Ruthless Packing Tips

Carefully thought-out carry-on luggage

My longest packing sessions involve trying to get 10-14 days of clothes for multiple climates and/or activities into a single 22-inch carry-on bag.  Two years ago, it was packing for a March trip that spanned Iceland and Southern Spain. Last month, it was a 10-day drive through Scotland with clothes for rainy day hikes and one-star Michelin restaurants. It makes me pack ruthlessly — everything has to earn its space in the bag. And through these packing sessions, I’ve developed this list of packing pro tips.

  1. Pick a single color family for your clothes, and make it black. Three reasons: black makes everyone look thinner, it spans casual to smart dress codes, and black doesn’t show stains. The thinner thing is a nice-to-have, but hiding stains is key. I usually pack two pair of slacks and wear a third on the plane. I can’t be one-and-done on a pair of pants because of incoming from a fork-handling mishap.
  2. No one-and-done outfits. Every piece of clothes has to serve multiple purposes so it can be worn multiple times. Every shirt has to work under multiple sweaters and has to go with more than one pair of pants. Versatility is key. And another reason to pack black.
  3. Think additively; pack layers. This was the key to solving my Iceland-Spain packing challenge. Pack multiple thin layers that you can pile on when it’s cold and wear separately when it’s not. Black sweaters and a black fleece vest are my layering go-to’s.
  4. Leave the workout gear at home. Gym shoes take up a huge amount of space, which can be filled with a couple of sweaters and a second week of socks and understuff. Ditch the taxis, Ubers, and rental cars, and get your exercise by walking everywhere instead.
  5. Wear your bulkiest clothes on the flight. On the trip to Scotland, I packed the hiking rain shell and flew in the blazer I needed for the one-stars because the shell was infinitely more crushable. My only caveat to this rule is shoes. For Scotland, I packed the hiking shoes even though they were bulkier. I didn’t want to set off the metal detector in the Pre-Check line or get pulled out by the TSA because the soles were too thick. If you’re not doing Pre-Check, you’re already taking your shoes off, so wear your biggest ones.
  6. Use a nondescript black rolling bag. Black not only makes you look thinner, it makes your bag look thinner to gate agents scanning for bag-sizer bait. My daughter had a baby blue roller bag for the longest time. She loved that color, and it was easy to spot on the luggage carousel, which was a good thing. It ended up there a lot because gate agents were always pulling my daughter out of line to gate check that bag.  If you’re flying a budget airline that’s a stickler on size, use a hard-shell bag. It’ll keep its dimensions better when overstuffed, and the polycarbonate shell will slide past the metal bars of the sizer easier than the ballistic nylon of a soft-sided bag. But if you’re working against weight limits as well as dimensions on international budget carriers like Wow Air, you want the lightest, most stripped down bag possible. You don’t want the extra weight of the hard siding. You probably don’t even want very sturdy wheels; just the lightest covering around your clothes that you can find.