Wise old Confucius might have said “The journey of a 1000 miles begins with one step”.
But he was wrong.
It starts by packing your suitcase.
I should know. I’ve done it at least 1000 times. And that’s not an exaggeration.
I’ve learned each of these lessons the hard way so I can teach you the easy way. This is the culmination of years of gruelling travel experience distilled into an easy, practical guide that will transform you from a packing pansy into black-belt travel ninja.
This thorough reference includes what you need to pack into your suitcase, how to avoid the common planning pitfalls, and secrets to keep your luggage as light as possible, so you can focus on the fun times in your upcoming vacation rather than sobbing in a slumped heap on the floor at the airport luggage check-in desk.
Once you’ve read and absorbed the deep wisdom found on this page, travel will become more effortless. You’ll glide through the airport with a zen-like peace on your face. Fellow passengers will watch you find your seat and nimbly whip out everything you need, with the grace, focus, stealth and steely stare reserved for master ninjas. And you’ll strut into your hotel lobby with a magnetic confidence that will make heads turn and jaws drop.
Well, something like that anyway.
I think I’ve hyped this up enough. Let’s get to it.
If you only heed a single best piece of advice from this article, use packing cubes. And wear sunscreen.
1. Make a packing list. Benjamin Franklin said that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. And that same axiom applies to luggage. If you fail to plan you plan to fail. Ok, enough cheese. You get the idea. Write down (or type on your phone) a list of every item you want to include in your suitcase and think about each one. Carefully. Visualise how you’ll be spending your vacation and what items you’ll need – clothing, accessories, shoes, toiletries, and gadgets.
2. Keep your list. When you return home, look at anything you didn’t use and cross it off the list. Use the same list next time you pack, and over time your packing skills will become as sharp as double-edged ninja star.
3. Pack less than you think you need. On my travels, I’ve met two kinds of travellers: those who pack light and those who wish they did. Novice travellers will try to cater for every possible scenario. Ninjas know what they’re doing and understand they can always buy what they need at their destination if they get desperate. As a benchmark, lay out all your clothes on the bed and then put back at least one third. Everyone’s style is different so there’s no one-size-fits-all solution here. But just be ruthless with yourself.
4. Pack with a plan. There’s plenty of strategies floating on the interwebs about how to place items in your suitcase. The secret is… there’s no one perfect method, so play around and choose one that suits you. The key is to be flexible. Try placing shoes around the outside of the suitcase in single file, with the sole facing the edge. Or try placing water-resistant items (such as rain jackets) at the top near the zipper/handle in case your suitcase is left on the tarmac in the rain and water leaks in (cough, cough, I’m looking at you Air Canada). Pack heavier items towards the wheels (shoes, jeans, toiletries), and lighter items nearer to handle (the “top” when upright). This keeps the centre of gravity as low as possible, reducing the chance of the suitcase tipping over. And it makes the bag much easier to roll.
5. Measure. This might sound anal, but pull out a measuring tape (cloth or metallic is fine) and gauge your suitcase dimensions before deciding what packing cubes you need. Or you can be lazy like me and just look up the internal dimensions of your suitcase on the Internet. Map out how you plan to lay out the packing cubes inside the suitcase. I just used a piece of paper and a little mental mathematics. Leave a little wiggle room in case the cubes swell with clothing.
Ninja tip: If you’re using a clamshell-style case suitcase that is 28 inches or larger, then chances are the packing cubes can be positioned on their sides (white mesh facing the side, rather than up) to maximise the use of space. The other upside is the handle on the packing cube is at the top, for easy access.
To get you started, eBags Ultralight Packing cubes are the following dimensions:
- Small: 6.5” x 6.5” x 3.5” (16.5cm x 16.5cm x 8.9cm)
- Slim: 13” x 6.5” x 3.5” (33cm x 16.5cm x 8.9cm)
- Large: 13” x 13” x 3.5” (33cm x 33cm x 8.9cm)
Tip: Can't decide what to put in your suitcase? Check out my latest Christmas gift ideas for travellers.
6. Practice makes perfect. Don’t be afraid to do a “dry run” and try packing everything a few days before your trip. It’s less stressful than doing it 30 minutes before you leave for the airport. If you’re an organisational lover then try laying out all your items on the floor or bed so you can get a holistic view of your luggage… and it also makes for a fancy top-down photo so you can make your friends on Instagram jealous about your exotic getaway.
7. Plan to wash. if you’re travelling for over 10 days, plan to do a load of laundry (if possible) to reduce the volume of clothes you need to bring along. Airbnb properties usually clarify if a washing machine if it’s available, and some value-priced hotel chains (particularly in the US) have coin-operated laundromats within the property. Check the hotel facilities or find the nearest laundromat ahead of time. Another option is a DIY sink-wash with a little laundry detergent (pack in a small Ziploc bag), or check out this new ingenious invention.
8. Go ultra-light. If you can get away with only taking a carry-on bag, do it. It feels wonderful strutting out of the airport as soon as you land, walking past the jet-lagged zombies salivating around the luggage carousel like tasty brains are zipping past on a sushi-style conveyer belt.
9. Choose a lightweight suitcase. Don’t waste your weight limits on a heavy suitcase. Check the weight before you buy. I avoid extra bells and whistles that weigh down the bag like a fancy built in power bank. A pound saved on the suitcase is another pound of clothes you can pack.
10. Choose luggage that rolls easily. When you’re running late, it can be the difference between making or missing a flight. And every other time, it just makes your life more enjoyable. It really does pays to spend a little more on quality hardside luggage. In my early travels, I made the mistake of scrimping on suitcases. Better quality luggage will work out cheaper in the long run.
11. Decorate your suitcase. Add a coloured tag, sticker or even a piece of fabric to the handle to make it easier to identify on the luggage carousel at the airport. Or if you’re a true ninja, stick with black.
12. Lock it. Make use of the built-in lock if your suitcase features one, otherwise buy a travel-friendly padlock that is TSA approved. If you use a non-TSA compliant lock, you might find it cut or broken when you pick up your suitcase from the carousel. If you don’t lock it, you could end up like Shapelle Coby.
13. Bring a soft-sided shoulder bag, tote or backpack. These are ideal for short day-trips, take minimal space in the suitcase and can be squashed flat like a pancake. Ideally, opt for an anti-theft backpack.
If you need advice on what suitcase is best for you, try asking the experts at Kaehler Luggage. They have a wide range of top brands and very reasonable prices. And they’re nice folks too.
Packing Your Suitcase
Clothes & Shoes
14. Keep it smooth. Choosing clothing that is wrinkle-resistant reduces the need to pull out an iron while on holidays. You probably don’t enjoy doing the ironing at home, so put it away on your time off! If do you enjoy ironing, then you definitely need a holiday.
15. Mix ‘n match outfits. Choose clothes that are flexible for multiple looks. This means choosing complimentary colours across the wardrobe where possible. I typically go with blues, greys, and blacks. Ideally one top can be matched with different bottoms and vice versa. Each trip is different and this rule can be bent if you need to go to a business meeting or formal event.
16. Accessorise. An easy alternative to bringing another outfit. Add a scarf, tie, (collapsible) hat, bracelet or ninja utility belt to give an existing outfit a new look.
17. Roll instead of folding soft garments – t-shirts, shorts, jeans, knitwear. This is a very popular packing tip, and chances are you’ve heard it before. But remember, some clothing items don’t roll well – like stiffer fabrics and dress pants/skirts, these should be folded. Folded garments must be placed on top of rolled garments to avoid wrinkling.
18. Fold + roll. To optimised the space in a narrow packing cube, fold t-shirts to width of packing cube and then roll. This will avoid wasting space and makes it easier to find a specific t-shirt compared to stacking multiple garments on top of each other.
19. Divide & conquer. Pack cubes by weather and "look" rather than just all the same types of garments in the same cube. It may sound a little counter-intuitive at first. But this tactic is particularly handy when you have just a couple dressy or formal outfits. I keep my button-up shirts and smart pants in the same cube so I can quickly grab a whole outfit when I need it. This also reduces the chance of infrequently used clothing getting dirty or wrinkled when it is dislodged as more frequently used garments are placed in and taken out of the packing cubes.
20. Colour code. If travelling with a friend, spouse or family member, use a different colour packing cube for each person. If you have shared items (such as toiletries), use a 3rd colour. This is super useful in dark hotel rooms. Or if you’re travelling by yourself, use a different colour to differentiate between types of garments (like shirts and shorts) or specific looks (beach, casual, smart, dressy, formal).
21. Invert. Pack light-coloured clothing inside out to avoid embarrassing stains from shoes or other items in the suitcase.
22. Poncho. Pack those separately in a waterproof bag to for an easy grab-n-go situation. Take the concept a step further and attach the bag to your backpack via a carabiner. This way if you don’t end up using the poncho, you can throw it back in the suitcase. The strategy also works with swim suits, scarves, beanies, gloves. Whatever the weather-specific accessory – keep it separate and easily transportable.
23. Drop the extra shoes. As a general rule of thumb, 3 pairs of shoes are more than enough for most trips (unless you’re a fashionista) – a casual flip-flop or loafer, sneakers and a dress shoe. Or if you’re more inclined to the outdoors, replace the dress shoe with a hiking boot. Try to wear the heaviest or bulkiest shoes on the flight, and pack the other two.
24. Comfy shoes. I always choose comfort over style, and quality over price. Painful blisters on your feet don’t make for a fun vacation. This extends to socks too. If you’re planning on doing a lot of walking or hiking, invest in a quality pair of socks (I use FITS Socks). When I started doing this I was shocked and the difference it made.
25. Stuff ‘em. Fill shoe cavities with socks to save space. Alternative stuffing options: electronics chargers, belts, underwear, gold bullion (just kidding… give that to me instead!).
26. Bind em’. Tie flip-flops together with rubber bands with the sole facing each other. This prevents the potentially dirty bottoms from touching other garments in your bag. I’m also a raving fan of rubber bands – there’s boundless ways to put them to use, from sealing food bags to preventing disobedient knick-knacks from straying to holding your ninja stars together.
27. Wrap ‘em. Wrap shoes in plastic bags for the same reason. If you want to get a little fancy, lightweight shoe bags do the same job… but with flair.
28. Split ‘em. If flying with 2 large checked-in suitcases, split your clothes between each in case one suitcase gets lost by the airline. Then once you arrive at your hotel, rearrange the seasonal clothing back into one suitcase each (eg. one bag for summer and the other for winter). It’s one of those situations that you hope never happens, but when it does, the time taken to do this will be worth it.
29. Extra plastic. Bring a spare plastic bag to store wet swimwear in case you go swimming on the last day of your vacation, before departing to the airport for your return flight. This prevents wet swimwear, possibly doused in chlorine, from staining dark clothing. It’s always a good idea to wash swimwear in fresh water after use. However, remember to take this bag straight out as soon as you get home to dry out the garments. I’ve forgotten once or twice and woke the next day asking “what’s that smell?”.
30. Plan for dirty laundry. Keep spare packing cube for clothing and ninja suits in need of a wash. This prevents smelly clothes from sharing their aroma with clean clothes. If your socks, underwear or t-shirts are particularly pungent, use an air-tight bag or simply a plastic bag tied at the top. Just remember to wear a gas mask when you re-open it.
31. Disappearing jacket. Now you see it… now you don’t! Save space by cramming your bulky puffer jacket inside a zipped neck pillow case. The neck pillow can be placed in carry-on luggage or even worn through the airport (if you want to look like a hard-core flyer). This tip is one of the most ingenious ideas I stole from an experienced traveller recently. As an added bonus, if your luggage is lost by the airline you've still got a warm jacket on hand.
Toiletries & Health
32. Cling wrap. If you’re travelling with shampoo, remove the lid and add a layer of cling wrap over the opening before replacing the lid. This reduces the chance of leaks and explosions caused by air pressure changes in an airplane cargo hold.
33. Go small. Even better, buy re-usable travel size bottles for the toiletries bag – replace the full-size shampoo, conditioner, body wash and sunscreen, and squeeze those into travel-size containers.
34. Avoid busting. Only fill up your travel-sized bottles three quarters full. The cargo area on a plane is not pressurised like the passenger cabin, and liquids expand at high altitudes. Although your shampoo probably smells pleasant, you probably don’t want it all over your suitcase… and spare ninja uniform.
35. Give me a solid. For short vacations, sometimes the only reason why you have to bring a checked-in suitcase is for liquid toiletries. Try a solid shampoo and deodorant. It might just do the job, and save you paying for extra baggage. I’ve been using an organic solid deodorant for a while and can’t go back.
36. Ditch the charger. If you use an electric toothbrush and are travelling for 10 days or less, leave the heavy charger base at home. You’ll be fine without it, and if worse-case-scenario the battery runs flat, then you’ll just have to brush the old-fashioned way.
37. Say no to drugs. Pack any pain relievers and vitamins in small Ziploc bags, but cut out the packaging front or back (which shows the active ingredients) so it’s easily identifiable. This reduces the bulk and lightens your load at the same time. And it looks a lot less suspicious if your bag is checked by border control at the airport.
38. Doctor bag. For faster packing, have a ready-to-go health/medical kit standing by which includes a few Band-Aids for minor scrapes and cuts, Neosporin, cold medicine, and medicine for stomach trouble. It’s the only thing you pack that you hope you never need. Other than your ninja sword.
39. Adapters. Pack a universal power adapter, or two. Be careful to check your electrical items are rated for international voltage (110 – 240V) before using overseas. Often hair dryers and electric toothbrush chargers are not. On the upside, most hotels will provide a hair dryer and your toothbrush can go for a while without charging.
40. Go full. Charge all your electronics at home before you leave. This includes any spare batteries for cameras. I know, I have to write that tip for myself too.
41. Warning: fragile. Always bring fragile camera and computer gear in the carry-on bag with you, and never check it in. If you do, there’s a good chance your travel insurance won’t cover breakages. I never go anywhere without my Vanguard Alta Fly 49T carry-on bag.
42. Digital reading. Skip paper books and magazines, and load up your favourite reading material on a Kindle. Save on space and weight, and save a tree in the process.
43. Go loopy. Use Velcro cable ties to loop around USB and power cables. This prevents them from sprawling out like a spaghetti octopus and makes them easier to grab when you need them.
44. Zip everything. Pack water-sensitive items (such as electronics) in Ziploc bags. I use one for my Amazon Fire TV Stick. Bring extra Ziploc bags – they’re always handy, and take up virtually no space or weight.
45. Harden hard drives. Pack external hard drives in a durable waterproof carry case. This absorbs shocks and helps prevent damage to your precious data. Ideally these should be able to withstand ninja star attacks.
46. Combine accessories. Pack all GoPro accessories in a separate carry case so you can easily access it whenever needed. I also keep a separate lens cleaning cloth in that case as it’s likely to pick up saltwater (which contains minerals and oils) when the GoPro is used in the ocean, and I want to avoid that getting smeared on my DSLR camera lenses.
47. Simplify charging. If you have a lot of devices that need charging (phone, tablet, GoPro, GoPro remote, Internet hotspot, wireless headphones, power bank), consider using a 6-port USB charger. This will reduce multiple bulky electronics adapters and streamline the use of power outlet adapters.
48. Test beforehand. If you’ve purchase new electronics items, test them out well before your departure date to ensure they work properly (and you have time to return them in case of faults). It also helps that you’re familiar with your gear so you can feel confident using it on your vacation rather than fumbling along like a newbie.
49. Size your car. Carefully check the size of your rental car before booking. If you’ve planned well, you should know how many suitcases and bags you’ll have. Good car rental sites will tell you how many suitcases will fit in the trunk. Saving a few dollars with the smallest possible car, might become problematic when your beautiful shiny 30-inch suitcase doesn’t fit. So, if it’s only a few dollars extra to upgrade to a larger size car, your peace of mind is worth it. RentalCars.com is one of my favourite rental sites.
50. Split clothing. On road trips put all the clothing you need day to day in the same bag so you can leave the unused bag in the car, making it easier to get in and out of hotels.
51. Check and re-pack. Check the 7-day weather forecast every evening so you know what clothing will be required the next day and can re-pack accordingly. It’s particularly helpful to review tomorrow’s hour-by-hour temperature and wind speed. Depending on your location, a seemingly warm sunny day may have a surprisingly cold start to the morning. Or what appears to be “shorts” weather may require a sweater because of gale-force winds.
52. Portable DJ bag. Place car accessories in a sealed carry bag. I bring a USB car charger, audio cable, USB cable and phone mount in a small bag so I can quickly grab that when picking up a rental car. Combine that with Amazon Music Unlimited and you’ve got a never-ended soundtrack for your road trip. Tip: if you’re driving in rural areas, download your playlist to your phone for reliable offline access.
53. Weigh it. Use a portable luggage scale so there’s no surprises at airport. Don’t push your luck because I’ve found most scales at airports are skewed around 3-5% heavier than hand-held luggage scales.
54. Feel like home. Rather than living out of a suitcase, move packing cubes into drawers when staying in hotels. It will make you feel more comfortable, and keep the convenience of easy re-packing when it’s time to leave. Just grab the cubes out of the drawer and place back in your suitcase. Re-packing done in 30 seconds or less. Like a mega ninja.
55. Avoid zipper snags. Place your finger under the suitcase or packing cube zipper when doing up to avoid the zipper catching on loose threads.
56. Avoid brush snags. If you’ve packed a coarse-bristled brush, cover it with a sock to avoid it getting caught on clothes resulting in snags or tears.
57. Improve the smell. Take a small bag of mild potpourri, fabric conditioner sheets or scented drawer liners, and place in the centre of your suitcase. You'll keep your clothes smelling sweet throughout the trip.
58. Avoid breakages and tears. Wrap fragile items (such as porcelain, vases, bottles of wine, etc.) in soft clothing, like a sweatshirt, and place in the centre of the bag. Clothing around the fragile item will act as a buffer from bumps. If the item has a cavity, such as a vase, then place a t-shirt inside to absorb the shock and reduce the chance of breakage. But I have to ask, why are you travelling with a vase? It might be nice.
59. Fill in empty holes. I try not to over-pack my suitcase, but if you leave too much empty space, the clothing or cubes will move around far more and can get wrinkled or even damaged. If you have a lot of spare space, place your packing cubes at the bottom near the wheels, and make use of a built-in elastic suitcase strap, to minimise movement. The flipside of this advice is that if you’re planning a shopping spree or bringing home a few souvenirs, leave enough room for those.
60. Important documents. Pack a photocopy of your passport and travel insurance documents in your checked-in luggage. If you wear glasses or contact lenses, bring along a copy of your prescription in case you need an urgent replacement. Keep your ninja certification handy too… just in case.
I often get asked about what luggage I use. This changes from time to time as my travel style evolves, but currently I use Samsonite Omni PC for my primary suitcases. They are the perfect balance between light weight, strength and durability.
61. Ditch the suitcase. If spacing allows, use a personal bag (like shoulder bag) to carry on all the items you need (such as laptop, headphones, snacks) rather than in a wheeled suitcase. It’s easier to walk down the plane isle, and makes embarking faster.
62. Handy pills. Bring any medication you need in your carry-on bag. If it’s in a liquid form and over 100ml, there’s a good chance it can get through security if you have an active prescription from a doctor. These rules will vary by country.
63. Pocket power. Pack your in-flight essentials in a zippered pocket for easy access – earphones, hand wipes (airplane fold-down tables and arm rests are a haven for germs), tissues and a pen (for filling in immigration forms). I use the Bellroy All Conditions Essentials Pocket.
64. BYO snacks. Save money on over-priced airline food, plus give yourself the flexibility to choose healthier options. Use separate Ziploc bags for: sliced apples, dried fruit and nuts, granola bars, Pringles, you name it.
65. No bling. Avoid wearing and packing excessive jewellery. It attracts unwanted attention and increases the risk of loss. Depending on your travel insurance coverage, expensive jewellery may not be fully covered or covered at all. Ninjas shouldn’t wear jewellery anyway.
66. Compression socks. I used to scoff at these but not anymore. I recently wore flip-flops on a long flight and my feet swelled up like a balloon. I now use CEP Recovery+ Pro compression socks. Pack compression socks in your carry-on and pull them out once you find your seat.
Airports & Airlines
67. Check airline weight limits. Know the limits for checked luggage before you pack your suitcase. Some discount airlines have very strict carry-on weight and size limits (these vary by airline). Often a personal item (like purse or small laptop bag) is acceptable in addition to your regular carry-on luggage. But be careful to check if the carry-on weight limits cover individual items or combined.
68. Liquid limits. Remember liquid limits in the country you’re flying from and to. In some countries rules for domestic flights are different to International flights. Here’s more information for several countries: USA, UK, Australia, Canada.
69. Refill water. Bring an empty water bottle to the airport so you can fill up after going through security. Many airports have water fountains otherwise most restaurants will fill your bottle with tap water if you ask nicely. If you’re looking for a good quality re-usable bottle, check out Hydaway and Klean Kanteen.
70. No boom boom. Don’t pack dangerous and restricted items (such as firearms, knives, flammable items, corrosives, glowing radioactive waste). If you’re not familiar with those restrictions, check your airline’s policies and country of departure/arrival (TSA has some more info). A cavity search from airport security is not the best way to start your vacation.
71. Hold the gold. Never check in valuable items such as passports, original identification documents, cash, credit cards, jewellery, and electronics. These should always be brought onto the plane with you. If you feel the need to travel with gold bars in your pockets, then send me an email. We need to hang out.
72. Stand straight. I’ve found most airlines are relatively inconsistent when enforcing their carry-on baggage weight checks. It helps when you’re at the check-in counter not to look like you’ve got the weight of the world on your shoulders. You don’t want to draw unwanted attention to your luggage for additional scrutiny.
73. Plan B. If you know your carry-on bag is overweight and are trying your luck, have a fall-back plan. On at least one occasion I’ve walked up to an airline check-in desk wearing several layers of jackets. The pockets were crammed with camera lenses and external hard drives. Fortunately, I wasn’t asked what that bulge in my pants was. I’ll admit, it’s not elegant, but I’m pretty sure there’s no rules preventing that.
74. Spread the love. Be friendly to the airline ground staff who are helping you check-in. Ask them how they day has been. Adding a bit more kindness into the world has a way of coming back to you. And if you ask super nicely, the staff member might be able to give you a seat in the exit row. It can’t hurt asking.
The Bottom Line
Packing a suitcase is a skill, and a skill worth your learning. It’s a crucial part of mastering the art of travel. By practicing my time-tested travel teachings you’ll be well on your journey towards becoming one with your suitcase. And the universe. But mostly your suitcase.
With so much to learn, it might seem a little daunting. Never fear, dancing dragon. Take a deep breath, tighten your ninja eye mask, and always remember that I believe in you. And so does Confucius.