Visit any airport ticket counter and you will see that we are nation of overpackers. Bags bulge like stuffed chipmunk cheeks. Towers of luggage lean precariously and sometimes come tumbling down. Panicked passengers reshuffle items last-minute to avoid the airlines' extra-weight surcharges.
"It's a suitcase, not a closet," says Leslie Willmott, founder of the website Smart Women on the Go. Willmott lives out of a 22-inch TravelPro rolling suitcase, which she has pulled all over Europe, including weekslong trips to France and Italy. By traveling light and compact, she can move like a pronghorn through airports, navigate narrow train cars and fit in spatially challenged elevators. She indulges her maximalist side only on cruises, a static vacation.
Her first step to packing starts with a blank calendar page and pen. She jots down the places she is visiting, the forecast weather in each destination and the planned activities for each day. She bases her wardrobe on these categories and never strays down the dark road of speculation.
"You really need to avoid the . . . 'But what if I am asked to this event?' " she said.
One of the biggest hurdles to overcome is the idea of repeat wears. Unless you are visiting Cannes, you can don the same articles of clothing several times per trip. Carry a stain remover to erase spills and smudges, hand-wash items in the sink or use a laundering service.
Willmott builds a capsule wardrobe of separates centered on a neutral color. She picks versatile pieces (comfy favorites, never new and untested) that she can combine in a variety of looks. She sticks to a formula of two bottoms (pants or skirts) and four to six tops (tank, T-shirt, light sweater, etc.) for a one-week trip. The algorithm, by the way, is unisex.
For many packers, footwear is an Achilles' heel. "You need the shoe police," Willmott said. Men should aim for two pair: a walking or fitness shoe and a loafer or brogue for more polished occasions. Women can get by on three pairs. Comfort and support trump flair, says Willmott.
Folding vs. rolling
"There are your rollers," Willmott said, "and there are your folders." Most people, however, are hybrids. Willmott rolls her knit shirts, nightgowns and workout wear and tucks smaller items into the nooks and crannies of her luggage.
For larger pieces, she practices the art of interfolding. She layers pants and shirts like a parfait and then folds them over to create a bundle. The technique saves space and also prevents creases. Travelers concerned about elephant wrinkles in their clothes can wrap them in plastic dry-cleaner bags before folding or place plastic between each piece.
Travel product companies promote packing aides, such as cubes, folders, mesh bags and compression sacks. The inventions help travelers organize their garments and eliminate wasted space. Eagle Creek, a travel goods supplier, runs a blog dedicated to packing tips. Sample entries: "7 Ways to Save Space When Packing for Women" and "What are the Best Uses of Eagle Creek Pack-It Cubes?" But Willmott embraces plain-old plastic. She covers each shoe with a supermarket vegetable bag and seals her undergarments in zip-top plastic bags. For larger apparel, she uses Ziploc's Space Bags, which compress air and flatten the parcel.
"The goal is to keep things light," she said. "Plastic is the way to go." To load your luggage, place the heavier pieces on the bottom (by the wheels). Also, don't stuff the lid with weighty items or the bag could tip over.
Willmott purchases travel-size toiletries and collects free cosmetic samples. For beauty kings and queens who must have their salon conditioner, divvy up and conquer: Pour smaller quantities into mini-containers and place a square of plastic wrap under the cap. With a limited wardrobe, you can't afford a leak.
Two bags allowed
Only Snoopy can manage one piece of luggage; the rest of us need two.
The secondary carrier is for high-priority objects, such as passport, wallet, medications, smartphone, chargers and in-transit entertainment. But don't treat the supplementary bag like a toy chest. For electronics, select the gadget that combines all of your communications, mapping and Internet needs. Also, reconsider that camera that hangs like a kettlebell around your neck.
You can further slim down your bag by recycling or donating your books, magazines and newspapers. As you gain room during your travels, flaunt your bag's lightness by swinging it in the air -- or slowly refilling it with souvenirs.