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How to Pack for the Holidays Like a Pro

Airports + Flying
by Matthew Meltzer Dec 19, 2019

Some people are totally fine checking bags. They enjoy the cultural anthropology that is airport baggage claim and prefer to breeze through airports with nothing but the shirts on their backs. And for these people, the holidays don’t present much of a challenge other than making sure none of their gifts get broken in transit.

But for the carry-on-only crowd, flying this time of year can be especially perplexing. How does one fit a week’s worth of cold-weather clothes into a carry-on already jammed with presents for the whole family? And how do I get all my presents back home afterwards? Well, we chatted with Juan Phillips, Design Director at TravelPro luggage, who’s been designing bags for packing efficiently his whole career. And he shed some light on packing light for the holidays.

Use a bag that maximizes space

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Contrary to popular opinion, all roller bags are not the same. So the old roller board you dust off and that was last used to haul DVD players for Christmas might not maximize your packing potential. Generally, the limit for most airlines is about 14 inches wide by 22 inches tall by nine inches wide. Phillips recommends TravelPro’s Crew Versapak, but there are plenty of products this same size.

Along the same lines, Phillips points out that traditional roller board bags — where you have two wheels on one side, and you roll the bag at an angle — offer more room than “spinner” bags with four wheels. That’s because the roller board wheels sit almost flush against the bag and don’t require extra height, whereas spinners do. “The advantage of a spinner, it’s going to glide alongside you,” he says. “But it’s going to have a little less volume compared to a roller board.”

Utilize packing cubes

“With things like gifts, that are going to be bulky, you’ll have to come up with creative ways to pack around them,’ says Phillips. “Rolling or compressing within packing cubes is a great way to fit the most while also packing personal items.”

For the unfamiliar, packing cubes are essentially plastic bags equipped with one-way valves, so you can stuff clothes in them, press all the air out, and no air gets in. It’s vacuum sealing your clothes, minus the vacuum. They’re especially helpful when packing for cold places, where big sweaters and jackets will need to be scrunched as small as possible.

Phillips adds that using packing cubes also helps you to stay organized and know where things are in your luggage, so you’re not tearing apart your bag every time you need a sock.

Roll, baby, roll

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Along the lines of packing cubes, rolling clothes is another popular method of saving space in carry-ons. Anyone who’s spent time in the military is all too familiar with this method of packing, but it works for Christmas as well as it works for field ops. Especially if you’re gifting clothes.

“I’ll fold and roll to fit my belongings as well as gifts I’m traveling with,” adds Phillips.

Pack your presents before you wrap them

Aside from the obvious issue of potentially frayed wrapping paper, carrying already-wrapped presents also severely limits your packing flexibility. If everything is already boxed up, you have to pack it in a space that fits a box. And chances are there’s a lot of air in that box taking up valuable carry-on real estate.

Instead, strip gifts down and put them in wherever they fit. You may also want to consider the packing itself when purchasing gifts. Gift cards, while possibly impersonal, also save you a lot of stress as they don’t take up much room. Neither do clothes. And if you do all your Christmas shopping from the comfort of your laptop, you may consider having gifts shipped to your Christmas destination.

Fit as much of your own things into your carry-on

“Make sure your clothing and personal items are separated from gifts,” says Phillipps. This is more of an organizational hack than anything else, as he says it keeps you from having to fumble around your bag.

“Those who are okay with checking a bag, I would propose they see what they can get in their carry-on and get as much (of your stuff) as you can carry in a personal item,” he continues. “Then when it comes to your check-in piece, you can stuff it with presents.”

Get a bag with a TSA lock

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Not to besmirch the good name of our nation’s baggage handlers, but around the holidays when bags are filled with juicy stuff like electronics and gift cards, the very few who might be tempted have extra incentive. Again, not saying it’ll happen, but do you really think your family will believe you when you show up empty-handed for Christmas and say, “I swear they stole it out of my suitcase!”

“If you have more gifts than will fit into carry-ons and personal items, make sure you use a TSA lock,” Phillips says. “They’re either built in (to the suitcase), or buy a TSA padlock and use it on your main compartment. So your belongings are locked and nobody can access them but TSA.”

Assume you’ll do laundry

“I am not somebody who likes to check,” says Phillips. “I like to get right off and I don’t like to wait for my checked bag, so I’m always thinking about doing laundry. Always side with doing laundry rather than overpacking. Especially at home.”

Because during the holidays, typically you’ll be staying with family. And family has cool stuff like washing machines and dryers in their house that you can use without having to find nine dollars in quarters. When you’re traveling light, much like during college breaks, take full advantage of your family’s laundry facilities.

Pick your shoes wisely

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Perhaps you’re stoked to show off the slick new Ferragamo boots you bought with your epic bonus this year and want to make sure your family knows it. While your need to impress loved ones is a completely different issue, the issue at hand is that those boots just aren’t very practical, and they take up a lot of space in your bag. Packing light is not always for the fashion-forward, and when it comes to footwear, finding shoes that serve multiple purposes should be your main priority.

“I’d suggest if you’re going for a week take maybe one or two pairs of shoes,” says Phillips. “Something for working out and something good for both casual and leisure, as well as outings to dinner. Something universal.” Ideally, wear the bulkier pair on the plane and stuff your collapsible running shoes into your bag to maximize space. If you’re going to a snowy destination, consider wearing your boots on the plane as well — just give yourself extra time for lacing and unlacing at security.

Bring an empty bag with you

Assuming your family buys you presents, odds are you’ll be going home with just as much — or more — stuff than you brought. And if you followed our earlier advice and either shipped online purchases ahead of time or bought a bunch of gift cards and T-shirts, you may have considerably more bulk on the way home.

“Pack foldable products,” Phillips advises. “Foldable totes and backpacks, duffles, we have plenty of those. Compressed items you throw in your bag that aren’t necessarily filled, and then on the way back you have a bag for all your stuff.”

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