An AFAR editor shares the packing tricks her flight attendant mother learned from more than a decade of living out of her luggage.
My mother has always been a packing ninja. Watching her organize a move, tackle a mountain of paperwork or—say—jenga four preteens, two adults, and two weeks worth of camping supplies into a minivan is the packing equivalent of watching a martial arts expert do this. So when she started working as a flight attendant for a regional airline we’ll call Borizon almost 11 years ago, we knew it was only a matter of time before she mastered the art of living out of a suitcase.
Here are a handful of the lessons she’s learned after packing and unpacking her suitcase more than 4,000 times over the past decade (oh yes, she counted).
Basic tips for effective packing
To stay organized and maximize space. . .
Find your perfect bag.
“After more than 10 years as a flight attendant, I’ve learned to cherish bags that roll on wheels and have both internal and external pouches. Whether you’re looking for sleek carry-on luggage or a larger suitcase you can check, I’ve found that compartmentalized rolling bags are the best way to save space and travel with ease.”
Rolling clothes is the only way to. . . roll (of course).
“If you pack folded clothes flat in your suitcase, you don’t fully use the space you’re given. Rolled clothes can fit right down into the crevices of your luggage, and arranging them in packing cubes or compression bags can help you stay organized and save an incredible amount of space. It’s even better for wrinkle prone items.”
Develop a toiletry bag taxonomy.
“I carry three different pouches for toiletries: One holds my major shower and grooming stuff (deodorant, razor, face lotion), one holds my toothbrush and toothpaste, and one holds my makeup. This way, I can find what I need easily and pack things away as I’m done with them in the morning.”
To avoid leaving belongings behind. . .
Create a mental checklist.
“My first five years in this job, I literally didn’t leave home without going through my packing list. But now I just ask myself, What are the things I can’t replace or live without? For me, it’s my work ID, my passport, my glasses, my phone, my laptop, and my jewelry. Everything else is expendable, as much as I would hate to lose it.”
Establish a packing and unpacking routine.
“When I get to my hotel room—it doesn’t matter if it’s midnight or two in the afternoon—I always unpack and repack in exactly the same way. For example, I keep a small dish in the external pockets of my suitcase so I can immediately take off my jewelry. I also take out my toiletry bags and my phone chargers and anything I’ll need for the next day.
“Then, when I get up in the morning, I do the reverse. As soon as I get out of bed, I unplug my phone, put my phone cord away, and clear off my nightstand so that I don't have to revisit that part of the room again. I put my pajamas away before I take a shower, not after. Following this system means that I can avoid have to scrounge through my bag to ensure that I’m not leaving any belongings behind. I’ve left one shirt behind over the years because I threw it back on the bed and I forgot to check the covers—never again.”
Establish visual reminders.
“I carry a specific bag for my cords and chargers. When I unpack, I take out all the chargers I need, then leave this bag on my dresser with my room key so in the morning when I’m packing up again, I have a visual reminder: Don’t forget your phone cord.”
To protect items from damage. . .
Play packing Tetris.
“I keep toiletry bags on the left, top side of my suitcase so that I can take them out right when I get to the hotel. No matter how much you protect liquids, every once in a while the cabin pressure gets weird and the tops pop off. Packing this way ensures that nothing gets wet that I don’t want to get wet. Heavy things also go on the left to keep my bag from getting top-heavy. And, of course, securing liquids inside a plastic or resealable bag is always a good idea.”
To avoid lost or stolen luggage. . .
ID your bag, even if you never, ever plan to check it.
“So many bags look alike, so I use a seasonal ribbon system. I just buy ribbon at the fabric store (or cut up an old scarf) and tie it on. Sure, you can buy really neat luggage tags, but many of those even look alike! It doesn’t happen very often, but every once in a while, somebody does walk off with the wrong bag.”
My three must-have travel items:
1. “Bocco Squeezable Travel Bottles have a nice wide mouth so that you can fill them quickly and easily. They come in two sizes, and they’re really soft and squishy so, as you use them and they get emptier, they get smaller. They also have a twist label on top so that you can ID what’s inside—and change it if you fill it with something else later.”
2. “My Mophie charger is the best thing ever. Somebody at the Verizon store recommended it. You can charge it from your laptop with your phone cord and it holds a charge for a week or two if you don’t use it. It’s small, it’s compact, and it charges your phone so quickly.”
3. “I always, always, always have my Tide to Go Mini Instant Stain Remover pen with me—I’ve actually been able to clean red wine out of a passenger’s white coat with it. Amazing.”