How to Pack Smart and Travel Light

How to pack suitcase light

How to pack smart and travel light

A few weeks ago I traveled to Peru for a food and nutrition conference. Catching up with my colleagues, I heard the same refrain over and over as they caught sight of my suitcase: “How did you manage to pack so light?!”. Of the 50+ attendees, I was the only one who had brought a single carry-on bag and personal item for five days in Peru (mine also contained clothes for the 12 days I’d spend in Florida afterward).

I too used to be guilty of packing a large suitcase chock-full for a seven-day trip. When I began traveling more frequently, I quickly saw the benefit of sticking to just a carry-on.

  • Less time at the airport. I don’t have to wait in line to check my bag, so I never have to arrive more than an hour before my plane leaves (TSA pre-check speeds things up even further). Once the plane lands, I’m out the door and into a cab before most people have gotten down to baggage claim (including international flights, thanks to Global Entry).
  • No baggage fees and no chance of the airline losing my luggage
  • Easier and faster navigation. With my compact bag, I can quickly wind my way through airports, train stations, narrow side streets and busy throughways.

How to pack suitcase light

I live out of my 20-inch TravelPro rolling suitcase, which I have pulled all over Europe, South America, and Asia – including a four week trip to Cambodia, Thailand, Bali and Australia. Here are my best tips and tricks for packing light.

1. Overcome the idea of repeat wears. Ladies, I’m serious – get over it. Trust me, no one is going to notice if you are wearing the same outfit in multiple photos. No matter how long you are away for, pack just one week’s worth of clothing. Lay out the clothes you are planning to take, and for every item ask yourself why you are bringing it. If you find yourself saying “Well what if…”, or you know you’ll only use it once during the trip, leave it behind. I have not once looked back on my trips and thought “Oh I SO wish I had that skirt/dress/shirt/etc. with me!”.

2. Pack interchangeable outfits. Choose a one or two color combinations and pack only pieces that fall into these color schemes. This way you can mix, match and layer to create multiple different looks. There is no need to pack seven entirely separate outfits. Make sure each piece of clothing meets at least three of these criteria:

    • Folds up small
    • Coordinates with almost everything else
    • Can be dressed up or down
    • Works for cool or warm weather
    • Doesn’t show stains

3. Pack layers, not bulk. Limit yourself to just two heavier items (i.e. a jacket, jeans, sneakers) and wear those pieces onto the plane. Men should only pack two pairs of shoes (a comfortable pair of sneakers for walking around and a nicer pair to wear at night) while women can get away with three pairs (comfortable shoes for walking, a pair of flats or sandals, and a pair of heels or wedges). Skip heavy coats and sweaters and pack lightweight outer items that you can layer for warmth. When I traveled to South America, the lightweight t-shirt that I wore around Rio served as my base layer while hiking in Patagonia.

4. Roll and stuff. Everyone has an opinion in the roll vs. fold debate. I go with roll and find that I can fit way more into my suitcase. Rolling your clothes minimizes wrinkles and maximizes space. Stuff smaller items like underwear and socks into shoes, and use them to fill every nook and cranny in your suitcase.

5. Take advantage of handbag allowances. I bring along a canvas tote as my “personal item” and can fit my purse, laptop, snacks for the plane, a water bottle, Kindle, and magazines. I save precious space in my suitcase and am able to toss any “extras” into the tote.

pack light


Do you have a tip for packing and traveling light that I missed? Please share in the comments below!

Author Bio

This article was written and reviewed by Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, CSCS, a registered dietitian and Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor. She specializes in weight-inclusive care, intuitive eating, body image healing, mindfulness, self-compassion, and healing from chronic dieting, disordered eating, and eating disorders. Alissa holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Nutrition and Exercise Science, and a Master’s Degree in Health Communications, and is also an NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist.


  1. Mom on March 4, 2016 at 3:04 pm

    You are so right about packing unnecessary stuff!!

  2. Kristen on March 6, 2016 at 9:08 pm

    Great post! I travel all the time for work and have found in all situations that if I really need something, I can go buy it. Most hotels carry a lot of toiletries that you don’t need to pack too… When packing outfits, go for layers!

    • Alissa Rumsey on March 7, 2016 at 10:26 am

      Thanks Kristen! Great tip about being able to buy something if needed – this can help ease the feeling of leaving some things behind 🙂 I’ve used this tip a few times, most recently thinking I’d buy a summer dress in Brazil if I needed on, but I usually end up being fine with what I brought. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Pat Collelo on March 6, 2016 at 11:30 pm

    Great ideas. It’s hard when you don’t know how weather will be…boots? How could you not wear a coat in Patagonia?congratulations on all your travels.
    Pat C
    Allison ‘ s Mom.

    • Alissa Rumsey on March 7, 2016 at 10:32 am

      Hi Pat, good questions! Weather can be tough – if it may just rain a day or too, I plan to tough it out with my running sneakers. For Patagonia, I brought my hiking boots (some of my travel mates wore theirs on the plane; I was able to fit them in my suitcase) but ended up not bringing sneakers on that trip. For a coat, I used a thicker fleece, layered on top of a long sleeve dry fit type shirt. When I added my waterproof arcteryx windbreaker, it kept me completely warm as it blocked the wind. That plus a good hat, gloves and scarf and I was ok 🙂 Thanks for your comments!

  4. Lauren Harris-Pincus on March 7, 2016 at 6:42 am

    Great tips, Alissa. I’m such an overpacker!

    • Alissa Rumsey on March 7, 2016 at 10:33 am

      Thanks Lauren! The first time weaning down to a carry-on is tough, but once you get through that trip and realize how much easier it was (and how you had everything you needed) it gets much easier 🙂

  5. Tina on March 7, 2016 at 12:37 pm

    What about workout clothes and shoes? Those get stinky…

    • Alissa Rumsey on March 7, 2016 at 12:56 pm

      Hi Tina! Yes that is true – I generally pack 2 workout outfits. If I’m traveling for under a week, I’ll rinse out my sports bra and hang dry; if traveling longer (or staying in a place with a washer/dryer – the benefit of using Airbnb!) I’ll do laundry after a week or so.

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Alissa Rumsey, RD.

Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, CDN, CSCS (pronouns she/her/hers) is a registered
dietitian, nutrition therapist, certified intuitive eating counselor, and the author of
Unapologetic Eating: Make Peace With Food and Transform Your Life. Alissa is
passionate about helping people reclaim the space to eat and live,

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