Tips on Packing Light

Here’s how keeping it simple can save you time, money and frustration.

by NEA Member Benefits

Traveling by air certainly isn’t what it used to be. Almost all U.S. airlines now charge passengers at least $20 for their first checked bag, and about $25 for the second. When you add in exorbitant fees for overweight luggage (some airlines can charge up to $200!), you’ll soon realize it’s time to rethink your packing strategy.

We all dream of traveling with nothing more than a carry-on, sometimes we have trouble keeping our overly prepared inner Boy Scout in check while packing. It can be even worse when traveling with small children, but at least parents have an excuse!

With summer travel just around the corner, we’ve got some tips to help you pack up the smart way—light! If you can avoid checking bags altogether, not only will you save money, you’ll also spend a lot less time at the airport.

Check out these tips for packing light and keeping your trip as enjoyable as possible:


One of the most frustrating aspects of packing light is deciding what to wear on your trip. Most people check the weather report before traveling, but then second-guess themselves worrying about climate related surprises. The best advice is to lay out one outfit for each day, and overlap as many items as possible—jeans, shorts, belts and shoes especially. (Even smaller items such as bathing suits and undergarments can take up valuable space in your bag, so find out if your hotel has laundry facilities before you travel.)

Multi-purposing your clothes is the best way to save on luggage space. Start with the most formal outfit you need to wear, and dress down from there. For men, a nice pair of slacks would work for an evening out and can double for the next day when paired with a casual sportshirt. For women, start with your wardrobe foundations—black or solid skirts and slacks—that can serve as foundations and don’t require separate bags, shoes and belts.

The key is not to pack a single outfit for every event or every type of weather. This may mean being dressed a bit more or less formally that you would be at home, but in the midst of having fun on vacation, you probably won’t even notice.

If you can get away with it, just bring a couple of pairs of sandals or sneakers that are easy to slip on and off in the security lines. If you’re traveling to a cold climate, one pair of boots will do, and you should wear these (and that bulky overcoat) on the plane instead of having them take up space in your bag. Especially if you plan on doing a lot of walking, you may want to see about buying a new pair of shoes that you can dress up but that still have an air cushion sole that will remain comfortable throughout the day.

If you need to bring multiple pairs of shoes to stay comfortable, it’s worth it. Nothing can ruin a trip faster than bad blisters or sore feet.


Everyone should have a separate toiletries bag for travel filled with only the most necessary items—toothbrush, toothpaste, shaving kit and deodorant. Most hotels provide hair dryers, shampoo, conditioner and soap, and they often have many more toiletries available upon request. If you’re willing to shave with hotel soap for a few days, you can leave out that bulky can of shaving cream.

If you feel compelled to bring your favorite fragrance with you on tour, see if you can pick up a few sample vials of it at your local department store. They can usually be had for free, take up a lot less space than a full bottle and won’t ruin a bag full of clothes if they break.

Bargain with yourself on some items: If you’re wavering on whether to bring something, you probably don’t need it, or you can find a like replacement that will serve double duty. Worst case, you usually can buy something you really need during your travels, but chances are you just didn’t need the item at all.


Tips and tricks

Parents traveling with small children already know the value of resealable plastic baggies. They can be used to hold everything from baby wipes and snacks to dirty diapers and wet swimsuits. What you may not know, however, is that they’re a great packing tool. Jam all your socks, undergarments and anything else you don’t mind getting a bit wrinkled into a large bag and then squeeze out all the air before sealing it.

For parents, another great use for plastic baggies is as a drain plug for the bath tub. Many hotels don’t provide them—or a previous guest may have collected yours as a souvenir. Just place it over the drain and fill the tub gently. The weight of the water is usually enough to keep the bag in place. (Be sure to keep the bag out of reach of your children during the bath and after bathtime is finished.)

Ensuring child safety

If you have a young toddler, then you know that hotel rooms are far from being child proof. Those open electrical outlets are enough to make any traveling mother pull her hair out when she should be relaxing. Instead of bringing a bunch of safety plugs, try bringing a small roll of packing tape that can be used to tape over each outlet. A roll of tape fits in the corner of any bag and can provide much-needed peace of mind.

If you’re renting a car at your destination, you certainly don’t need to lug a car seat on the airplane, as most rental agencies will provide them for free. It’s always a good idea to phone your rental car company ahead of time to learn what types of car seats are available and if they can install it before you arrive to pick up the car.

Keeping kids occupied: What to bring

Keeping kids entertained while traveling is always a challenge. Try packing those toys and games that take up the least space or that your children (or you) enjoy playing together. Letting your child pick what they want to bring can also help them feel in control. Giving them their own small rolling suitcase that they are responsible for is especially useful for the child that wants to bring their entire toy chest. Lastly, an iPad or portable DVD player is a great way to keep kids from getting bored and easily tucks into a carry-on. You can even get headphones made just for kids with built-in volume controls to let parents set the maximum volume.

Remember that the purpose of vacation is to relax and have fun, and you can up your chances of a great trip if you avoid the stress of hidden baggage fees, lost luggage and time spent dealing with checked bags.

Pack light and bon voyage!

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