Have you ever crossed your fingers while frantically trying to shove your carry-on into the overhead bin, praying you won’t need to check it? Ever had to sit on your suitcase while zipping it and still had trouble getting it shut? Or finally fit everything, only to realize upon landing that you left all of your essential toiletries at home? As travel plans pick back up, many travelers may be reckoning with their inner over-packer. Learning how to pack a suitcase to maximize space can minimize hiccups while traveling.
When it comes to the best way to pack a suitcase, oftentimes the issue is less about over-packing than about under-planning. Which means that, with a game plan for staying organized and some trusty packing hacks under your belt, you can figure out how to pack a suitcase for your vacation needs.
“I used to literally hate packing and dream of hiring someone to pack for me,” says Ezra Freeman, a Princess Cruises guest entertainer whose work requires lots of traveling (and packing). “But now, I know it’s an art that anyone can master!”
From new folding methods to handy packing cubes, here are some of the best expert-approved hacks for maximizing your suitcase storage.
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Kayleen Kelly is a professional organizer who uses her TikTok to share organization and mental health tips with her 305,000 followers.
Rebecca Schwesig is the owner of Destination Wonderland, a travel agency focusing on Disney vacations. On her TikTok, she shares packing hacks, as well as general travel and vacation tips with her 8,000 followers.
1. Choose Luggage Wisely
Before you even get to packing, it’s important to consider what kind of luggage is going to best suit your needs. If you’re packing a carry-on, Kelly recommends opting for a hardshell suitcase so that you can be sure it will fit into your overhead compartment. “The hardshell seems to keep everything strapped down and in place. It’s like the corset of luggage.” If you’re packing a bag that you know you’re going to check, Kelly advises taking advantage of larger, soft-sided luggage so that you can “max out” on storage space.
If you’re in a situation where you know you’ll need to pack a lot, but won’t have much room for luggage storage when you get there, Freeman swears by “nesting” suitcases. (Think: A Russian doll-esque collection of bags that can be stored inside each other.) “I have found that the Samsonite Winfield 3 set is the best for people who need to pack a huge volume of items and then are traveling to a place with not a lot of storage,” says Freeman, “like a cruise ship cabin.”
2. Fold Smarter, Not Harder
Many amateur packers often overlook how much your folding method can save space in your suitcase. However, Kelly says that folding and rolling your clothes can be a huge game changer. Simply fold each item of clothing as you normally would, then roll it neatly. “Think of it as making tiny burritos,” says Kelly, who also notes that she has never noticed any wrinkles from this technique. Since rolling clothes makes them more compact and visible when packed, many recommend the technique not just as a space-saver, but also to keep your clothes organized.
Another method is folding clothes by outfit.“Outfit folding is where you pack one outfit basically into the form of a block,” says Freeman. For example, for a day you’re going to spend hiking, Freeman explains that you could fold your wool socks into your underwear, into your shorts, then your top, and into a rain jacket — eventually forming a small cube. The benefit is that you can make clothes more compact and also avoid fishing through your luggage each day to find your outfit. Freeman says that she tested the rolling method to outfit-folding and prefers the latter, as it’s especially effective for over-packers.
3. Separate Your Clothing Into Categories
Whether you prefer the fold and roll or cube method, it’s important to keep your clothes organized. Not only does this prevent you from exploding your neatly packed bag the first time you get dressed at your destination, but it can also help to maximize space in your suitcase in advance.
All three experts highly recommend packing your clothing into packing cubes, which are designed to organize and compress clothes into small, tidy boxes. If you opt for outfit-folding like Freeman, then she advises using a packing cube for each outfit. Kelly and Schwesig recommend organizing your wardrobe by category the same way you would your closet — tops in one cube, pants in another, and so on.
If you’re the type of person who’s likely to pack “just in case” items that they never wear (e.g., a pair of heels for your hiking trip), Kelly also recommends sticking to one clothing color palette. That way, you can mix and match items as you please. “Think capsule wardrobe on-the-go.”
4. Pare Down On Toiletries
No matter how extensive your skincare routine is, there’s a good chance that your daily essentials won’t make it on your trip — whether storage constraints or TSA guidelines stop you. When it comes to packing skincare and makeup, it’s time to channel your inner minimalist.
Kelly recommends sticking to one color palette for makeup, and paring down to only your essential products. “If you want to save space, this is not the time to bring and try out multiple newbies,” she says. “Hold tight to your OGs.”
“Overall, I’m a fan of using what you already have at home and filling your liquid travel bottles, then buy the other travel-sized toiletries you need (deodorant, toothpaste, etc.),” says Kelly. Schwesig advises opting for solid alternatives like a shampoo bar when possible, and holding onto hotel samples for free travel-sized goods.
Kelly recommends seeking out combination products if available. “I recently went to Greece and, instead of having to bring hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, lotion, and sunscreen, I found a CeraVe product that included all of them,” she says. “Four birds, one stone.”
5. Use A Hanging Accessory Organizer
All three experts highly recommend a hanging bag for your toiletries and accessories. “My senior year in high school, I received a hanging jewelry/accessory organizer as a pre-college gift, and I have literally been using it since,” says Freeman. Kelly notes that hanging organizers also make getting ready on the go much easier, and Schwesig adds that an organizer with clear pockets is even better. “If I can see everything, it makes a much quicker job of packing.”
Since hanging organizers offer compartments for toiletries, most hanging organizers end up being much more compact than if you were to just throw all of your toiletries into a bag.
6. Load Up Your Personal Item & Plane Outfit
Your carry-on doesn’t have to function as your carry-all. If you’re traveling by air, remember that most airlines offer a personal item as well as a carry-on. For how big a personal item can be, the general rule of thumb seems to be whether it fits under your seat in front of you. Consider grabbing a spacious hiking bag or tote bag as your personal item if you want to optimize your storage options.
“Pack your carry-on for things that you absolutely would need to survive an overnight somewhere if your [checked] luggage gets lost,” advises Freeman. “Then pack your personal item for things that you will need on your travel day.” Even if you’re only packing a carry-on, you can save space in that bag — say, for souvenirs or bonus club outfits — by maxing out what’s in your personal item.
Freeman and Kelly also recommend wearing your heaviest clothes while traveling to maximize space in your suitcase. Trade those flip flops for boots and layer up. “Planes are always cold anyways,” says Kelly.