Getting ready for a trip can feel like a game of Tetris, in which you’re figuring out how to fit everything while frantically planning for each possible scenario. “When traveling, people become fearful of going into the unknown and use clothes as a security blanket,” says Cary Cooper, a professor of psychology at Lancaster University, in England. “But all those what-ifs only lead to overpacking.” (And even more stress.) Here’s a surefire way to eliminate the agita.
Decide what you’re taking. And, just as important, what you’re not. These streamlining guidelines will help, whether you’re bound for a beach or a boardroom.
Follow a simple formula. Pack three tops for every bottom. Generally, pants and skirts take up more room than shirts, and when you wear them multiple times, no one is the wiser, says Justin Klosky, the founder of the Los Angeles–based organizational-consulting company O.C.D. Experience. A weeklong trip, he says, shouldn’t require more than six tops, one pair of pants, one pair of shorts, one dress, and three bras. “Choose staples you feel most confident in so that you’ll be less inclined to bring alternatives,” says Lesley Grosvenor, a cofounder of Clothes Up Style, a wardrobe-advising service in Los Angeles. Then, for a handy reminder about all the other stuff you’ll need, from floss to batteries, print the vacation-essentials checklist at realsimple.com/packingchecklist.
Stick to a color scheme. “Start with two neutrals for your core basics and add two to three fun shades that coordinate,” advises Alan Krantzler, the senior vice president of brand management at Tumi, a travel brand. A dark palette hides stains and easily sails from day to night. If that feels too uptight for your jaunt to Margaritaville, try a breezy mix of white, navy, red, teal, and pale yellow. Or “plan your wardrobe around one shoe color,” says Judith Gilford, the author of The Packing Book ($15, amazon.com). You need only three pairs—sneakers, flats or sandals, and heels or wedges.
Be a lightweight. Not all clothes are worth their weight. Leave behind pieces with bulky linings or heavy embellishments. Think thin and opt for pants made of polyester-rayon or acetate-spandex. Also, stretchy jeans or jeggings can take up half the space of regular denim. Control temperature with layers, says Heather Poole, a flight attendant and the author of Cruising Attitude ($15, amazon.com). She piles on tees, tanks, and cashmere cardigans instead of bringing thick sweaters or a hefty jacket. (If you’re traveling somewhere cold, keep reading for a clever tip on transporting a down coat.)
Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Lighten your load further with multitaskers—which don’t have to be those girl-explorer zip-off cargo pants. T-shirt dresses, leggings, tunics, and maxis take you from sightseeing to dinner. Let yoga pants moonlight as pj’s, or use your cover-up in place of a robe. New York City–based designer Yigal Azrouël favors sarongs, because you can tie them multiple ways as a cover-up or a stylish wrap at night. If possible, wear a garment for the dressiest occasion early in the trip, when it’s less likely to be dirty, says Poole. For instance, one tank can stretch for days: Pair it with a skirt and heels for dinner on Saturday, capris and sandals for shopping on Monday, and shorts and sneakers for a Tuesday hike.
Embrace the accents. Satisfy your craving for variety with little things, like fun belts, bold jewelry, and printed scarves. “Chunky, colorful bracelets and necklaces draw the eye so people don’t focus on the clothes,” says Alanna Richman, the owner of Alanna Bess Jewelry.
Choose fabrics wisely. Blends containing nylon, elastane, or polyester beautifully resist wrinkling. Prefer something more natural? You’ll have the most luck with wool, Lyocell, or modal. Cotton mixed with polyester or spandex will also hold up better than 100 percent cotton. Anything with texture (crinkled gauze, ruched jersey, seersucker) or a busy print helps camouflage fold marks, says Los Angeles–based stylist Nicole Chavez. When in doubt, scrunch the material in your hand to see if it crumples easily. Keep in mind: The longer clothes stay stashed in your suitcase, the deeper creases get. For quick touch-ups, pack a travel-size (and TSA-approved) bottle of Downy Wrinkle Releaser spray ($2 for three ounces, at drugstores).
3 of 6Joel Holland
Roll It, Fold It, or Bundle It
Rolling and folding are classic expert-packer methods; bundling is advanced—but ingenious. (To learn how, see the following slides.) The best option depends on the type of garment and the luggage you’re carrying it in.
Unstructured bags, like a duffel or a carry-on tote.
Stretchy knit fabrics that are unlikely to wrinkle, including T-shirts, workout pants, light sweaters, and jersey dresses, as well as jeans.
Stuffing seven days’ worth of stuff into a weekender.
How to Roll
Pants Fold pants in half lengthwise so that the back pockets face outward. Roll tightly from the cuffs to the waistband.
A Straight Skirt or Dress If the dress has sleeves, first fold each sleeve backward. Fold the entire garment in half lengthwise. Roll from the bottom hem up.
A Winter Down Jacket Zip it, then roll it the same way you would a top, trying to squeeze as much air out of it as possible as you go. Secure it tightly with string or large rubber bands so that it doesn’t come undone. Slip it into a pillowcase and you’ve even got a germ-free headrest for the plane.
A Dress Shirt Do it the department-store way: Lay a buttoned-up shirt facedown and flat. Center a magazine below the collar. Fold in the right side of the shirt, using the magazine’s edge as a guide. Take the arm and position it straight down, parallel to the shirt’s body. Repeat on the opposite side. Fold the bottom of the shirt so that the hem touches the shoulders. Slide out the magazine from the top. If you have several shirts of similar shape and size, you can stack them, folding them all as one to cushion the creases.
Dress Pants Fold along the center creases or the side seams so that the legs stack on top of each other. Fold in half so that the waist touches the hem. Fold in half again.
A Full Skirt or Dress Put it in a large plastic trash bag. “The slippery surface keeps wrinkles from setting,” says Evelyn Hannon, the editor of journeywoman.com, a travel site for women. Fold it in half lengthwise so that the side seams line up—you’ll have an angle down one side. Fold the angled edge inward to form a rectangle. Fold the garment in half horizontally or, if it’s on the longer side, in thirds. Pack it on top of everything else in the suitcase.
A structured suitcase. Bundling doesn’t work as well with weekenders or duffels.
Condensing a lot of options for a long trip. “This method requires layering all your clothes around a core object, like an organizer pouch, so there are no hard creases,” says Doug Dyment, the creator of the travel-advice website OneBag.com.
A mix of unstructured and tailored clothing
People who really hate wrinkles.
How to Bundle
Lay Out All Your Clothes You can bundle everything besides underwear, swimsuits, and accessories. Each garment should be buttoned or zipped and placed faceup (but jackets should be facedown). You’ll need a core, like a packing cube, to bundle around. (Try Eagle Creek Pack-It Specter Half Cube; $14, eaglecreek.com.) Dyment fills a 7-by-10-inch pouch with socks.
Follow the Right Order Start with tailored garments that wrinkle easily (they’ll be on the outside of the bundle, cushioned by both the other clothes and the core). Then add pieces that are less likely to wrinkle (these will be near the core). To keep the bundle balanced, lay short dresses and tops vertically, alternating north and south, and long dresses and bottoms horizontally, alternating east and west. Here’s the general sequence from the outer layer in: jackets, short dresses, long-sleeve shirts, short-sleeve shirts, pants, long dresses, skirts, sweaters, knits, and shorts.
Add the Core Then, starting from the top of the pile, wrap each garment around the core.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to packing your bag efficiently.
1. Line the bottom with a plastic trash bag. After you’ve packed, add another one on top. This helps fend off wrinkles. Plus, “if your luggage is off-loaded from the airplane in the rain, your clothes won’t get wet,” says Hannon.
2. Stash footwear and heavy stuff along the wheel base. Fill shoes with socks or bulky bangle bracelets, then put them in individual bags (splitting up pairs saves space), with the soles facing the sides of the suitcase. Rest other heavy items, like a hair dryer and a toiletry kit, next to or on top of shoes. “Placing these near the wheels stabilizes the bag’s center of gravity, so it won’t topple over when upright,” says Krantzler.
3. Lay the foundation. Start with tightly packed rolled clothing.
4. Build the second level. Layer folded dresses, pants, and skirts on top of rolled clothing. Alternate the sides that the waistbands are on so that the stack is balanced.
5. Move on to the third level. Add thick sweaters, jackets, and folded shirts.
6. Finish with the top level. Lay crushable items, such as a voluminous dress or molded bras. Stack bras flat so they spoon each other, and stuff the cups with socks. (Don’t bend molded bras in half—you’ll crimp the foam.)
7. Wrap belts around the interior frame of the bag.
8. Stock essentials, loose toiletries, and chunky costume jewelry in the lid compartments. Store delicate earrings in pill cases, and string dainty bracelets and necklaces through drinking straws, taping the clasps to one end. Then secure the straws in a plastic bag, says Poole.
9. Tuck leftovers—swimsuits, hosiery, underwear, scarves—into corners and any remaining nooks.
10. Store dirty laundry in large zippered plastic bags. Press the air out as you tightly roll each bag, like a vacuum pack. Lay the compressed bags flat in a side pocket.
11. Cradle fragile souvenirs in your bulkiest sweaters and arrange them in the center of the bag, where the least movement occurs, says Krantzler. For extra protection, store messy liquids—like that bottle of extra-virgin olive oil from Tuscany—in a reusable inflatable plastic bag designed for this job (try the VinniBag; $28, vinnibag.com).
If you’re bundling, simply place the bundle in the bag and follow the accessories tips.
If you’re using a soft-sided bag, like a duffel or a weekender, place flat shoes along the bottom, with the soles pressed against either side of the bag. Add rolled clothes, packing them tightly to prevent shifting in transit, which causes wrinkling, says Klosky. From there, follow the accessories tips, with these exceptions: Lay heels and boots flat on top of the bag, then add the toiletry kit.