You’re finally headed out on vacation or that big business trip – off on a journey that you’ve carefully planned and prepared for. So what happens when your packing list doesn’t quite fit in your bag? In this article, we’ll talk about how to fit more in your luggage by using tips to make more space in your luggage.
When we travel, especially when we travel for more than a few days, it’s necessary to bring a part of our life along. We all need clothing, hygiene products, and essentials for the work or play that is the center of our travel. For some travelers, packing “heavy” is essential. If you travel with a CPAP machine, mobility aids, or other essentials, space in your suitcase may be especially at a premium.
Heavy luggage can be a chore to travel with, I personally have woken up with bruises covering my shoulders after an inelegant Adriatic Sea ferry exit that required strapping all of my luggage to my body to skip the hour-long elevator exit queue. The essence of one bag travel is to keep luggage as minimal and as lightweight as possible while also having all of the essentials to thrive during travel.
In this post, I’ll talk about some of the hacks that I use to save space in my luggage while ensuring that all of my essential needs are met and even a few creature comforts are available with what I have packed.
Roll, don’t stack clothing
stacking your clothing – that is, folding and placing one item atop another – is how most of us automatically pack a suitcase. However, this packing method actually takes up more space because folded clothing isn’t compressed.
You might think as I did for a long time, that clothes take up the same amount of space whether they are rolled or folded, but the thing that makes the difference is a snug roll. By rolling, each layer of fabric exerts a compressive pressure on the layers beneath them. If you roll well, your clothing can take up about one-third less space.
Though this type roll may sound like it will create wrinkles, if you smooth the fabric before rolling, the rolling method can actually result in clothing with fewer wrinkles when you unpack at your destination.
If you’re traveling with clothing that may become wrinkled, such as a suit or a blouse, use a garment bag and draped it over the rolled items in your suitcase. Even if you have an iron handy at your destination, it’s best not to roll these delegates.
Use vacuum bags designed for travel
For efficient space management in your luggage, vacuum bags of the real deal. Why? Because they remove almost all of the air that pops up clothing and makes it take up so much space in a suitcase. If you haven’t already used them for storing linens or extra towels, you will be amazed by the number of things that you can fit in your luggage by first placing them into a vacuum bag.
During my recent trip to Hawaii, an unfortunate last-minute lodging snafu meant that my traveling companions and I had to make a late-night run to the store to purchase sheets, blankets, and towels for our accommodation!
Rather than leave them behind at the end of our trip, I anticipated the challenge and while we were buying linens, I also bought vacuum bags with a hand pump. At the end of our stay, I packed mine – and both of my travel companions’ linens- into a single vacuum bag, applied pressure, and fit three beds worth of linens (plus my original packing list) into my medium-sized suitcase!
Clear vacuum bags also help you see your luggage in a way that traditional packing can’t. While you can’t see inside of a rolled outfit, you can take a peek at a vacuum bag and, based on colors and textures, get a sense of what you’ve already packed and what might be left to still pack.
How to not overpack when using vacuum bags for travel:
The catch with using vacuum bags for packing is that it is much, much easier to hit airline suitcase weight limits. When using normal packing methods, that 40 or 50-pound weight limit is usually pretty hard to get to due to the self-limiting nature of the constraints of a suitcase.
When you are vacuum sealing items, however, it’s easier than you think to pack 50 pounds of clothing and essentials- and end up with an unexpected overweight fee at the airport!
How to pack a vacuum bag and get it to stay flat
One problem with packing with vacuum bags in luggage is that they tend to compress our belongings into lumpy, space-wasting packets. However, when I was moving from Seattle to St. Louis with only what I could fit in a CR-V, I figured out how to get vacuum bags to seal up flat every time. Here’s my secret:
- 1. Place clothing and compressible items in the vacuum bags in a mostly flat arrangement.
- 2. Use a hand pump or vacuum to remove about 50% percent of the air in the bag.
- 3. Place the bag inside your suitcase.
- 4. Using a flat pillow or cushion, apply even pressure along the top of the vacuum bag.
- 5. While keeping this pressure on, use a vacuum or hand pump to remove the remaining air in the bag. (I’ve been known to stand or sit on the bag at this point, although that’s a little extreme!)
- 6. Remove the pillow or cushion to reveal a bag that has conformed perfectly to the contours along the bottom of your suitcase.
- 7. Continue with another vacuum bag layer or pack non-compressible items on top.
Leave large items behind
Make more space in your luggage by doing a hard edit of your packing list (need a printable packing list for planning ahead? Check out my ultimate vacation travel planner with a sample packing list with customizable options).
Umbrellas, boots, helmets, and sporting goods – do these things need to be on your packing list? They only take up more space in your luggage, and in many destinations, you can rent the equipment for hobbies you wish to enjoy during your trip. Traveling doesn’t mean you need to take everything you might possibly need – some things are better left at home, or purchased, rented, or borrowed in your destination.
Buying things at your destination is a way to support the local economy, participate in sustainable travel, and give yourself the opportunity to experience a part of the local culture for shopping! So avoid packing extra-large items in your suitcase- if you need that umbrella when you get there, you can purchase one locally, support the local economy, and have a usable souvenir to remember your trip!
Pack big items in your suitcase first
I use something I call the pyramid law of packing: huge stuff goes in first, then medium-sized items into the open space, and finally small objects in the gaps that still remain. This rule is critical when packing for a trip because it ensures that there will definitely be room for the big essentials I can’t leave behind. Start with bulky items first, and then add your rolled clothing into the gaps.
Remember, carefully packed luggage can take some time to unpack, so carry your first night essentials in the space closest to the top zipper or just carry them in your carry-on.
Plan Capsule Outfits
Save space in your luggage by planning a small capsule travel wardrobe.
Being intentional about making sure that all (or at least most) of the pieces you pack can work together to create a stylish look can help you look more put together even when you are traveling. I’ve found, there’s a difference between an outfit and clothes- while clothes are just fine, an outfit makes me feel confident and put together. When packing for a travel, take easy-to-clean outfits like T-shirts, jackets, sweatshirts, etc that can be stacked and combined.
Fill empty spaces with tiny items
When you are packing, especially if you are taking advantage of using vacuum bags, you’ll find that you have lots of gaps remaining in your suitcase. Smart travelers know to hold back small items like socks, belts, and phone chargers to place in these tiny gaps. Generally, small essentials are a perfect way to fill in the small gaps in a suitcase. Filling these gaps is a smart way to make more space in your luggage.
Don’t Pack a Pharmacy
Over-prepared travelers may tend to pack too much in the personal care department. In my opinion, rather than packing a bottle of painkillers, a bottle of stomach-soothing medication, and a bit of everything from your medicine cabinet, instead just stick to prescriptions (which should always be in your purse or carry-on and never checked baggage) and essential vitamins you need to travel with.
For those other personal health items, pack a small pill container that contains 1-2 labeled doses of over-the-counter medications, or just plan to stop at a pharmacy if you need these essentials during your trip.
Exception: I do recommend carrying a dose or two of antidiarrheal over-the-counter medication every time you travel, as travelers diarrhea is common among travelers and (as I learned while trying to translate in a German pharmacy) it can be an uncomfortable topic to try and communicate with gestures through language barrier!
Final thoughts on packing luggage to save space
Packing light means having the freedom to move freely without stressing too much about heavy luggage while giving yourself permission to rent, purchase, or borrow any extras you might need at your destination. Try to avoid the temptation to pack things “just in case” – the famous last words for heavy packers.
Evaluate fairly and be honest with yourself about whether you need something or you really don’t. Be as minimalist as possible, explore the freedom of one bag travel, and you’re one step closer to having a trip with freedom and less stress.
Artist, digital nomad, and highly sensitive person, Lynli started traveling full time as a digital nomad in 2018. Writer and Illustrator by day, remote-destination explorer by other-days, Lynli is passionate about pushing the boundaries of her own comfort zone, exploring the world as a plus size, one-bag traveler, and journaling it all on WanderBig.com