Packing—love it or hate it, it’s a travel necessity. Personally it’s always been something I’ve enjoyed, but only when things go well and according to plan. I can’t help but cringe a little when I think back on what I packed and how I carried everything seven years ago when I started traveling more long-term.
The truth is, the more you pack and unpack, the better you get at it. You slowly begin to figure out what’s a necessity and what should have stayed behind, which packing products work best for your travel style, and what helpful gadgets make the experience more bearable.
After packing and unpacking for dozens of short and long-term trips, I feel like I’ve finally figured it out. I know exactly what I need to bring with me for each type of trip, and after trying all manner of packing products over the years, I’ve settled on a bunch of them that genuinely make the process easier.
When it comes to packing, everyone’s needs and preferences are different, so it’s likely your priorities won’t be exactly the same as mine. That said, if you dread packing, want to get better at it, or are just looking for products to help improve the experience, there’ll be something of interest for you in this post.
Below I break down how I pack for each trip, and share over a dozen packing products I’ve stress-tested myself and now travel with every time I leave for a big adventure.
I almost always travel at the same time as my partner, so we’re able to share bags to help limit flight costs. We don’t try to condense everything into our carry-on, but instead share one checked bag (20-23kg), plus a backpack and a side bag that both count as personal items and fit under the seat in front.
There’s a strong argument for traveling carry-on only, but there are downsides as well. With a checked bag, we don’t have to worry about limiting our liquids—enough moisturizer for everyone!—and are more likely to have the clothes we need for the weather we encounter and things we decide to do.
We’ve also been able to bring home souvenirs, like fresh honey and walnuts from Bulgaria or locally pressed olive oil from Spain, that couldn’t have gone in carry-on luggage.
Another benefit to having a checked bag is that the rest of our luggage fits directly under our seat. We don’t need to lift heavy bags into overhead compartments, or worry about the compartments being full of everyone else’s luggage.
Getting on the plane is a breeze because we can wait toward the end of boarding to jump on and go straight to our seats. If we had to store things overhead, we’d worry about getting in line early to ensure we found a nearby spot for our bags.
That said, we’ve been lucky and haven’t had any trouble with lost luggage so far. Sure, we’ve had to wait for it to arrive on the carousel sometimes, but for us, it’s a fair trade not to have to line up for boarding right away, fight for overhead luggage space, or limit our liquids.
Originally we traveled with two large checked bags, but that was before we really figured out what we needed and what we didn’t. We then used a single large 85L backpack for years, but recently switched to a large, lightweight suitcase instead.
For our free personal items, we have a 35L foldable backpack for computers, other technology, books, and anything we couldn’t live without if our checked bag went missing, and an anti-theft side purse/satchel bag.
The backpack is lightweight and foldable, and we also use it for groceries, market visits, and short trips while we’re traveling. The side bag acts as a purse, holding important documents and necessities, and has a remarkable capacity for any time we have too much weight or spillover from the other two bags.
What’s on the Inside: Checked Bag
By far the most important travel product inside our checked bag is the humble packing cube. We use a number of different sizes for clothing, shoes, accessories, toiletries, and miscellaneous items, and especially with the large 85L backpack, they’ve been essential for keeping everything organized and protected.
The ones we have were purchased a long time ago, but these these ones from TravelWise are very similar. Whatever you go for, look for a brand with a variety of sizes, including a large cube that’s able to fit all (or at least most) of the clothing you need.
I’ll explain what we use for two people, but this approach is easily adaptable for one person.
It all starts with two large cubes, one for each of us for general clothing. The cubes are big enough that they fit two stacks of clothes, usually organized with tops on one side and bottoms on the other. All clothing goes here except for socks, underwear, and rain jackets.
My partner uses another medium size cube for socks and boxers, and I use a smaller one for socks, underwear, and other miscellaneous items like bathing suits and my boxing wraps.
Extra shoes get their own packing cube to ensure they don’t get dirt or dust on anything else. Our rain jackets and beach blanket usually get another small cube for themselves, but that’s just a space issue. If you’re not traveling for months at a time, you may be able to fit these in the main clothing cubes.
In my main cube, I also store a curling iron that goes straight down the middle between the two piles of clothing. It’s the ideal spot for a bulky item like this, and the clothing around it keeps it protected. This spot would work for a hair straightener as well.
All of our toiletries fit into a toiletry organizer, one for each of us. The ones we chose have multiple zippered compartments, many of them detachable: this model is very similar to the one we’ve been using for years. If you need more space, you can opt for a large capacity cosmetic bag like this, but you’ll miss out on the detachable elements.
We use the detachable components most for our toothbrushes. We can pull that section off to leave in the bathroom, even if there isn’t enough space in there for the full toiletry bag. It also serves as some sanitary protection for the toothbrushes, in addition to our Steripod toothbrush protectors.
Look for a model that has enough space for you, folds up, and has a strap for hanging. There’s often not a lot of counter space available, especially in cramped European bathrooms, and a hook or clip strap makes all the difference. You can often hang it off a towel hook or bar, or over the top of the shower cubicle.
Inside the toiletry bag we use Humangear GoToob+ refillable bottles for shampoo, because they squeeze down smaller as you use up the liquid inside and have locking lids to avoid mess. We also use Bumkins sandwich bags to store things like face creams that could open up during travel, and a bar of soap that’s often wet when we pack up after showering.
Lastly, we have a packing cube for miscellaneous items like sunscreen, which won’t fit in the toiletry bag, medical supplies, and other gadgets.
Inside the cube, we separate items further into zip lock bags or see-through zippered pencil cases. I recently found these durable and reusable Ziploc travel bags that come in a bunch of fun patterns.
We have one zippered bag for vitamins and medical supplies. This is where we keep bandaids, a small medical cream, Advil, and other pills we (hopefully won’t but might) need. Pills and vitamins are stored in these convenient pop-open containers from Humangear.
Another zipped bag stores kitchen items and other miscellaneous things. There are extra Ziploc bags, a small corkscrew/bottle opener, a tiny pair of scissors, a lighter, etc. If it’s small and doesn’t have another space, it goes here.
Depending on where we’re going and what we’ll be doing while we’re there, other items that might go inside this mixed-bag packing cube include things like a few garbage bags, a deck of cards, and electrolyte packages.
Side note: electrolyte packs are a must for us when we travel for a few reasons. First, we’re often doing more socializing, which can mean more drinking, and electrolytes are the perfect morning helper after a late night.
Second, our immune systems are put to the test when traveling and being in close proximity to other people, so it’s nice to have some easy-to-consume vitamins in a simple package. Lastly, long flights are super-dehydrating, so electrolytes help us rehydrate when we get to the other end.
What’s on the Inside: Plane Bags
On the plane, we take two bags: a backpack and a side purse/satchel. As a single person you could probably choose one or the other, but go for the backpack (or a large side bag) if you’re traveling with a laptop. While you can check your electronics if you really have to, definitely avoid it where possible!
Backpack and Tech
The backpack we have is a 35L foldable backpack, which is more than enough for a personal item on a plane. If your flight has really strict carry-on dimensions, you may need to ensure it isn’t completely full, but we haven’t had any problems so far. It seems to be okay so long as we can fit it under the seat.
The backpack stores our laptops in upright zippered laptop sleeves. We much prefer this style of sleeve when traveling, since the vertical zipper makes pulling laptops out of the backpack at security so much easier.
We also have a zippered electronics organizer that stores all of our power converters, cords, chargers, speaker, and our Fire TV Stick. Basically, if it’s tech or connects to our tech, it goes in there, with cord pockets and customizable dividers to keep everything organized.
In a previous post, I broke down why we travel with an Amazon Fire TV Stick and how it’s worked in many countries. It’s amazing being able to connect to all of our streaming services in a matter of seconds on most Airbnb televisions.
The backpack also stores our notebooks and reading material. We have access to them on the plane this way, and don’t have to worry about losing them should the unthinkable happen to our checked luggage. Plus, books are heavy, so this keeps weight out of our checked bag, which is often limited to 20kg-23kg.
Again, as a solo traveler, you likely only need one or the other: a backpack or a satchel. We use this second plane bag to hold the important stuff, such as passports, snacks, and other items we may need quick access to, like a power bank.
Travelon’s anti-theft tote bag is a new addition to our travel lineup, and I absolutely love it. It fits way more than you’d think, something we really put to the test on our last series of flights when our checked luggage was over its limit.
The bag has a number of anti-theft features that put my mind at ease when we are walking through busy, touristy areas. I always worry about someone quietly opening a side zipper and snatching my phone as my attention wanders, but this bag has lockable clips and slash-proof straps.
I use the smaller crossbody version that has many of the same features when I don’t need a large tote.
Within the tote bag, we have a passport holder that zips up and can handle other papers and documents as well. It has an outside pouch for temporarily storing boarding passes and passports when you need them frequently at the airport. After we board the plane, they go back in the zippered pouch.
The main tote also holds a zippered Bumkins sandwich bag, which come in all sorts of styles and patterns. We have a small one that matches a larger wet bag used for the beach or wet clothing.
The small one keeps any little items we might need to have access to on the plane, including lip balm, mints, hand sanitizer, Tide To Go, salt, and chili flakes.
Yep, you heard that right—we have tiny pop-lock containers for salt and chili flakes that are always with us to help combat terrible airport and plane food. Overkill? Maybe. But we’ll never go back to the days of journeying without spice!
What I like most about this system is I can grab this small zippered bag, which contains everything I need, and move it from one bag to another if I want to use the smaller crossbody bag. Plus, it prevents digging around in the pockets of a larger bag looking for a small item like lip balm.
Note: when going through security, I remove the hand sanitizer and Tide To Go and place them in a separate clear bag for liquids.
Packing is a completely personal process, so you may not need the same products. Really, it’s about ongoing testing and refinement until you find what works for you. If you have a realization about packing while out on the road, write it down, so you remember to make that change for next time.
Did you bring too much of something? Not enough of something else? Were you lugging around things you didn’t use at all, or forget something important? What would make your next journey easier? Keep these notes in the same place, and remember to check them again before you start packing next time.
The article above is quite long, so here are all of the products I’ve mentioned above in one place, with a quick description of how I use each one.
- Away Large Suitcase: a lightweight 99L suitcase with a lifetime warranty, for checked luggage.
- TravelWise Packing Cubes: cubes of different sizes that help separate clothing and keep all the items organized inside my bags.
- NEEKFOX 35L Foldable Daypack: used as a free personal item for planes, and doubles as a grocery bag and general backpack for travel.
- Vertical Waterproof Laptop Sleeve: protects my laptop and lets me easily pull it out of a backpack when going through airport security.
- Electronics Cable Organizer: keeps electronics safe and organized, with cord pockets and customizable dividers.
- Travelon Anti-Theft Tote Bag: used as a free personal item for planes, with a number of safety features like slash-resistant straps and lockable hooks.
- Travelon Anti-Theft Crossbody Bag: smaller travel purse with slash-resistant straps and lockable hooks.
- Passport Holder: zippered pouch for storing passports and other important documents.
- Hangable Toiletry Bag: bag with detachable sections that lets me organize all my toiletries and hang them up in confined spaces.
- Humangear Large GoTubb Container: larger squeeze-to-open container for storing pills and vitamins, or other travel items like snacks or jewelry.
- Humangear Mini GoTubb Container: smaller squeeze-to-open container for salt, spices, or herbs.
- Steripod Toothbrush Protector: toothbrush covers that clip over any toothbrush.
- Humangear GoToob+ Refillable Travel Bottles: travel bottle with lockable cap for safely traveling with liquids like shampoo.
- Bumkins Reusable Sandwich Bags: dry/wet pouches for soap and makeup that could break open during travel. They also keep small items organized in larger bags, and are available with clear fronts as well.
- Bumkins Waterproof Wet Bag: larger dry/wet bag for going to the beach or transporting wet clothing.
- Ziplocks and fancy reusable Ziplocs: useful for pretty much anything. Bring extra to use for things you might acquire or want to keep safe, like snacks, spices, postcards, shells, small souvenirs, etc.
Main image via stockfour/Shutterstock.com, product images via Amazon