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11 Easy Suitcase Packing Hacks – Illustrated!

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In 2019 I worked online as I wandered through about a dozen countries in South America and Europe. With iPad usually in hand, I found myself moved to doodle when I discovered a particularly good idea to make life a bit easier as a full-time traveler. Here are my tips, products, and hacks – all in doodle form- to make your next trip just a bit easier.

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1. Pack a Basic Tote Bag

A run-of-the-mill muslin shopping tote tops my list of essentials. Why? Well, mostly its versatility. In a pinch, a tote bag can function as a grocery bag, shoe tote, pop-out organizer, or even a pillow.

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Rather than buying packing cubes made for shoes, just select a tightly woven muslin cotton tote bag for your travels (avoid canvas bags due to unnecessary weight). Keep clean between washes by turning it inside out when you use it as a shoe tote and right side out when you use it for food or groceries.

A tote bag is also perfect for simplifying airline travel: Pack your in-flight essentials in a tote bag, then tuck it inside of a larger carry-on. Stroll onboard your flight well under the required baggage limit, then pull out your tote bag for easy access. Never wrestle an unwieldy backpack as you dig for batteries midflight again!


2. Invest in a Turkish towel

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I will preach the gospel of Turkish towels for travel until the day I die. In fact, I write this article with my original Turkish towel (still looking great after years of use) rolled up and tucked against my back as a lumbar roll.

This type of towel is 100% cotton but dries ultra-fast because of its thin weave. It makes a great beach towel, pillow, blanket, yoga mat, lumbar roll, and scarf – in fact, I often wear it like a blanket scarf when boarding flights, a simple way to free up space in my bag for consumables (on the way there) or souvenirs (on the way back).

If you’re a traveler in a larger body, a Turkish towel is a game-changer: never again struggle with too-small towels in budget lodging, a standard Turkish towel is large enough to wrap twice around my plus size figure.


3. Mini Zip-top Bags

You can get small 2″ x 3″ zip top bags at most craft stores, but I kinda recommend upgrading to thicker bags, especially if you traveling for a longer period. 4 mil pill bags are heavy enough to stand up to punctures and won’t get worn as they shift around in the bottom of a suitcase. Plus they are tough enough to be reused for multiple purposes. My favorite uses for them? Read on.

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A. Organizing Currency. When on a trip that covers multiple countries with multiple types of currency it can get really difficult to keep track of every piece of money and get it to a currency exchange. Instead, when I’m preparing to leave a country I pack all the bills and coins into a zip-top bag. To make calculating whether I’m getting a terrible exchange rate at a currency exchange office a little easier, I then count the bills and write the total amount (plus what it is equivalent to in US dollars at that day’s actual exchange rate) on the outside of the bag or on a slip of paper inserted inside.

B. Organizing Medication. There are a million different types of pill organizers, some of which actually work great (I’ve been carrying this one in my purse daily for 5 years with no spills) – but nothing saves more space than packaging medication in small zip bags. With the air squeezed out, no space is wasted. If you’re carrying prescription medication, you can peel the label off your prescription bottle and place it on the outside of your Ziploc bag (although, on request, my pharmacy provided an extra label for me when I was planning for South American border crossings with a prescription that was classed as a controlled substance)

4. Hack: Prop up the foot of your bed

If you struggle with plantar fasciitis, a knee or ankle injury, or just aching feet when you’re on your feet exploring a city, find something to put under the foot of your bed. Elevating the lower half of your body by just an inch or two can significantly reduce inflammation overnight. Books work best to lift a bed, but cans can work in a pinch.

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5. Bring a pillowcase from home

To me, nothing is more comforting than snuggling up with a soft, familiar pillow. Although I can’t bring my favorite pillow on my international travels, I do bring my favorite pillowcase. I love sleeping with lots of pillows, so when I check into a hotel or air B&B one of the first things I do is stuff my pillowcase with throw pillows or even towels so I have an extra pillow. Your pillowcase can also double as a laundry bag!

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6. Dry shampoo

You likely know that dry shampoo can do magic on unwashed hair, but did you know it can also be used to freshen up and reduce chafing? Here’s one of my best humid environment travel hacks: sprayed on skin, dry shampoo can help absorb oils and reduce both stinkiness and stickiness between showers.

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7. Packing cubes as lingerie bags

Packing cubes that have mesh panels can work as stand-ins for lingerie bags for those of us who may need to wash delicate undergarments on the road. You can also use a mesh-panel packing cube as a way to keep socks and underwear together when washing- especially helpful when sharing a load with a traveling companion.  Lewis & Clark’s Ultralight Packing cubes fit the bill for wash-friendly packing cubes, and unlike most packing cubes they are feather-weight and designed to add almost no weight to packed bags.

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8. Use a pen case as a jewelry organizer

This is seriously one of my best tips, I promise: You know those awesome canvas pen organizers that have pockets and loops for all sorts of stationery supplies? They work great for organizing necklaces, earrings, bracelets, sunglasses, etc. Here’s my favorite pen case to use as a travel organizer. In a pinch, all those pockets are great for organizing other odds and ends like currency, cards, medication, or small souvenirs. Read more tips for packing jewelry for your tip.

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9. Hack: thrift for authentic souvenirs

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Since popular souvenir markets are, around the world, generally filled with items made in factories several countries removed from the destination, I always pop into little thrift stores and flea markets while traveling (in fact, I made a whole post about my favorite flea markets around the world). Always choose quality goods over cheap branded merchandise. At the end of a lifetime of travel you’re not likely to find a lot of joy or appreciation in a yarn llama emblazoned with the words “Machu Picchu” or a 3-D Eiffel tower keyring, but objects of art- I mean actual art and artesian goods- and local artesian goods make souvenirs that can be appreciated for generations.

Objects D’Art is a Wikipedia page travelers might want to check out. Ever since I stayed at a modest Airbnb in Patagonia managed by a few artists, I think my imagination for art has been expanding. Now, I’m as excited to find an artistic bit of twisted tree root to take home as I am in finding the perfect souvenir in a city market.


10. Hack: Use your phone’s lock screen

Create a file that contains your contact information (including alternate ways to contact you), the contact information of at least two emergency contacts, and an image of your travel insurance card. Screenshot this file and set it as your lock screen. If your phone is lost or if you are seriously injured, whoever has your phone will be able to access the information needed. Be sure not to add too much personal information- in case your phone is stolen.

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11. DIY souvenirs

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Despite my best efforts (sometimes even GIVING away coins at the airport!) I end up back home with a few foreign coins- this is particularly common because most currency exchange offices will not accept coins. If this happens to you, you can turn them into souvenirs or gifts by gluing magnets to the back of the coin. This quick craft requires just standard magnets and hot glue, but for really nice gifts, grab yourself some Neodymium magnets and E6000 glue– that combination will make impressively strong, long-lasting coin magnets that are sure to be appreciated gifts.

Tip, if you make these- especially with strong magnets- spread out your project over a very large area. If magnets coated in glue get near enough to pull towards one another, they can easily make a mess, ruin the project, or-if hot glue is in use- burn skin.