Packing for travel is an art, and it’s a minimalist art. Experienced travelers will have, over time, developed either a system for packing lightly and efficiently, or insanely strong back, arm, and neck muscles. But if you don’t want to look like Tom Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises, then there are a bunch of other little tricks — other than just cutting back on clothing or shoes you aren’t going to need — that can help make you a more space-efficient traveler.

Lately, many budget airlines, like EasyJet or Ryanair, are charging pretty outrageous amounts for bags that exceed a certain size. Most luggage stores will know what their luggage requirements are, and will sell you a decent bag within their “acceptable” range, but it’s still not a ton of space. Here’s how you can get a full week’s worth of clothes into that bag:

Vacuum seal

As a courtesy to those of you out there who just frantically Googled “packing tips” the night before leaving for your trip and found this page, we’ll start with the vacuum seal, because it’s the last resort — if you can’t arrange and jam your stuff into your luggage otherwise, vacuum sealing is the way to go. There are a lot of products for sale that can help you vacuum pack your bags. Vacuum packing is never a bad idea for packing tightly, because a good chunk of the space in your bag is going to be empty air. First, you can get the specialized bag and pump.

It works for sure, but then you’re carrying the pump everywhere you go. This is solved if you get the space bags, which basically allow you to put your luggage in the bags and then roll the air out of them manually.

Here’s another, not altogether horrible option, but you need to spend on the bags themselves. A third option — probably the best for the budget traveler — is the DIY vacuum seal. There are a couple of good ways to do this:

The dip-it and zip-it

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First, fold and put your item into a regular, sealable plastic bag. Then dip it in a sink or tub full of water. This forces the air out, and you can seal it yourself. This is a technique usually used for food, and you might be constrained when it comes to larger items.

If you don’t want to risk the possibility of getting all of your clothes wet, try this instead:

The ghetto vacuum pack

Put your item in a Ziploc bag, leaving it slightly open. Then, put that bag in a larger Ziploc bag, and insert a regular vacuum hose, sealing the larger bag around it as much as possible. Turn the vacuum on, and it’ll suck the air out of both bags. Close the smaller bag manually (without taking it out or turning the vacuum off), and voila!

The issue with vacuum packing is that it’s going to either be time consuming, expensive, equipment-dependent, or it’s going to get your shit all wet. So here are some other tricks to conserve space.

Packing efficiently

There are a lot of schools of thought about how best to pack a bag. I’m going to leave that up to you — I don’t think there’s a definitive way. I tend to be in the “make space at all costs” school, but some people are more concerned with neatness preventing wrinkles, and there’s an entirely different set of rules for that. That said, here are some space savers:

Roll ‘em up.

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Sure, it can wrinkle the clothing, but veteran packers know that rolling all of your clothing up makes it way more space efficient than laying it in flat. An additional tip is to wrap the clothing in rubber bands to make sure it’s not loose, and to keep some semblance of organization in a bag full of rolled-up clothes.

Wear what you can’t fit.

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Travel with as much of the bulky clothes on as you can. Even if you prefer light clothes on planes, remember that you aren’t limited in how much clothes you can be wearing on a plane, and you can take off a couple of layers and put them in the overhead compartment or under the seat if you have to. All it’s doing in your luggage is taking up space.

Use all of the space. Even in your shoes.

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If you must pack an extra pair of shoes, remember that there is space inside of them for socks and underwear.

Shaving cream is not necessary.

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If you don’t want to bring a bulky thing of shaving cream, you can use soap, conditioner, or sunscreen as shaving cream instead.

Underwear is your #1 priority.

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When you’re trying to figure out what to take out and what to put in, remember this: Unless you’re on a business trip, you don’t need more than one nice set of clothes. But you will absolutely need a lot of underwear. Seriously, guys — trust me on this.

Light clothes go on top.


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Flight attendant Heather Poole suggests putting your heavy clothes and shoes in first, and then moving up towards the lighter clothes. That way, when you have to close the suitcase, you aren’t trying to push down on the bulkiest items.

Finding good containers

If you don’t want to buy handfuls of “travel-size” items when you already own the stuff you need, just in too large of a container, you can use regular household items to fit stuff in.

Everything fits in medicine bottles.

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Q-tips and bobby pins will fit nicely into medicine bottles, as will jewelry. I would suggest finding a more opaque bottle for jewelry, or possibly lining it with paper if you don’t want it to get stolen. Another obvious use is just put in more pills — possibly multivitamins. But make sure you can explain that you don’t need a prescription for the multivitamins.

You’ll find shampoo. You won’t find moisturizer.

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Though I can usually find shampoo or conditioner to use while traveling, unless I’m staying in a nice hotel, I always have a hard time finding moisturizer.

Make your own dry toothpaste.

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Toothpaste really isn’t a worry when you’re traveling — you can find it anywhere. But if you really want to give yourself that little extra space, the site Her Packing List suggests making little non-liquid toothpaste capsules. Simple enough: Squeeze a drop of non-gel toothpaste onto a sheet of foil, sprinkle it with baking soda, and then wait a few days until it’s dry and pop it into a bag. When you’re using it, just pop it in your mouth, rub it against your teeth with your tongue, and then brush.

If you don’t want to catch your luggage on fire.

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If you need to straighten your hair and then leave before it has time to cool down, use pot holders.

Keeping things clean and orderly

One of the problems with packing so tightly is that if something smells, then in a very short while, everything will smell. Another problem, with all of the jostling, is that you might squeeze that toothpaste right out of its tube and all over your clothes and toiletries. Here are some tricks to help prevent that:

Take no chances with fluids.

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Before leaving, unscrew your bottles with liquids or gels inside them, cover them in cling wrap, and then screw the cap back on. Not only does this help the lids stay on tighter, but it provides another layer of defense between the gel and all of your clothes.

Jewelry tangles. Straws don’t.

To keep jewelry from tangling, try running it through a straw.

Keep your collar straight.

If you want to keep a shirt collar neat and not smashed, you can wrap your belt around the inside. It also creates a nice spot for your belt.

Keep your earrings from falling into the deepest crevice of your bag.

Earrings can be held together using buttons.

Protect your clothes from your shoes.

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Stinky or dirty shoes? Put them in a shower cap. It’s not a perfect seal, but it’ll keep them together and will be at least a slight barrier between them and the clothes.

Protect your clothes from wrinkling.

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To keep clothes from wrinkling, roll it or fold it over tissue paper.

Protect your clothes from travel stink.

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You can avoid a bad-smelling suitcase by throwing in a couple of dryer sheets.

Keep your headphones untangled.

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Headphone wires wrap nicely around paperclips / binder clips.

Hiding / smuggling valuables

Look, we’re not advocating smuggling things into countries (have you seen Locked Up Abroad? It’s terrifying.). But sometimes, you don’t want people to be able to easily find what’s in your luggage.

Hide your money and emergency numbers.

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The website Instructables suggests hiding emergency money and phone numbers inside emptied lip balm sticks or magic markers.

Protect (and hide) your wine.

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A wine bottle will fit nicely into a pair of gym shoes. Note: X-ray machines can see through your shoes.

Hide your jewelry.

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Small valuables can go into daily medicine containers.

Space-saving gadgets

For the most part, I’m not an advocate of getting travel gadgets. They take up extra space, are wasteful, and don’t really help all that much. But there are a few gadgets that are spectacularly useful in terms of space conservation when it comes to travel.

Get an e-reader.

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The e-reader is essential for people who like to read when they travel. I’ve had a Kindle for about 4 years now, and it’s my favorite possession on the road. The newer versions fit into most jacket or cargo pockets, and they can replace hundreds of books, which used to be the primary source of excess luggage weight when I traveled. If you go the tablet route, you’re further combining your computer and music into the same device.

Use one plug to charge all devices.

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There are a number of universal travel adapters out there, and they tend to be on the pricier side — usually at least over $100 — but if you spend enough time traveling, and if you travel with a lot of electronics, it’s worth getting. It’s a single adapter for your computer, your tablet, your phone, your e-reader, your electric shaver, and so on.

A final bonus cheat

Okay, this is a little shitty, but you can game the system, and it will keep your luggage from being harmed and will also get you out of baggage claim faster.

Label it “Fragile.”

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Luggage listed as “fragile” is placed on top of the pile of luggage, and thus, is the first luggage off the plane.

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