My friend Donna is a bit of a marvel when it comes to packing for travel. No matter how long the trip or where she is headed, she never checks a bag. Ever. From bicycling in Europe to a month-long journey through Australia, she and her husband carry everything with them, washing what they need in their hotel bathroom sink and using whatever shampoos and toiletries the hotel provides. When they return from a trip, I’m always in awe of how effortlessly they seem to have traveled.

I’m more of a high maintenance packer than my friend, but I like to think of it as organized high maintenance. My packing system has evolved over the years, changing with improvements in everything from luggage to technology. But mostly that evolution has been the result of experience – mistakes made, lessons learned and sometimes surprising home runs. I can’t claim to have completely removed the stress from packing for a trip, but I have found some truths that guarantee a fairly smooth experience and help with that daunting question, What should I bring on the trip?

Here are my Top Ten Travel Packing Tips:

1. Buy the lightest and most durable luggage you can afford.

Our luggage has gone through three or four incarnations over the years, with the updates always triggered by need. We usually go many years between visits to the luggage store, and each time I am blown away by the latest innovations. Our most recent foray into the world of luggage was triggered by a weight issue. Without enough airline miles for a business class upgrade on a long international flight, my husband found a fabulous option – A Lufthansa A380, with a Premium Economy cabin that featured two seats across instead of the usual three. The catch? The carry-on weight limit was 18 pounds. When I subtracted the weight of my suitcase, it seemed about all I would be able carry onboard would be a toothbrush!

It turns out that luggage has gotten much lighter since we’d been in the market. The trend now is toward bags with four wheels instead of two, and in another nod to airline rules, also toward smaller bags. Our luggage store’s owner strongly advised against buying the usual “set” of a 24-inch and 26 or 27-inch bag. With 50-pound checked bag limits, he said, he now recommends purchasing a 24-inch expandable bag. He also suggested a 20-inch international-sized carry-on rather than the traditional 22-inch. The smaller carry-on holds almost the same amount and has a much better chance of fitting in any overhead bin, taking the worry out of suddenly having to check something you had planned to carry on.

We took his advice and chose 24- and 20-inch pieces by Briggs & Riley. Lifetime guarantees, pounds lighter than what we had been traveling with, and wheels of four. The new luggage traveled like a dream. We passed Lufthansa’s weight restrictions and were thrilled with the ease of having four wheels, plopping our carry-ons sideways on top of our larger bags and easily maneuvering them through crowded airports. Low maintenance and effortless!

2. Don’t completely believe your destination’s weather forecast.

I especially like two weather-related web sites for planning what to pack. offers a terrific month-by-month overview of a city’s climate, with easy-to-read charts that include average temperatures, rainfall and even hours of sunlight. It’s a really great advance-planning reference tool. I check for more current information. With its 10-day forecast, it’s a good reality check for what to expect just before we leave.

However… I have learned not to completely rely on anything when it comes to weather! And I’ve also found that it’s tricky to get an idea of how I will feel based solely on the temperature. Sixty-five degrees Fahrenheit can feel really chilly on an overcast day, but that same number can slide easily into the hotter part of the temperature spectrum under a bright sun.

I always pack a few things that may not get worn, but that I’ll be glad I have if I need them. That typically includes a pair of shorts, a rain jacket (even if there is a 5 percent chance of rain), warm sweater, and my favorite travel accessory, a comfy scarf, which keeps me incredibly warm and also adds a little pizzazz to my basic travel wardrobe.

Everyone’s most talked-about and unpredictable traveling companion!

3. When in doubt, throw it in.

When our daughter and son were young, we planned a vacation to Hawaii, dividing our visit between Oahu and Maui. It was August and a beachy type of trip, and there was no reason to think we would need to pack jeans or a jacket. Except for our planned drive to the top of Mount Haleakalā to watch the sunrise from Maui’s wonder of a volcano. It didn’t occur to us to throw in some warm clothes for that early morning, high elevation outing. As we stood watching the sunrise, huddled in blankets borrowed from our hotel, we chanted a new mantra that has been with us ever since: It can’t hurt to throw it in, whatever the “it” may be.

mount haleakala sunrise
Shivering before sunrise on Mount Haleakalā, Maui. 1995.

4. Pack your carry-on as if it were your only bag.

There is always a chance that checked baggage won’t arrive when you do, especially when making a connecting flight. In addition to “valuables” – passport, electronics, camera, medications, prescription sunglasses – I pack my carry-on with my TSA-approved toiletry bag and enough clothing to cover several days without my checked suitcase. I also try to fit in my rain jacket or whatever outerwear I’m bringing but not wearing on the plane and anything I feel would be difficult to replace on the trip if my checked bag were actually lost.

A couple of years ago when our baggage didn’t make a connecting flight from London to Copenhagen, we experienced that sinking feeling of watching the last suitcase from our flight slide down the carousel, joining the few remaining bags that kept going around, waiting to be claimed. The airline staff assured us that our bags would be on a later flight and would be delivered to our hotel as soon as they arrived. It was a real comfort to have our well-stocked carry-ons with us, knowing we could continue with our plans the next day in Copenhagen, no matter what time our luggage would be delivered.

5. Mix the items in your family’s checked bags.

When our daughter was in college, she spent a summer on an internship in San Francisco. She packed two suitcases for the one-hour flight from San Diego – one with clothing; the other with shoes and everything else. The clothing arrived with her in San Francisco; the other bag did not. There was a momentary panic, but the airline eventually found the missing bag, which had somehow been sent to Oakland. Since then, I have always made sure to mix the types of items when I have more than one suitcase.

To carry this concept of not putting all your eggs in one basket even further…I recently heard someone recommend mixing family member’s clothing in different suitcases. My husband and I have always had our own bags, and our kids did as well when we traveled together. Mixing items seems a little harder to stay organized, but it does make sense. If one suitcase is missing or lost, at least every member of the family will have something to wear!

6. Save space for souvenirs.

This seems obvious, but it’s important to leave room for those can’t-live-without special mementos. I once knew someone who packed a foldable duffle bag inside her suitcase so she’d have an extra bag for purchases on the trip! Whenever possible, I bring souvenirs home in my carry-on. This is also important when you want to claim a VAT refund at the departure airport. The actual item – unworn or unused – is usually required in order to process the refund. If your purchase is with your checked luggage, you may not be able to claim the refund, even with the retailer’s receipt.

terra cotta warriors xi'an
These fragile Terra Cotta Warriors, crafted from local clay soil, traveled home from Xi’an, China, in my carry-on.

7. Label the inside as well as the outside of your bag.

It’s a good idea to keep your name and contact information in an easy-to-see place inside your suitcase as well as outside. Luggage tags – even those built into the suitcase – can fall off or get damaged, and this added step helps insure rightful bag ownership. Luggage tracking apps such as Tile and LugLoc are an intriguing newer concept in tracking luggage, but even with the latest technology, it still pays to put your name inside your bag.

8. Find an organizational system that works for you.

Travel organization has become a category all its own, and the number of items at luggage  stores, on-line travel sites and the ever-wonderful Container Store is overwhelming. The key is finding a system that works for you. Many of the gadgets and containers are enticing, but it’s a good idea to start small and see if something makes sense and that you will actually use it.

My husband has an old Eagle Creek organizer for packing shirts that he swears by. Using the organizer’s stiff board, he folds each shirt separately and then packs about seven of them into the Velcro-fastened organizer. On our last trip, he tried the brand’s newest version, which is lighter weight and less stiff, but found his shirts wrinkled much more than they did in the original, sturdier model. I fold clothing items that I don’t want to wrinkle in tissue paper. And for really keeping wrinkling at bay, I’ve found that plastic garment bags – from the dry cleaners or clothing store – work especially well, either for wrapping an individual item or tucking over everything before closing the suitcase.

9. Include a few clean plastic garbage bags.

These will serve double-duty as a place to keep your trip’s dirty laundry and as a way to protect everything else in your suitcase when bringing home not-so-clean exercise shoes, muddy boots or that still-not-dry swim suit.

 10. Create your own travel medicine kit.

It’s easy to remember to bring prescription medications, but don’t forget to include your over-the-counter go-to items. I pack a small kit of Band-Aids, first-aid cream, Tylenol, Advil, cough drops – things we would use at home. Most items, of course, are available at drug stores almost everywhere, but the thing about getting sick or hurt when traveling is that it’s never convenient. Tracking down Tylenol takes precious time away from sightseeing, no matter how much you justify not packing it!

great wall of china
The Great Wall of China. 2013. Not a moment when you want to think about finding a pharmacy!


  • Mary,
    Your tips are so helpful! Don and I leave Oct 25th for a month in Europe and I have no clue how we are going to pack for a month of 40 degree days and colder nights!

  • Hi Sue, I’m so happy to know you found this helpful! A month in Europe sounds wonderful – and unpredictable, weather-wise. I’m imagining lots of layering, a local laundry and a hotel’s dry cleaning service! Have a fabulous trip, and thanks for stopping by!

  • Hi Mary—Just came back and picked up the 101 after reading your newest travel-packing blog this morning. It’s reassuring to know I’ve learned many of the same tricks you use, like carrying a mini-pharmacy (a little more extensive than yours). On our last cruise my husband banged into a wall and tore open a large area on one arm (older sun-damaged skin is fragile). Normally that would have required a late-night trip to the ship medical dept, and a bill. Fortunately, I had learned to carry large bandages and antibiotic cream so I could patch him up in our cabin. Over the years I’ve added arnica gel, Salonpas patches, and Ace bandages. Local pharmacists have also been my first line of defense. Many other countries can have a wealth of remedies under the ‘green crosses’ that we can’t get in the US.

    • Robin, I realized that the technical glitch was me! I checked the “part 2” post comments and didn’t think to look at this one! At any rate, many thanks for your helpful tips. I’m sorry to hear that your husband hurt his arm, but how wonderful that you had what you needed to take care of the wound. And yes, those “green cross” pharmacies are a terrific resource when traveling. So glad you mentioned it here 🙂

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