7 Tricks for a Perfectly Packed Suitcase, Every Time

So you can focus on putting together a bag of snacks for the trip.

August 19, 2021

Packing light is a sport. Or at least, that's how I justify being so sweaty at the end of an avid bout.

And between carry-on size restrictions, the avoidance of baggage fees, and an inescapable series of pre-vacation premonitions of me buried under a mountain of sensible walking shoes with not a single clean sock in sight, it's not exactly one I'll volunteer to play.

But over the years, I've developed some strategies to make packing for a trip a little bit easier. (Mainly in the spirit of reallocating my energy to snack-planning for said trip.)

Here are seven tips, culled from my many failures and triumphs, as well as those of my colleagues:

1. Get to Know Suitcases (& Invest in Them)

Find a suitcase that speaks to you in matters of size, layout, and compartment density. (Pick one in each size-family if you regularly travel with a checked bag and a carry-on.)

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Top Comment:
“If you have a vacuum sealer for food, you can vacuum seal the puffer jacket and it will pack flat. Even scarves can be vacuum sealed and just slipped into that suitcase. Once at your arrival, just take out the jacket, give it a few shakes, and it's as good as new. My other tip, take electrical cable ties in your suitcase. It can hold that suitcase together when something breaks, or be a lock which TSA can just cut off should they wish to get into your suitcase for inspection. ”
— Catherine

According to Travel + Leisure: "Though you might find an inch or two of a difference with various airlines, the standard domestic carry-on luggage size is 22" x 14" x 9", which includes the handle and the wheels." They note that, because various international carriers have different regulations, "To be sure your bag is accepted on all carriers, you'll want to get a suitcase that stands at 21 inches or less."

2. Make Packing Cubes Your Favorite Travel Buddies

For lightweight, thin fabrics (think: linens, t-shirts, sundresses, and the like), rolling a folded garment really does do wonders for suitcase Tetris.

"I roll all my clothes, secure them with a rubber band, and then squish them into packing cubes," says market editor Jada Wong, of her evergreen packing strategy. "Soft fabrics like silk or waterproof gear slip around so the rubber band keeps the roll nice and tight. I also use this method to plan out my outfits so I’ll have everything for hiking or a fancy dinner in one spot."

For structural help, seek out packing cubes: semi-firm rectangles that allow you to organize and compress your items into different compartments. Caroline Mullen, Home52's Assistant Editor can be heard singing their praises virtually every time the word travel comes up (it's how she manages to pack 10 different outfits in her carry-on), saying: "They’re lightweight, keep your clothing organized, fit way more than in the suitcase itself, and are (usually) durable enough to last a thousand trips over."

3. Say hello to your capsule wardrobe

Whether you're the type to make packing lists or to freestyle your outfits, always think in terms of what can be layered together. I like to start with one pair of versatile pants and a coat or jacket layer that matches, and fill in the blanks with a few tops and sweater options.

"In the summer, I always try to pack an easy-to-wear palette of neutrals. Usually it's a blend of whites, naturals, and faded blues—lately a hint of leopard too," says Senior Merchandiser Aja Aktay, who most definitely looks more put together than I do on any given trip. "A crisp shirt always seems to be the first thing I throw on, and it's nice to mix that back to some earthy textures like a rattan bag or rope sandal."

Wong is also a fan of mixing-matching. "I’m going on a safari soon and there’s a strict weight limit on our luggage," she says. "I’m making sure to pack pieces that work in multiple outfits like a khaki shirt that goes with green, brown, and gray joggers, as well as versatile pieces—like long-sleeve utility shirts from Columbia that roll up into short sleeves."

4. Wear Your Bulkiest Shoes & Coat on the Plane

Packing shoes can be a pain point for even the savviest traveler. One thing you can do: wear the most cumbersome pair (looking at you, boots) on the flight. Bonus points if you do the same with that puffer jacket (OK, you get a pass in the height of summer).

As for packing additional pairs of shoes, "I like to use the cloth bags that are provided with sheet sets. I never know what to do with those bags anyway and they just so happen to fit a pair of shoes perfectly!" says Aktay. Other team members note that shower caps make for handy sole-covers.

You can also use your shoes as their own vessels and fill them up with socks and random small items that otherwise just slip through and fall to the bottom of your bag. Now that's an idea!

5. Pre-Pack Your Toiletries

Store your travel toiletries together in a travel case—which can be one intended for that purpose, or if you're me, a years-old Glossier zip-top bag—so you never need to unpack or repack all those tiny bottles. Also, if you're like Wong and dread things leaking into your suitcase, carry solid toiletries so you never worry about liquids spilling in your bag or, worse still, not getting them through TSA.

Keep in mind the TSA's rule for liquids in carry on luggage: "3-1-1 for carry-ons = 3.4 ounce (100ml) bottle or less (by volume); 1 quart-sized, clear, plastic, zip-top bag; 1 bag per passenger placed in screening bin."

6. B.Y.O. Laundry Bag

Erin Alexander, Brand Partnerships Editor, swears by a pre-packed laundry bag, whether it's a true breathable mesh one, or a repurposed one from a recent grocery run.

"My favorite feature of my suitcase is the travel-size laundry bag that snaps into place. Without it, I’d let my dirty clothes just pile up on the floor and, let’s face it, probably lose something. It also makes getting organized once I’m back home that much easier—I can toss dirty laundry straight in the washing machine, and put anything I didn’t wear (I’m an over-packer so this happens a lot) right back in the closet," she says.

Arati Menon, Editorial Lead, Home52 is a huge fan of also carrying travel-size bottles of laundry detergent on her travels. She explains, “I truly detest having to lug around tons of luggage when traveling, and I’ve discovered the secret to traveling light—doing laundry while traveling! It’s one of the best ways to pack less clothing—all you really need is a clean sink, water, and maybe some lingerie bags for your delicates. And to smooth out wrinkles after all that wringing, just hang your dress or shirt up in the shower—the steam will get the creases out in no time.”

7. Keep Liquids & Laptops Near the Surface

Pack your laptop and bag of toiletries last, so it's as close to painless as possible to remove for the security screening line. Because the only thing worse than being stuck behind the person fishing around in the bottom of a Mary Poppins-esque duffel for one tiny shampoo is being that person yourself.

What's your best trick for efficient packing? Let us know in the comments.

This post was updated in August 2021 to include even more tricks, because we're dreaming about travel again.

This post contains products that are independently selected by our editors and writers, and Food52 may earn an affiliate commission.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Gypzi
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Ella Quittner

Written by: Ella Quittner

Ella Quittner is a contributing writer and the Absolute Best Tests columnist at Food52. She covers food, travel, wellness, lifestyle, home, novelty snacks, and internet-famous sandwiches. You can follow her on Instagram @equittner, or Twitter at @ellaquittner. She also develops recipes for Food52, and has a soft spot for all pasta, anything spicy, and salty chocolate things.


Gypzi September 1, 2021
I made a packing list checklist on my phone and that's been a lifesaver for those items that I always forget to pack (can't tell you the number of times I forgot pajamas, contact solution, and my sleeping mask). But I also record a short video of what I packed and where I arranged it in the bag. Not only does this help when I'm packing up to go home and trying to remember how I got it all to fit, but it also helps with future packing endeavors. Each time I review the videos, I'm reminded of what worked well, and what needed improvement.
Pam W. August 29, 2021
A seam ripper or quick unpick is a most useful tool in this time where scissors are a security risk. It will cut any number of different things including those sealed packs that are seemingly impossible to open, plastic tags, paper, you name it. Never leave home without one!
A lightweight compression bag is a fantastic way of reducing the size of dirty washing, which always seems to be twice the size of clean clothes! And it can go straight to the laundry when you get home.
A tiny plug-in night light for the bathroom when you stay somewhere that is pitch black at night.
And lastly, dental floss can be a saviour as a makeshift repairer. It’s strong and the wax binds for a good hold.
Pippin1218 August 23, 2021
2 things I travel with and get at home before I go: a small tube of Neosporin and dryer sheets. Hard to find either overseas.
FAB August 20, 2021
I keep a packing document saved on my computer and phone. It is basically a checklist of every single item I need to pack. It's easy to refer to it each time I pack for a trip. I actually have a summer list as well as a winter list.
Mirella August 20, 2021
Rookie mistake did not pack a charger for the laptop in the video..........making the whole thing kind of unrealistic (much like pictures in architectural magazines).
Sarah August 20, 2021
Tip for African Safari. Go to Goodwill and pick up some suitable clothes, leave them behind, they will be appreciated. Take old underwear ready to go to the trash and throw away. You will now have room to bring stuff home.
Giggles July 8, 2019
For some of us aging people who might possibly feel like they are packing a pharmacy along with...prescription bottles take up loads of room, even a 7 day organizer can, and what do you do if you are traveling more than a week? I use the pill suite (it can be purchased through Amazon for $39.95), you can heat seal your pills in biodegradable bags. They take up just a fraction of the space! If you use the Marie Kondo method of folding, it works brilliantly for packing your suitcase also. When I travel (which I do a lot), I also pack make-up samples (thank you Sephora) instead of full sized, another great space saver. To cut down on liquids use tinted lip balms or lip sticks (versus lip gloss), lotion bars and soaps (even solid shampoos) and solid perfume (Lush is a great source for these items). Sticking to a 'palette' helps focus clothing choices and cut's down on accessories too. I always pack a foldable large tote bag in case I bring back more than planned. Save yourself some moolah and save the earth by packing a refillable water container, it's worth the little space it takes up!
Claudia T. October 20, 2019
My trick for those foil packet samples (of moisturizer and shampoo and such) is to bring a big sharp safety pin, which lives on the zipper tab of my make-up bag, and pierce the foil packet. it's easier to squeeze out what you need and the packet can last longer because it doesn't dry out.
Linda M. July 7, 2019
Keep bottles of liquid in clear zip lock bags. Add a piece of tissue incase the bottle leaks.
Julie M. August 29, 2021
I also open up the bottles, cover the opening with saran wrap, replace cover. That helps a ton to prevent leaks.
Catherine July 7, 2019
If you have a vacuum sealer for food, you can vacuum seal the puffer jacket and it will pack flat. Even scarves can be vacuum sealed and just slipped into that suitcase. Once at your arrival, just take out the jacket, give it a few shakes, and it's as good as new.

My other tip, take electrical cable ties in your suitcase. It can hold that suitcase together when something breaks, or be a lock which TSA can just cut off should they wish to get into your suitcase for inspection.