How to Pack Perfectly for a Flight: How I Pack My Suitcases

I'm flying today, leaving my life in the U.S. for a new chapter in the Netherlands. This isn't my first international flight; far from it! In the last five years, I've taken some 38 flights, which means one thing: I'm good at packing. Whether you need to pack a week's worth of stuff in a backpack, or you're moving abroad indefinitely, I've been there. Here is my strategy for how to pack: how I divide my items into my checked baggage, carry-on, or personal item, and why.

First, let's cover the differences between the three kinds of luggage. For an international flight, an airline will often give you one checked bag, one carry-on suitcase, and a personal item like a backpack or purse. If you need more, you can pay for more checked bags for around $100 a piece.

  • Checked luggage: This is the larger suitcase that will be put in the storage compartment of the plane, meaning that you can't access it mid-flight. Airlines differ in their requirements for checked baggage, so be sure to check your airline's requirements.
  • Carry on luggage: Whether you're taking a major flight across the world or a short flight to a nearby city, you will almost certainly be allowed to bring a carry on bag (exceptions are budget airlines; be sure to check your ticket and conditions). This is a smaller bag or suitcase that you will be asked to store in the overhead bins above your seat. You can access these during the flight, but it will be inconvenient because you will have to get out of your seat and into the aisle.
  • Personal item: You will usually be permitted to bring a small personal item on board the plane in addition to your carry on luggage, such as a purse or backpack. You can often slip this under the seat in front of you during the flight. This is the most accessible piece of your luggage.

How to Pack Your Personal Item

How to Perfectly Pack a Suitcase and Carry-On

Because your personal item is the most accessible piece of luggage during your flight, it's the best place to store things like your laptop, a book, or anything you would need in flight. I bring a backpack instead of a purse in order to maximize space.

Categorically, your personal item is best for:

  • Your passport and ticket
  • Items you might need in-flight
  • Things that would weigh down your luggage, like books – personal items are rarely weighed

Items to include in your personal item:

  • A pen for filling out custom forms in the flight
  • An empty water bottle so you can re-fill it after security, saving yourself from buying expensive airport water
  • Something to read, either a book or an e-reader
  • Toiletries: Your daily medicine if you take it, a moisturizer for your face and hands, earplugs and an eye mask if you use them
  • Your laptop and phone, plus their chargers in case you can charge them on the plane
  • A portable charger in case your phone dies and you need to contact someone after landing

How to Pack Your Carry-On

With those items in your personal item, you can use your carry-on as a second checked bag, filling it with whatever you need to bring under the baggage weight limit. An important thing to consider, however, is that checked baggage may sometimes get lost in transfer or accidentally be sent to the wrong airport. As such, it's smart to have back-ups in your carry-on: enough clothes, medicine, and any necessities you might need in your first few days after landing.

Categorically, your personal item is best for:

  • “Bonus luggage” – things that didn't fit in your suitcase
  • Enough basics to survive the first few days after landing

Items to include in your personal item:

  • Any medicines you take daily
  • Valuable jewelry or other items you can't afford to lose
  • Documents you can't afford to lose
  • A few back-up outfits in case your checked baggage is lost

How to Pack Your Checked Baggage

Finally, checked baggage is for anything you didn't need with you mid-flight or can afford to have lost for a few days. That said, there are some important steps to packing a suitcase efficiently. Here's how I do it.

Step One: Lay long trousers and dresses over the sides of your suitcase

How to Perfectly Pack a Suitcase and Carry-On

Leave them hanging half-in and half-out of the suitcase. These will serve as “wrapping” for the rest of the items in your suitcase.

Step Two: Roll clothes into packing cubes

How to Perfectly Pack a Suitcase and Carry-On

Rolling clothes takes less space than folding them, and packing cubes are great for economizing space as well. You can see more hacks for efficient packing here.

Step Three: Fill your suitcase with cubes

How to Perfectly Pack a Suitcase and Carry-On

Use the cubes to fill your suitcase. I mark the contents of mine using painter's tape so that I know what's what when unpacking.

Step Four: Add shoes and anything to fill nooks and crannies

How to Perfectly Pack a Suitcase and Carry-On

Use shoes, undergarments, and any other small items to fill the nooks and crannies in your suitcase. I stuff my shoes with socks and undergarments, and keep them in a hair net to keep them from dirtying my clothes. You can read more packing tips here.

Step Five: Wrap the remaining ends of clothes over your luggage

How to Perfectly Pack a Suitcase and Carry-On

This will help condense your luggage even more. After folding your remaining clothes over the packing cubes, you can clip any elastic bands or braces that are sewn into the suitcase.

That's my strategy for how to pack, but I'd love to hear from you – do you pack this way? What do you do differently?

Author: Sara Laughed

I’m Sara, a writer, recent grad, and American abroad. I graduated from college in December and promptly moved to the Netherlands, where I live with my boyfriend and our 11 plants. Follow along as I figure out my roaring twenties: I don’t quite know what I’m doing, but that’s not stopping me from writing about it!

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