infamous stories of people layering on clothes to save on baggage fees, there is a time and place for wearing some of your essential needs on your back. “If you are going to a cold weather location, I suggest wearing your bulkier items like a coat and boots, and always carry your water bottle,” Teferra says. If you do need to put them in your suitcase, Teferra says, “Bulky items should always go at the bottom of your suitcase, and it’s best to layer them flat—never fold or roll them.”

10. Keep travel essentials packed

“We always say, if you stay ready, you won't have to get ready,” The Home Edit women say. Especially for frequent travelers, instead of constantly packing and unpacking, keep the items that you always take with you packed. “It helps to organize your travel toiletries and accessories ahead of time so your packing routine is essentially grab-and-go,” they add.

Liao agrees, admitting that the Eva Air team travels so much that “some of us keep essential items that we never unpack in our luggage.” The advantage can shave tremendous time on packing for your next trip. “All we need to do before each flight is pack clothes.”

Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler