Since the start of the airplane age, packing light has been a goal for travelers. Frequent fliers often attempt to avoid the scrum at the baggage carousel by only flying with a carry-on. Budget backpackers try to stay on the road for months with nothing but what they can carry over their shoulders. Even casual vacationers try to keep their luggage light to leave room in the suitcase for a souvenir or two.
The airline industry has created another reason to pack light: most carriers now charge for checked baggage. These fees hover around $25 per suitcase on domestic and regional routes. (Except for a handful of low-cost carriers, checked baggage is still free on long-distance international flights.)
Whether you do it for convenience or to save money on fees, packing light can be a difficult. Here are some ideas to adopt in your quest to travel with less.
Don't pack for the worst-case scenario
It's easy to get carried away with state-of-the-art vacuum-bags and ultra-light clothing. These things can certainly make packing light easier, but following some of the fundamentals of filling a suitcase can be just as effective when it comes to reducing weight.
Europe travel guru Rick Steves recommends laying out everything that you want to pack and then asking yourself if you will use each item enough to justify taking up space in your suitcase. He also advises packing for the best-case scenario, and then saving money in your travel budget to "buy your way out of any jams." The idea is that you usually won't have to buy any extras. You will come out ahead in the long run when it comes to the cost of buying these extras versus money saved on airline baggage fees.
A related strategy is to focus on things that are essential to your enjoyment of the trip. Good footwear, for example, is always necessary, but you may never have the opportunity to wear a raincoat or to wear more than one sweater.
This doesn't mean bulky items should be banned from your duffel. To avoid the extra weight, you can wear your heaviest items on the plane. It will always be cool enough in the air to justify donning the sweatshirt and jeans that you want to bring "just in case it gets chilly" at your destination.
Packing cubes are a newer tool for organizing and compressing items in a suitcase. (Photo: AngryJulieMonday/flickr)
Packing cubes are a newer, trendier item for suitcase organization, and many people find them quite practical. Made from lightweight material (usually nylon), these zippable "cubes" allow the packer to compress their clothes and other items to fit more into a suitcase.
A welcome side effect of using packing cubes is that the suitcase is more organized. All your socks or underwear can be stuffed into one cube, so you won't be digging through your suitcase, undoing all your carefully-planned packing, in search of the mate for your favorite sock.
Packing cubes come in different sizes, and you can often buy a set that will fit perfectly in your suitcase when filled. Some packing cubes have a mesh "window" that let's you see what is inside without opening the zipper.
'Zipper' storage bags
Zip-top bags can help save space and increase organization. (Photo: Jesús Gorriti/flickr)
Though not as durable as packing cubes, zip-top bags offer similar advantages. The same organization and compression principles that make cubes attractive also apply. Also, zip-tops are better when it comes to handling liquid and toiletries. (If you've ever had a bottle of shampoo open in your suitcase, you know how important this detail is.)
Ziploc makes vacuum-sealable SpaceBags that are meant for storage, but they can be use for packing as well. Of course, from an environmental perspective, these plastic bags are not biodegradable, and they won't last as long as well-made packing cubes.
Roll or fold?
One of the fiercest suitcase-related debates has nothing to do with cubes or bags or any other packing aid. The argument is about whether it's more space-efficient to fold clothes flat or roll them tightly.
A survey by writers at Conde Naste Traveler suggested that laying clothes as flat as possible in a suitcase will give you one more change of clothes per week in a carry-on case compared to tightly rolling the clothes "sleeping bag" style.
Other packers argue that rolling works best for lightweight clothing, such as sweatpants and T-shirts, while heavier items like jeans are best folded as flatly as possible.
What you pack is as important as how much you pack. Travel and Leisure suggests maximizing the clothes that you bring by being able to mix and match items to create different outfits. Choosing clothes that have a similar color palette will make it possible to layer or to create multiple outfits with just a few items.
What about longer trips? Depending on where you stay, you could spend money on laundry service at the hotel or at a laundromat and still come out ahead versus the $25 bag check fee. Those who go the Airbnb route or stay with friends or relatives may be able to wash clothes for free.
If you don't check a bag, you’ll have to make certain everything in your suitcase will make it through security. (Photo: Quinn Dombrowski/flickr)
One important thing to be aware of is the current set of TSA regulations. These rules can be a roadblock for people who follow the carry-on-only plan. The main thing to remember is that you can only bring a limited amount of liquids, aerosols and gels in your suitcase. (Current regulations mean you may only have 3.4 ounces or 100 milliliters per liquid. All those containers must fit into one quart-sized Ziploc that can be pulled out of the case. There are exemptions to this rule for medications and breast milk.)
And it bears mentioning that if you need to pack scissors, razor blades or other items, you'll be better off checking your baggage.
What can you buy at your destination?
It will be more convenient to buy certain items when you get to your destination, especially if packing those items means the difference between checking a bag for $25 and carrying on.
Smarter Travel recommends lightening your load and then buying T-shirts, toiletries and pajamas when you get to your destination. This strategy requires some research. For example, at many of the beach destinations in Mexico, sunscreen is quite expensive, so taking up space in your suitcase could be worthwhile.
If you really don't want to spend any money …
Inexpensive drawstring bags could be an alternative to packing cubes and zip-top bags (Photo: Sara/flickr)
Lightweight luggage, high-end packing cubes and thin clothing can help you create the ideal packing strategy, but buying these things can be hard on your wallet. The opposite extreme involves trading in your suitcase for a heavy-duty cardboard box.
Don't laugh. Yes, a box is hard to lug around without some sort of pushcart, but it's lightweight so you won't waste much of your baggage allowance on the container itself. Also, boxes are designed to be packed completely full without any space-wasting gaps, and it's easier to mark as fragile. Furthermore, cardboard is biodegradable.
Another, perhaps more practical, tip involves collecting free or cheap bags that can act as alternatives to packing cubes. Hotels sometimes provide laundry bags in their closets. Some of these have drawstrings or other type of fastener. While not quite as effective as a zippable packing cube, they are cheaper (free if you don't count the cost of the hotel room). Some electronics retailers, such as the Apple store, often put customer purchases in heavy duty plastic bags with drawstrings. Or you could simply pick up a few drawstring backpacks cheaply during a back-to-school sale.
These free or cheap bags could be a nice compromise in terms of budget and quality between packing cubes and plastic zipper bags.
Hard-side suitcases have some advantages, but they aren't the lightest option. (Photo: tookapic/Pixabay)
The cardboard box idea probably isn't practical for most people, but the idea of lightweight luggage will be attractive to anyone who has to deal with baggage weight allowances and fees. Duffel bags are often a good option. They're lightweight, and, as long as they are well-made, you can always stuff in a few extra things even when it seems full.
On the other hand, duffels have no hard sides to protect fragile items, so you have to be more cognizant of a camera or souvenirs that you don't want to get smashed. Semi-rigid bags or bags with center compartments can offer some protection, but this usually comes at the expense of overall capacity. Also, the "stuffable" quality of duffels only works if you have a quality bag that isn’t going to rip or become unzipped en route.
Clamshell suitcases are infinitely easier to carry (or roll in most cases) through the airport. They are much better at protecting fragile items and as long as you don't get something with too many compartments, they offer a respectable amount of space. To enjoy the protection of the hard sides and the rollability, you'll have to give up at least a little weight compared to a duffel bag. Also, if you want to stuff and compress when you pack, packing cubes, drawstring bags or some other tools will be necessary.
What's best for you? Probably a combination of methods
Many travelers are aggressively insistent that their packing strategy is the absolute best, but for most people, a combination of the above strategies and packing tools will bring the most success. Since checked baggage fees do not appear to be going away anytime soon, taking time to perfect your packing plan will be worth the effort.