How to Pack Like a Professional Traveler

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Last Updated on February 20, 2024 by Grant

When it comes to how to pack like a professional traveler, there are several solid tips that will make your experience on the road simply better.

I’m convinced there are two types of travelers: those who spend days or even weeks thinking about what to pack and those who throw clothes into a bag minutes before walking out the door. Regardless of your style, what and how you pack can have a big impact on your trip. 

Pack the wrong clothes and you’ll miss out on activities or be uncomfortable. Use the wrong luggage and you’ll be frustrated anytime you are on the move. Even just having your stuff organized can make for a more enjoyable trip.

In this article, we’ll share our top 10 packing tips to help you get out the door and enjoy the world around you.

ATVs in Roatan
On the trail in Roatan

Of course, how (and what) you pack will depend largely on what type of trip you are taking. Packing for a month of train travel across Europe is not the same as a two-week road trip across the US or a week-long cruise. 

Thus, some of our packing tips are specific to a particular type of travel. Other tips are more general and apply to any type of travel.

So, let’s dive in and get you packing like a pro!

(Disclaimer: When we link to places where you can buy our stuff or places we stayed, we are using special codes that earn us commissions on the sales at no additional cost to you. Please see our Review Policy  for more information.)

1) Choose the Right Luggage

Before you actually start packing you need to decide what type of luggage you will use and, when flying, if you will check a bag. We have medium and large hard-sided suitcases and carry-on-size travel backpacks. Which luggage we use depends on how we are traveling, where we are going and what we are doing. 

When checking a bag, you want luggage that is durable. If you are on a road trip or doing a lot of train travel in Europe, you want luggage that is easy to move around. For a cruise, you’ll want luggage that can easily be stored out of the way. Of course, you also need luggage big enough to hold everything you need to pack but not so big it is difficult to manage.

That’s a lot of different criteria to consider for different kinds of travel. So, don’t skip this important step of making sure you have the right luggage before you worry about what you are packing.

More often than not, we travel with backpacks. On road trips, they are easy to carry in and out of a hotel. When flying, they fit in the overhead bin. And, if you pack correctly, it is possible to travel for a month or more with just a backpack. 

A Chania street scene
On the streets of Chania in Crete, Greece… note the brick streets.

While carrying your luggage on your back can be tiring, it is better than dragging a suitcase across cobblestone streets in Europe. And, it’s always nice to have your hands free when moving around an airport or through city streets.

That said, there are plenty of times backpacks are not the best piece of luggage for a trip. Below, we’ll take a closer look at the types of luggage and when we use each.

Backpack

In terms of travel backpacks, Grant currently uses the Lowepro HighLine BP 400 AW and I use the eBags Mother Lode Travel Backpack. Both are big enough for an extended trip but small enough for a weekend getaway. For us, though, the best part about a backpack is that your hands are free for anything you need them for while moving around.

Bonnie waiting on the elevator with her backpack.
Bonnie waiting on the elevator with her backpack.

Seriously, we use these bags for most of our non-RV trips. We love these bags so much we have written extensive reviews on both. Find out more about these backpacks with the links below.

Unfortunately, Lowepro has stopped making the Highline line and Grant is still looking for a good recommendation for travelers since his pack is so uniquely awesome!

Bonnie’s Review of the eBags Mother Lode Travel Backpack

Grant’s Review of the Lowepro HighLine BP 400 AW

Hard-Sided Spinner Suitcase

A hard-sided spinner suitcase is perfect for air travel. If you are checking a bag, it has to be durable and able to stand up to the abuse of the luggage handlers. We also tend to use a suitcase on long winter road trips when we need to pack bulky sweaters and warm boots.

Getting a picture of Grant with a suitcase is a rare thing. We only use suitcases for specific trips, like a cruise, where we only have to unpack once.
Getting a picture of Grant with a suitcase is a rare thing. We only use suitcases for specific trips, like a cruise, where we only have to unpack once.

We each have medium and large hard-sided suitcases that we use for long road trips, air travel and cruising. Sometimes we’ll each pack a suitcase and sometimes we share one.

The one downside of a large suitcase is that it is easy to go over the checked bag weight limit if you pack it full. Thus, we generally save those for road trips and cruising. When checking a bag, we generally use medium-sized suitcases.

Samsonite Omni PC Hardside Expandable Luggage with Spinner Wheels, Checked-Large 28-Inch, Black
Samsonite Omni PC Hardside Expandable Luggage with Spinner Wheels, Checked-Large 28-Inch, Black
Expansion to allow you to pack more items and compression keeps clothing neatly pressed
$229.00 Amazon Prime

Wheeled Garment Bag

If you are traveling for work or a wedding or anything else that you’ll need professional or dressy clothes, consider a hanging garment bag. We first bought one when we were flying to Florida for a wedding many years ago.

South Florida Wedding Selfie
Enjoying the South Florida sun at a good friend’s wedding.

Admittedly, this bag does not get a lot of use from us (we’ve probably only used it 2 or 3 times in nearly 10 years), but when you need “special” clothes, you need special luggage. And, we have certainly found that hanging clothes travel better in a hanging bag.

Sale
Samsonite Ascella 3.0 Softside Expandable Luggage with Spinners, Black, 2W Garment Bag
Samsonite Ascella 3.0 Softside Expandable Luggage with Spinners, Black, 2W Garment Bag
Multi-Stop trolley with a soft-touch grip for a premium feel. 100% Polyester; Hanger bracket grips hangers in two directions for double capacity
$224.84 Amazon Prime

2) Use Packing Cubes

When space is tight, packing cubes are your friend. We LOVE our packing cubes! We don’t use these for every trip, but when you’re trying to fit more clothes into less space, this is how you do it.

Packing cubes allow you to pack your clothes into small zippered “pouches” that are then a modular system. The best part is that the packing cubes do actually condense your clothes so that you can fit more.

The main compartment of the eBags  Mother Lode Travel Backpack is spacious.
The main compartment of the eBags Mother Lode Travel Backpack is spacious.

Once you have the cubes packed, you can move them around as needed to make everything fit in your bag. I’m sure you would agree that moving around 3 or 4 packing cubes is much easier than moving 15 or 20 items of clothing.

We mostly use packing cubes when packing for extended trips in our backpacks. They can, of course, be used with any type of luggage, though. Sometimes we’ll pack the cubes based on outfits, other times we’ll group similar items together. It really just depends on your preference.

If you haven’t tried packing cubes, I strongly encourage you to do so! These lightweight cubes from eBags are durable and easy to use. There are many different sizes and variety “packs,” so choose what will work for your clothes and luggage.

Sale
Amazon Basics 4 Piece Packing Travel Organizer Cubes Set, Grey & 4 Piece Packing Travel Organizer Cubes Set - Medium, Grey
Amazon Basics 4 Piece Packing Travel Organizer Cubes Set, Grey & 4 Piece Packing Travel Organizer Cubes Set – Medium, Grey
Double zipper pulls make opening/closing simple and fast; Mesh top panel for easy identification of contents, and ventilation
$34.39 Amazon Prime

3) Roll Your Clothes

Our next tip for saving space is to roll your clothes. I honestly don’t know why this works, but it does. My best guess is that you can condense your clothes a bit more when rolling versus folding. Whatever the reason, it’s an easy tip that doesn’t cost you any money!

Roll your clothes when packing to create more space in your bag.
Bonnie rolls her clothes to get ready for a trip.

Again, we don’t do this every time, but when you’re looking to pack a lot of stuff into a small space, it helps. Sometimes, we’ll roll our clothes and use packing cubes; other times we’ll roll clothes and just pack them in the suitcase or backpack.

4) Choose Your Clothes Thoughtfully

When picking out your clothes, there are a number of factors to consider. First, be sure to check the weather. For cool mornings and warm afternoons, you’ll want to pack layers. If you are expecting rain (or snow), you’ll need some sort of raincoat, umbrella and perhaps waterproof shoes or pants.

Grant frequently wears a t-shirt and a fleece – great for layering and can go from the trail to dinner with ease.

You also need to consider what activities you’ll likely be doing. Want to do some hiking or exercising? You’ll need athletic wear. If you’re looking to go out for a nice dinner, be sure to pack a nice outfit. And if you love hot tubs as much as we do, be sure to pack a bathing suit, even in the middle of winter!

Most importantly, make a point to pack clothes that work with multiple pieces and that you can wear more than once if needed. Convertible pants may not be the most fashionable item, but they are sometimes a lifesaver when traveling. Jeans are versatile and travel well, but they also take up a lot of space. Thus, you may have to weigh how necessary the jeans are based on the space you have.

We like moisture-wicking clothes which are great for walking around town as well as out on a trail. Having clothes that serve multiple purposes means you can pack less. Additionally, pack clothes that will dry quickly and consider doing laundry during your trip (more on that below).

Pro tip: When traveling as a couple, pack at the same time and compare your outfits so you have parity in terms of clothes. This is also great for making sure you don’t pack too much in the way of matching outfits.

5) Pack the Right Shoes

While you may be tempted to just grab a few pairs of shoes and throw them in your bag, shoes sometimes take up a lot of space, so choose them thoughtfully! Honestly, I sometimes pick out my shoes first and then choose my outfits around the shoes.

I usually try to take one pair of shoes for daytime wear and one pair of nicer shoes for dinner. Sometimes I’ll add in a pair of flip-flops. Grant often can get away with just one pair of shoes. Yep, men often have it easier when it comes to packing than women.

Always make sure you have the right shoes.
A pair of sturdy, waterproof, closed-toe shoes are good for all kinds of weather and activities.

Again, consider your activities when packing shoes. If you expect to do a lot of walking, you’ll need comfortable walking shoes. That is different for each person, but for us that typically means sneakers or hiking shoes. If you’re going to Europe, or anywhere you are likely to encounter cobblestone streets, you definitely want something sturdy with a thick sole.

My current go-to travel shoes are Vasque UltraDry hiking shoes (similar item linked). Grant loves the Merrell Men’s Moab 3 Gore-Tex. Both of these shoes are good for walking around a city, hiking and general travel days.

6) Wear Bulky Clothes and Shoes when Flying

When luggage space is tight, another easy way to make extra room is to wear your bulky clothes on the plane. Yes, that might mean having one outfit of jeans and sneakers for all your travel days, but those are good clothing items for travel, so why not?

Seriously, it is a lot easier to pack a pair of shorts than a pair of pants or jeans. Likewise, flats, sandals and flip-flops take up a lot less space than hiking shoes or sneakers.

You can also strap a fleece or jacket onto the outside of your carry-on if you don’t want to wear it.

7) Take a Packable Day Bag

Oftentimes, it is necessary to have a small day bag for long days of exploring. Grant and I both have a 30L Eddie Bauer Stowaway Packable Backpack that we use extensively.

When flying, we can easily take out this backpack once we arrive and be able to carry a water bottle, jacket, sunscreen, purchases made throughout the day, etc. We’ve also used it when cruising to be able to carry a towel or other items on an excursion.

Even on a road trip, this bag is a lifesaver to just throw in the backseat and have if we need it. We’ve even used it to pack for an overnight stay at Isle Royale National Park while on a longer six-week Great Lakes RV trip. To say this bag is versatile is an understatement.

Additionally, I just got a Waterfly Packable Small Crossbody Sling Backpack. My plan is to use this instead of a purse while traveling. I tested it out on our fall trip to Montana to visit Glacier and Yellowstone national parks. I really enjoyed the sling and it made a great purse replacement for traveling.

Check out our article on choosing the best daypack.

8) Do Laundry While Traveling

If you are traveling for more than about a week, consider doing laundry somewhere along the way. Yes, I know that no one wants to do laundry while on vacation, but it’s much easier than packing 2 or 3 weeks’ worth of clothes.

We spent a month in Italy in 2013 and a month in Eastern Europe in 2015. For both trips, we each packed five outfits with a couple of additional pieces, plus what we wore on the plane. Yep, we did laundry on both trips. It’s not always fun, but it does provide a bit of mandated downtime at the hotel or laundromat, which can be nice.

Indeed, one of our favorite memories is relaxing by the river in Český Krumlov, Czech Republic, while doing laundry.

Lounging by the River Vltava in Cesky Krumlov.
We picked this spot to relax and read by the river while our laundry was being done.

If you’re staying in a hotel in the US, most have a do-it-yourself laundry room. Of course, many also have a valet laundry service, but it’ll cost you a lot more. You can also find a laundromat in almost every city. A laundromat may not be quite as convenient, but it’s usually bigger meaning you can get more done at one time. Laundromats may also be a bit cheaper.

We also try to pack synthetic clothes that will dry faster than cotton. If you do have synthetic items, you could even wash a few items in the sink as needed. You could also carry a Scrubba Wash Bag, which allows you to wash a few small items in a hotel room. We have one of these portable laundry systems but haven’t used it yet.

However you do it, consider washing and reusing some items so you don’t have to pack quite as much.

9) Pack an E-Reader (or Tablet)

If you are a reader, I highly suggest using an e-reader at least while traveling. While many people have embraced digital readers, many still love the feel of paper books. I get it. But, a Kindle or iPad is typically smaller and lighter than a single book. And if you’re gone long enough to want more than one book, you’ll certainly save space.

We have hundreds of books on our iPads that we can read anywhere we go. And, as long as you have internet you can buy more books even if you’re not near a bookstore.

Currently, I use an iPad Mini and Grant uses an iPad Air that we use for reading (and surfing the internet, checking Facebook and playing games). Having one device that serves multiple purposes is a lifesaver when traveling.

10) Bring a Charging Station

Speaking of electronics, one thing you certainly don’t want to forget when traveling are charging cables. Whether you have a phone, tablet, watch, laptop or camera, chances are you have several items that will need to be charged.

We each use a four-port charger, which can charge a MacBook Air, an iPad, an Apple Watch and an iPhone at the same time. This one device replaces all the small power bricks with one compact and lightweight (5.6 ounces) charging station. And, you only need one outlet to charge all of your devices. We recently upgraded to this one from Anker which provides plenty of power.

With 65 watts of power, two USB-C ports and two USB-A ports, I can charge my iPhone 12 Pro, iPad Mini, Macbook pro and Sony RX10 at the same time.
With 65 watts of power, two USB-C ports and two USB-A ports, I can charge my iPhone 12 Pro, iPad Mini, Macbook pro and Sony RX10 at the same time.

Final Thoughts on How to Pack Like a Professional Traveler

Whether you are traveling for a weekend, a week, a month or longer, what and how you pack is important. No one wants to carry around extra stuff or not have the items you need. Yes, you want to be prepared and there are usually stores where you can buy the stuff you forgot. If you can get it right when packing, however, you’ll likely be much happier.

As you start packing, consider your mode of transportation, the weather and the activities you expect to do. Consider the unexpected but don’t dwell on it. You simply cannot be prepared for every possible situation when traveling. After all, overcoming obstacles is sometimes the best part of travel.

Hopefully, our packing tips will help you pack more efficiently and make the most of your travels.


Travel Resources
What do you use to find a flight?

We use Skyscanner to find deals on flights. Skyscanner has a great interface and compares tons of airlines for the best pricing and routing. That said, it does not always have every airline and some airlines will have better deals on their website. Still, Skyscanner is a great place to start.
Click here to search for a flight.

What do you use to find a hotel?

We typically stay at Hilton properties, so we use the Hilton website. You can find good Hilton Honors discounts or AAA discounts for a hotel there. We make great use of our free night certificates from our Hilton Honors American Express.
Click here to book a Hilton property.

If there are no Hilton properties available, we use TripAdvisor to read reviews and book the hotel. We find we can get the best price that way.
Click here to search for a hotel.

We recently partnered with Stay22 to add interactive maps to each of our destination posts. This will allow you to see a plethora of hotels and vacation rentals all in one responsive map of the area.

What if I need more space than I can get at a hotel?

We use Vrbo for the times when we have rented a cabin for a weekend getaway, like this cabin in Townsend, TN, or needed to rent a house for a large family vacation. We had a great experience with them in terms of refunding deposits when COVID hit and will continue to use them.
Click here to search for a vacation rental.

Who do you use for rental cars?

As a general rule, we book with Hertz for rental cars. We have had nothing but good experiences with them. Plus, we really like unlimited mileage and not worrying about crossing state lines. We have even rented from Hertz overseas in both Slovenia and Croatia.
Click here to book a rental car.

How about booking a cruise?

We have found some amazing prices for booking a cruise through Cruise Direct. We have saved a lot of money on our cruises compared to what we found elsewhere, making a last-minute Bahamas cruise even cheaper.
Click here to book a cruise.

What if I want to rent an RV?

We highly recommend Outdoorsy for RV rentals. We rented a camper van for a week to visit Rocky Mountain National Park for the elk rut and Custer State Park for the Buffalo Round-Up and had a blast. The program was easy to use and we really enjoyed the freedom of having a camper van for that trip.
Click here to rent an RV.

What do you use for booking tours?

We don’t often book tours. Typically, we like to do stuff on our own. That said, there are some experiences you can’t have any other way. So, when we do want to book a tour, we always check Viator first.
Click here to book a tour.

Do you use anything to get discounts on the road?

We make extensive use of both Good Sam and AAA on the road. Good Sam is normally regarded as a discount card for RVers at campgrounds and Camping World but anyone can use the 5 cents off a gallon at the pump at both Pilot and Flying J.
Click here to get a Good Sam membership.
We have had AAA as long as we have been married and it has more than paid for itself in discounts at hotels, aside from the peace of mind of having roadside assistance. Add in paper maps and the ability to get an international driver’s license and it is more than worth it for any traveler out there.
Click here to get a AAA membership.

How you pack has a huge impact on your travels. A few basic packing strategies will have you packing (and traveling) like a pro in no time.
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4 thoughts on “How to Pack Like a Professional Traveler”

  1. The picture of Mr. Sinclair in the “Choose Clothing Items Thoughtfully” section is incredible. Where was that taken?

    Reply

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