You’ve Been Packing Your Luggage Wrong All Along: 3 Methods to Pack Like a Pro

Have you ever struggled with packing for a trip?

We all love the excitement of travel, and many even enjoy the anticipation of planning. But no one wants to arrive at a relaxing vacation spot with wrinkled clothing and the sinking realization that they forgot something essential.

There’s also the cost of baggage to consider.

Now that airlines are increasingly charging for every piece of checked luggage—and occasionally carry-ons to boot—it’s important to make every square inch of space count.

To ensure you’ll never again have to endure mismatched items, forgotten essentials, or a bag that’s held closed with only a hope and a prayer, we’ve created a two-part guide that covers the A to Z’s of packing.

In this installment, we’ll focus on methods that are best for traveling with a medium or large suitcase that you intend to check, starting with how to narrow down your packing list. 

Step 1: Decide What You’re Taking

Since the bulk of your luggage is filled with clothing, here are steps to minimize by bringing less:

Don’t try to pack for every day you’re away:

Pack the same for a week or a year—that’s the real key to bringing less. For stays longer than a week, plan on using a local laundry service or washing items in your hotel sink.

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. Choose staples you feel most confident in so that you’ll be less inclined to bring alternatives.

Need inspiration? Search Pinterest for “capsule wardrobe” for ideas!

Three tops for every bottomImage:

Stick to a color scheme:

Start with two neutrals for your core basics. Then, add two to three fun shades that coordinate. 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 and lighter neutrals, while keeping easily-stained tops in darker tones.

Embrace the accents:

Chunky, colorful bracelets, and necklaces draw the eye, so people don’t focus on the clothes. Satisfy your craving for variety with little things, like fun belts, bold jewelry, and printed scarves.

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.

Instead of bulking up, plan to control temperature with layers. Pack extra tees, tanks, and cardigans in place of those thick sweaters or a hefty jacket.

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. 

Further lighten your load with multitaskers. While “multitasking” items can be especially difficult for ladies, know that it doesn’t have to mean those girl-explorer zip-off cargo pants. 

Instead, t-shirt dresses, leggings, tunics, and maxis take you from sightseeing to dinner. Yoga pants can moonlight as PJs or poolside cover-ups in place of a robe. 

Know what to leave behind:

It’s difficult to resist bringing these items. But, by reducing what you pack, you’ll learn how liberating it is to travel with less:

  • Don’t take anything “just in case”: For example, don’t take hiking gear on a city trip just because you might go for a hike. Every item you bring needs to earn its place.
  • Rent what you can after arriving: Heading to a tropical beach? Rest assured, there will be plenty of shops renting snorkel gear there.
  • Limit your shoes: Two to three pairs is all you’ll need. Depending on the length of your trip and activities, walking sandals, more supportive walking shoes, and a slightly dressier pair will do the trick.

Step 2: Fold, Bundle, or Roll

When you’re traveling with minimalism in mind, how you pack is just as important as what you’re bringing.

Rolling and folding are classic expert-packer methods. Bundling is advanced but ingenious. However, this method is best left for vacations where you won’t have to repack and move throughout the journey.

Which one is best? That depends on the type of garment and the baggage you’re carrying it in.

Rolling and folding packing methodsImage:

Rolling Your Clothes

Roll-packing is great for when you’re traveling using an unstructured bag, like a duffel or a carry-on tote. While the roll method keeps items safe from pulling or stretching, it can lead to wrinkles and is best used when packing stretchy knit fabrics such as tees, workout pants, light sweaters or jeans. 

Basically, this method is preferred when you’re maximizing what to stuff into your weekender without worrying about mussing up formal wear.

How to roll a shirt:

Lay the t-shirts flat. Bring the ends of the sleeves together and fold the shirt in half down the back. Lay each t-shirt on one side. Place the arms onto the body of the folded shirt, keeping them together, and then roll down from the collar.

How to roll a shirtImage:

How to roll pants:

Fold pants in half lengthwise so that the back pockets face outward. Roll tightly from the cuffs to the waistband.

How to roll a 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.

How to roll a winter 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.

Steps to Packing Rolled Clothing:

If you’re placing rolled items directly in your case without packing cubes or compression bags, follow these steps:

  1. Roll up all of your clothing tightly and set it aside
  2. Shoes should be packed around the sides
  3. Softer clothing that is rolled up goes on top
  4. Harder clothing rolled up, is stacked on the bottom
  5. Toiletries on top
  6. Anything that is wrinkle-resistant can go around the edges

Extra tip 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. From there, lay heels and boots flat on top of the bag, then add the toiletry kit.

Folding Your Clothes

Folding is best done when traveling with a structured suitcase—the kind that won’t collapse if empty.

While folding won’t allow you to save as much space as the rolling method, it’s a safer bet when packing wrinkle-prone fabrics, such as linen, rayon, and silk, tailored garments, or thick sweaters.

Since folding is basic knowledge, we’ve only included directions for potentially tricky pieces that benefit from wrinkle prevention.

Folding a shirtImage:

How to fold a dress shirt:

Do it the department-store way: Lay a buttoned-up shirt face-down 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.

Folding pantsImage:

How to fold 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.

How to fold a skirt or dress:

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. To avoid wrinkles, put skirts and dresses in a large plastic trash bag; the slippery surface helps keeps wrinkles from setting. Finally, pack it on top of everything else in the suitcase.

Steps for packing folded clothing:

Your goal is to use all your tidily arrayed garments to create a clothing jigsaw puzzle, where no empty spaces remain that would allow items to shift.

  1. Lay your bag flat and place folded clothes in a row down the center
  2. Place toiletries at what would be the bottom of your bag when it’s standing
  3. Large items, such as jackets, go in the spaces above toiletries
  4. Single shoes (they don’t have to be placed near each other!) and socks fill in remaining holes

Bundling Your ClothesImage:

Planning to Roll or Fold? Consider Purchasing Packing Cubes or Compression Bags

If you’ve never used packing cubes or compression bags, you’re in for a whole new world of ease.

Packing cubes are literally that: Fabric cubes with zippered lids that allow you to stay organized and save space. Compression bags are sealable plastic bags with one-way pressure valves that let air out, but not it.

Here are a few of the ways these handy travel accessories help out:

Packing becomes more efficient: Using packing cubes makes it easier to eye how much can go into a single bag, which makes developing a selection system even simpler. Plus, once it’s time to load ‘em up, putting cubes in your bag is like playing Tetris.

You can find things easily: Your packing cubes work like dresser drawers. Since you can mark each one to indicate the contents, you only have to open up the relevant cube instead of rummaging through your whole suitcase.

You’ll save space: Cubes help contain bulky items, which means being able to fit more items. Compression bags are even better because they squeeze out excess air.

Your clothes stay clean: Dirty and clean laundry never even have to touch.

Perhaps the most significant advantage is that packing cubes and bags help you not to overpack, since you can assign one organizer to each category. If something can’t fit, it has to stay or boot out another selection.

Bundling Your Clothes

Really hate wrinkles? Bundling requires layering all your clothes around a core object, like an organizer pouch, so that there are no hard creases.

Like folding, this method is also great for those using a structured suitcase—it won’t work at all with weekenders or duffels—and is best for those condensing a lot of options for a long trip.

However, this method is only a good choice if your vacation plans are limited to a single destination. Since you can’t rummage around for individual items in a bundle, it’s best to unpack it once a trip.

How to bundle… Everything

First step? Lay out all your clothes. You can bundle everything besides underwear, swimsuits, and accessories. Each garment should be buttoned or zipped and placed face-up (but jackets should be face-down). You’ll need a core, like a packing cube, to bundle around. 

Follow the right order.

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.

Start with a jacket laid flat face-down. (If you have another jacket, layer it on top, overlapping at the sleeves but at an 180-degree angle to the first.) If you’re not bringing a jacket, begin your bundle with any tailored garments that wrinkle easily, as 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). Layer a short dress or a shirt face-up on top, in the opposite direction, overlapping at the sleeves. Alternate short dresses and shirts north and south.

Add a pair of pants (folded lengthwise) or a long dress horizontally, with the waistband aligning with the left edge of the pile.

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. 

The coreImage:

Add the core!

When finished, put the core—the object you’ll bundle your clothes around, like an organizer pouch or a packing cube—in the middle. Starting from the top of the pile, wrap each garment around the core for perfectly bundled belongings.

Final Tips on Filling ‘Er Up

Now that you’ve decided what to pack and considered your three top options to getting everything neatly inside your suitcase, here are a few final ideas to ensure you’re packing efficiently.

Before packing, 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.

Stash heavy stuff along the wheelbase.

That way they aren’t crushing your more delicate items. Fill shoes with socks or bulky bangle bracelets, and 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.

Tuck or wrap your leftovers.

Belts can be wrapped around the interior frame of your bag. Swimsuits, hosiery, underwear, scarves can be tucked into corners and any remaining nooks.

Place a dryer sheet at the bottom of your suitcase.

It’ll keep your clothes smelling fresh and clean during travel.

Shower cap around shoesImage:

Put a shower cap around your shoes.

To make sure the dirty soles don’t end up getting surrounding clothes dirty, too. Protect those summer whites!

What to do with your undies and lingerie?

Buy inexpensive mesh laundry bags—they're made of nylon and are lightweight. Stow your delicates in here. Bonus: if your bag is inspected, no one need touch your underwear since an inspector will be able to see into the bag.

That’s a Wrap on Part One of How to Pack

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.

Now, instead of letting “what-ifs” lead to overpacking, you’re ready to use the above methods to eliminate unnecessary items and stress.

For the adventurous traveler looking to minimize baggage fees, check out part two of our packing series to learn handy tips on how to travel with only a carry-on.

Read Next: 7 Best Travel Accessories You Need for Every Trip

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.

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