With baggage charges running high and fierce competition for overhead bins, learning how to pack efficiently matters more than ever. By adopting the right strategy, you can fit everything you actually need into the seat in front of you.
I hate having to check bags before a flight. I’ve had luggage lost, items stolen, property destroyed, and a myriad of other issues. After an incredibly degrading experience with checked luggage, I decided to approach every future flight as a challenge. I tested new ways to ensure that my bags can fit underneath the seat in front of me if necessary. After four years of practice, I can pack for a two-week trip and fit everything into a tiny space. In this post, we’ll look at how. (If you want to go even further, check out how Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman lived out of just a single bag for a month.)
Pick the Right Bag(s)
Most luggage wastes space in favour of added protection or aesthetics. You’ll want that protection when travelling with fragile items, but most of the time your primary bag won’t require much padding because you’ll fill it with clothing. Clothing serves as a wonderful source of padding on its own, so even if you do have a fragile item or two you can pack it inside your clothes to avoid damage. When fitting a large number of items underneath the seat in front of you, and still retaining room for a personal item (such as a medium-sized backpack or messenger bag), flexibility matters most.
Few bags provide more flexibility than — or cost as little as — the duffel. For under $50, you can get a malleable carrier that houses as much as a carry-on suitcase. As a result, size isn’t paramount because you can fill a portion of the bag and squeeze it under the seat with little effort. You don’t have a lot of room under the seat, but because a duffel compresses well, the bag’s measurements can exceed those limits without causing a problem. Any small-to-medium-sized duffel will do the trick, but bags geared towards sports activities tend to be smaller and flex a bit more than their canvas and leather counterparts.
What you put inside the bag counts too. While you can pack arbitrarily with good technique, you lose the advantage of organisation. A few inexpensive tools and the Russian doll approach can help solve that problem. Packing cubes provide structure so you can separate pants from shirts from undergarments. Mesh bags work well when separating smaller items like toiletries and some travel documents. utilising both will keep everything in order and much easier to unpack.
Learn Efficient Packing Techniques
Most people fold and pack their clothes into squares, but other packing methods save more space and can even avoid wrinkles. While we could cover a myriad of options, you only need two techniques to fit a lot into your bag: rolling and building a foundation.
First, the rolling method couldn’t be more straightforward. You literally take your clothing and roll it up into a tube. In some cases, rolling multiple shirts into one tube can save space. The image to the right demonstrates how many items you can fit into a suitcase with this approach.
Second, you need to build a foundation by packing heavier items at the bottom and lighter items at the top. Whether you’ve opted to use packing cubes or just dump everything into your bag, heavier items create a foundation at the bottom to reduce movement and can withstand more weight. Lighter items cannot, so putting them at the top keeps them in good form and aids the rolling method in preventing wrinkles. Perhaps these methods seem almost too easy, but you don’t have to trust me — flight attendants pack the same way.
Know What You Need
Most people don’t know what they need to bring on a trip, save packing for the last minute, and end up bringing twice the number of items they actually need. I am, by no means, exempt from this situation. On my last trip, I packed five pairs of pants when I needed only two or three (or, if you’re like some crazy people I know, one). Why? They were new and I wanted to wear them. Did I end up wearing them all? Not even close. Packing well allows you a little bit of inefficiency, but many travellers could easily halve the contents of their suitcases. A little forethought goes a very long way.
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When you pack a bag for a trip, you want the following items:
- Everyday clothing (shirts, pants, underwear, socks)
- Weather-specific clothing (coats, swimsuits, boots)
- Toiletries (toothpaste, toothbrush, deodorant, cosmetics)
- Travel documents (boarding passes, itineraries, your passport)
- Entertainment items (computer, tablet, books)
While you won’t require every example of every category, you’ll certainly want a few items in each. Problems occur when you start thinking of everything you pack as “single use” items. With the exception of undergarments, most clothing can survive at least a second day and retain a clean feeling. Jeans last even longer, especially if you can toss them in a freezer overnight. Because travel often feels boring, we feel the desire to pack too many entertainment items. If you start looking at your belongings as a little more versatile, rather than how you may use them in your everyday life, you can save yourself a lot of room in your suitcase. Here are some examples:
- Pants: In my book, a pair of pants (or skirts and dresses) have a usage life of 2.5 days. Unless an awful spill occurs, your pants should survive more than one use before washing. If you’re travelling for a week, you can wear one pair and pack two. This saves a ton of room in your suitcase and offers three different pant styles for good versatility in your outfit choices.
- Shirts: While singlets and t-shirts tend to get dirty after one day of use, shirts, sweaters, sweatshirts, and hoodies can last about as long as pants. If you’re travelling for a week, wear one and pack three. Save room for more undergarments. If you overpack anything, that’s what you’ll want to have in case of emergency. You can spot clean an shirt, but undergarments will leave you feeling dirty unless they’re washed after one use.
- Technology: If you’re bringing your laptop, do you need your tablet? If you just want to relax and don’t have work to do, will your tablet do the trick instead of your laptop? Figure out how many devices you actually need. Even if they don’t take up a lot of space, chargers do. Choose your entertainment sparingly and choose your options based on battery life. The longer the battery lasts, the more use you’ll get out of it.
- Toiletries: Don’t take gigantic containers. Remember that for overseas travel, you’ll be subject to liquid restrictions for carry-on luggage, so keep everything as minimal as possible.
- Travel Documents: If you have a smartphone, you can store most of your travel documents there. Obviously you’ll still need to carry your passport in some cases, but with an Evernote account you can have fast access to important documents when you need them. Use SMS or phone boarding passes where possible. You save paper, and you have one less thing to lose.
- Books: If you’re a fan of paperbacks and hardcovers, you probably don’t want an ereader. That said, it will save you a lot of space. If you must take a larger, bulkier library, pick your books frugally. If you’re travelling with others, share books so everyone can pack fewer items.
- Coats: You can wear your coat on the plane or just lean it against your seat if you don’t want to put it in the overhead bin or shove it underneath the seat in front of you. Packing a coat just wastes space, so don’t do it.
- Suits and formalwear: Apparel of the fancier variety often requires more care and space when packing, and fitting all your luggage under the seat in front of you doesn’t really work if you have a lot of it — especially when it comes to suit jackets. Try asking the flight attendant if they can hang it for you (though that won’t work so well with budget airlines). You can always lie a little and tell them you need your formal attire for an important job interview and you want to make sure it doesn’t wrinkle.
- Shoes: If you can, pick only one pair of shoes that you can wear throughout the trip. The most you should need is two: a formal pair and something you can relax and exercise in. .
This list doesn’t encompass every item you’ll ever need or want to pack, but covers the basics. In general, consider what you can use more than once and what items work in multiple situations. You’ll find that much of what you want to pack can remain at home.
Check Airline Regulations
An important word of warning: while you may be able to fit all your clothes into a duffel bag using this method and squeeze that under the seat if necessary, it’s a risky strategy if your airline is strict about the number of carry-on items. As a general rule, the cheaper the airline, the tighter the regulations. If your bag gets singled out as too heavy, or you’re told you can’t take more than one on board, you’ll have to pay airport rates to check it, which is a stupid and needless expense.
Amongst Australian domestic airlines, only Qantas allows economy class passengers to routinely board with two carry-on bags. Other airlines stick to one, and most have a weight limit. If you’re travelling Jetstar or Virgin and you use a kiosk or online check-in, no staff will see your bag until you board the plane, so if the size looks OK, you’re unlikely to get pulled over. However, if you have two bags, you’re quite likely to get grabbed, especially on full flights. Tiger checks everyone in manually, and will weigh your hand luggage every single time.
If you’re flying overseas, your hand luggage will almost certainly get weighed (and you’ll have to deal with liquid restrictions as well). Consider checking your bags for the main flight and switching to carry-on mode on arrival if you’re travelling to multiple destinations.
Additional reporting by Angus Kidman.