Tips to Packing Like a Pro (photo by Natasha Mileshina)

Anatomy of a Frequent Flier: How I Pack

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People assume because of the high volume of flights I take, I must be one Hell of a packer. This isn’t necessarily true, especially because many of my trips are in combination with others and it’s downright impossible to pack light (e.g. in 2007, over a three-week period, I left NYC and flew to Iceland for a week where it never seems to be warmer than 40, then straight to Oktoberfest for a week where it was surprisingly warm then unexpectedly dropped 30 degrees and began to rain puppies and kittens, then all the way back to Tennessee for a wedding I was in, where it was still very mild + I had to pack dresses and heels for the various events…needless to say, my suitcase was massive!).

I get e-mails from people wanting me to share my packing “secrets.” Now, I don’t think I’ve come to any conclusions that haven’t been written about over and over again, but since I’m leaving today on an eight-day trip to another continent in which I need a casual, warm-weather outfit for every day, as well as a “business casual” outfit (which I take to mean FUN! DRESSES!) every night, and I managed a pretty stellar cram job (all in a single carry-on-sized roller!) if I do say so myself, I thought I’d take this time to share my thoughts.

Roll your clothes. I take this same approach to organizing my drawer, as it saves a ton of space, plus things don’t seem to wrinkle nearly as badly. For some reason, rolling versus folding makes it much easier to find what you need. Pack empty plastic grocery bags or baggies to contain dirty clothes.

Pick a general color scheme. This could be hard if you’re gone for weeks, but my general rule of thumb (and I’m a garish dresser with a lot of bright colors in my wardrbobe) is to choose one neutral color that all my outfits will match…for the most part. I don’t tend to wear a lot of black, so I usually try to pack things that will all match one brown/tan pair of shoes and purse. In this case, I packed two pairs of dressy flip-flop sandals, one in silver and one in gold (so they’d pretty much match anything) and just one purse, my white Coach bag, that really will go with everything I’ve brought.  Confession: I did kind of cheat this time, because there are two dresses that have black detailing, but I just threw in a light black cardigan that occupied no space whatsoever and can pair them both with the silver sandals. But generally, I stick to all things that match browns and only ever take one pair of heels at most (this time, none!). Not because I don’t love stilettos as much as the next girl, but they just take up too much room.

Pack delicates in a ziplock bag. I’ve taken to rolling my underwear, bras, socks and, in this case, bathing suits all into a one-gallon ziplock, then poking a hole in the bag, squeezing out the excess air and rolling it tight (kind of like those fancy, overpriced spacesaver bags you can buy at Target, only cheaper). Does this save a lot of space? Probably not (particularly because I usually just cram spare socks and panties into any remaining slot, like shoes, as it is). But it does save my sanity—instead of frantically unpacking my bag in search of undies every time I get somewhere (often on my assignments, I’m in a different city/country/hotel every night it seems), I can simply remove the bag and find what I’m looking for without messing the rest of my suitcase up.

Wear your heavy things. Since I work out every day I’m home in San Francisco, I’m often overly ambitious when traveling, thinking I’ll get up at 5:30am before I have to meet the group for breakfast, and hit the gym. This time is no different. I only ever take one set of workout clothes, though, because in reality you don’t actually have to wash them after every session (particularly if you’re just doing an hour on the elliptical here and there). Since I’m only taking a carry-on bag, I’m wearing my running shoes on the plane this time to conserve space (I’ll just swap them for plane socks en route for the sake of comfort). Ditto for my lone jacket, which I’ll probably roll up into the overhead compartent unless it’s really chilly.

Prepare a Travel Kit. I have a kit full of essentials—sleep mask, earplugs, ear buds, Band-aids, nail clippers, Advil, Benadryl, eye drops, Afrin—that I made and house in a small plastic box; it’s surprisingly compact and permanently resides in my carry-on. That way it’s ready to go every time I travel, and I’m not likely to forget it.

Know your flying rules. It still kills me when I see Facebook and Twitter updates (oh wait, you didn’t know? I’m now on Twitter! You can blame Ali…and Susan…but follow me here! Camels&Chocolate wouldn’t fit, so I had to think of something else and thus went with my childhood nickname) or am behind someone in line who gets pissed at the ticket counter person when she finds out that, oh noes!, she’s now being charged $25 for a first bag (or whatever that particular airline’s policy may be) and tries to object. Um, hello! Yeah, the baggage fees SUCK (and no, they have absolutely nothing to do with an increase in fuel prices last year like the airlines claimed, in case you didn’t know, as barrels of jet fuel are typically purchased up to five years in advance), but these rules have been in effect for nearly eight months now. They’re nothing new, and they don’t work on a case-by-case basis. So quit your whining. You’d also be surprised how many people still don’t account for the 3-1-1 liquid rule (in laymen’s terms: one quart CLEAR ZIPLOCK bag, one per person, liquids no more than three ounces in size; once I stupidly took a CLEAR makeup bag that zipped shut and they made me throw it away at security, I kid you not) and hold up the security line by arguing with the airport employee. DON’T BE THAT PERSON. (Truth be told, I actually don’t do what they say at all and surrender my liquids at the security belt anymore; rather, my eye drops, lipgloss, etc. (though always three ounces or less) are dispersed throughout my bag, SANS ziplock bag. And they’ve never once tried to search my bag after it’s gone through the screening. However, just to be safe, I always keep a ziplock bag or two handy just in case I have to pull a last-minute liquids packing job.)

Bring snacks. It absolutely chaps my hide that airlines are now charging for peanuts on domestic flights. Even when I’m flying international, I find the food service subpar, so I always take granola bars and ample 100-calorie snack packs (the oatmeal raisin cookies and chocolate toucan graham crackers from Trader Joe’s are my favorites) to hold me over. (Hey, I’m a growing girl!) Plus, I’ve had so many connecting flights that arrive after the terminal is closed for the night (wtf, airports? Is it so much to ask to keep ONE cafe open all night?) and didn’t leave again until the morning, that I will never again travel without sustenance.

Dress comfortably—and warmly. Duh. But so many delusional travelers still seem to think if you don the stifling business suit and pointy-toed shoes, you’ll be upgraded. Not true (particularly as now in lieu of filling first and biz class seats with those already booked in economy, airlines like Delta are opening them up for last-minute upgrade purchase at the “bargain” price of $250 or so). I have a pair of GapBody yoga pants that are the softest things in the world, and (since I think jeans are among the most rigid, uncomfortable things you could put on your body), I wear them on nearly every flight I take. I then throw on a tank and a long-sleeved J. Crew tee and top it off with a fleece or denim jacket and pashmina (I don’t know about you, but I’m ALWAYS cold on flights). And because some airlines are even charging for blankets now (I’m looking at you, JetBlue!), or else not stocking nearly enough, I finally invested in my own cozy pink Brookstone travel blanket (plus, a commercial pilot friend told me that they often don’t even wash the blankets between uses…ewww! If they are, however, wrapped and sealed in plastic, you know they’ve been drycleaned). On a semi-related note: If you’re in economy but check in early enough, you can often snag one of those coveted extra-foot-of-space exit row seats by just asking (just make sure they’re in the rows that decline; sometimes a sole exit row on each plane will have non-reclining seats). It used to be that you could book these seats when making your flight reservation, but for some reason, the airlines have either stopped allowing this or begun to charge for them in advance.

Know your rights. This one came to me in the 11th hour, but BFF/partner-in-crime Lemon (who will be visiting me in just a week, weeee!), almost got totally screwed by Delta when they canceled her flight over the holidays and rebooked her daaaaays later. Unlucky for Delta, sista knows her shit (plus, she got her super-genius lawyer brother on the phone to read her Delta’s Code of Carriage, which she then cited to them in order to get her money (2x the cost of her ticket) refunded–in cash!). Read her full account of how it unfolded (and how she kicked ass) here, and follow suit should you face a similar dilemma. If all else fails, and the airline won’t listen (it happens, too often), contact the Mother Teresa of Travel, Chris Elliott, who has helped both Lemon and me out in many a time of need.

Keep a copy of your itinerary in your checked back. This insightful one comes from Mrs. Who: “One thing I always do is have a complete itinerary typed and packed in my suitcase in case it is lost. I thought everyone did this until I mentioned it recently and everyone was shocked they had never thought of it. If your luggage tags are lost, they have no way of finding you. And, even if they have your address, they still don’t know you are on that cruise ship—without any clothes to wear!”

Invest in one really great piece of luggage, author and fellow globetrotter May Vanderbilt adds. I’d have to agree. For Christmas 2007, my mom gave me this amazing three-piece Delsey set in powdered blue (pictured below), and it has changed my traveling life. It’s sturdy and easily recognizable on the luggage belt. Plus, the carry-on with its various nooks and compartments is AWESOME. Previously, I always used red or black luggage, which—shocker—are the most common colors used by other travelers. The blue makes it easy to spot (and harder for someone else to make off with), though on one recent flight back to San Francisco, someone on my flight actually had the same bag! She ran after me as I went through customs to make sure I didn’t take hers by accident (I hadn’t; I ain’t that dumb! Still, she was wise to check before I got any further).

To further preserve space, I only take stacks of magazines (and books I don’t mind discarding) for reading material so I can dispose of them (recycle, of course) along the way, and ditto for toiletries; I always use mini-bottles I’ve saved from my previous hotel stay (though the majority of hotels well-stock rooms these days), or purchase them from the $1 bins at Walgreens. I bank on the hotel having a hairdryer (or else go without) and opt for taking either my curling iron or my straightener, but never both (travel’s all about sacrifices, ha). Other essentials include my laptop (always), Netflixed movies for said laptop (or else iTunes TV downloads; this flight, I will finally finish Mad Men season two!), Ambien (prescription sleeping pills), a universal converter, jewelry, sunscreen, bug spray, my LowePro slingback with my DSLR and multiple lenses, my small point-and-shoot for video capability and when I don’t feel like lugging around the big one, underwater camera housing, SCUBA gear (just mask, skin, fins, snorkel, booties) and, of course, a passport! All that in a tiny rolling bag. Aaaaand that’s all I can think of…for now. If you have any tips I failed to mention, please comment below, and I’ll add them to this list and link to your site.

  • January 9, 2009

    I roll my clothes too! Thanks for the tips.

  • January 9, 2009

    thanks for the tips! and glad to see you caved on Twitter. I did the same not too long ago.

    my saving grace on flights is a ridiculous amount of celeb gossip mags (go figure!) and a stash of candy. it’s the only time i allow myself to kill an entire bag of Flipz and not even blink an eye.

  • January 9, 2009

    oh, lunaatlarge is on twitter! yayayayay!
    where were you last week with your travel tips??? why have i never known you are supposed to roll your clothing? DAMMIT.

  • January 9, 2009

    I have been rolling my clothes for years but never EVEN CONSIDERED doing this in my drawers at home. DOH.

    One thing I always do is have a complete itinerary typed and packed in my suitcase in case it is lost. I thought everyone did this until I mentioned it recently and everyone was shocked they had never thought of it. If your luggage tags are lost, they have no way of finding you. And, even if they have your address, they still don’t know you are on that cruise ship – without any clothes to wear!!

  • January 9, 2009

    Great stuff, like the rolling tip. As a seasoned traveller myself nothing drives me crazier than the 3-1-1 and extra baggage complaints from people too! I think there should be some kind of express-lane for people that know what they are doing!

  • January 9, 2009

    gah, this makes me want to take a trip so baaad! Great tips btw.

  • January 9, 2009

    I am very pleased to see the 100-calorie packs of Chocolate Graham Toucans in your luggage, Ms. Luna! As you know, they can save a girl’s life between scheduled press trip meals.

    Bang-on tips! I can’t even think of another one to add! Have a fabulous time in Australia. Assuming I don’t kill you from jealousy first.

  • January 9, 2009

    Great tips–particularly the one about dressing warmly. I am always freezing on airplanes.

    Have fun!

  • January 9, 2009

    These are great. I used to travel all the time for work and everything in your travel kit is a great idea.

  • January 9, 2009

    Love the article! I survived for a month with a carry on suitcase in Europe. Rolled ALL my clothes. I wore a lot of t-shirt skirts & dresses b/c jeans take up more room. I always pack one pair of jeans though. And rainbow flip flops. Walked a million European miles in those puppies.

  • January 9, 2009

    And by article, of course I mean post.

  • January 9, 2009

    I’m just sitting here patting myself on the old back for already doing a number of these things. The magazines that you can recycle along the way! Packing with a color scheme in mind! The NetFlix disks!

    But I haven’t been rolling my clothes. I’m going to try this.

    And I have one to add…invest in one really great piece of luggage. It’s worth it.

  • January 9, 2009

    I totally need this. You know, if I ever get to go away again 🙂

  • January 9, 2009

    Can you come to LA in March and help me pack for my wedding? I have to get a wedding dress to Wales . . . and enough heavy, warm clothes to last through 2 weeks, including a Scottish honeymoon. EEK!

  • January 9, 2009

    Your story about Lemon sounds just like what happened to me three days earlier:

    Supposedly, my refund from Delta is “in process,” but the real difficulty that I’ve been dealing with this week is getting my travel insurance policy to pay out. It turns out that no one must read their policies (or ever bother to make a claim) because I found what the tour company who sold me the policy called a “loophole.” I call it poor underwriting. Anyway, after my complaint reached the CEO of the insurance company, they have agreed to pay out. And as a result, they are changing the standard language in the policy they issued to me and my family.

  • January 9, 2009

    I totally agree with you about the luggage. 2 years ago when I was going somewhere with my family my mom was going to buy me new luggage and she told me to pick some out online and she would buy it for me. I got a bright green suitcases. When my family saw them I could tell they thought they were kind of obnoxious looking. When we were waiting for the plane we were standing by the window and were watching them load the luggage onto the plane we actually saw mine. Then when we got to the other airport we found mine easily. Some other people had dark green luggage, but no one else had bright green luggage. I have used it a few times and so far noone has had my same color suitcase.

  • January 9, 2009

    There is a trip that my friends and I take every year, kinda a get together where we can forget about the rest of the world for 3 days and just have some down time and hang out. The problem is, this year my budget is a little lacking if you know what I mean. Man these holidays really killed me. Then the other day one of my friends calls me up and I start telling him about all of this lousy stuff that I got as gifts. You know the kind you get from people that you only see every blue moon and they think they know what you like? Anyway, I’m going on and on and then he comes up with this absolutely brilliant idea. He found this site called Mile High Swap, It’s a place where you can swap stuff for frequent flyer miles or swap miles for stuff, depending which end you’re on. It’s like buying stuff on eBay without spending cash. You use your miles instead. Only in this case I needed miles for the trip and I’m like 8,000 miles short. He says “why don’t you take some of your “lovely” gifts, post em up there and see how many miles you can get for them?” See why I hang around with this guy? Problemo solved! Well at least I hope so.

  • January 10, 2009

    Roll your clothes! Yes! Chris looked at me with The Crazy Face when I first did that, but it totally frees up space! And almost anywhere you are going has some sort of iron you can use if you’re bringing items that wrinkly easily.

    The organizer in me LOVES packing. The procrastinator in me puts it off until the night before, always.

  • January 10, 2009

    I’ve learned to always take snacks too, not so much for the plane (though that is important), but for the late night arrival with no available food or no desire to eat fast food at 11pm. I find that Luna bars and similar products are great for that. Whenever I’m going somewhere warm I take a sarong, it can double as a blanket/sheet, act as a last minute covering before visiting a temple/shrine, keep you warm in an over-air conditioned building or act as a beach cover-up, or even a shopping bag if necessary.

  • January 11, 2009

    I completely agree with all these tips. Nicely done 🙂

  • January 11, 2009

    I agree with buying luggage in unique colors. I travel with a bright green and pink set that cannot be missed on the luggage carousel. I can see them coming a mile away!

  • January 11, 2009

    Rolling clothes changed my life. I even got Aaron hooked on it, which is a major feat.

  • January 12, 2009

    two suitcases! wow! that is a lot of stuff.

    My favorite part of your photo is the well worn passport tucked away. a true sign of a frequent flyer!

  • January 12, 2009

    After spending the six months going from the side of a mountain in New Zealand to a beach in Fiji, I used tons of these tips (definitely wore my winter coat on all flights, and got some strange looks checking in on my way to an island paradise!).
    I also got stranded for six days over the holidays, and rerouted through five different airports so my list of tips for dealing with them may just have to be one of my next posts (I’ll be sure to link to you!).

  • January 12, 2009

    Like SIX MONTHS after the no liquids rule, I was going somewhere for work and my friend was all “don’t pack any liquids in your carry-on! Did you know they don’t let you take them on? They threw away my expensive bottle of perfume!”

    She got mad at me when I responded “GOOD! You’re the people who don’t know the rules because you’ve benn LIVING UNDER A ROCK.”

    Seriously, I’m not a newshound, but if something major like that happens, everyone knows!

  • January 13, 2009

    Yes, yes, yes, I whole heartedly second all of your tips! Jon and I love to travel (we don’t do quite as much as you!) and our trip to Europe last year was finally when all of our years of traveling came together and resulted in sucessful packing. Oh and like a commenter above me said, I love your well-worn passport. I was heartbroken when I had to get a new one in my married name and lost all of my cool stamps!

  • January 13, 2009

    I’m glad to know that on my latest trip, I wasn’t too far off from how you travel…except I only took carryon which helped when I almost missed my connecting flight in Charlotte because I didn’t have to get my bag off of baggage and then recheck it to Boston. But I’ll tell you, having a ziplock for my underwear and bras and bathing suits made a world of difference. Seriously. I only did that for the first time in December and wonder what took me so long to figure THAT one out. And my three hour delay on the island coming home, I was glad for all the snacks I had packed and the water I grabbed in the airport. (because I’ll tell ya, US Airways was not even offering PURCHASED food or water on that delay/flight….oh, and they ran out of blankets…no blankets on the plane because “US Airways is having a blanket shortage” Seriously.) Oh my, this turned into a rant, sorry! Take a shawl or something as a blankie is my only suggestion. But the layering thing is enormously important, wearing warm stuff. Planes are always cold.

  • January 18, 2009
    joan vv

    I am so inspired by this post! My future travel packing and preparation will be so much improved. Thanks for all the good info

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