Savvy travelers seem to know instinctively how to travel with less. If you’re seriously disciplined, you could go for months at a time with a small shoulder-strap cabin bag — just pack T-shirts, one or two pairs of trousers and shorts, some underwear, and minimal laundry supplies. Of course, there are times when you need to have a bit more with you. Still, efficient packing will save you time, energy, and hassle.
Think it Through: Is this a business trip on which you’ll dress to impress? Or a cruise or resort vacation, where nice casual clothing is the order of the day? Will you be seeing the same people for the duration, or meeting new ones every few days? As your itinerary comes together, make a schedule of your days and evenings, and next to each activity note possible outfits, including shoes and accessories. This will help you determine your clothing needs for the trip.
Make a List: In a recent Fodor’s survey, 29 percent of respondents said they make lists (and often pack) at least one week before a trip. Lists can be used at least twice — once to pack and once to repack at the end of your trip. This way you’ll be sure to remember everything you’ve brought with you. You’ll also have a record of the contents of your suitcase, just in case it disappears while you’re in transit.
Know Local Customs: Local dress codes should be key to your wardrobe. In some resort areas, an anything-goes attitude applies, while in others formality is essential. Going abroad? In many places, traditions of dress differ from ours; check with your destination’s tourist office and consult a good guidebook. In Italy you’ll need conservative attire to visit many cathedrals.
Heed the Comfort Factor It goes without saying that you should never leave on a trip without comfortable shoes. Similarly, don’t immediately run out and buy a new wardrobe. You will probably want to wear each item you bring several times during your trip, so you’re better off with clothing you know and love — clothes that are comfortable and make you feel good. If you do end up buying something new, wear it a couple of times to make sure that you like it and to find out whether it’s as wrinkleproof and easy to care for as you would like.
Keep Transit Plans in Mind: Remember, you have to get there from here. If there’s one thing that can turn a pack rat into a minimalist, it’s a vacation spent lugging everything you’ve packed over long distances. Consider how you’re getting to your destination and how you’ll be getting around once you arrive. Packing light is less critical on trips when you’re driving with your family and staying in one place than when you’re flying on an airplane and moving around once you land.
Do the Wash-and-Wear Math: You can pack fewer items if you don’t mind doing laundry in a hotel sink; if you view a self-service laundry as a way to experience your destination; or if you will be staying in one place long enough to have laundry and dry cleaning done during your trip. You’ll have to pack more if you’ll be moving at a dead run for most of your journey, changing hotels every day, or if you don’t trust the quality of the local laundries and dry cleaners to handle the clothes you want to take.
Make Your Clothes Work Hard: Stick to one basic wardrobe look — urban chic, for instance, or sporty casual — and choose clothes that you can wear at least twice in a week (three times is better). When all your tops go with all your bottoms and all your bottoms work with all your shoes, mixing and matching can yield plenty of fresh looks; just add scarves and jewelry. (For a week’s trip, you should look smashing with three bottoms, four or five tops, a sweater, and a jacket that can be worn alone or over the sweater.)
Watch Your Colors: Similarly, try to build your wardrobe around just two or three complementary colors, preferably two neutrals and one accent, such as black, white, and olive green. If everything goes together, you’ll get more mileage out of fewer pieces. (But don’t pair black with navy on the same trip; each requires its own accessories, and the two colors are not interchangeable.) And remember that prints and dark colors don’t show spots and soil as quickly — think black T-shirts rather than white ones.
Practicality Rules: As much as is possible, pack items that are lightweight, wrinkle resistant, compact, and washable. Clothes made of fabric with built-in wrinkles tend to travel beautifully, while lightweight linen creases like crazy. Try this simple wrinkling test: Intentionally fold a piece of fabric between your fingers for a couple of minutes. If it refuses to crease, it will probably come out of your suitcase looking fresh.
Follow the Weather: Start checking the temperatures for your destination a week before your trip. Having up-to-date weather information allows you to revise your packing list appropriately and to consider buying sunscreen, insect repellent, long johns, or whatever else you may need for the weather. If rain is in the offing, waterproof your shoes with a good silicone spray. And be sure to consider the humidity level: Manhattan scorchers feel completely different than 95-degree days in Phoenix, where the air is dry.