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From establishing a packing routine to stocking up on Tide to Go pens

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).

1. Establish a packing/unpacking routine that works for you. Then stick with it.
“I always pack and unpack in exactly the same way. When I get to my hotel room—it doesn’t matter if it’s midnight or two in the afternoon—I follow this process. I keep flip-flops and a small dish in the outside pouch of my suitcase so I can immediately take off my shoes and my jewelry, which I put in the little dish (that way I don’t leave it behind). I take out my toiletry bags and my phone chargers (see tips 2 and 3) and anything I’ll need for the next day.

“When I get up in the morning, I do the reverse. As soon as I get out of bed, I unplug my phone and put my phone cord away. I put my pajamas away before I take a shower, not after. I’ve left one shirt behind over the years because I threw it back on the bed and I forgot to check the covers. I clear off my nightstand right when I get out of bed so that I don't have to revisit that part of the room again.

“I try to handle things only once and try to be efficient, because even if I do have extra time, I don’t want to spend it in confusion—if I stay orderly, I can spend my free time on what I want to spend it on.” 

2. Play packing Tetris.
“I keep toiletry bags on the left side of my suitcase (the bottom when it’s standing up) but at the top 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.”

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3. Develop a toiletry bag taxonomy.
“I carry three different pouches: 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 pack things away as I’m done with them in the morning—my shower bag is ready to be put away before stuff like my toothbrush and my makeup.” 

4. Establish visual reminders. “I have a 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.

5. Find your perfect bag.
“After more than 10 years in this jobI finally have a rolling day bag that I really like. Most small roller day bags have two or three different segmented pockets, and while that looks really cool, you actually can get less in them. The one I have now has one giant compartment and a couple of outside pouches, where I keep my reading glasses, my headset, and a book. This bag actually holds as much, if not more, than my older, compartmentalized bag. 

6. Rolling is the only way to . . . roll (of course). 
“Most modern suitcases have those bars at the bottom that create a dip in between. If you pack things flat, you don’t fully use that space. But if you roll things up, they fit right down into the crevice between those bars.

“I’m also an advocate for small bags for small things, like socks, charger cords, and underwear. Ziploc baggies work well, too, because they’re so lightweight—the travel bags you can buy are nice, but can have some weight and bulk to them.”

7. ID your bag, even if you never, ever plan to check it.
So many bags look alike, especially black ones, 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. And, sure, you can buy really neat luggage tags, but everyone has them! I’ve seen so many ‘Mine not yours’ tags.

“Do it even if you always carry on. On our planes, you have to leave bigger suitcases with A La Carte, and on the bigger jets, you’ll often be asked to gate check it and you’ve suddenly lost control of your bag. It doesn’t happen very often, but every once in a while, somebody does walk off with the wrong bag.”

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8. Try these ingenious travel bottles.
“I recently converted to Bocco Squeezable Travel Bottles. I’ve tried everything and these are the best. They 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.”

9. Create a mental checklist.
“My first five years in this job, I literally didn’t leave home without going through a checklist, but now I just ask myself, What are the things I can’t replace or live without? My work ID, my contacts and glasses, my phone and cord, my laptop, and my jewelry. Everything else is expendable, as much as I would hate to lose it. And I always take my hotel key to the front desk rather than leave it in the room, in case I forget anything and need to get back in.” 

10. Never travel without a charge booster.
“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.”

11. . . . Or a Tide to Go pen
“I always, always, always have my Tide bleach pen with me—I’ve actually been able to clean red wine out of a passenger’s white coat with it. They just came out with a new one that you can use on colored fabrics. It’s called Tide to Go Mini Instant Stain Remover. They’re amazing.”

>>Next: What It’s Really, Truly Like to Be a Flight Attendant