How to Pack Like a Pro, Plus Items You Can’t Leave Home Without

sitting on a suitcase that is overpacked
There are some thins you should never vacation without, but also a few things you could stand to leave behind!

When it comes to traveling, there are many things to love. You get to enjoy local cuisines, experience new cultures and see magnificent architecture. Or, you get to lounge in a poolside cabana all day. Whatever tickles your fancy!

However, there’s one part that I don’t really enjoy: packing before the trip.

Packing for a trip always makes me excited, but it also makes me a little nervous. That’s because I’m always worried that I’ll forget something! Once you step on that plane, there’s no turning back. Did I pack my hairbrush? What if it rains, or it’s unseasonably cold?

Related: How To Cope With the Post-Travel Blues

Luckily, I’ve packed for enough trips over the years that I’ve streamlined it a bit. I’ve learned what to never leave home without, and how to still maximize the space in my suitcase.

Some Things You Can’t Travel Without

First, let’s talk about the must-have items that you shouldn’t leave home without. While we want to pack smartly to conserve space, there are a few necessary items that you can’t afford to sacrifice. And while every trip is different, these basic items are essential for just about any trip.

Passport and ID

passport sitting on top of a map

Never, ever travel without proper identification! If you’re flying, you have to have certain forms of ID just to get anywhere. But if you’re driving or heading out on a cruise, it’s a little easier to leave these things behind. And while we’re at it, go ahead and check that your passport and ID are up to date. I knew someone who had to cancel a long-awaited trip because she didn’t know her passport was expired. By the time she found out, it was too late to get it done in time.


I am guilty of never carrying cash in my regular day-to-day, but it’s an important thing to have on hand when traveling. You never know when you’ll need a few bills to tip at a restaurant, pay for a ride, or purchase something from a cash-only vendor. There’s also always a risk that something might happen to your card – like getting lost, or being cut off by the bank for “suspicious” activity – and having cash will come to the rescue!

Comfortable Shoes


On vacation, I often find myself walking more than I expected. It’s always a good idea to pack a pair of comfortable walking shoes, no matter where you’re headed. Opt for a pair that you have already worn. Brand-new shoes that haven’t been broken in yet might give you blisters or other problems.

Related: Start Your New Year On The Right Foot – And In the Right Running Shoe

Hand Sanitizer

I’m already carrying hand sanitizer wherever I go, so it’s not much of a stretch to include it in my packing list. You never know when you’ll find yourself in a situation where you need to sanitize your hands, but don’t have access to water and soap. I really like the small hanging keychain ones, because they’re always accessible without digging around in my bag.



I know I sound like a mom here, but never travel without some trusty sunscreen. While we usually remember this one for beach trips, people almost always forget sunscreen for other destinations. Hey, the sun shines everywhere else, too. Make sure you’re still slathering the stuff on to avoid the risk of skin cancer and sun damage.

Reusable Water Bottle

outside looking at phone holding a stainless steel reusable water bottle

Stay hydrated, fam! Carrying a reusable water bottle is the easiest way to make sure you aren’t thirsty, no matter where you end up. You can easily refill it whenever you need it, without having to spend extra cash on bottled water. As an added bonus, this makes you more eco-friendly!

A Watch

We’ve all become so reliant on our smartphones to be clocks, cameras, flashlights, and so much more. What happens if your phone dies while you’re away from the hotel, though? Knowing what time it is can be pretty important while traveling, especially if you have a scheduled tour, dinner reservations, or you’re trying to catch transportation. Travel with a trusty watch so you don’t miss out on scheduled activities.

Portable Battery Bank

Speaking of phones dying, a portable battery bank can be really useful while traveling. Pick one up that has a regular USB port so you can charge a variety of different devices by swapping out cords. You’ll be able to charge your smartphone anywhere, even in the middle of a hike.

Stain Remover Pen

woman holding a shirt with a stain on it

It depends on where you’re going, but most places don’t offer laundry services to travelers for free. What happens if you accidentally spill your coffee on your favorite shirt? Having a convenient stain remover pen or wipes will save the day, without having to travel back to the hotel for another shirt, or sacrifice some of your spending money on laundry service fees.

Smart Packing Tips to Make the Most of the Space

Now that we’ve talked about the items we can’t leave home without, let’s talk about how to make the most of that suitcase!

When trying to conserve space, there’s more to it than just dumping some stuff into a bag and calling it a day. It’s important to pack strategically, especially if you’re trying to travel light.

Make a Wardrobe Plan

Woman looking through closet

When at home, I don’t prepare my outfits in advance for everyday activities. I don’t really even decide what I’m going to wear until that morning. But when it comes to packing and trying to save space in a suitcase, I need to really think about my wardrobe ahead of time.

I don’t necessarily plan outfits for each day of my trip, but I do like to plan ahead. It is very similar to putting together a capsule wardrobe, except it only needs to last for the duration of my trip. The majority of my packed clothing consists of color-coordinated basics that can be mixed and matched. Of course, I then add occasion-specific items, such as jewelry and an evening bag for a fancy dinner or sneakers for a lot of walking.

Create a Packing List

It doesn’t matter how many times you have packed a suitcase in your life, go ahead and create a list. Include everything you need to bring for your trip. Get as detailed as you like.

Even if you have packed a suitcase a million times, make yourself a list. Include all of the important items that you need to bring. You can get as detailed as you would like here, too. Some people even plan out which specific outfits and other items they will need for each day. And as you pack everything into your suitcase, you can use this list to check everything off.

This list will serve another purpose, as well. Check each item off as you use or wear it while on vacation. You’ll be able to keep track of the things you didn’t use. You now know what not to bring the next time, and you’ll be able to reduce the number of items you pack.

Pack Early

woman packing a suitcase for a trip, with items laid out

Look, I do a lot of things at the last minute because I am a chronic procrastinator. Doing things “early” is simply not in my blood. However, packing is one of the few activities that I always do ahead of time. Waiting until the last minute can lead to disaster for your trip. If you managed to forget something, it’s already too late by the time you’ve discovered it!

Packing a week before you leave gives you enough time to remember anything you forgot to pack. You also have more time to rethink what you’ve packed, giving you the opportunity to repack or reorganize as needed.

Use Those Free Hotel Toiletries

Everyone has their favorite products, but leaving your entire beauty routine at home will save you a ton of suitcase space. Full-size bottles take up a lot of room, and you know you don’t need an entire bottle of shampoo for a single trip. Besides, if you are flying to your destination, you can’t bring full-size bottles on the plane anyway. Save yourself the suitcase space, and the time involved in filling up all those travel-size bottles.

These days, most hotels offer basic toiletries for free. They cover stuff like shampoo, conditioner, soap, lotion, and more. They can often have toothpaste, razors, toothbrushes, and other items that people tend to forget to pack. And of course, bathrooms always have a hair dryer for guests. I’d definitely suggest calling ahead to verify what they provide. If you really can’t live without your favorite shampoo, go ahead and fill those tiny bottles. But I have a feeling your hair will probably survive with just the hotel-provided shampoo for a few days.

Bring a Couple of Bags

mesh laundry bag

This is something that I do for any and every trip, no matter the destination. It seems so simple, but it’s definitely something you don’t want to skip. Grocery bags, trash bags, and even mesh laundry bags will all work. The idea is to use the bags for laundry as you wear the items you packed. It will provide a simple way to keep dirty laundry separate from clothes that are still clean. It also prevents all that laundry from building up in a pile on the hotel floor.

Putting your dirty laundry in a bag rather than on the floor also helps you repack your suitcase at the end of vacay. Instead of cleaning up piles of laundry, just put the bag full of laundry into your suitcase. As an added bonus, this also makes it less likely that you’ll leave items behind accidentally.

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