They are common sights at airports: Someone frantically transferring items from one bag to another in order to dodge a steep "overweight baggage" charge. International travelers sitting on suitcases, trying to get them closed after a customs official had ordered them opened for inspection. And who hasn't arrived at their destination only to discover that in the confusion of packing they left some essential item on a bed back home?
There are ways to avoid these problems.
Susan Foster, author of Smart Packing for Today's Traveler (Smart Travel, 2000) says one of the biggest mistakes people make is not planning.
She recommends packing about two days before you travel, to avoid the last-minute panic that makes you dump the contents of your closet into your carry-on. "Mix and match your clothes," she said. "Then edit your bag."
"Editing" involves figuring out possible clothing combinations and coordinating your outfits with your itinerary. After that, do a trial run, packing everything into your bag to see whether it fits, and making a list of what you are packing as you go.
"The perfect travel wardrobe is made up of things you like to wear, things that are comfortable, versatile, and appropriate for your destination," she wrote. "If you take things you love, you'll feel good about packing less."
Steve Frazier-Rice and his wife, Tara, spent seven months traveling around the world, with monthlong stops in China, Ireland, France and Peru, among other countries. They hauled all their belongings - including hiking boots, dress shoes, clothing and a stack of guidebooks - in two 6,000-cubic-inch bags (each about the size of a very large duffle). These days, Frazier-Rice, the manager of Ashland, Ore.-based Travel Essentials, uses soft-sided packing cubes to keep his clothes organized inside his luggage, and buys clothing that is specifically designed to be used while traveling.
"Travel clothes are wrinkle-resistant, really lightweight, or pack down really small," he explained, though not all items have all three qualities. Figure out what clothes you want to bring, write them down, then buy their travel equivalents, he suggested. For example, a pair of nylon-polyester-rayon-blend travel pants takes up less room than a pair of denim jeans and is far more versatile.
Clothes that can be easily mixed and matched help you get the most out of your travel wardrobe, and doing laundry on the road (or in your hotel bathroom) enables you to pack less, Frazier-Rice points out. "At home, you don't have seven or eight months' worth of clothes," he said. "The only difference between packing for one week or four weeks is four loads of laundry."
Traveling with small children poses a different set of packing problems, since a typical toddler can easily run through two or three shirts in a day. Foster suggests using resealable plastic bags to organize kids' clothes by outfit - it makes things easier to find and, as a bonus, the bags keep muddy or messy clothes separated in the suitcase.
For children and adults, it's a good idea to take more tops than pants, specialists say. On a trip to Italy several years ago, Evelyn Johnson of Lithonia, Ga., recalls lugging two huge suitcases around for 12 days - and much of what she had packed she didn't use. "I took too many pairs of slacks, too many pairs of shoes," she said.
Since many women like to wear certain shoes with certain outfits, packing too many pairs is common. You don't need more than three pairs, most of the advice says - and that includes comfortable, preferably slip-on shoes you wear on the plane. Flip-flops for beach, pool or shower don't count toward the quota, Foster wrote, mostly because they take up so little room. Also, if you are in a hotel with a common bathroom, they are essential for staving off nasty foot fungi.
Helen DePass, who lives in Miami and works as a supervisor for a cruise line, remembers one guest who came on board with 28 pairs of shoes for her weeklong trip. Her husband teased her the whole time and, DePass said, "For spite, she made sure she wore every single pair."
When she started going on cruises, DePass said, "I would figure I needed five outfits for five days." She packed two large suitcases and "many, many pairs of shoes" for her first trip - a seven-day cruise. She quickly learned how to pack more efficiently.
Since she often travels on standby, she keeps a small bag in the trunk of her car. In it, she has rolled together a swimsuit, a wrap, a couple of pairs of dress pants, a simple black evening dress, a pair of longer-length shorts, three casual shirts and one skirt. She takes two pairs of shoes - one dressy, both comfortable - and some simple makeup. That's it. She recently embarked on a 16-day cruise with only 15 minutes' notice and that small bag. If she needed anything else, she said, she figured she would pick things up as she went along.