Roll It, Bag It, Cube It to Pack Light and Tight — and Save on Travel

First rule of packing: Pick the right size suitcase. Larger luggage leads to overpacking. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

You should have seen the first suitcase I ever packed. It was total amateur hour.

My neatly folded piles of clothes were no match for baggage handlers, nor were my loose toiletries ready for unpressurized cargo cabins.

Those are the kind of mistakes you only make once.

Since then, I’ve picked up a few tricks from domestic and international travel that streamline the packing process, plus I’ve heeded advice from seasoned travelers.

There’s rarely ever a reason to pay baggage fees if you know how to pack your free suitcase efficiently.

Smart packing can save you time, stress and money so you can make your journey with ease.

How to Pack a Suitcase Like a Pro

1. Choose Your Bag Wisely

A few questions you need to ask yourself before you start to pack are:

  • Where am I going?
  • How long is my trip?
  • What’s the weather like there?
  • What’s the luggage allowance on the airline?
  • What size suitcase can you take for free?

You’ll have a good idea of what size bag to bring once you nail those down.

Larger luggage leads to overpacking, and you’ll regret it after five minutes of traveling with a heavy bag. Trust me.

If not, trust Stefan Arestis of Nomadic Boys, a gay travel blog. He and his boyfriend, Sébastien Chaneac, have spent the past four years traveling the world.

Arestis said overpacking is the biggest “don’t” when packing a suitcase.

“When you have too much space, you’ll start to fill it with crap you don’t need,” he said.

Most destinations provide readily available access to laundry facilities and toiletries. Plus, in the small chance your luggage gets lost, you have less to lose.

Always choose luggage that is appropriate for your trip.

2. Make a Packing List

Whether you have a big or small trip planned, a packing list protects you from forgetting anything.

I’m the type of person who writes a packing list weeks before a trip. Naturally, I misplace it or don’t have it nearby when I remember an item I need to add.

Finally, I converted to making digital packing lists. This simplifies everything because it can be accessed on a phone or desktop or shared with a travel companion.

Make a basic packing list template so you’ll never have to stress over what you need to bring again.

You can add to and subtract from it for each trip, or make templates for specific seasons, events or destinations.

3. Stage Your Suitcase

A woman packs her suitcase with packing cubs
Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Start pulling out everything you might want to pack and spread it out on a bed or the floor.

This gives you a visual of everything and how well your clothing cross-coordinates. Eliminate unnecessary items, including clothing that can only be worn once, unless you’re packing for a special event.

Keep versatile options like a shirt that can be worn with more than one bottom or a pair of jeans that goes with everything. This packing tip extends to shoes, too.

“A rule of thumb we learned is to pack enough clothes to see you through for five to six days. Anything more is overpacking and you’re guaranteed to never use the extras… [While] it’s nice to have the option of having several outfits to wear, you need to balance this with overpacking,” Aresist said.

Chances are you won’t bother with all those wardrobe changes once you start having fun on your trip.

4. Stay Organized

Use packing tools. Use packing tools. Use packing tools.

Your suitcase will never be the same once you use packing cubes, waterproof toiletry bags and laundry bags.

Packing cubes generally come in a set of four sizes for less than $20. They’re zippered pouches that carefully contain clothing, cords, shoes or whatever you put inside them. They’re deceivingly spacious and can fold, smoosh or stack.

Most sets come with a laundry bag to safely separate all your dirty clothes.

“Packing cubes are a blessing for us. It forces us to be organized with our packing. As a result, when we open our suitcases, instead of our stuff spilling out everywhere, it stays nicely organized in one place,” Arestis said.

I invested in a waterproof toiletry bag for a recent European vacation. It housed more than enough compartments to organize my makeup, hygiene and skincare products.

5. Maximize Space

Chris Zuppa and Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

You’d be surprised at how much you can fit into a small bag. I took a four-day to San Francisco with only a backpack.

The same applies to any size suitcase you pack.

Common packing techniques include folding, rolling and bundling clothes. These can be done inside packing cubes or loose in the suitcase (not recommended if you’re going for packing pro status).

To save space, use compression bags that vacuum seal shut for bulky items like ski pants and coats.

Strategically store shoes in the outside perimeter of the suitcase or line them in the spaces between your packing cubes.

Don’t forget about the spaces inside your shoes.

“We fold clothes up and place socks inside any shoes we’re packing to max out the space and help the shoes retain their shape,” Arestis said.

Other loose items like phone cords, belts and brushes can also be stuffed inside shoes.

Wear any bulky items like boots or coats on the plane if you can. These space hogs can steal suitcase storage space from more important travel items.

If you’re trying to maximize space in a small suitcase, skip toiletries you can buy cheaply at your destination or that may be offered for free.

Consider digital copies of books, maps or using translation apps in lieu of bulky books and paper.

6. Keep it Wrinkle-Free

Clothes, camera, and other travel accessories are laid out
Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

One of the most annoying things about traveling is arriving with a suitcase full of wrinkled clothes.

“Wrinkle-free clothes are a must if doing long term traveling,” Arestis said.

These are synthetic fabrics like polyester, nylon and Lycra. Merino wool, good for both warm and cool climates, and moisture-wicking clothing also are wrinkle-resistant options.

Keep the fabric friction down by not overstuffing your bag. Use a tight rolling technique to avoid creases.

Unfortunately, traveling for a special event means packing delicate clothing that succumbs to wrinkles.

Put nice suits, dresses and formal wear on a hanger and place them in dry cleaning bags, or wrap them in dry-cleaning plastic to avoid wrinkles.

Don’t have one of those? Use trash-can liner bags instead.

Plastic reduces friction and leaves your clothes unscathed from the confines of the suitcase.

Pack these items last and stack them on top of everything else in the suitcase to help protect them and make it easy to pull them out first and hang as soon as you get to your destination.

If wrinkles persist, consider bringing along wrinkle-release spray to help smooth unruly fabrics or iron them once you arrive.

“We always ask ahead at the place we’re staying if they have an iron and ironing board,” Arestis said.

7. A Little Goes a Long Way

Some items will be worth their weight depending on where you’re going and for how long.

One thing I’ve learned is to always pack a scarf, even in warm climates.

Scarves can be used as a beach cover-up, blanket, tablecloth, privacy curtain, head cover, towel, sun shade, pillow or clothing accessory. They take up little space and can be worn on a plane or train and will save space from packing other items in their place.

The Nomadic Boys recommend always having a nice pair of jeans with you.

“There are moments when you just want to dress up and go out,” Arestis said.

That being said, sometimes travel requires bringing more aboard.

“We recently attended a few weddings in Italy and London, mixed with a holiday in Puglia, Italy,” said Arestis.

We had to take two large suitcases each, plus a third for the suits and shoes not to get ruined. This was overkill, but we ended up using most of what we packed and don’t regret it.”

Like Arestis and Chaneac, sometimes you have to do what works best for you, as your needs will vary from trip to trip.

8. Carry Valuables With You

A woman holds her cell phone
Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Avoid packing any fragile or expensive electronics like laptops, iPads, tablets and phones in your checked baggage.

This applies to non-electronics like expensive jewelry, watches and delicate items, too.

Suitcases get tossed around quite a bit, and anything fragile could easily get damaged — or worse, lost or stolen.  

Protect all your valuables by keeping them on your person or in a carry-on bag.

Now you’re ready to fly.

Whether you’re planning to go around the world in 80 days or fit a week’s vacation in a carry-on, at the least you’ll know how to pack a suitcase like a pro.

Stephanie Bolling is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. Discovering packing cubes changed her life.