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6 tips on packing light, according to travel experts

Stacker spoke to travel experts who share tips on how to pack a lighter-than-air bag that still includes all the essentials for your next bon voyage.
While it may seem efficient to plan out a single outfit for each day that you'll be travelling, in reality, you're likely packing more tops and bottoms than you need.

There's nothing worse than putting your suitcase on the scale at the airport and seeing that number tip over the dreaded weight limit. The only solution is to fling open your bag, take a quick inventory of what you can take out, and stuff those items in your carry-on while customers harrumph in that very long line behind you.

Not only is this particular situation embarrassing, but having to schlep around a heavy bag wherever you're going doesn't exactly make for idyllic travel. Plus, with major airlines raising baggage fees by nearly 30% this year, and long waits at baggage claim, checking a large bag certainly isn't ideal.

If these struggles are far too real, and you've dreamed about being the kind of traveller who can breeze through the airport with a lighter-than-air carry-on — without a single worry about weight (or sweat dripping down your back) — then maybe it's time to learn how to pack a lighter bag for your next jet-setting journey.

The truth is, we're packing far more than we actually need. Bringing the extra stuff for the rare occasion you might need it is only weighing you down in the long run. To fix your packing woes, Stacker spoke with travel agents and seasoned travel experts on how to pack light, focus on the necessities, and make smarter choices on what to pack. Here are their tips and tricks on how to pack the lightest bag possible next time you travel.

Pack interchangeable pieces that go with everything

While it may seem efficient to plan out a single outfit for each day that you'll be travelling, in reality, you're likely packing more tops and bottoms than you need. Instead, Echo Wang, CEO, co-founder, and seasoned traveller behind Cool Travel Vibes, says to choose items that can mix and match, making it easier to pull together an outfit with fewer items.

"Pack neutral tones and basic styles that you can layer for different temperatures," she told Stacker. "Think interchangeable tops and bottoms you can wear with multiple outfits. Remember, you can always hand wash clothes in a pinch, so pack light on the quantity and focus on quality, multifunctional pieces."

An easy way to do this is to follow the 5-4-3-2-1 packing method, invented by blogger Jen Bosen and referenced by numerous travel experts across the internet. The method goes as follows: pack five shirts, four bottoms, three pairs of shoes, two layers, and one dress (or formal wear). With this method, you can create 120 different outfit combinations, and your suitcase is still exponentially lighter.

Choose wrinkle-resistant fabrics

When it comes to actually choosing the items to pack, Wang recommends picking clothes that won't take up too much space and create too many wrinkles. "Opt for quick-drying, wrinkle-resistant fabrics. They'll bounce back from tight packing and save you precious luggage space."

Typically, fabrics made from a synthetic material, like nylon, spandex, or polyester, resist wrinkles more than pure blends like 100% cotton or linen. Wool also doesn't need ironing. Packing these fabrics also lightens your load for any items you would need to help eliminate wrinkles in the first place, like wrinkle sprays or travel-size steamers.

Use packing cubes

Mercedes Zach, a travel agent at ASAP Tickets, always recommends investing in packing cubes to organize your items.

"Packing and unpacking can be a bit of a hustle, especially if you're travelling with more than one suitcase," Zach told Stacker. "However, organizing your belongings becomes a lot easier if you use packing cubes that are made to make the packing process more efficient and help with navigating through your travel items. They come in different shapes, sizes, and materials and have quickly replaced the good old packing method of rolling the clothes."

To save even more space in your bag—especially if you plan on shopping or accumulating more items on your trip—Zach says to specifically buy packing cubes that can compress with double zippers. "This type of packing cube is very lightweight, and you will be surprised by how much stuff you can carry with you using these. Besides, packing cubes are relatively inexpensive, and they are well worth every penny."

Pack a lightweight carry-on bag

The weight of your clothes, accessories, and recreational items aren't the only weighty items to worry about; your luggage can get just as heavy, depending on the material it is made of. Giacomo Piva, a travel industry analyst and co-founder of Radical Storage, says it's worth investing in a high-quality, lightweight rolling carry-on to keep the overall weight of your bag at even more of a minimum.

Specifically, Piva says to buy a soft-shell suitcase instead given how much lighter they can be compared to the popular hard-shell bags on the market these days. "Better to choose a soft-shell suitcase because it offers more flexibility and capacity, especially for items of different shapes, such as shoes or toiletries. Although hard-shell bags can compress and hold clothing better, they are also more at risk of cracking and are heavier in weight," Piva told Stacker.

Opt for solid toiletries

While packing smaller versions of all your necessary toiletries certainly saves space (and passes TSA regulations if you're flying), switching to solid toiletries is an even easier way to keep things light. After travelling to 48 states and 49 countries, Peggy Carlaw, CEO and chief blogger at The Smart Travel Guide, says packing solid options means you can easily shave off what you need instead of taking the whole bar with you. "You can find everything from solid shampoo to deodorant and toothpaste to lotion. Lush and Ethique are two good brands," Carlaw told Stacker.

If you prefer liquid toiletries, Carlaw says purchasing travel-sized, leakproof reusable bottles allows you to also only decant the shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, face wash, or whatever else you'll need. It may seem like a small amount of weight, but if you're not filling the bottles up to the top, it can make a significant difference in the long run.

Forget packing anything 'just in case'

Although it may seem wise to plan for those unexpected moments, in reality, there are many items that you likely don't need to bring "just in case."

"Remember, the rest of the world has stores," Carlaw added. "You can almost always purchase what you need when you arrive. It's a great way to interact with the locals."

Another situation of "just in case" packing is choosing to bring something because "maybe" you'll want it—maybe another book or extra snacks in case you get hungry. Both of these things can be purchased if you need them (how fun is it to buy a new book in a foreign country!).

Even so, remember to be honest with yourself. If the trip you're going on is all about touring and seeing the sights, will you have time to read? If you're looking to explore a town or a city, why not hit a café for that snack and turn it into an experience? Take only what you truly need, and handle those rare "just in case" moments as they come.

Story editing by Carren Jao. Copy editing by Paris Close.