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12 Proven Packing Tips That Will Help You Travel Smarter and Lighter

Traveling soon? These foolproof packing tips will have you maximizing space and packing your suitcase like a pro in no time.

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Travel-smarter packing tips

Going on vacation should be a relaxing, exciting experience, but it’s the preparation that can create stress. There’s so much to think about, plan and schedule, from renewing passports and booking flights to finding the best luggage sets and actually packing! Luckily, we’ve got all the packing tips you’ll need to simplify the process.

Don’t know what to pack in a carry-on or even how to pack a carry-on or checked luggage? No problem. We’ll show you how to make a packing list, how to roll clothes for packing and how to use packing cubes to make the most of your space. In fact, these packing tips are so easy and effective, they’ll make prepping for your next trip a breeze. So whether you’re sailing on the best cruise lines, flying off to the best European cities, taking the ultimate American road trip or just learning how to travel cheap, you’ll never stress about packing a suitcase again.

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Make a packing list

Taking the time to create a packing list (this is different than an organized traveler’s checklist) a week or two before your trip is one of the best packing tips because it makes certain you don’t forget anything and saves you time later on. Starting early ensures you’ll be able to purchase things you still need or place an Amazon order without last-minute stress.

Begin by creating your main categories (clothing, toiletries, charging accessories, documents, etc.). Under each category, list the items you want to bring—and get specific. How many times can you wear a specific top? Which days will you actually be at the beach and need swimwear? Do you anticipate needing sneakers? If you consider yourself an overpacker (or don’t want to incur hefty baggage fees), packing lists help you pack lighter—you’ve already done the work to build your vacation wardrobe and won’t be tempted to add another outfit or two. Plus, you can refer to it when you go home so you don’t leave anything in the hotel room or Airbnb.

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Don’t pack everything in your checked bag

As tempting as it can be to pack all your belongings in a checked bag and not think about it again until it comes around the carousel, keep in mind that lost luggage happens to even the most experienced travelers. Checking luggage is convenient and gives you the freedom to pack more, but to be on the safe side, keep medications, jewelry and other valuables with you in a carry-on, travel backpack or handbag. (Speaking of, this fold-up Paravel Backpack is your new secret weapon for traveling lighter.) If an airline does happen to misplace your bags, here’s how to get reimbursed for lost luggage.

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Take the right size suitcase

Once you have a complete packing list, you’ll know whether you need a carry-on, a checked bag or both, and some of the best luggage brands offer a variety of sizes, styles and weights. Frequent travelers typically recommend taking a carry-on whenever possible, whether you’re on a weekend getaway, mini vacation or something slightly longer. Doing so not only helps you avoid airline baggage fees (most airlines allow at least one free carry-on bag, but some budget airlines do not), it also makes for quicker airport departures (no waiting at baggage claim) and limits any restrictions you might have moving around with heavier, larger luggage. Underseat luggage that fits beneath the seat in front of you can be a super convenient and surprisingly roomy option. So too can rolling carry-ons that fit in overhead bins. (Just don’t close the bins when you’re done; it’s one of the airplane travel mistakes many people make.)

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Psst! Don’t forget about the weight limit of your luggage either—skip the stress with this portable luggage scale.

Close-up view of an open suitcase full of clothes ready to travel.
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Decide on a color palette

Choosing a color palette for your travel wardrobe might sound like an unnecessary step, but it will make packing and getting dressed so much easier. Similar to creating a capsule wardrobe (which includes a minimum number of wardrobe staples that coordinate for maximum efficiency), sticking to coordinating colors (and versatile capsule-approved items) allows you to mix and match the pieces you bring, creating more outfits, saving space and limiting endless clothing decisions.

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Opt for travel-friendly fabrics

Because you don’t want to have to iron or steam your clothes when you get to your destination (and you definitely don’t want to make room for the travel-size devices), make sure you pack clothing items that will travel well—that means no linens or cotton twills that wrinkle easily. Wrinkle-resistant knits and stretchy fabrics are great choices.

Wondering what to wear on a plane? Layer and wear your bulkiest items, when possible. Choose travel-ready, comfortable fabrics, like the ones in this Eberjey three-piece set (bonus if they encourage blood flow). If you’re taking a long trip, look for fabrics that are odor-resistant and quick drying as well so you can wear them more than once and rinse them out in your hotel sink.

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Lay everything out

It’s much easier to pack if you lay everything out before you begin rather than going back and forth to your closet. Refer to your packing list and place each item in front of you. This way, you can see what you might be missing, as well as what needs to go into your suitcase in the order that most makes sense.

Laying everything out also ensures you’re not packing items that will get your checked luggage flagged by TSA. You can decide if you want to use packing cubes, which many travelers swear by to organize and save space.

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Know when to roll, when to fold

Folding clothes that could be rolled is one of the most common packing mistakes travelers make. Tightly roll items such as T-shirts, pajamas, casual pants and dresses to optimize suitcase space and avoid creasing. Roll heavy items (such as jeans) first and place at the bottom. Follow with thinner rolled items on top of those to make it easier to force your suitcase closed.

If you’re packing bulky or stiff items, such as sweaters or starched shirts, fold these (try using a garment folder) and place them on top of any rolled clothing the length of your suitcase. If you’re using packing cubes, they should be packed the same way as suitcases: Roll whatever you can and place folded items on top.

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Place shoes on their sides away from your clothes

Ideally, you want to place your shoes in a different area of your suitcase than your clothes, and fortunately, most hard-shell luggage does provide two separate compartments so you can do that. Try to place shoes on their sides to take up the least amount of space and consider stuffing smaller items, such as jewelry, underwear and socks inside the shoes. If you still need to pack around them, place shoes in dedicated shoe bags, Ziploc bags or packing cubes to keep the dirt on their soles from soiling your clothes.

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Keep toiletries separate

Remember Murphy’s Law? “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” Put anything that can spill in a separate toiletry bag to avoid damaging your clothes. If you’re only taking a carry-on, make sure all your toiletries follow the TSA carry-on rules, which state that liquids must be 3.4 ounces or less and must all be placed in a one-quart size bag. (Psst! These Cadence travel containers will do the trick.)

Keep bulky makeup at home and remember to pack your toiletry bag last so it doesn’t get squished under your clothes in a checked bag and so you can remove it quickly when you go through security with a carry-on. A transparent bag not only makes it easier for agents to see what’s inside, it’s also a top travel tip to ace airport security. Oh, and while you’re at it, get yourself a luggage rack to make unpacking and packing on your trip so much easier.

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Maximize space for accessories and undergarments

Roll socks inside shoes and use nooks and crannies for small items, such as underwear, workout gear, swimwear or scarves, all of which can be tucked into the corners of your suitcase. If you’re bringing a hat, place it upside down in the middle of the suitcase. Stuff smaller items inside it and clothing around it to keep its shape. Hair tools, brushes and belts can fit around the edges of the suitcase and between clothes.

This is also where compression cubes come in. Not only will they keep your stuff compartmentalized, but they also work to compress your clothing and free up space for accessories and undergarments.

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Toss in extra bags

Extra bags will always come in handy, whether for packing wet swimsuits, separating dirty laundry from clean clothes or bringing home souvenirs from the best places to travel this year. Reusable, waterproof bags will add another layer of protection. Because they lay flat and take up practically no room, they’re definitely worth adding to your packing list.

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Another item that’s worth it? This luggage cup holder that will make moving through the airport a breeze.

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Put delicate items on top

If you’re going to need cold-weather gear when you get off the plane or a more professional outfit because you’re heading straight to a business meeting, pack it last in your hard-shell luggage so it’s easily accessible. Anything delicate, like formalwear or items with fragile embellishments, should also be placed on top to avoid being crushed. Consider protecting those items even further in a compact garment bag designed to fit inside your luggage.

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Lois Alter Mark
Lois Alter Mark is an award-winning travel, lifestyle, shopping and entertainment writer for Reader's Digest, Forbes and USA Today 10Best. Her work has taken her to all seven continents and introduced her to new people, food and—her latest obsession—pickleball! An avid cruiser, she loves introducing readers to the joys of travel.