• Donna Zabel

Packing in the Little Bag--It Is Possible!

Updated: Dec 27, 2020

“PacPhoto by Vaibhav Kashyap

Packing Light” has become the new mantra. No one wants to pay baggage fees. No one wants lost luggage. No one wants to be embarrassed when it is their bag that won’t fit in the overhead and the flight attendant takes if off for checking in the cargo hold. How do some people travel for one, even two, weeks with only a 22 by 13 by 9 inches’ bag?

Men have it easy. Two pairs of pants, several sport shirts or polo shirts, one long-sleeved dress shirt, shorts and sandals if the destination is warm, maybe a bathing suit, some underwear and they are set. Even toiletries are easy. There is no hair gel or special conditioner or makeup to worry about. No need to leave room for a curling iron.

It’s not as easy for women, but doable without looking like a refugee from a college dorm. Before ever pulling out the little suitcase it is important to remember two things. First, accept that at some point you will wish you had that pretty sweater that looked so nice when you went out with friends several weeks ago. Forget it—no need to take up precious space for a once-worn item. Second, when the trip is over, no one is going to remember how many times you wore those pants, or even what they looked like. Unless you are on assignment for the New York Times fashion section, no one really cares. Brutal but true.

Everyone who travels a lot has their own process. There is no one right way, but there are a few general rules that many travelers follow, including me.

First, I start thinking about what to take before I start packing. Sometimes I just stare at the closet while brushing my teeth. I think about what the weather will be and what I’ve planned to do. Packing for a Caribbean vacation is different than packing for a week in Europe.

Second, I pick one main color. For Europe that almost always means black, with white shirts, colorful scarves and a red shirt or sweater to brighten it up. It’s amazing how many outfits are possible with a basic black skirt (or two—one knee length for daytime sightseeing and another longer for evening), a couple of black pants, and a black jacket. Treat yourself to a beautiful Italian or French scarf and you are dressed for any occasion. Or add some funky wild beads, or strands of fake pearls.

For the Caribbean or South Pacific, it is probably blue: nice travel jeans, light blue cotton or denim skirt, a pretty dress or two for evening. Thin blouses or crinkly tops pack well, are great for hot and humid weather, and take up very little room. Avoid T-shirts. They are heavy, do not dry quickly, and look sloppy in humid climates.

Think carefully about shoes. For warm destinations, I take a pair of comfortable walking sandals, a pair of dressier sandals, and a pair of water shoes if beaches are part of the trip. For Europe I am partial to a sturdy Mary Jane style of walking shoe with good insoles for the day and simple pumps for evening. Whatever style works for you, the daytime shoes must be comfortable and sturdy enough to stand up to hours of abuse. This is not the place to skimp.

Think layers, especially when traveling between climates. That doesn’t have to mean multiple bulky sweaters. For me it is silk camisoles and turtlenecks as my first layer, and then wool pullovers. Or lightweight, warm, and wonderfully soft cashmere. And always a scarf which can be extra insulation for the neck if cold, an accessory for a bad hair day, or a head cushion on a long flight.

My all-time favorite travel accessories are vests. Print or solid, they pull an outfit together and can add that extra layer of warmth while still looking fashionable. I love my print vests. Add one to the basic black pants, white or colored shirts or turtleneck, black jacket and the look is polished. Try it over a long-tailed shirt with stretchy travel jeans and look hip. A wool knit vest can give the extra warmth needed without the bulk of a big sweater. Experiment.

Choose your coat or jacket carefully. For European touring that usually means my black trench coat with a zip in-zip out lining. For adventure travel I rely on a favorite jacket consisting of a water-resistant shell with a detachable lining that doubles as a fleece jacket.

A recent option to streamline packing is the new convertible jackets. They have enough pockets to qualify as another carryon. Carry documents, electronic devices, a notebook, money, odds and ends, in some 20-30 pockets. When the jacket is too warm, just zip off the sleeves and wear it as a vest. But beware—I once spent a half an hour trying to find the pocket with my credit card!

Leave everything home that will be available at your hotel. That includes hair dryer, and some toiletries. Pour those "must have" lotions in little containers. (I get a few empty sample containers from the makeup counter and fill them with my own stuff.) Pack a few single use packets of detergent for washing out underwear or quick-dry shirts.

Once I’ve got an idea of my wardrobe, I lay everything out on the bed before packing. I look at my itinerary and eliminate all the “maybe” items. When it’s down to basics, I start packing.

Some people are folders, others are rollers. I do both. Socks and other small items get stuffed into the shoes or little corners. Knits and soft items get rolled and form the bottom layer. Blouses or shirts are folded and usually end up in the top mesh top pocket of my suitcase. Contact travel information, including a card with the address of my local destination, goes in an outside pocket, along with some reading material. My liquids baggie is handy for TSA inspection.

Then I remove the cat, and throw in a sticky roll to remove the inevitable cat hair on my black skirt, and I’m ready to go.


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