How to Pack for a Trip

Greg White’s ten best tips for packing, plus eight items you must bring, no matter where you’re headed.

So you’re going on a trip! Not so fast. You spent a lot of time searching for the airfare, carefully went on SeatGuru and chose the best place to ride on the plane, you vetted the hotel for bedbug, and you googled the shit out of Top Things to do in ____________. You can’t just throw cotton to the Samsonite, toss a bunch of clothes in a suitcase and make it all work when you get there! Life is about the journey not the destination. You can take it with you, but you can’t take everything with you.

Packing well is preparing well. The clothes and equipment you bring need to tell a story and make sense. Traveling is stressful, and often into unknown territories, so be smart, organized and take as much worry out of the process.

Best packing guideline words: Edit, coordinate. Then edit again. And make the internet your little travel bitch.

1. Getting There is Half the Fun. Have a functional traveling outfit. Mine is comfortable, stylish and practical. I wear a white long-sleeved cotton t-shirt in case the airplane is cold. I wear a navy blazer because gate agents tend to upgrade passengers who appear professional. I wear casual navy blue Adidas exercise pants—but they can’t see my legs when I approach the desk. 69% of all newscasters aren’t wearing any pants. Pants are for weathermen and field reporters. I wear slip-on shoes and no belt for comfort and to expedite the airport security violation procedure. I’m the guy you want to be behind.

Wear a blazer so you have one on your trip in case you go to a dinner, a funeral or a surprise international court appearance. Wear your bulkier items; don’t pack them. I’m not advising you to look like the puffy kid in A Christmas Story, but wear your heavy coat on the plane.

2. Know Before You Go: Only two US carriers (Southwest and JetBlue) allow free checked bags. Business Class passengers, as well as elite status frequent flyers often get free luggage, but there are still limits. Don’t show up at the ticket counter with thirteen steamer trunks and a dog. You’re not Elizabeth Taylor off Puerto Vallarta, you’re just headed to NYC for a week. If part of your itinerary involves a smaller, puddle-jumper plane, check their weight and size limits. Each airline lists their policy about luggage. If your trip involves more than one airline, check each one’s policy, they all speak different languages. SeatGuru is an independent site that tells you everything about every seat on almost every airline, such as if your seat has a power port or a personal television—even warn you if the one you chose is too close to a bathroom so you can move before you fly.

Add all of the cities you’ll visit to the weather app you use on your smart phone. I use The Weather Channel’s iPhone app and look at the ten-day forecast. Pack items that provide duplicate function—a fleece-lined waterproof hoodie is warm and rain resistant. If the forecast does predict rain, call the 800 number of your hotel and ask the concierge if they loan umbrellas, then don’t pack a mini-one.

If you’re visiting more than one climate, there is no sin in having two bags. My parents raised me with a few simple rules: Drive as fast as you can afford the ticket. Travel with as many bags as you can personally carry or handle.

For international trips, buy and pack an adapter kit. This is one of my favorite travel stores: TravelSmith. Bring one adapter for each person in your party.

Pack something that represents what you want to be: sleek, thin and wrinkle-resistant.

Don’t start your trip off with an arrest. If you plan to bring twenty bags of your favorite nuts, make sure any nuts are allowed in. Contraband can slow the process down and—just ask the guy who smuggled pigeons in his pants—plus you’ll discover new incredible edibles at your destination.

3. What Are You Into: If this is a business trip, pack gym clothes. Most hotels have an exercise area, and a good workout can help adjust your body clock to the new time zone. If this is a monkey business trip, make a plan (loose is fine) to prepare for any activities for which you might need special clothes. A pair of jeans is always necessary, but throw in some dark slacks if you plan to visit a restaurant that has a dress code. Hiking or other boots should be worn on the plane, not packed—too bulky.

Black Tie events are fun, but tux travel can be tricky. If a dark suit will do, pack that in case you might use it for another event on the same trip. If you don’t own a tux, cost out renting one from your local shop vs. picking one up at your destination. Some tux shops have a weekly rate that may beat the risk of what the foreign vendor has. Ladies, a taffeta gown with a full petticoat might be best for an at-home shindig; pack something that represents what you want to be: sleek, thin and wrinkle-resistant.

If you’re going to stay in the home of family or friends, do them all a favor and toss in some sort of pajamas so when you run into little cousin Sally, your nuts aren’t popping out of your Calvin’s. Your crotch is at her eye level and she does not need to start her morning seeing brain.

4. Get it Together: Comedian Scott Silverman informs you that buying a belt and shoes that match does not make you gay. Pack matching stuff. Use the Garanimals principle and lay out little piles. Blue shirt, blue sweater, blue slacks. Stick to that theme and add another blue shirt to mix and, duh, you will match. Monochromaticity may seem monotonous but you will not only look chic and purposefully put together, but spending less time getting ready leaves more time to enjoy your vacation. Unless you are seeing the some group of people more than once, wear clothes more than once. Folks are there to see the Mona Lisa and won’t notice that the white dress shirt you have on today under your jacket is the same one you had under your sweater yesterday. If you need to launder something, know both the turnaround time the charges first. Simplify.

Don’t grab that green shirt (that you bought three years ago and haven’t worn) out of your closet. Nothing magical happens in Cleveland that’s going make this the time you finally wear it.

5. Pack Backwards: You know your itinerary. If you land at noon in Palm Springs, you want your bikini at the top of your bag. If you have specific clothes for specific dates, put the last night’s clothes in first, then add the rest according to need.

If the trip is under a week, I often don’t unpack, hang clothes up and move into the drawers. A well-packed bag means that you can access what you need and want quickly without tearing through your suitcase like a stick blender several times a day. If you do unpack, don’t forget to do a triple check for everything in the closet and drawers. The hotel might find your cushy blue cashmere sweater and send it to you, or, more likely, the guy that takes your call will soon be sporting a new-to-him cushy blue cashmere sweater.

Place liquids in Ziploc bags to prevent exploding. Even the toughest Marine will gasp and stand back shocked if he opens his suitcase and finds goo all over everything. Pack extra Ziplocs.

6. Room at the Top: For a six-week trip to Asia, I packed my two suitcases full of snappy outfits for the five countries. All the way full. Once there, I was overwhelmed with the number of custom tailors who offer to copy your clothes and deliver them to your hotel that same day. I had my favorite white Armani dress shirt, the one that only comes in white, copied in other fabrics. By Cambodia I had to buy another suitcase, and it was really hard to manage that third bag.

Even if you don’t shop, you need space for all of the tiny shampoos you steal from the hotel. Leave room for that bottle of Italian olives that will burst over the Atlantic—but it won’t ruin your clothes because you put that bottle in a gallon-sized Ziploc.

During your stay, keep your dirty, smelly clothes away from clean ones. At the end of the trip, just jam everything that you have worn in your suitcase; there’s no need to fold and sort. If space gets tight, folding flat might make things fit better, but it is so fun to stuff.

Edit the American Express motto to: Don’t leave home without it, and “it” is space in your luggage. I make sure I have at least four inches of space across the top.

7. Try Not To Stand Out. Never carry a guitar on a flight. You will never really play it on your trip, unless you are going to a Kum Bay Yah festival, or opening for Sting. Check the guitar with the airlines, in its case, and don’t panic when you land, Slash, sometimes larger items arrive in baggage claim in a special oversized area.

If you must travel with your lucky pillow and you are not an eight-year-old girl, ditch the Hello Kitty pillowcase. No one wants to see that, mister. But don’t put a plain white case on it; you’ll forget that on the hotel bed, promise.

Some bags look alike. Tie a simple bright weird color ribbon on both the top and side handles, or run some duck tape across the front, so you know your bag as soon as it pops out of the carousel. There is nothing worse than checking into your hotel, opening “your” black Tumi suitcase and finding that you grabbed the wrong bag and will be wearing some mid-western housewife’s idea of leisure wear for your golf trip. Most men can’t swing clubs wearing a muu-muu.

8. Medicine is the Best Medicine: Treat your luggage like Vegas money. Sure, you want to see it again, but once you check it in with the airline, it’s a crapshoot. Don’t pack anything in your checked luggage that you need when you land, or more immediately, like mid-air. The flight from Bodrum, Turkey to Istanbul is about an hour. Which is 59 minutes too long for a diabetic who checked her bag containing insulin. She went into a diabetic fit. Thankfully a French doctor onboard translated instructions into English and someone else translated that into life-saving Turkish. It was like watching a United Nations debate, and my in flight entertainment. (The pilot told us he would land if necessary—the passenger recovered perfectly, and quickly.)

For your personal carry-on bag, make sure you have anything you need for the flight, too. Check with SeatGuru to see what the power port options are for your particular seat and bring the appropriate chargers. Pack snacks and stuff for kids. You are going to need that stuff for kids for your adult life partner about three hours into your eight hours flight.

9. Make a list: Even if you don’t make your own travel arrangements, or especially if you don’t, make a general list of your travel preferences and needs. Keep a running list of all of your frequent flyer and hotel loyalty and rental car agency account numbers.

Build a simple chart showing the dates (an Excel calendar works) and plan what you’ll wear on each date. Don’t overthink this, it’s not to lock you in too tight, but to make your ass is literally covered.

Make a list of everything you need and use the list to pack. Check it off like motherfucking Santa Claus. List shirts, slacks, underwear, jackets, adapters, condoms, and travel guides, everything you need. Load apps specific to the city you are visiting, like Lonely Planet. If your smartphone has a flash camera, the flash (there are apps for this) is a useful tool in a dark, strange hotel room.

10. Locks Only Keep Honest People Out: Don’t pack expensive electronics or real jewels in your luggage. TSA locks are easy to break, people will. Don’t sling one of nylon straps around your bag, even you can’t figure out the clasp. Don’t pay to have some freak spin your suitcase on a wacky wheel at the airport wrapping it in saran wrap like a ham—use that money for another tattoo.

Do always pack a color copy of your passport in a Ziploc bag and place it in your toiletry bag. Keep it in the hotel safe during your stay. This is to speed things up at the consulate should the worst travel nightmare come true and you lose your passport.

Do print your name, address and cell phone in a huge font on paper and place that inside, at the top of every checked suitcase. Include the name of your hotels and the dates at each city. Print: “Reward for Safe Return” on it, and mean it.

When you think you are packed, you’re not. Make sure that every clothing item that goes in has a purpose, and that it goes with at least one other item in your bag goes with something else, and more that one thing. Really edit your bag; take things out, and be realistic. You are going to look great—you can’t take your entire closet with you. Take your wardrobe “stars”—and make sure they are weather-appropriate. If you haven’t worn something in a while, try it on. And in good light! When packing shoes, bring lightweight ones. TOMS are great because they are comfortable, they come in about a million fabrics, they fold flat and the company’s policy is to give a pair to a shoeless person for every pair they sell.

THE CHALLENGE: My boyfriend challenged me to take only 8 items to a beach resort in Mexico for 8 days in two weeks. If I am successful, I think I get a pony.

I can do it: My traveling costume doesn’t count, so I will have a blazer. I’ll swap out my track pants for jeans, and a dress shirt for my usual long-sleeve t-shirt. I always go commando except on flight days; flying excites me and no one needs to see that snake on a plane. I’ll wear slip-ons and no socks. Socks are for people too lazy to get pedicures.

Here’s my Essential Eight: One pair of khakis, one bathing suit, two pairs of shorts, three cotton t-shirts, and one long sleeve dress cotton shirt. I know the weather; I know most of our days will be at the beach, with one side sightseeing trip and one golf outing. Dinners are all casually romantic. He’s looking at my eyes, not my shirt.

I have no doubt I can win this challenge. No one said I couldn’t shop.

 

Read more on Travel on The Good Life.

Image credit: Wonderlane/Flickr

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About Greg White

Author, blogger, television writer, world traveler, and inveterate bon vivant Greg White is also a former sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps, now battling it out on the blogosphere at http://www.eatgregeat.com and http://www.gogreggo.com.

Greg has just finished his soon-to-be-published memoir about his Marine Corps boot camp experience. He served six years in the Marines. Truly a glutton, he also completed Officer Candidate School over the course of two summers---thus relishing the joys of basic training three times.

Greg has a voracious appetite for life and regularly contributes here and to The Huffington Post.

Follow him on Twitter  and Facebook

Comments

  1. Finally,a packing lesson that doesn’t let you look like newsprint for a week.

  2. Love point #5 Pack Backwards. Can honestly say in 20 or so years of packing for trips I’ve never thought of packing backwards. Clever, very clever! Also we. my wife and I had a good lesson on point 10 and now never put valuables in the hold. It’s a no, no! Re the colour photo of your passport, we have all out valuable travel docs sent to a gmail account. Learnt that from some friends who are sailors, if their boat capsizes and everything goes down, they can easily prove who they are when they finally get to shore, no matter where that is in the world. Great post Greg.

    • Thanks for your kind comments! Glad you fond it useful — and I love your tip about emailing the docs to gmail. I’ll start doing that too. Happy travels!! My restaurant and hotel reviews are on http://www.gogreggo.com should you care to read mre!

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