Organizing for travel: the packing list

How do you decide what to include on your packing list for any given trip? Obviously, the nature of the trip will determine some things, such as the need for hiking boots or formal wear. The following are some questions to consider as you develop the rest of your list:

  • For air travel: Do you want to have carry-on luggage only? Going carry-on only gets you out of the airport sooner, and it minimizes the risk of lost luggage. It also means you’re dragging more stuff through the airport and fighting for space in the overhead bins — and sometimes it’s simply not going to be practical. I make different trade-offs on different trips. You need to make this decision first when you’re flying.
  • For other travel: What space constraints do you have? If you’re not going by air, you’ll still want to consider how well your luggage will fit in the car, bus, train, or other vehicles you’ll be using. How much space will you have for your things?
  • How much technology do you want with you? Sometimes I’m going to need to do enough work that I’ve got to bring my laptop with me. On other vacations, I won’t take the laptop, but I will bring some smaller devices so I can do quick email checks, read e-books, etc. Other people prefer to go technology-free on a vacation.
  • How will you handle washing clothes? I’m usually a daily hand-wash kind of traveller, which lets me pack a limited amount of clothes. I’ve got a friend who’s a Laundromat user, so she packs more than I do. If you prefer not to do laundry at all — and your trip is short enough to allow that — you’ll need to pack to accommodate this decision.
  • How much wardrobe variety do you want? Sometimes we need a range of clothes to handle different types of events or different weather. But, sometimes how much we take is more a matter of this: How crazy will you go wearing the same few things every day? Will adding some accessories, which take less space than more clothes, give you enough wardrobe variety?
  • What would be hard to get at your destination? Some things are easy to pick up if you need them for any reason, but others are more difficult. The answers to that questions will change depending on your destination, and they’ll also vary from person to person. Are you OK with using hotel shampoo, or do you really want your own brand, which may not be available at your destination? One thing I always pack is a spare pair of prescription eyeglasses — ever since I broke a pair on a trip and didn’t have a spare pair with me.
  • Do you want to bring gifts? There are definitely times when I do want to pack some gifts: to give to people whose homes I’m staying in and/or to give to any special people I meet along the way. I do try to ensure that whatever gift I’m giving won’t create clutter for the person I’m giving the gift to; consumables often work well. Sometimes I can just purchase a gift like flowers or chocolate at my destination, but other times I really want to give something representative of home or something very special that I can’t just get on the run.
  • What worked well in the past? I keep a personal packing checklist so I don’t forget what things I want to take, based on prior travels. I’ll never pack everything on that list, since it covers a range of locations and weather conditions, but taking a look at the list ensures I won’t forget something important.
  • What do other people suggest? There are online packing lists that you might find useful: from Rick Steves, One Bag, Real Simple and more. These might give you ideas for your own list.

18 Comments for “Organizing for travel: the packing list”

  1. posted by Andrea on

    My husband and I have started packing differently for trips that involve a lot of movement and different places every day or two.

    On a recentish car trip we packed enough stuff for half the trip each in ONE bag, and enough stuff for each of us for the second in a SECOND bag (we had a wedding at the beginning, so those items were in the first bag.)

    This meant when we got out each night, we only carried one bag into the hotel (we kept toiletries, in a small separate case so we could grab it anytime – even during the day if we needed to). It also meant that when we got to the second half of the trip – all those clothes were clean and not all mixed in with the dirty laundry we had accumulated over the first half.

    Might not work for everyone, but for a road trip, for us, it was great.

    OH – and one tip for checked bags – take a picture of all your luggage on your phone before you check it. If something goes astray you have an exact picture to describe it, and if you are somewhere you don’t speak the language being able to just point makes it SO much easier.

  2. posted by Aimee on

    There are some great general ideas listed above. I also really like the idea of taking a picture of your luggage and splitting up your stuff into two bags.

    This is the packing list I used for a recent trip to Peru.

    Each country definitely should have its own packing list. Hopefully I will be able to post all of mine shortly.

    Happy traveling everyone!

  3. posted by Frank on

    Learning to pack light will make travel so much easier.

    There are a few keys to packing light. Here are some suggestions:

    1) Have the mindset that going with carry-on alone will make your trip easier.
    2) Be willing to wash clothes. If you will hand wash, it only takes a few minutes every couple of nights to stay clean and if done before bed, and you have clothes meant for travel–quick drying, wrinkle free–they will be dry by morning.
    3) Make sure all your clothes can be mixed and matched. This will give you the most options or combinations of things to wear.
    4) Take only what you need and don’t pack for “what if.” Almost everything “what if” item can be found while traveling.
    5) Rather than take bulky items for cooler weather, dress in layers.
    6) Try to find lighter items to replace the heavier ones. As an example, my 7″ tablet can do just about everything I need to do while traveling and even with a separate bluetooth keyboard I save over a pound and a half in weight.
    7) If you need to take a special item for a one time use, find out if you can rent it at your destination.
    8) Make a basic packing list of things you would take regardless of where you are going and then customize the rest for each trip.

    Learning to travel light is the focus of our website One Bag, One World: and our readers can offer suggestions to anyone who wants to travel that way and may be in a special situation. Packing lists, choosing the right bag, doing laundry, etc.

  4. posted by Mcbeagles on

    Consider shipping bulky items to your destination rather than packing them. When we travel by air, we order diapers online and have them delivered to our destination.
    It’s best to call the hotel first, but everywhere I have stayed was willing to hold a package for a guest. We time the order so that it will arrive on the same day as our check-in.
    This method works best for domestic travel, but may be feasable for some international destinations as well.

  5. posted by Pammyfay on

    I guess there are always exceptions, but going carry-on only doesn’t necessarily get you out of the airport faster.

    For the past several flights on American, everybody with a roll-on carry-on had to gate-check them. When the plane lands, you have to line up in the gateway (is that the right word?) and wait for your bag to be hauled up the outside stairs by the baggage folks. You would think “first on, first off,” but first-class seating doesn’t help. By the time I’ve reached the passenger-pickup area, my fellow travelers who checked their luggage when they first got to the airport were walking out ahead of me. So for me, when I need to make sure I have certain clothing items for that night’s event, I take them in my totebag. Everything else, I either gate-check or check when I get to the airport. Now, to simplify travel, I can only dream of the day that I finally get my act together and fit exactly what I need into a carry-on! I clutter my mind and luggage space with too many “what-ifs” (I think it’s harder for women to pick up something at the destination; nothing is as standard as menswear; you guys don’t know how lucky you are!). So thank you, folks, for posting those website URLs!

  6. posted by Brenda on

    My criteria for taking my luggage as carry-on or checking my suitcase is this:
    If it is a direct flight, I check in my bag as it has less chance of getting lost. If I have a layover, I take it as carry-on.
    Recently, I flew across the country to a friend’s wedding. While both the flight to my destination and my flight back home had layovers, I chose to take my suitcase as carry-on on the flight TO the wedding and checked it in on the flight back home because I would rather lose my luggage flying back home than flying to where I am visiting.

  7. posted by Christy King on

    I made myself a custom packing list which has everything I might need for any type of trip, and I just mark off what I don’t need. It’s a lot easier to X through unneeded items than try to remember special items later.

  8. posted by Samir on

    So this isn’t necessarily a packing tip, but keep your list in tact until after the trip. When you come home and are unpacking, cross off the things that you didn’t end up using. If you ended up wishing you had packed something and didn’t, write that down too. This should help you tailor your packing list.

  9. posted by Jay on

    I echo Christy King’s thoughts. I have a travel list on a spreadsheet on Google Drive. It lists in separate rows what I might possibly need to do before I leave and what I might possibly need on ANY trip. The list notes everything, including stopping mail, closing windows in the house, and packing kids’ booster seats and saline (for contact lens).

    About two weeks before the trip, I go through the list and hide the rows that list things I don’t need to do or bring. Then, I have a short list for the upcoming trip. This system works for me.

    Also, I have never checked a bag. Once you resolve to travel with a single carry-on bag, commit to doing so. If all that you want to pack won’t fit in the bag you have chosen, prioritize your items and try again. Do NOT grab a larger bag.

  10. posted by Lette on

    We also keep packing lists on spreadsheets on google drive. But have different tabs for different types of trips– one general/master list, city break, hiking/camping, roadtrip. All have different requirements and it would be silly to take a water purifier on a city break, for example!

    Also have tabs with the measurements and weights of all our bags, which comes in handy more than you might think. (Another tab of “things to do before the trip” like “empty trash can” or “tip out the milk”, but that’s another blog)

  11. posted by Bobbi on

    This post came just in time. We’re traveling in a few days on a business trip in the states. Then a few days after we get back, we’re going on an extended trip out of the country. I have a bit of an obsession about packing lists. I read every one I come across; you never know what new tidbit you can learn. Like photographing your luggage. Great idea. I also add the to-do’s to the list. That way I can check off things like hold the mail, get food for the dog/house sitter. Thanks. And I love your blog. Been reading it for years. First time commenting.

  12. posted by danielle on

    I have to say how much I hate carry-on luggage…I’m not talking about a bag for your book, magazine, tablet, etc. but actual luggage. It’s bulky in the aisle and people get SO CRANKY when they can’t stow their baggage directly above their seat (as if that actually matters). Yes, it’s possible that the airline will misplace your suitcase but I just can’t stand the thought of only doing carry-on luggage.

    That said, I’m flying across the country in a couple weeks so I’ve probably just jinxed myself on my luggage making it to my destination 😉

  13. posted by Clutter, Clutter & Peanut Butter on

    I like Lette’s idea above about keeping the packing list on the Google drive. Anything that will make your travel experience less painful, I’m all for it. The information definitely can be retrieved quickly with a couple of keystrokes.

  14. posted by Carolyn on

    I learned after the death of my husband one important thing: If I can’t lift it myself, then it is too much and needs to be pared down.
    Given that and the fact I’ve made many overseas flights in these years, I do the following and it works for me:
    1 – I pack 2 carry on bags. One is checked, the other one goes on plane with me.
    2 – I also pack a small back pack.
    In the carry on that goes on plane with me, I have the things that I must have in case my checked bag gets lost – medications, change of clothes, toiletries, etc.
    Both bags are wheelies and they swivel. I can strap on on top of the other when moving through airport, etc. They are extremely lightweight.
    They both are in the brightest garish colors I could find – easy to spot on the carousel.
    As for actual packing, I take usually one pair jeans, 2 pairs khakis, one pair black dress pants. I wear the only pair of shoes but do carry pair black dressy flats. I use the compression type bags to put my clothes in (they really work and they don’t wrinkle badly). Other clothes are rolled. I carry a small umbrella, roll up raincoat, rain shoes.
    I take all the printed info I’ve done for pre-trip research in a small 3 ring binder notebook 7 x 81/2″ size. The pages in them are punched at the top and folded over & I can just easily fold them out as needed.
    I take a money belt of course, keep my passsport, credit cards, cash, etc in it. I carry an extremely small over the body shoulder bag that carries my sun glasses, make up, etc. I keep in my front slacks pocket a very thin wallet with a credit card, cash for the day.
    I take underwear that is nylon/hand washable. I pack long sleeved shirts with matching tees to wear and mix up daily.
    I take on dressy top and a jacket that is a Chico’s packable zenergy type that rolls beautifully.
    I take no jewelry except watch, basic earrings, wedding band.
    So far, all this paring down works beautifully and if I come home with something I took/didn’t wear I scold myself. I to take a nylon large laundry bag that dirty clothes go in as they accumulate.
    If you travel a lot, then you learn to pack light – I’ve been on more than one tour where some of the women packed big enormous bags and changed each night into a new outfit – not me. If I feel that my clothes are clean, neat, then I’m good to go. I would never take over 2 or at the most 3 pairs of shoes. What a space waster that is. I figure I’m here to see the sights/not make any fashion statements. And it suits me fine.

  15. posted by Carolyn on

    PS – I, too, have spreadsheet in my computer on things that must be done before I leave home – stop newspapers, turn back thermostat, etc…..
    And I also do another sheet on what I’m taking in way of clothes to make sure all will mix/match, etc. And as noted above in other post, if when I get home and find this was taken/not used – such as too many tops, etc., then I don’t do that again.

  16. posted by Anna on

    My red wheeled case looks like the illustration — and like many other red wheeled cases. On it I have stenciled, with a permanent magic marker, a distinctive black image that is very personal to me (but not revealingly intimate), and unlikely to be duplicated by anyone else in the world. I can easily pick it out from the luggage carousel.

  17. posted by Benjamin on

    Don’t forget to “pack” extra space for things you bring back. This may mean souvenirs from a vacation or gifts you get when you visit friends. When my wife and I travel with our two small children, people considerately give them toys or games. And two young children are not easily going to accept that they should leave their new toys behind or mail them home.

  18. posted by Elizabeth UK on

    Many UK plane operators charge extra for hold luggage because they want a quick turn around with minimal baggage handling costs. And they’ll charge per kilo of hold luggage. This won’t apply on long-distance (eg transatlantic) flights but may apply to domestic flights and flights to Europe. The extra cost may influence a decision about how much to take.

    Also they’re pretty strict about measuring the size of hand luggage so it doesn’t get too clunky or occupy too much space. They’ve increased the maximum bag size in the past 2 years but it still may not be possible to take everything in the hand luggage.

    Finally, remember to check any restrictions on certain items eg electrical, sharp objects, liquids, pressurised containers and batteries (including lithium ones for devices). You may be constrained by where these things have to be packed for safety reasons.

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