With rising baggage fees and whirlwind trips through multiple destinations, learning to pack efficiently is an essential skill for any traveller. Whether you’re planning on living out of a carry-on for two weeks, or visiting places with different climates, this article will help you to pack like a pro.
Before you start to pack, think about your itinerary. What sorts of activities will you be doing? If your trip is city-based, then you’ll need comfy clothes for exploring the streets, and perhaps some formal options for the evenings. If you’re heading to the beach, a second set of swimwear is essential, as well as a beach tote, waterproof phone pouch, a waterproof bag to take on adventures, and aqua shoes that you can walk and swim in.
The next thing is to check the weather. Don’t get caught in the rainy season without a trusty raincoat, or take unnecessary layers if you’re going somewhere tropical. Thermal baselayers are a must in colder climates, and cool, breathable fabrics will help you withstand the heat in warmer places.
Another important consideration is cultural norms at your destination. For example, if travelling around Asia, chances are that you’ll find yourself visiting a temple at some point on your trip. Despite the heat, many places will not allow you in if you’re not dressed appropriately. This usually translates to no sleeveless tops or short shorts. A scarf is a versatile option to carry around, as it will function as a cover up while taking up little space in your bag.
What to pack
We often pack our clothes into a carry on, and place that in a larger suitcase to keep space for souvenirs we pick up along the way. You could easily use just a carry-on, as not checking in suitcases has its advantages- you’ll often pay less on shorter flights, the airline won’t lose your luggage (hopefully!), and you’ll get through the airport faster. However, on longer trips you may have challenges with the small toiletries and lack of space if you’re packing for colder weather. If you are checking in your luggage, it’s recommended to keep a spare set of clothes in your carry-on in case your luggage gets lost.
Once you’ve checked the weather and your itinerary, you’re ready to start packing. The first thing to do is to decide what kind of luggage you’ll be taking. You could take a normal 2-wheeled suitcase which does the job but gets heavy after a while, a 4-wheeled suitcase which is the easiest to pull around, a duffel bag which is lightweight and durable, or a large pack that can be wheeled or carried around on your back. A good rule of thumb is to take out everything you think you’ll need, and to lay it all out so you can see everything at once. Then take away half of that and you should be good to go! Don’t forget to check your luggage and weight allowances before you leave.
Packing cubes, whether compressible or not, are great for keeping things organised according to destination, item, or activity. They also save space and make it easier to live out of your suitcase for extended periods without everything descending into chaos.
Remember, it’s easy to over-pack and you will suffer for it. Try to stick to the same colour palette so you can mix and match pieces for different looks, and pack light layers so you’ll be ready for different weather. It also helps to pack items that can be dressed up or down, for example a simple black dress works for exploring the town, and adding a shiny scarf or some jewellery elevates your look for the night.
Make sure that any shoes you take with are comfortable and have been worn in. Try and find options that are stylish and comfortable so that you won’t have to lug around extra pairs for different occasions.
For toiletries, I usually place individual bottles and tubes into separate plastics and then into my toiletry bag, so that if anything leaks, the mess is contained. It also helps when packing wet sponges back into your bag.
Don’t forget to lock your luggage. While the TSA has specific locks they recommend you use, these are not required. They will, however, cut your normal locks open if they want to check your bags. In all other countries, normal luggage locks are acceptable. Note that locking your luggage doesn’t mean people can’t tamper with your bag. Using just a pen, they can slide your zips open and scratch around without leaving a trace!
It is therefore always a good idea to keep all valuables in your carry-on. It is also worth wrapping your bag in plastic wrap, as this is a good deterrent. Most airports have booths that do this for you, but if you do it at home with plastic wrap, it is much cheaper. Just make sure to weigh your bags and make sure there’s nothing prohibited inside so that you aren’t forced to open it again at the airport.
Money belts, shirts with inside zip pockets, and belts with hidden compartments are all freely available for added security. While not essential, these are helpful. RFID-blocking purses are also recommended as they will not allow scammers to steal sensitive information from credit cards and certain passports.
Unless you’re backpacking, you’ll need a bag to carry around essentials all day. While most people exaggerate the safety considerations when travelling, pick-pockets are common all over the world and it helps to be alert wherever you are. A satchel is the best for keeping your phone and purse in, as you can keep it close, especially on public transport and in crowded areas.
A back-pack is a much more comfortable option, as the weight is evenly spread and allows you to wander around un-hindered. It is also more roomy, and will allow you to carry around essentials such as compact raincoats for sporadic showers, a water bottle, power banks to keep your devices charged, snacks to keep you going, and place to keep souvenirs you purchase as you go. There are a lot of anti-theft options worth looking into, but you can always opt to keep your valuables in a separate bag that’s easier to keep track of. It is also worth taking a small handbag to use for evening wanderings.
Below is an example of the packing list we used to pack for a three week adventure that spanned different climates and activities. We had to pack for a week-long cruise through Central America, where temperatures ranged between 21 and 29 degrees Celsius (70 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit), with sporadic rain. Our trip also included days in New Orleans and Los Angeles where temperatures were between 6 and 20 degrees Celsius (43 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit). The Grand Canyon and London portions of the trip would take us to icy temperatures of -6 to 11 degrees Celsius (21 to 52 degrees Fahrenheit). The trip also encompassed activities such as hiking, kayaking, scuba diving, theatre shows, and exploring cities on foot. You can use this checklist as a guide, and tweak it for your needs
- 4 T shirts/ blouses
- 1 Jeans
- 2 Leggings/ tracksuit pants/ shorts
- 2 Summer dresses
- 4 Tank tops/ inner shirts
- 1 Long dress
- 2 Jerseys/ 1 hoody
- 2 sets of thermal base-layers
- All-weather jacket (fleece-lined and waterproof)
- Ankle boots
- Dressy pumps
- 2 sets of pyjamas
- 6 sets of underwear and socks
- Accessories (sunglasses, sunhat, jewellery, 2 scarves)
- Swimming costume
- Flip-flops/ sandals
- Aqua shoes
- Microfiber towel
- Waterproof bag
- Waterproof phone pouch
- Collared shirts and formal pants for men
- Evening dress for women
- Shampoo, conditioner, hair oil/treatment
- Body wash, body lotion
- Face wash, face cream
- Toothpaste, toothbrush, mouthwash, floss
- Hair brush
- Bug spray
- Aloe vera gel/ after-sun sprays
- Petroleum jelly
- Shoe powder/spray
- Deodorant/ perfume
- Lip balm
- Personal/feminine hygiene products
- Shaving kit
- Scissors, tweezers, nail clippers
- Air freshener
- Prescription medication
- Bandages, plasters
- Basic medication for headaches, nausea, pain, colds, diarrhea, sleep
- Allergy medication
- Eye drops, nose sprays
- Contact lenses, solution, spare glasses
- Specific medication for your destination, example malaria pills or relevant vaccinations
A travel wallet is a big help, as it is often larger than your average purse/wallet and has space for important documents, passports, boarding passes, and cash in one place. This makes it much easier to get through security quickly. It is also helpful to pick your travel outfit wisely. Don’t wear something with too many pockets as this will make it a mission to empty them all at scanners. Also make sure that your shoes are comfortable and easy to remove at checkpoints.
There have been recent incidents of theft on planes, while passengers were sleeping. Make sure to lock your carry-on suitcase for peace of mind during the flight so that you can fly in peace. You could also keep your important documents and cash in a travel wallet or small bag in/under the seat in front of you.
When it comes to gadgets, it’s important to keep them organised, along with relevant chargers, cables, docks, and accessories. Cable organisers make things a lot easier to get to, and a power bank or spare batteries (or both!) will ensure your devices survive through long days away from your hotel. If you’re packing a laptop or tablet, make sure it’s easily accessible at the airport, as you will need to take them out of your bag to be screened separately by security. If you’re travelling with a drone, make sure to check local laws ahead of time to make sure you’ll be able to use it without incident.
Not all power banks are allowed on aeroplanes, so it is very important to check yours before taking it with. Only power banks that do not exceed 100 Watt-Hours are acceptable, and anything that exceeds this would require special permission from the airline in advance. They cannot be placed in your checked luggage, due to the risk of them overheating, catching fire, or exploding(!), so make sure they’re in your hand luggage. In some cases you’ll be asked to take them out for further inspection, and on a recent trip to Bangkok there was a large bin of confiscated power banks at security. They tend to err on the side of caution, and if the capacity of your device isn’t printed somewhere on it, it might be confiscated as well.
In some cases, the Wh will be printed on your power bank, but if it isn’t, use the below formula to check the capacity. To calculate the Wh (Watt-hours) of your device, you need to know the milli-Ampere-hours and Voltage of the device. Then use this formula: (mAh)/1000 x (V) = (Wh).
When embarking on long flights, especially those that include layovers, basic toiletries are recommended, but keep in mind the 3-1-1 rule. This means that any liquids/gels/lotions/sprays must be smaller than 3.4 oz (100ml), and all must fit in one clear, plastic, 1-quart (1 litre) sized bag. This will often need to be taken out and scanned separately from the rest of your hand luggage.
- Hotel/flight confirmations
- Visas, if required
- A black pen- there are always forms to fill out!
- Bank/SARS statement for your foreign currency
- Cell phone
- Charging cable
- Power bank and/or spare batteries
- International adaptors
- Camera/GoPro + SD cards + Accessories (don’t forget to take different lenses, filters, mounts, and housings based on your planned activities)
- Noise-cancelling headphones
- Tablet + charger
- Laptop + charger
- External hard drive to back up your devices, if you plan on taking a LOT of photos
- Car charger, if your itinerary includes a road trip or rental car
- Gadget/Cable organiser
- Hand lotion
- Face cream
- Hand sanitiser or wet-wipes
- Toothpaste and toothbrush, or mouthwash
- Eye-drops/nose spray if you’re prone to dry eyes or sinus issues
- Contact lenses + solution + glasses
- Small spray bottle for wudhu
- Empty bottle for istinja
- Travel wallet
- Travel pillow
- Notebook and pens
- Eye mask
- Small blanket
- Chewing gum
- Snacks like chocolate or crisp
- Basic medication for headaches, nausea, sleep, etc.
Before you go
Although planes usually have in-flight entertainment, it’s helpful to load up some books and podcasts on your phone/tablet to keep yourself entertained at the airport while waiting to check in, and when you get tired of the in-flight options. Keep your charger cable nearby, since most planes now have USB charging ports at your seat. Check Seat Guru for up to date info that will help you to book a good seat.
It’s also helpful to download relevant apps such as those for your airline, hotels, and city guides to keep all relevant info at hand. Apps that help with currency conversion, navigation, translating foreign languages make things easier. It’s also a good idea to take photos of your passport, tickets, and other important documents and to keep them on your email or a cloud service so that you’ll have copies available if the originals go missing.
A good app to have is Muslim Pro, as it has Salaah times and a Qiblah compass built in, as well as a myriad of other features. The HalalTrip website has a handy salaah calculator, where you put in your flight times and departure and arrival destinations. It then calculates the times for each salaah, as well as the direction you would have to face in your seat for Qiblah. If you remembered to pack your spray bottle, you can make wudhu easily at your seat, without needing to maneuver in the tiny bathroom. Mozas are ridiculously convenient when travelling, as you can make wudhu easily and keep your feet warm at the same time.
Cliché, but it really is better to be safe rather than sorry. Make sure to leave your itinerary and copies of important documents with someone at home so that if something goes wrong, they have all the relevant info to enable them to help you. also take photos of your luggage and ensure that you attach name tags with an email address (not a home address, as this can tip off criminals), so that in the event of lost luggage, you’ll have something to show.
They don’t always check this at the airport, but sometimes they will request a clearance letter from your bank or SARS to state how much of foreign currency you’ve drawn. This is to make sure you’re taking legitimate cash out of the country.
If you’re travelling with medication, try and keep it in the original packaging and if it’s on a prescription, take that with as well. Some countries have strict laws regarding medications, so make sure to check what’s allowed before you go.
Don’t forget about your home while you’re away- alert your alarm company of your travel dates and try to leave a key with a neighbour so that they’ll keep an extra eye out. Stop any subscriptions if you’ll be away for a while as uncollected mail is sign that no one is home.
Invest in a time switch so that your lights come on automatically each evening, and don’t forget to turn your geyser off. Also give away food that will go bad, and switch off all other appliances. Lock your doors and windows properly and secure valuables in a safe place.
Take care of bills that might come while away, and inform your bank of where and when you intend to travel so that they don’t accidentally block your cards.
Now that all that is taken care of, go forth and have a great holiday!