I Was A Terrible Suitcase-Packer. Here’s How I Got Better

This is a short essay about packing a suitcase, which I probably shouldn’t be allowed to write.

No, really. Putting aside the fact that because I’m semi-nomadic these days I mostly live out of a 70-litre rucksack, I am also talking to you – an experienced traveller, well-accustomed to assembling enough belongings to see you through a vacation. You’re a member of the Wheel & Anchor community because you love to travel – so of course you know how a suitcase works. This is beyond dispute.

Except…

One thing I’ve learned as a travel writer is that unless you find a way to focus your attention upon it (say, you’ve been commissioned to write about it), suitcase-packing is one of those things you never think about until you’re actually doing it. Because, why would you? It’s easy, right? A total no-brainer. 

So effective suitcase-packing never enters your mind until the moment you’re actually faced with doing it – at which point you invariably resort to the last method you used. 

How do you usually pack your luggage?
How do you usually pack your luggage?

For years, mine was “uhhhh….okay, I’ll just make a quick list to make sure I have everything, then I’ll just stuff it all in and hope I have enough room.” By “quick list” I of course mean “exhaustively comprehensive,” including all those readily available items we tend to think other countries ‘might not have’, except they always, always do. 

(And by “I hope I have enough room” I mean LOL, not a chance, because I am trying to pack half of everything I own in the whole world.) 

And this same routine happened every single time – for years. 

Thankfully, I eventually had the best kind of corrective vocational education, which consisted of having dinner with enough travel writers who had spent years wrestling with these issues and were more than willing, with growing exasperation, to correct my poor globetrotting form.  

Here are three things I learned from them that have proved utterly invaluable. (You may be aware of some or all already, in which case, my suspicions are correct and I was the last person in the world to learn about them! But just in case, here they are.)

First: the psychology of suitcase volume. This will fly in the face of common sense, so it’s a tricky thing to understand. 

What’s your first instinct when you go shopping for a new suitcase? Well, like any kind of shopping, you want value for money – in this case, the most baggage for your buck. And if it’s a bit oversized, not a problem, you’ll have room to bring more souvenirs and gifts back home, right?

This is not true. What it means is you’ll have the freedom to take even more stuff you don’t need

About suitcases: the bigger the better?
About suitcases: the bigger the better?

When you’re packing, the last thing you need is a little voice in the back of your mind saying “Nah, it’s fine, you’ve go tLOADS of room!”. That way lies the madness of dragging a suitcase too heavy to actually lift on your own, turning stairs into a logistical nightmare. A much better idea: pick the smallest suitcase you have, and work hard to keep within its space restrictions, asking brutal questions of yourself and getting really creative and minimalist with your needs. 

To summarize all this: assume that however big your chosen suitcase is (even if it seems unnecessarily roomy), you’ll fill it to the brim when you’re packing for the vacation. You just will. That’s what we all do. We never, ever feel like we’ve packed enough, including when we definitely have.     

Secondly: an easily forgotten fact about long-distance flights? They’re chilly. Not at first – they’ll just feel fresh, as the aircon does its work to keep the air clean and odour-free. But after a while, those few degrees lower than you’re usually used to, combined with sitting in one place for hours at a time, might cramp your muscles, send an icy shiver down your spine and become a literal pain in the neck.

This is where a scarf is your best friend. Even if you don’t use it at any other point in your trip, it’s worth bringing to keep you warm in this moment, and to act as a stuffable, wearable pillow to rest your head against if you want to take a nap. Any kind of scarf will do – and it’ll make a huge difference when you need it. So please, don’t forget yours.

And thirdly, something that you’ve probably seen many a travel blogger yelling about – and perhaps every single time you’ve thought “wow, that looks like faddish nonsense!” But I am here to tell you that, well, yeah, it looks a bit ridiculous, but it’s actually fantastic. 

Your suitcase just isn’t going to serve you properly unless it’s filled with packing cubes: those tiny zippable cuboid compartments that look so daft but make packing so elegant and hassle-free. 

Packing cubes will be helpful
Packing cubes will be helpful

The joy of using these ‘cubes’ is that suitcase-packing turns into the world’s simplest game of Tetris. You know in advance that cubes 1, 2, 3 and 4 and those two tiny ones that are perfect for your toiletries – they all fit snugly together into your suitcase. And if you assign each cube a role (“tops” or “underwear”), packing is just simple math. This goes here, that goes there. Therefore, the game changes from “uggggh, will all this fit?” into “okay, do I have room for one more shirt?” And that’s a question you can answer at a single glance when all your packing cubes are laid out on the bed.

For those fond of hiking: all this applies to you tenfold with a backpack! No more turfing everything out in a depressingly messy heap just to find that one tiny item – and (here’s a particularly welcome thing when the weather’s rotten) it quarters the time you’ll spend packing everything up again.

So those are my best tips. Also, pretty much my only tips: I’m still criminally disorganised, and you’ll always find me rushing round at the last minute, cursing myself and fruitlessly vowing never again. But as long as I’ve got these three things right, I’m always fast enough to get out the door, I’m always comfortable on the plane, and if I need to, I can haul my luggage up a few steps without assistance. That feels like a manageable way to go see the world.

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