If the fashion police in Condé Nast Traveler's Style Department were to peek inside my luggage, they would have me arrested. They'd find few if any designer labels or logos—only inconspicuous clothing that helps me blend in at my destination; if drab is what the locals wear, it's what I wear. They'd find no expensive jewelry or watches that could turn me into a target of petty thieves or customs officials. They'd spot few primary colors or patterned fabrics; most of my travel clothing is solid black, khaki, or white, so I can mix and match and thus pack light and avoid checking luggage.
You can't be a slave to the fashionistas when you're a slave to the overhead storage bin. No way will I pay a fee to check baggage, or let a weighty carry-on slow me down. That's why the closest I'll ever get to a gorgeous leather duffel with gold buckles is the Gucci catalog. The style police will just have to cite me for the water-resistant ballistic nylon that covers my unchic and well-worn carry-on wheelie and my even more unchic combination pocketbook/laptop case/camera bag. As for what's inside the wheelie, forget bulky toiletry kits, designer jewelry cases, or padded lingerie pouches. Ziplocs are this girl's best friend. You'll find a bunch of these weightless, bulk-less, transparent, zip-top bags in my wheelie, holding everything from toiletries to extension cords to camera batteries. And, instead of some fancy garment holder, you'll find my business clothing and formalwear encased in plastic dry cleaner bags—the best wrinkle preventers I know.
My system may not be stylish, but it has stood the test of hundreds of thousands of air miles. Not only can I fit all my casual outdoor clothing, dress-up attire, and considerable electronic gear into one wheelie and one laptop bag, but I can find anything at a moment's notice and nothing gets wrinkled. For those of you who value utility over fashion, here is the unvarnished truth about what my wheelie looks like when you open it . . . and how yours can look that way too.
1. Use a carry-on with few structured compartments or other doodads
I'm all for manifold zippered pockets in a laptop bag, but I've found them—along with internal straps, sleeves, hangers, and other organizers—to be a drawback in a wheelie. Wide-open space lets you squeeze more in and weighs less. My 22-inch Travelpro Rollaboard—which I have been forced to check only rarely, on certain flights between or within foreign countries—has external expandable zippered compartments, and that's about it. In those outside pockets I place garments that I will need easy access to in transit—typically my jacket, sweater (for warmth on the plane), and pashmina shawl (which doubles as an airplane blanket)—and that I can throw on, should the bulging pocket ever cause the carry-on to exceed the allowed dimensions (not all airports, airlines, security stations, and gates use the same size restrictions or enforce them consistently).
2. Think of the zip-top bag as the Swiss Army Knife of your packing system
All of the stuff that other travelers place in the aforementioned internal compartments, I place in Ziploc bags. One holds my liquids, gels, and creams in containers of three ounces or less. Another holds dry toiletries, another my makeup, another electronic accessories (cables, chargers, anything I don't need at my fingertips in my handbag). I carry a couple of spare Ziplocs for use during the trip—say, for holding a wet bathing suit. If I've made purchases and need to free up space in the wheelie, I'll roll up some wrinkle-free clothing (e.g., a wool sweater), stick it in a gallon-size Ziploc, squeeze out every bit of air, and—like magic—the sweater's size is halved. I even fill a sandwich-size Ziploc with stuff I may need during the flight (eyedrops, nasal spray, hand cream, lip balm, earplugs, eye mask, vitamin C—my version of a business-class amenities kit) and place it inside the Ziploc that holds my three-ounce liquids, then remove it post-security and place it in my handbag for the flight. When I'm not on the road, the Ziplocs holding my travel-size toiletries sit at home in the closet. I never empty them; I just save them for the next trip.
3. Stick to neutral colors, and limit patterns as much as possible
The inside of your luggage should not look like a Jackson Pollock painting. I pack a lot of black (partly because you can't tell if it's dirty) and then add color or pattern in the form of an accessory such as a scarf or shawl—a snazzy silk one in warm weather, a pashmina in cold. I'll keep it in my handbag and use it as needed throughout the day, depending on whether I'm in a poor area (in which case I take it off) or checking into a hotel (in which case I put it on). I can wear it on my head if it starts to rain or if I'm entering a mosque in the Middle East or a Catholic church in Ireland.
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4. Pack old garments that you've been meaning to replace
I often pack clothes that I was about to throw out, then discard them (or give them to the needy) mid-trip, freeing up space for clothing I buy locally.
5. Go light on items you plan to shop for during your trip.
Whatever you hope to acquire—a hat in Panama, ski socks in Austria—don't bring them from home. The advantages of buying clothing during a trip are many: You gain insight into the destination when you shop like a local, you show respect for the culture and help sustain it when you buy and wear local garb, you can usually get inexpensive and comfortable outfits suited to the weather, and bargaining is made easier, since merchants will see your attire and assume you know what the price should be.
6. Pack toiletries that are not only travel-size but also multi-purpose
No need to carry little bottles of liquid detergent because you can buy tiny biodegradable soap sheets for doing laundry in the sink. You can also cut down on other liquids by packing moisturizer with SPF in it and travel-size packs of Neutrogena makeup-remover pads. My husband even uses the lather from Pert shampoo-plus-conditioner as his shaving cream. As for solids, I place non-prescription pills into one small container, consolidating a few Tylenol, Motrin, Sudafed, Imodium, vitamins, and anything else I need. Always leave prescription pills in their original bottles, though, in case the authorities question you about their provenance.
7. Remember to save those plastic bags from the dry cleaner
Garments come back from the cleaners on wire hangers, covered in plastic, and that's how they should go into your luggage, as long as each item is encased in its own plastic. (Wrinkles are caused when certain fabrics rub up against other fabrics; plastic significantly reduces that friction, as does tissue paper, which is why sticking tissue in the sleeves of folded garments also helps prevent wrinkles.) Hold all the hangers in one hand, then fold the layers two or three times, so that they lie flat atop everything else in your wheelie. (As the trip progresses and your garments get worn and no longer need to be kept wrinkle-free, throw out the hangers.) As for dress shirts, men should leave them in their dry-cleaning packaging (cardboard in the collar and all).
8. Wear your heaviest or bulkiest shoes to the airport so you needn't pack them
I usually wear my sturdy, super-comfortable walking shoes to the airport and pack no more than two pairs of footwear: either sneakers or sandals (depending on the trip) and a dressy pair. I stuff the packed shoes with socks or underwear and place them inside plastic grocery bags (they're cheaper than shoe bags and won't wrinkle fabrics they touch).
9. Fold clothing so as to avoid creases
At the bottom of my wheelie, below the layer of Ziploc bags and shoes, sit my casual clothes. To keep these from creasing, fold them in overlapping layers so that they cushion each other. For instance, lay the top half of a pair of pants along the bottom of the wheelie, with the bottom half draped over one side. Place the upper half of a sweater on top. Top with a pile of T-shirts. Then fold the bottom of the pants over the pile. Then fold the bottom of the sweater over the pants. Voilà: no creases. Whenever you're forced to fold a suit jacket or blazer—say, to stuff into the overhead bin—minimize wrinkles by turning it inside out first. Hold the jacket facing you, then turn the collar and lapel away from you and put your hands inside the shoulders. Turn the left shoulder inside out. Tuck the right shoulder inside the left. The lining should be facing out on both sides of the jacket. Fold it in half and place it at the top of your bag or slide it into the overhead bin above your wheelie.
10. On any vacation, you're likely to get wet, so take the right outerwear
Far preferable to a wool coat is a thin, hooded Gore-Tex jacket. It's waterproof, wrinkle-resistant, breathable, and great for a range of temperatures. It has multiple internal zippered pockets where you can put your wallet, passport, and other valuables, so that no pickpocket can get to them (making a neck pouch or fanny pack unnecessary—for which the style police will thank me). It also means you needn't carry an umbrella, and it fits in your wheelie's outside pocket.
11. Carry two or three accessories that instantly dress you up and send a signal to airport and hotel employees that you're a professional
Gone are the days when you could finagle an airline upgrade by wearing a suit, but looking like a serious business traveler still pays off in any number of airport situations, and it can certainly get you upgraded at a hotel. I achieve this effect by wearing three items that weigh virtually nothing and take up no space: elegant pearl earrings, a matching necklace, and the aforementioned silk scarf. For my husband, the equivalent items are a Rolex, Mephisto shoes, and a Montblanc pen clipped to his shirt pocket.
12. Pack a thin, lightweight duffel bag
I always pack a LeSportsac nylon duffel in case I accumulate so many purchases that they can't all fit in my wheelie. In that case, for the flight home, the duffel becomes my carry-on and I check the sturdier wheelie.
13. Remember that the best status symbols of all are tiny and plastic
I won't leave home without my frequent-flier elite-status card, my hotel frequent-guest cards, and my fancy credit card that gives me airport lounge club membership and priority at check-in, in the security line, and at boarding. These cards do me more good in transit, I've found, than any designer ensemble I might wear. My credit card, a Continental Presidential Plus MasterCard, also waives checked-baggage fees on Continental flights for my whole family (up to two bags per person) when we travel together and have no choice but to check bags. Other airline-branded credit cards that let the cardholder and his or her companions check bags for free (one bag per person) on those carriers are the Continental OnePass Plus MasterCard and the Gold, Platinum, and Reserve Delta SkyMiles American Express cards. A family of four can save $200 per trip this way.