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Packing Light: How Not To Bring Everything You Own

The other day, I got sent a question from Mibell, an intrepid Window Seat reader at the end of her rope. Frustrated with overpacking every time she takes a vacation, she’s desperately seeking an answer to the following question:

“How does one “pack lightly”? I know it should seem so simple, but I am just not capable of doing so. I have not traveled extensively (yet), so far have only been to the Philippines once, Mexico three times, and within California and Oregon. And every single time, I pack as if I’m moving and am prepared for anything in between a blizzard and a heat wave. If I’m traveling for a week, somehow I pack two weeks worth of clothes and many, many pairs of shoes (what if we go to the beach? I need flip-flops? What if I exercise? I need tennis shoes! What if we go out for a nice dinner? I need heels!) However, I have a new goal to go see at least one new country, city, or state per year, and I know that being unencumbered by so much stuff might make it a bit easier and more enjoyable. But at the same time, I don’t want to be unprepared – I’m a bit “Type-A” like that. Help!”

Well, Mibell: welcome to the club! I’m a persistent overpacker myself. Scratch that, I’m actually more of a recovering persistent overpacker, as every time I travel, I’m constantly trying to pick up tips and tricks for bringing less. Read on for a few ways to lighten the load.

* Get organized—SUPER organized: The old adage goes that you should lay everything you want to take out on your bed and then put half of it away. Well, I’ve tried it, but I somehow seem to keep sneaking stuff in afterwards. (“Oh wait, but I really need this shirt! I know I just put it back in the closet, but….”) My plan these days—and don’t laugh, I know it’s a little dorky—is to write down everything I think I’ll need (“green Gap skirt, new gold shoes”—honestly, be as detailed as you can) on one page, and then try and formulate outfits for each day of my vacation on the other. Yes, it’s possibly a little too Type-A for most people, but it really helps you pare down and figure out what you’ll need and what you won’t.

* Stage a dress rehearsal: Once you know what you’re taking, set aside an hour before you pack to try it all on. You’ll weed out things that don’t actually fit or go together, and you’ll feel confident that yes, you actually are bringing enough stuff.

* Be really, really, really honest with yourself: Alright, the hotel has a gym, but are you actually going to go to it? I can’t tell you how often I’ve dragged my sneakers across continents with the best of intentions, and then ended up never even removing them from my suitcase, because what? The treadmill? When I could be lying on a beach reading? Are you crazy?

* Get as much info as you can about the place you’ll be going: Listen, there’s no point bringing your winter jacket just in case it gets cold. Eliminate the just-in-cases and email a friend or acquaintance who lives in—or has been to—the place you’re visiting. If you’re going to be seeing people you know, inquire as to whether they’ve got a spare raincoat/pair of hiking boots/evening gown you could borrow should you need to. Knowing what you’ll be doing on your vacation is 90% of the battle: then you don’t have to pack for every eventuality.

* Bulk up on the plane: Alright, so you’re visiting Minnesota in December—you probably do need that big puffy jacket. But don’t pack it—wear it (or carry it) while you travel. Same goes for boots and big fluffy sweaters. Then you’ll free up space for things you do need.

* Stick with old favorites: Don’t be tempted to pack stuff you’ve never worn before—go with the oldies and goodies that you know will do the trick. Hey, if those black pants have never failed you before, they won’t this time: no need to bring the newer “back-up” pair as well. (Plus, if your new stuff ends up not working out, you’re just going to be tempted to go out during your trip and buy a replacement. And that means you’ll have even more stuff to squish into your suitcase on the way home.)

* Bag it up: When I travel these days, I try and separate my clothes into piles—shirts, skirts, pants, etc—and then place each pile into a plastic bag. It not only helps me keep track of what I’m bringing (which means less likelihood of bringing too much) but it also helps me feel supremely organized, since I always know what’s where.

* If in doubt, don’t bring it: Seriously. Just don’t. If there’s even the tiniest glimmer of “but wait, will I really need it?”, put the item back in the closet immediately. You should be 100% confident that everything you’re bringing will be used or worn at least once during your trip. (Um, except for underwear, I guess. That’s kind of a whole ‘nother story.)

Hope that helps, Mibell! And if anyone else has their own how-to-pack-less tips, feel free to share them in the comments.

(Got a travel question of your own? Send it to and I’ll answer on the blog.)




Wait. I thought EVERYONE made packing lists. Before every trip, I not only write down what I’m bringing, but I categorize it into outfits (including jewelry), and after that I assign that outfit a day. And then I pack in the chronological order of what I’ll be wearing when, AND THEN I pack my list, too.

Of course, I often end up mixing and matching and wearing Wednesday’s outfit on Sunday, but it’s the thought that counts, right? Eh, right?


The best advice I have about packing light is to leave the actual packing until as late as possible. I was a terrible packer until I started doing this. If you start packing at least a day before, you’ll keep adding things in your case that you think you better bring just in case, but you actually won’t use at all.

Also, if you’re checking a bag, bring as little in your carry on as possible. This will mean that you have extra room in case you buy anything.

Oh, and putting stuff in bags totally helps too. It’s a total life saver throughout the entire trip, especially if you’re living out of a suitcase for weeks as you won’t have to repack everything so much to stay organized.


I find shoes tend to take up a ridiculous amount of room, so now I try to limit those by determining what shoes I’ll REALLY need (see Holly’s tip re. being honest) and then planning clothes around those. For many trips, a pair of nice black flats and a pair of flip flops might suffice.


i’m all about comfortable clothes in fabrics that don’t need to be ironed like cotton or jersey. because then you can also roll it up and it takes less space! i also favor more plainer pieces and go with bold jewelry for making your “statement.” i also look at the hotel i’m staying at or friends i’m staying with and inquire about the essentials like say a blowdryer or towels or body lotion. if they have it, i don’t pack it!

karen diamond

I can actually pack for just about any week vacation by putting EVERYTHING in the zip lock bags that you lie on to get the air out-not the ones that need to be vacuumed. I can get everything I need: 2 pair pants (one black), several shirts, bathing suit and coverup, knit dress, undies, nightie, shorts if needed, only essential cosmetics (I rely on hotel shampoo, etc.) in a few of these bags in different sizes and all fits in my carry on. I wear a jacket, my walking shoes, jeans or bulkiest pants and pack only one other pair of dressy shoes and sandals. I always carry one or two more of these bags and replace them when the “zip lock” gets worn or they don’t close easily. You can get them at a AAA store, QVC, or good travel store. They are usually about $20 for a set of 6 and are essential for packing. You won’t believe what you can cram into them and clothes don’t get wrinkled if folded like you’d put them on a shelf.


I assume everyone already knows to stuff shoes with socks and underwear? Really helps with shoes’ annoying space-eating tendencies.


Wow! You all have such great advice – and thank you Holly for posting my question. You all are so very organized you put me to shame – I only make a list if going away on a really long trip and not nearly as detailed as which shirt and which pant – usually the list will say “clothes” “toiletries” “swimsuit”, etc.

I lay out my clothes on the bed, but then sneak in several more outfits “just in case”, which I almost never end up needing.

Looks like my main problem is not being selective enough, or maybe I just need a better list :-)


I’m another overpacker who uses lists to help narrow down the items to pack. Although the list also helps keep me from forgetting important items.

Realistically, most places I travel have stores and shopping. If I really needed an unexpected item, I can just go buy it. Not that most of us have money to throw away, but this can really help combat the “just in case” packing phenomenon. I think I’ve only gone out and purchased one item in the last 20 trips. In fact, three of us got caught with an unexpected cold snap in San Francisco and had to go buy coats. Found a really warm one (though not to stylish) for under $20. (Not an uncommon thing in SFO, from what I hear.)

I absolutely agree with packing an extra duffel or small backpack. This has been a real lifesaver in the past.

Another trick I’ve used is shipping a small box of stuff back to myself to lighten the return load. With the current airline fees, this is more economical than ever. Usually the hotel can find a box for you to use (and tape), especially if you ask them a day or two in advance.


I would like to take big bottles of contact solution,and a big thing of facewash!

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