Even for seasoned road warriors, suitcase packing tends to be a dreaded chore. Is there really a foolproof method for fitting suits, business casual, and casual attire (not to mention shoes, toiletries, and other accessories) into a carry-on bag…without forgetting anything essential?
In most cases, the answer is yes!
I’ve found that many business travelers overpack in order to prepare for every eventuality. After all, no one wants to wear yesterday’s wrinkly button-down to a client dinner that cropped up unexpectedly. But too often, this strategy causes travelers to haul around bulky luggage full of pieces that are never worn. And while you may not have considered it, agonizing over what to pack (not to mention waiting in bag-check lines and potentially dealing with lost suitcases) can shake your confidence and cause your trip to start off on a frustrating and stressful note.
Fortunately, you can make packing for a business trip easier—without stuffing your whole closet into a large bag that needs to be checked. Here are eight tips to help you downsize with confidence before your next business flight:
Think quality over quantity. You may assume that it’s best not to pack expensive clothing that might get wrinkled, stained, or worn—but actually, the opposite is true. Purchase and learn how to pack the highest-quality items you can afford. They will travel well, boost your image, and can often be worn multiple times before needing a trip to the dry cleaner’s.
Suits, trousers, skirts, and blazers in lightweight wool are always a great choice. This durable material is easy to maintain and is appropriate for a variety of climates. You should be able to wear the same pieces two or three times on the same trip, if necessary—just tweak your look by adding different accessories each day. I’d also recommend purchasing anti-wrinkle shirts and blouses, if you haven’t already.
Choose your colors carefully. You may pride yourself on the variety of interesting, fashion-forward pieces you wear to the office—but travel is not the time to show off the extent of your professional wardrobe. Whether it’s beige, gray, black, or blue, choose one base tone for all of your outfits and stick with it.
If you’re going to a warmer climate and won’t be attending any strictly formal events, you might select beige or light gray. Otherwise, choose black, navy, charcoal, or chocolate. As long as you don’t mind wearing the same pair of pants a few times (again, this is where quality comes in!), this strategy can really decrease the amount of clothes you need to bring along. And being able to mix and match items will broaden the amount of outfits you can put together.
Focus on leaving a small footprint. Footwear is definitely the heaviest and bulkiest item most business travelers need to pack, so make sure that each pair of shoes you choose is unique in terms of color and style—you don’t have room for overlap.
Men can often get away with one pair of professional shoes and a workout tennis shoe. A dress loafer is appropriate for most business meetings. If you need a lace-up shoe for serious meetings or more formal events, wear the dress loafer on the plane.
For women, a great pump and/or boot can work for a week of meetings. If you need two pairs, bring a neutral (such as black) that works with a dress and a pant, and either a dressier shoe or a nude pump that blends with the clothing you’ve packed. If there’s room in your suitcase, add a pair of more comfortable walking shoes—either tennis shoes if you intend to work out or a pair of flats with plenty of support.
Add your accents. Once you have your foundation in place, it’s time to choose one or two accent colors. A few key pieces—scarves, a tie and pocket square, or a statement necklace, to name a few examples—can add a surprising amount of spice to your outfits. You’ll probably also have room for a few “wild card” pieces—say, a bright polo shirt or patterned sundress—to wear to more casual events. As long as they blend with your chosen color theme, you can add a couple of these items without guilt.
Use plastic bags. All shapes and sizes of plastic bags come in handy while you’re packing and traveling. In addition to zip-top bags in a variety of sizes, I recommend saving and utilizing long plastic bags from the dry cleaner’s. As I’m packing, I lay a long bag down in the bottom of the suitcase. Then as I put my clothes in the bag, I weave the plastic back and forth through each layer. It helps everything stay neat and organized, and cuts down on wrinkles. If you’re staying at a hotel, the plastic bag can double as a drawer liner. And on the way home, I can use one of the bags for my worn clothes so they can go into the laundry or to the dry cleaner’s.
Utilize all extra space. When you’re trying to get by with a carry-on, it’s worth sacrificing just a little organization for the sake of using every inch of space. For example, stuff socks, hose, and underwear into your shoes instead of keeping all of these items together. Fill any awkward gaps with rolled up sleepwear or exercise clothing that can get wrinkled.
Wear your heaviest clothes on the plane. Instead of trying to stuff your outerwear into your suitcase, wear it on the plane. If you get too warm, you can always put these items in the overhead compartment or hold them on your lap. Also, while it may not be the most comfortable option, wear a suit or blazer on the plane if you can—this will save a surprising amount of space in your bag. If you do pick up a few wrinkles along the way, they should disappear after hanging the garments up overnight or giving them a good steam in the bathroom.
Keep a packing list for reference. Even the most experienced travelers can save time by creating and referencing a packing list. Yours might include a general list of what you’ll need (e.g., two suits and four dress shirts) or, if you tend to fill your suitcase with the same pieces trip after trip, a list of specific items. And don’t forget miscellaneous items (like phone chargers) and toiletries. We all know what it’s like to realize you didn’t pack your toothbrush or reading glasses—not fun! Keep your packing list on your computer or smartphone so that you can easily edit and improve it on the go.
By learning to make some tough choices during the packing process, it is possible to zip professional style into a carry-on. And in a worst-case scenario, I’m sure there will be stores where you’re going!