I’m not one to brag, but in some circles, I’m known as the Duchess of Duffels, the Baroness of Belt Bags, the Queen of the Carry-on. Okay, I’m not actually known as any of those things. Anywhere. But I do give myself one of those dorky, one-handed high-fives every time I hop off a plane and breeze past the baggage carousel with only my carry-on luggage and vacation dreams.
When packing for any trip, business or pleasure, I focus on one thing: Making the most of every minute at my destination. Packing thoughtfully means maximizing your time enjoying new experiences, and minimizing time spent on the mundane, like waiting around a baggage claim, looking for lost items behind hotel dressers, or agonizing over every look before you leave the room. Here are some tried-and-true strategies for achieving the perfect pack:
- Start a step ahead: Staring into the abyss of an empty suitcase can be daunting. Which is why I don’t do it. Toiletries and makeup live in my luggage, along with a small international electrical converter, device chargers, and a large laundry bag. I don’t start from scratch every time I travel, and I’m ready to roll at moment’s notice.
- Plan first, play later: It’s not the sexiest advice, but it works. I keep several packing list templates on my computer—three-days, five-days and 10-days, warm weather and cold, with kids and without—and customize them for the needs of each trip. The lists evolve over time, but the basics don’t change and I never procrastinate for fear of the dreaded blank page.
- Choice, the enemy of efficiency: This may be controversial, especially for people who prefer to dress a la minute, but it’s my packing mantra and I’m sticking to it. To fit a week’s worth of gear in the overhead compartment, I try on every single outfit— from swimsuits and cover-ups to evening gowns and earrings—before anything ever sees a suitcase. Putting in a little more work on the front-end frees me up to spend less time suffering in front of hotel mirrors and more time enjoying my destinations.
- Single-use vs. double-duty: Almost every garment in my suitcase works overtime. Five pairs of jeans for a five-night stay? Nope. Try two. Six pairs of shoes? Get outta town. Comfy kicks, neutral heels and a pair of flip-flops usually do the trick. Thoughtful, mix-and-match outfits save space, time and energy. Just try to avoid any run-ins with tomato sauce.
- Every masterpiece needs a solid foundation: The perfect pack starts with packing cubes, and not just any packing cubes: compression cubes. Standard cubes are great, but if you’re ready to level-up, compression cubes will help you squeeze every last bit out of your luggage. They’re also aces for re-packing dirty laundry and freeing up space for new acquisitions.
- Plan to expand: On that note, who doesn’t love a little souvenir shopping? If you’re likely to return with a heavier load, consider bringing a packable duffel. You know, the kind that folds up into a tiny envelope and expands to accommodate a small land mammal? Don’t end a restful vacation with a stressful round of packing Tetris. You might have to check-in some luggage on the return, but what’s your hurry? Excited to do all that laundry?
- Disposables for the win: Call me crazy, but I love traveling with items that are on their last legs. Socks with tiny, doomed holes? Toy Story undies that are slightly too snug on your growing toddler? As items near the end of their natural lives, I store them in my luggage to ensure they make it on the next vacation. Pack ‘em. Wear ‘em. Toss ‘em. Voila! More room for souvenirs.
- The smaller the child, the bigger the suitcase: Kids are great! But they have SO. MUCH. STUFF. My boys are old enough to carry their own backpacks, roll their own luggage, and get through a 15-hour flight with nothing but an iPad and a box of Cheez-its. But they weren’t always such efficient travelers. When they were younger, I shipped as much as possible—diapers, baby formula, inflatable pool toys—to our destinations. Baby gear rental services can also be lifesavers if you’re staying somewhere that doesn’t have the bare necessities, let alone the comforts of home.
- Manage the miscellany: Kids of a certain age travel with toys the way we travel with house keys. Never leave home without them. I’ve convinced my children that the TSA maintains a one-quart rule for toys: “Do your worst with this Ziploc, kids, but if the Transformer doesn’t fit, say your goodbyes.” Keeping the miscellany in check helps streamline your packing and mitigate the risk of leaving THE MOST IMPORTANT STUFFY EVER on the other side of the world.
- Travel like a Boy Scout: If you must check-in luggage, be prepared. Outfit your carry-on with 24-hours-worth of necessities in a small compression cube or Ziploc bag: One set of clean underwear and clothes, critical medications, a bathing suit if you’re landing somewhere sunny. Even if your bags don’t arrive when you do, you won’t miss a beat. Remember that goal of maximizing every minute of travel? Lost luggage stinks, but it’s no reason to take your eye off the prize.
+ Ready to start packing? Check these Change of Scenery Vacation Essentials off your list.