Packing Tips from Travel Experts

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Packing Tips from Travel Experts

In my previous job as a travel editor, I was invited on a number of press trips. The only downside to this admittedly cool perk was agonizing over what to pack. Press-trip itineraries tend to cram everything from horseback riding to black-tie events into a week. And the writers are, in turn, expected to cram clothing for each occasion into our suitcases. I learned a trick or two through trial and error but never became the expert packer that most of my co-press-trippers were. So I pestered some of them for advice, and now I apply their advice to every trip I pack for.

Mix n’ Match.

To begin, suggests Jane Onstott, author of National Geographic Traveler Mexico, “put everything you’re considering taking on the bed: tops at the top, bottoms along the bottom. Keeping to the same color family, make sure all of the tops go with all or most of the bottoms. If not, take away one or the other as needed, even if it’s one of your favorites.” The emphasis there is mine. I’m a sucker packing my favorite new piece of clothing, even if it doesn’t really go with anything else. It’s hard to avoid the temptation, but you’ll be glad you did. Versatility is key.

I tend to choose two or three neutral colors like brown, black, and white, and two complementary accent colors, like orange and red. It seems overly structured, but it pays off. Remember that denim is a neutral—though I personally stay away from it because it’s bulky. Even if you don’t normally wear black, it’s a lifesaver on trips. A black v-neck t-shirt can look dressy with the right accessories and black pants are just as versatile. “They go with everything,” says Amanda Theunissen, freelance travel writer and contributor to nymag.com.


Accessories can turn one outfit into several. Theunissen suggests packing a silk scarf to dress up an otherwise basic outfit. Colorful accessories—jewelry, wraps, tights, purses—don’t take up much space and add interest to neutral outfits. Be brutal when it comes to shoes; they’re heavy and take up lots of space. Limit yourself to three pairs including the ones on your feet. Shoes should always be comfortable enough to walk in for hours.

Be Prepared.

You may think you’ll need nothing but shorts and t-shirts but if you find yourself invited to a fancy event, it would be disappointing to refuse because you’ve got nothing to wear. Diane Bair, a Boston-based travel and outdoor writer, always travels with her Jean-Paul Gaultier mesh dress that rolls up very small and weighs about two ounces. Other than the necessary little black dress, many experts avoid dresses since they only yield one outfit whereas one shirt and one skirt yield four. But I like packing them because (depending on the dress) they can fold up quite small and can go from day to night. At night, I just add a fancier purse and jewelry, change my hair, and maybe wear a jacket.

Must-Pack Items:

  • A range of tops, bottoms, and dresses in neutral colors with a few accent pieces in complementary colors
  • For warm-weather destinations sarongs are invaluable. I’ve used mine as a cover-up, a beach towel, and a wrap.
  • Colorful accessories (but no expensive jewelry!), including a bright silk scarf to dress up a plain-Jane outfit, tie to a blah purse, or use as a belt or headband
  • Short- or long-sleeved black t-shirt that can be dressed up or down
  • Black pants
  • Little black dress
  • Comfortable shoes that can go from day to night, like a pair of ballet flats
  • Scrunchable handbag(s), like these Zia Moda or Lotta Jansdotter totes

The more you travel, the easier it is to determine exactly what makes a travel wardrobe work for you. You may find yourself dressing a bit differently when you travel because choices are based on what fits well into a suitcase, what’s most versatile, what doesn’t wrinkle (or wrinkles less), and what works with the local scene or customs. It pays to think about travel whenever you shop. Before buying something, consider whether you’d pack it on a trip. If you live by this rule of thumb you’ll never again convince yourself to buy a pair of uncomfortable but super-cute shoes by reasoning, “Well, I really don’t have to walk much in them.” Buying less wrinkle-prone clothing for everyday wear means less everyday ironing. As a bonus, if you’re ever whisked away to Rome at a moment’s notice, you’ll be ready!

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