How to Pack a Suitcase Like a Flight Attendant

An AFAR editor shares the packing tricks her flight attendant mother learned from more than a decade of living primarily out of her luggage.

How to Pack a Suitcase

Don’t be afraid to edit your packing list—you often need much less than what you first put in your bag.

Illustration by Shutterstock

My mother has always been a packing ninja. Watching her organize a move, tackle a mountain of paperwork or—say—jenga four preteens, two adults, and two weeks’ worth of camping supplies into a minivan is the packing equivalent of watching a martial arts expert do this. So when she started working as a flight attendant for a regional airline we’ll call Borizon over 11 years ago, we knew it was only a matter of time before she mastered the art of living out of a suitcase.

Here are a handful of the tips she’s learned after packing and unpacking her suitcase more than 4,000 times over the past decade (oh yes, she counted).

1. Outline a packing list. Then edit, edit, edit.

“Editing down the contents of your suitcase can be difficult, but it’s almost always best to avoid overpacking. If the process of creating a packing list overwhelms you, try laying out what you think you’ll need. Then be realistic about what you’ll actually need—and pull the unnecessary items from the pile.”

2. Find your perfect bag

“After more than 10 years as a flight attendant, I’ve learned to cherish bags with 360° rotating wheels and external pouches. Whether you’re looking for sleek carry-on luggage or a larger suitcase you can check, I’ve found that compartmentalized rolling bags are the best way to save space and travel with ease.”

3. Rolling clothes helps utilize all of your suitcase space

“If you pack folded clothes flat in your suitcase, you may be wasting some valuable space. Rolled clothes can fit right down into the crevices of your luggage, and arranging them in packing cubes or compression bags can help you stay organized and save an incredible amount of space. Plus, rolling—as opposed to folding—is even better for wrinkle-prone items. You may still have to fold a couple of bulkier items (like pants) but rolling most of your clothes will help you efficiently use every nook and cranny.”

4. Organize toiletries in use-specific bags

“I always pack three different pouches for toiletries: One holds my major shower and grooming stuff (deodorant, razor, face lotion), one holds my toothbrush and toothpaste, and one holds my makeup. This way, I can find what I need easily and pack things away as I’m done with them in the morning.”

5. Double check you have the items you can’t replace before leaving

“My first five years in this job, I literally didn’t leave home—or my hotel—without going through my packing list. But now I just ask myself, What are the things I can’t replace or live without? For me, the necessities are my work ID, my passport, my glasses, my phone, my laptop, and my jewelry. Everything else is expendable, as much as I would hate to lose it.”

6. Establish a packing and unpacking routine

“When I get to my hotel room—it doesn’t matter if it’s midnight or two in the afternoon—I always unpack and repack in exactly the same way. For example, I keep a small dish in the external pockets of my suitcase so I can immediately take off my jewelry. I also take out my toiletry bags and my phone chargers and anything I’ll need for the next day.

“Then, when I get up in the morning, I do the reverse. As soon as I get out of bed, I unplug my phone, put my phone cord away, and clear off my nightstand so that I don’t have to revisit that part of the room again. I put my pajamas away before I take a shower, not after. Following this system means that I can avoid having to scrounge through my bag to ensure that I’m not leaving any belongings. I’ve left one shirt behind over the years because I threw it back on the bed and I forgot to check the covers—never again.”

7. Establish visual reminders to avoid leaving things behind

“I carry a specific bag for my cords and chargers. When I unpack, I take out all the chargers I need, then leave this bag on my dresser with my room key so in the morning when I’m packing up again, I have a visual reminder: Don’t forget your phone cord.

8. Play packing Tetris

“I keep toiletry bags on the left, top side of my suitcase so that I can take them out right when I get to the hotel. No matter how much you protect liquids, every once in a while the cabin pressure gets weird and the tops pop off. Packing this way ensures that nothing gets wet that I don’t want to get wet. Heavy things also go on the left to keep my bag from getting top-heavy. And, of course, securing liquids inside a plastic or resealable bag is always a good idea.”

9. ID your bag, even if you never, ever plan to check it

“So many bags look alike, so I use a seasonal ribbon system to identify mine. I just buy ribbon at the fabric store or cut up an old scarf and tie it on. Sure, you can buy really neat luggage tags, but many of those even look similar! It doesn’t happen very often, but every once in a while, somebody does walk off with the wrong bag.”

Three must-have travel items

“I always bring a reusable water bottle with me to stay hydrated on the go. GoToob Travel Bottles ($19+) have a nice wide mouth so that you can fill them quickly and easily. They come in multiple sizes, and they’re really soft and squishy so they get smaller as you use them. They also have a twist label on top so that you can ID what’s inside—and change it if you fill it with something else later.”

“My mophie Powerstation ($24) portable battery charger is the best thing ever. You can charge it from your laptop with your phone cord and it holds a charge for a week or two if you don’t use it. It’s small, it’s compact, and it charges your phone so quickly.”

“I always, always, always have my Tide To Go Instant Stain Remover ($7) pens with me—I’ve actually been able to clean red wine out of a passenger’s white coat with it. They’re amazing.”

This article originally appeared online in December 2016; it was updated on January 17, 2019, to include current information.

>>Next: The Avid Traveler’s Guide to Buying Luggage

Aislyn Greene is the associate director of podacsts at AFAR, where she produces the Unpacked by AFAR podcast and hosts AFAR’s Travel Tales podcast. She lives on a houseboat in Sausalito.
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