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Packing for a Trip Like a Pro

Packing expert Anne McAlpin shares her tips for fitting everything you need into a carry-on bag, no matter how long your trip.

bring only essentials when packing for a tripDoes packing for a trip send you into stress mode? Anne McAlpin has been perfecting her packing strategy over years of extensive travel. She’s got it down to a science—a carry-on bag weighing no more than 18 pounds, whether she is on the road for a week or a month.

“The biggest mistakes come when travelers are worried about the unknown,” McAlpin says. “They want to be prepared, so they end up over-packing. I always tell people to leave all of the ‘just in case’ items at home. Everything in the bag should, ideally, be multipurpose.”

Choosing the Perfect Bag

The right bag depends on the type of trip and type of traveler.

“You have to ask yourself if you’re willing to let go of your bag and if it’s worth spending money on a checked bag,” McAlpin says.

McAlpin always opts for a carry-on bag when packing for a trip —no matter how long — and recommends the same for most travelers. Her favorite type of bag? A four-wheeled spinner carry-on bag. (She loves the one made by Travel Club.)

Check the Transportation Security Administration website for details on standard luggage size and regulations. And if you’re flying on two different airlines, make sure when packing for a trip to comply with the regulations of both carriers.

What Stays and What Goes?

Whether you are traveling for a week or a month, McAlpin recommends packing a week’s worth of clothing and doing laundry during the trip. Start by making a list of activities you’ll be doing during your trip, then pack outfits based on that list.

McAlpin’s three-to-one rule is the easiest way to save space in your bag. When packing for a trip, select three tops for every bottom, she says, and choose one neutral color to base your outfits around. That way, you’ll be able to mix and match clothing. Add in multipurpose items, like a scarf, to give yourself more options.

“Travel is more casual today than it used to be, so you can save space by only packing one dressy outfit,” McAlpin says. “You’re on vacation, so you should be relaxed. Plus, you can always rewear things.”

One color palate also means packing fewer shoes. McAlpin recommends limiting yourself to three pairs of shoes—a good pair of walking shoes, a pair of dress shoes and a casual shoe. Sometimes McAlpin lets what she calls a “half-pair”—sandals or slippers that take up half the space of a normal shoe—slide, too.
Use a small carry on when packing for a trip

Loading Your Bag

Packing for a trip efficiently isn’t just about what you bring—it’s also about how you organize your bag. McAlpin starts packing for a trip up to a week in advance to avoid a last-minute rush.

“Start with heavy items, including shoes, on the bottom of the bag near the wheels to distribute the weight,” McAlpin says. “Save even more space by tucking socks into your shoes.”

Roll knits and T-shirts to minimize wrinkles, and pack these items in the center of your bag. Keep like items together using packing cubes. (McAlpin loves the clear Baggallini cubes, which are designed by flight attendants.) Pants, dress shirts, jackets and other items that are more at risk for wrinkling should get placed in dry-cleaning bags and draped around your knits to avoid creating unwanted creases. Tuck smaller items, including belts, around the perimeter. Leave your coat out of your bag so you can wear it on the plane, if need be.

When packing for a trip, bring only the toiletry items you are really picky about and plan to get the rest from your hotel. Fill liquid containers three-quarter of the way and squeeze out any remaining air to create a vacuum to minimize leakage. McAlpin also recommends packing important items, including prescription medication and even jewelry, in your handbag.

Other Tips, Tricks for Packing for a Trip

Keep these tips in mind every time you pack for a trip:

  • Take a picture of your passport and travel documents. Save the photos on your smartphone so they will be handy if needed (you’ll also be able to email the pictures.) Keep a copy of these documents at home or leave them with your AAA Travel Counselor as an extra precaution.
  • Always take a large tote bag as your personal item. Pack electronics, jewelry, glasses and other valuables in this bag.
  • Keep your jewelry organized by feeding necklaces through a straw to avoid tangled chains.
  • Pack snacks and a reusable water bottle with a filter.
  • Choose clothing that is lightweight and easy to layer.
  • Consider packing sun-protective clothing for days you will be outside for hours at a time.
  • Pack 2-gallon resealable storage bags—which you can find in the canning section of your local grocery store—to use to store damp swimsuits, separate dirty clothing or even do laundry in a pinch.
  • Pack wash-and-wear clothing. Leave your dry clean-only items at home.
  • If you do check a bag and you’re traveling with a partner, pack at least one outfit in each other’s bags in case your luggage is lost.
  • An inflatable travel pillow is the perfect way to stay comfortable without sacrificing space.
  • A large scarf or a drip-dry travel towel can double as a blanket on the plane.
  • Never pack items you can find at a hotel. (Think: hair dryer, iron, etc.)
  • If you forget a charger or lose yours along the way, see if the front desk of your hotel has one before purchasing a new one.
  • Secure your luggage with TSA-approved locks.
Inset photos by: iStock

AAA Travel offers vacation packages to destinations around the world. Visit AAA.com to learn more or call 877-396-7159 to speak to a AAA Travel Counselor.

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Janice Yip-Hudson, AAA Travel Counselor, Daly City, Calif.

Today, people's lives are so busy. We're thinking three days ahead just to get through our to-do lists. I love helping my clients plan vacations where they have nothing to do but relax; where time stands still, and you're just on vacation.

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