The Only Packing Tips You Need to Know

If you’ve never missed a flight in your life, you’re spending too much time in airports, says travel specialist and frequent flyer Gary Leff. Life’s too short to wait at a baggage carousel—so here’s how to pack, what to pack, how to bring it onboard, and how to get through the airport quickly.

1. INVEST IN A GOOD CARRY-ON BAG

Well-constructed bags will stand up to hundreds of flights, whether they’re stowed in the overhead bin or checked down below. The lighter and more versatile, the better.

2. WRINKLES ARE FOR AMATEURS

There are great ways to pack clothes without wrinkling them; I’ve never been any good at most of them. Environmentalists cringe at running a steaming hot shower with the bathroom door closed to get out creases from luggage. So I bring a bottle of Downey Wrinkle Releaser in my liquids bag everywhere I go. A few spritzes and wrinkles come out well. I try not to overpack, or keep clothes packed for too long, and the wrinkles aren’t usually that bad to begin with.

3. PACKING IS A LAST-MINUTE EXERCISE

I don’t keep a “go bag” pre-packed. For most people, trips are different enough—length, climate, attire, schedule (day only? Evening?) that one pre-packed bag just doesn’t make sense. I keep the clothing I travel with in one area, along with the electronics I only take on trips (compact power strip, extra cords for charging devices) and my travel-sized liquids, and that lets me pack in under five minutes.

4. DON’T PAY CHECKED BAG FEES

Most airlines now charge for checked bags—but they don’t charge everyone. An airline’s frequent flyers (and often, the frequent flyers of their airline partners as well) will get fees waived; and so will most airline co-brand credit card holders. If you fly an airline frequently, but not enough to earn status (such as flying 25,000 on that airline and its partners in a year) consider signing up for the airline’s credit card. It may save you money, and also help you board earlier to ensure you have overhead space.

5. CHECK YOUR CARRY-ON SIZE (AND YOUR AIRCRAFT BIN SIZE)

Most airlines allow 21-inch carry-on bags, but not all 21-inch bags are created equal. You want one that will fit in your airline’s ‘bin sizer’ by the gate so you aren’t forced to check a bag you want to carry on. Many regional aircraft have small bins that won’t fit a rollaboard bag and you’ll have to check it plane-side. You’ll get the bag back plane-side when you land as well, but you don’t want to pack valuable items or sensitive electronics in bags that will have to get checked.

6. PACK A FIRST-DAY BAG

If you’re connecting, keep everything you need for the first day of your trip in your carry-on. Connections add increased complexity and risk of bag loss. Odds are if your bag is lost, it will make it on the next flight, but you might not have the bag back for a day (or longer, in more remote destinations). Carry key personal items (medicine, basic toiletries, documents) and an immediate change of clothing in your carry-on, if possible.

7. CHECK IN ONLINE

If you’re flying an international airline, check in online (or they may make you check your bag). Many international airlines have weight limits on carry-on bags—that they enforce—so the roller bag you take on U.S. domestic flights may get taken and stowed below on an international flight.

8. CHECK YOUR BAG AT THE GATE

Airlines are usually enthusiastic to have passengers check bags at the boarding gate rather than having them carry bags onboard. It speeds up the boarding process (since looking futily for overhead bin space on a packed plane eats up time). If you take your bag through the security checkpoint, and you want to check it (or it’s too big to fit), you can likely do so for free. It’s a small reward for dragging your luggage through security.

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