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How to Pack Your Luggage Like a Pro

Overweight and disorganized is no way to start a trip.

Don’t get huffy. I’m only talking about your luggage.

In an era when even a simple bag can cause surcharges and tempers to escalate, there’s a lot of pressure to pack it right. So before you pull that suitcase down again, consider this advice from some hardcore travelers.

Ditch the heavy bag. If it weighs a ton when it’s empty, your beloved suitcase may be the primary cause of a heavy-bag surcharge.

“I have a set of Andiamo luggage worth several thousand dollars,” says Frank Morgan, vice president of sales and marketing for AMT American Express Travel and the answer man at AskDocTravel.com. “And what I’ve been traveling with for the last few months is a duffel bag with wheels from Costco.”

The duffel is appreciably lighter than Morgan’s pricier bags, meets the carry-on standard, and if it disintegrates, it’ll cost a less-than-whopping $38 for a new one.

Get the right bag for your clothes. It’s okay if a duffel isn’t your thing, but don’t buy a bag that’s wrong for the clothes you typically bring on a trip, says frequent business traveler Ken Walker, a technical trainer for Oracle, who hosts a blog at AllBusiness.com.

“Get a bag with the compartment size that best fits your needs,” says Walker. "Having a bunch of extra space in a suitcase allows the contents to shift and move around, potentially breaking, wrinkling, or leaking the contents inside.”

Do the fridge test. Toni Vitanza, a flight attendant in a major U.S. hub for the last 12 years, primarily dedicates this carry-on advice to the ladies: “If you can’t lift it into an overhead bin all by yourself, fully packed, and get it down all by yourself, with the shoes on that you will actually wear, you must check it.”

Put on the shoes you plan to wear on board, Vitanza says, and see if you can hoist your packed bag on and off your refrigerator. If you can’t reach the bag in your flats, or you teeter in heels, rethink your choices, she says, especially since “bags falling or being dropped on their way into and out of bins is the number one cause of injury on airplanes." She added that “these bags never hit the head of the people they belong to. Never. I rescued a lap infant from being crushed by a bag falling from a bin.”

Choose shoes you can use. Traveling women need to let themselves off the hook, Vitanza says, when it comes to thinking that people in other destinations notice how often they change their shoes.

“Think of those gorgeous Parisian and Roman woman. They have tiny closets and two pairs of shoes,” Vitanza offers, adding that men in most situations should be able to get by with packing one pair of nice loafers. Walker would add a pair of sneakers to that, while Morgan, who periodically escorts large well-heeled groups of clients to Europe, says men should limit themselves to walking shoes, dress shoes, and slip-ons dedicated to security checkpoints and long flights.

Roll with it. Do as backpackers do and roll your clothes, suggests Amanda Hoffman, public relations manager for Expedia.

“While not everyone can stick to the bare minimum, regardless of what you take, rolling can help save precious packing space. T-shirts can fit nicely into shoes using this method,” she says. Walker, who usually travels for a week at a time, favors an aggressive rolling strategy: “Take all of the shirts you plan to pack, and hang them next to each other in your closet, largest or heaviest shirt on the left to the lightest shirt on the right. Then hang your trousers to the right of your shirts. Take all of the hangers together in one bundle and move them from the closet to the bed, taking care to lay them out so the biggest/heaviest shirt is now on the bottom and your pants are on top."

"Lay out any ties, belts, or scarves on top of the pile, then fold the arms of the shirts across so they seem to be ‘hugging’ the pants. Finally, start at the top with the coat hangers, and roll/fold down toward the base. You should get two solid folds in and your hangers will be in the middle of the bundle. Drop your bundle in your suitcase and you're ready to go. When you get to your destination, all you have to do is unroll your bundle and hang up your clothes on your own hangers. You'll be unpacked and wrinkle free in seconds.”

Learn how to hold your liquid. The Transportation Security Administration’s 3-1-1 rule limits each of us to carrying on liquids in 3 ounce bottles (or less) that fit into one quart-sized bag, yet Vitanza says many travelers fill it with unnecessary items, like powdered make-up.

“That's a major mistake people make with the TSA zippy. Your toothpaste goes in there; not toothpowder, nor your toothbrush. Liquid lip gloss goes in there; not lipstick. Roll-on deodorant has to go in there, not solid deodorant.”

Further, Vitanza says you can spare yourself the expense of buying specialized 3 ounce containers by asking the clerk at your local photo place for some of those empty film canisters. You can load as many as will fit into your quart bag. Just don’t fill the canisters all the way, as they’ll burst at high altitudes.

Speaking of which, Walker cautions travelers against shoving carbonated beverages into their checked baggage.

“I fly to Colorado and to San Francisco a lot and they both have lots of great microbreweries and the temptation to bring home a six-pack of a locally brewed beer for my wife to try is always there. The trouble is, some baggage compartments on airplanes are pressurized and some are not. You're taking a pretty big risk that your new beers will explode all over the contents of your suitcase.”

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