The Only Guide You’ll Ever Need to Pack a Suitcase (Never Stress It Again!)

published Jun 6, 2024
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Credit: Photo: Christopher Testani; Prop Styling: Carla Gonzalez-Hart

Although I’ve gotten much better at packing over the years, I still manage to stuff my suitcase with too many things. I long to be someone who packs two weeks’ worth of clothes and toiletries into a carry-on, but I’ve given up on the dream of packing that light. My excuse? I prefer to travel through an airport unencumbered, so I’ll gladly pay a checked baggage fee.

But because I had to sit on my suitcase to zip it up last time — thankfully, no baggage overage fees applied! — I’ve realized that learning how to pack a suitcase efficiently would be more than helpful, especially as my husband and I have a list of world destinations we’d like to see.

So with my next trip just a few weeks away, I reached out to some organizing and travel experts for their best packing advice.

Credit: Design: Apartment Therapy

How to Pack for Any Trip 

The exact number of items you’ll need in your suitcase depends on several factors: how long you’ll be away, what the weather will be like at your destination, and what you plan to do there. 

If you want to travel light, try the 333 method that’s seen all over TikTok, in which you pack three tops, three bottoms, and three shoes that can be mixed and matched for outfits. For more variety, try the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 packing method. Some travelers will change this up as it suits their wardrobe needs, but here’s an example: Pack five tops, four bottoms, three shoes (at least one casual and one dressy option), two bags, and either a hat or sunglasses.

You can also consider re-wearing any clothes that you hand wash and dry (or machine wash if it is available to you) to lighten your luggage.

What Clothes to Pack

Amanda Leonick, travel blogger at The Luxury Layover, reviews her itinerary, carefully considering what she’d wear and use, and selects wardrobe options for each day. While it would seem like “a dream” to use a full-sized suitcase for a trip, she says it only leaves you room to overpack, so editing your wardrobe options is necessary. 

“The key to cutting back is to pack pieces you can get multiple outfits out of, like pants that go from day to night or a coat that is both functional and fashionable,” Leonick says. She limits herself to just two or three pairs of shoes, as they can take up lots of space and weight. 

Just don’t dig too deeply into your closet for your trip, warns Leonick. “Don’t fall into the trap of grabbing that dress you haven’t worn in three years,” she says. “Trust me — you aren’t going to wear it on this trip, either.”

How to Pack Your Luggage

It’s tempting to start tossing clothes and other items into your awaiting suitcase, but you’ll need to have a strategy if you want everything to fit. 

Credit: Photo: Christopher Testani; Prop Styling: Carla Gonzalez-Hart

Employ a Packing Method

In addition to the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 packing method and 333 method, here are more methods to consider using to get your luggage organized. 

  • Folding method: Folding your clothes before placing them in the suitcase is the traditional way of packing, although not always the most savvy when it comes to saving space. Keep in mind, though, that you can fill the pockets of your suitcase lid, too, so you can keep the bottom of the suitcase for bulkier items like shoes, sweaters, and your toiletry bag.
  • Rolling method: Rolling clothes can keep them from creasing and take up less space in your suitcase. For example, instead of folding a T-shirt in thirds, fold the sleeves inward, then roll it like a jelly roll. It works for pants and other garments, and you can stack and even tuck them into corners to save space. If you have any clothes that are too stiff or bulky to roll, then try a combination of folding and rolling. 
  • Bundle wrapping method: This method requires you to pack clothes by wrapping them around a central “core.” It’s supposed to help you avoid creases and wrinkles and keep your items “bundled” together.
  • KonMari method: Pack items that only “spark joy” and fold them using the KonMari folding technique. Finish by stowing things away in packing cubes.
Credit: Photo: Lucy Schaeffer; Prop Styling: Thomas Hoerup

Try Compression Bags

If you’re super organized and already have in mind the ensembles you’ll be wearing each day, you might try putting an outfit or two in a compression bag. These are plastic bags that allow you to squeeze the air out of them so you can simply stack the slim packages in your suitcase. While you don’t need a vacuum to release the air, it’s fair to say you might not want to bother with this method when it’s time to pack up and return home.

Credit: Photo: Christopher Testani; Prop Styling: Carla Gonzalez-Hart

Go with Packing Cubes

Every organizing and travel expert I spoke to emphatically agrees that packing cubes are the real game-changer for packing — especially if you tend to overpack. “Packing cubes follow a professional organizer’s process of categorizing, sorting, and finding a location for similar items,” says Aaron Traub, owner and lead organizer at My Professional Organizer. “Having a designated spot for like items makes the packing process easier and less overwhelming for those who pack last minute.”

Additionally, Traub says that “when you are limited to a cube to pack similar items, it forces you to bring the essentials. This is a great way to avoid overpacking and exceeding the 50-pound limit at the airport.”

How to Pack the Rest of Your Stuff

We’ve been talking a lot about garments, but you’ll need more than just clothing for your trip. Here’s how to fit the rest of it in.

Credit: Photo: Christopher Testani; Prop Styling: Carla Gonzalez-Hart

Shoes and Accessories

Ashley LaFond, founder of the home organization company Of Space & Mind, recommends packing shoes toe to heel, with the soles facing out and lined up against the sides and closer to the bottom of the suitcase, to make the most of the space. 

High heels can be stored in shoe bags and kept closer to the top to prevent straps from being crushed or heels breaking, recommends LaFond. Sneakers and boots are best worn while traveling, however, if packing, sneakers should be tucked into the corners and boots should be lined up in the bottom corners of the suitcase with the heels on the side. Clothing and small items can go in the gaps to prevent them from shifting around. 

Regardless of what shoes you’re packing, go ahead and stuff small things inside them. “Accessories like belts, socks, and scarves do well to hold the shape of your shoe, and save you space elsewhere,” says LaFond.

Credit: Photo: Christopher Testani; Prop Styling: Carla Gonzalez-Hart

Toiletry Bag

Some travelers will say you should never pack your toiletry bag in your checked luggage in case your bag is delayed. Assuming you can be parted with your items until you retrieve your suitcase from the carousel, place it at the bottom of your suitcase. You might also try to squeeze it into the sides of the suitcase, but do it toward the bottom so you don’t make it top-heavy.

Credit: Photo: Lucy Schaeffer; Prop Styling: Thomas Hoerup

Liquids and Medication

Understandably, you might need or prefer to keep medicine with you at all times, but if it’s not needed, you’ll want to tuck it somewhere safe in a suitcase. Amy Berryhill, founder and chief organizer at Spiffy Chicks, likes to take pills out of their original packaging and place them into small Ziploc bags to save space. She labels the contents with a permanent marker.

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe

Formal Clothing

For any formal outfits, like a suit or gown, it’s best to keep them in a garment bag, fold it in half or thirds, and pack it last. This way, when you unzip at your destination, it will be easy to grab and hang up.

Leave Some Room for the Trip Home

Another reason I prefer to use a suitcase over a smaller carry-on is that I like to have room for souvenirs and dirty clothes. Packing cubes are wonderful for keeping dirty clothing away from anything clean and unworn — plus they make it much easier to unpack later.

I’ll probably never perfect my packing game, but boy, I’m having a great time trying. My plan for the next trip is to take some time and think about what I’ll be doing each day, then try my best to pack only what I need — although I’m already positive I’ll pack too many shirts again.