Look, I don’t believe in packing lightly, but I do believe in a well organized suitcase. Anytime I travel, I consider it a huge victory if my bag is even slightly underweight. (I’m talking one pound to spare or maybe one pound over, but the gate agent just gives me a break and lets it slide.) On the other hand, I consider it a huge failure if my bag is extremely underweight. If I’m paying that baggage fee, I’m getting my money’s worth. Regardless of whether you’re a carry-on only traveler or a checked baggage junkie like me, organization is key. Here are my 10 tips for a well organized suitcase.
1. Create a Packing Checklist
It’s never too soon to start thinking about what you’re going to wear on vacation. I keep a running checklist or note on my cellphone that I can update whenever I think of something new I need to pack. I also keep a separate list of my kid’s clothing and gear. My husband and I share the kid’s list so we can both tackle packing duties.
You can also download one of the hundreds of packing lists offered on sites like Pinterest. I’ve saved a few of my favorites for you on my Travel Gear Board. However, those lists are just a starting point. You know yourself better than any list on the internet so just make your own.
Don’t throw your packing list away until the end of your trip! Use it when you repack to make sure you don’t leave anything behind and then toss it. (Or if it’s on your phone, just keep it to reuse over and over again.)
2. Use Packing Cubes For an Organized Suitcase
I’ve flirted with packing cubes a few times in my life, but it wasn’t until I went on a cruise where four women shared one tiny cabin that I truly embraced them.
Packing cubes essentially turn your suitcase into a dresser with little removable “drawers” of clothes arranged by outfit or type. Pull out your “drawer”, take what you need, zip it back up, and throw it back in your suitcase. (They’re also great to throw in actual drawers in a hotel room or ship cabin.)
I’m a big fan of compression packing cubes since you can shrink down your clothes into a much more manageable space. But be warned: compression cubes fool you into thinking you can take more with you. This can create overweight baggage and empty space problems. I often find that I have to unzip my compression packing cubes to actually fill the empty space in my suitcase. If my suitcase is overweight, it’s easy to just grab a cube and shove it in my husband’s or my son’s suitcase instead.
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3. Plan Your Outfits Around Either Black or Brown Shoes (Not Both)
If you’re like me, you probably have several pairs of identical shoes in two basic colors: black or brown (or maybe navy). Depending on the length of your trip, it doesn’t make sense to take two pairs of the same shoes. Pick one color in the beginning and plan your outfits around that color. Make sure your other shoes (high heels and/or sandals), belts, purses, and accessories coordinate with your color choice. I also apply this rule to bras. Nude bra or black bra? Pick one and plan accordingly. You can always add pops of color with scarfs, sweaters, or jewelry. But for essentials, stick to the basics. I like to store my shoes in a shoe bag to keep them away from my clean clothes. You can also stick belts, jewelry, or breakables inside your shoes to conserve space.
4. Lay Out Your Outfits and Only Take as Many As You Need
I like to see what I’m packing in one place so I lay everything out on a bed or a floor. Once I see the mountain of clothes I want to take, I can reduce and edit as needed. (You can also take a picture of each outfit for easy reference later.)
Once you know which color shoes (and which color bra) you’re packing, plan your outfits around that color and lay them out. My rule is “one outfit per day plus one”. Like I said, I don’t believe in packing lightly.
If you’re participating in activities that require more than one outfit per day, just add in an extra outfit for each activity. This is very important for cruises. During the day, you’ll probably wear a swimsuit or extremely casual clothing, but you’ll need to dress up for dinner.
Also, don’t forget swimsuits or coats depending on your destination. But again, only take a few and make sure they coordinate with your other outfits and shoes.
5. Store Children’s Outfits in Plastic Bags For an Organized Suitcase
I follow the same “one outfit per day plus one” rule for my son’s outfits and pajamas, but I’ll include one pair of shorts and one pair of pants or one short sleeved shirt and one long sleeved shirt depending on the weather at our destination. Of course, you will also need to throw in a couple swim suits or a coat depending on the weather. Kid’s clothing is small and lightweight so it’s easier to fit more in a suitcase.
Once I have all of my son’s outfits laid out, I store them by outfit in plastic bags. A co-worker suggested this trick to me, but she used regular ziplock bags. I took it the next level and bought space saver bags. You roll the air out of these bags to compress the outfit so they fit more easily in a suitcase.
This might sound crazy, but my husband and I have very different opinions on what constitutes a matching or coordinating outfit. Since I’m not always the one to get my son dressed, I like to make it easy for Reese to just pick a bag, dress Declan in all the clothes in the bag, and go.
6. Store Your Toiletries Together For an Organized Suitcase
Would you believe that I store my toiletries in a hard plastic tub? I think it used to be CD case back when such things existed. It’s very strange, but it works to keep everything I need in one place. It also keeps my toiletries from getting compressed or squeezed in my suitcase which can cause leaks.
Over the door toiletry hangers are much more common and equally convenient. Regardless of how you chose to store your toiletries, it’s best to keep everything in one spot so you can easily take it with you to and from the bathroom.
To prevent leaks, put plastic wrap over the top of bottles underneath the lid. I put a sheet of press’n seal wrap over my entire CD case and put the lid on. That way, if it does leak, it doesn’t leak out onto your clothing.
Also, depending on the length of your trip, consider packing a laundry detergent pod or packet. They don’t take up much space and you never know when you’ll need it. I store a pod in a sealed container so it won’t leak if it gets wet.
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7. Store Valuables in Your Carry-On
I prefer to carry-on as little as possible since I’m usually traveling with a small child who requires at least three arms. However, there are some things you simply must pack in a carry-on: supplies for the plane and valuables.
When traveling with a toddler, this includes a lot of diapers. Like a lot. More than you think you could ever use. Another parent on my plane to Oahu asked if we had any spare diapers because they ran out. I was happy to share because I knew I had plenty in the overhead bin.
It’s a good idea to pack a change of clothes in your carry-on as well, but I think this depends on your destination. If you’re flying somewhere you can buy a cheap outfit, I wouldn’t worry about it. If your baggage is lost or delayed, you can always go pick something up. However, I recommend bringing an extra set of clothes for your kids. They are inherently messy.
Storing your valuables in your carry-on is no-brainer. You never know who will have access to your checked baggage. You’ll have a lot more peace of mind if you have your valuables with you. But of course, this means you have to keep a more watchful eye on your carry-on items. Also, don’t be flashy or you’ll make yourself a target for thieves.
8. If You Can Buy it at Your Destination, Don’t Pack it
Obviously, I mean within reason. I’m not suggesting you buy a whole new wardrobe at your destination. But if you can buy a huge pack of diapers and baby formula when you land, take as much as you’ll need for your travel day (plus a little extra) and pick-up the rest when you arrive at your destination. Shop online, pickup in store has worked very well for us on trips to Maui and Oahu.
Since we travel to Hawaii a lot, we also buy beach towels and toys when we arrive. Sometimes hotels will provide them like Grand Wailea Resort Hotel & Spa, but others don’t. Also, families who are checking out will often pass these items on to other families so keep an eye out. We like to leave ours behind in the laundry room with a sign that says, “Free To Good Home, Enjoy!”. (Don’t go around stealing things from laundry rooms! Make sure there’s a sign before you take something!)
9. Stash a Few Dryer Sheets in your Organized Suitcase
Once you have everything in your well organized suitcase, toss in a few dryer sheets. These will keep your clothes smelling fresh throughout your trip. If you don’t have your shoes in a shoe bag or even if you do, put a dryer sheet inside each shoe to minimize the smell. Plus, if you need to do laundry at your destination, you’ll have them handy for the dryer cycle.
10. Invest in a Luggage Scale
Finally, get yourself a luggage scale. These scales are fairly inexpensive and they are certainly cheaper than overweight baggage fees. They are small and easy to store in your suitcase or carry-on. Once you have everything packed, check the weight of your bag. Make sure to aim for a few pounds lighter than your baggage allowance to account for calibration differences.
If your bag is overweight, toss a few of your packing cubes in your husband’s suitcase. Trust me, he’ll love that. Or edit your wardrobe. It’s a lot easier to leave things behind at home than at the airport terminal.
Bonus Tip: Pack an Extra Suitcase
This only applies to big shoppers. If you know you’ll be bringing home a lot of souvenirs, pack an extra suitcase. Simply pack your clothes in a smaller suitcase then put that smaller suitcase in a bigger suitcase. When you arrive, you’ll have a whole empty suitcase to fill with your purchases. On more than one occasion, we’ve bought an extra suitcase or duffel bag at our destination to take home with us. We always say we won’t need it, but next time I think we’ll just pack it.
Follow these simple tips and you’ll arrive at your destination with a well organized suitcase that will save you space, time, and stress!
For more travel tips, check out my 5 Hacks To Get Your Toddler On A Plane And Keep Them Entertained and my 10 Hotel Hacks to Help Your Toddler Sleep (And Keep Everyone Happy) and learn how to Lighten Your Suitcase With Shop Online Pickup in Store.