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From My Home to Yours: Taking the Problems Out of Packing

Martha Stewart Living, February 2009

I have been traveling an inordinate amount in the past few months. My newest book, "Martha Stewart's Cooking School" (Clarkson Potter), was published in October, and I embarked on a multicity book tour that lasted for weeks. I also made several business trips -- to California, Maine, Ireland, Poland, and even Iceland.

Because I travel so much, and to so many diverse locations in many different kinds of planes and other vehicles, I have devised my own style of packing that works well and is effective. Little is left to chance, nothing gets lost or damaged, and my clothes and other items needed for the trip are protected and can usually be worn directly from the suitcase or hanging bag. I am a good packer and a successful traveler, but I hate to pack, and I tend to leave it to the last minute, even though I know the task would be better done in advance.

The luggage I take is an important consideration: I use duffel-type bags for casual trips when I need lots of room for hiking or riding boots and bulky outdoor clothing. Because these bags are clumsy to carry, I have found some that have wheels, saving my back, arms, and shoulders.

For two- or three-day trips, I find I can usually get away with a carry-on duffel/handbag, a smaller messenger bag, and a small "wheelie" that fits into a plane's overhead compartment. I also have several good zippered garment bags that can be carried onto a plane. If I must check luggage because I need many changes of clothing, I use a rigid aluminum suitcase (I have three sizes).

Really good luggage should never be checked unless the bags can be shrink-wrapped or covered with a canvas or waterproof covering. So many bags are damaged on the automated conveyor belts: Handles are ripped off, gashes are made in canvas bags, and locks are often snapped off. Even the aluminum suitcases are occasionally dented and scuffed, though I find them remarkably sturdy.

I carry lots of electronics and cameras with me, and their attendant chargers and batteries are cumbersome and heavy. I pack each camera, each charger, and the extra batteries in resealable plastic bags. My cell phone and BlackBerry are always with me, as is my Kindle, and each uses a different charger that requires its own small bag.

My makeup and toiletries are packed in separate zippered pouches, which are then inserted into large resealable plastic bags. If I am bringing a laptop, that, too, is packed in my hand-carried duffel, which can be transported easily atop my wheelie or overnight bag.

I always watch my luggage like a hawk -- I do not let hotel bellmen whisk it away for later delivery to my room. I stay with it and insist on accompanying it to my room. In taxis and limos, I watch how it is stored so that nothing is ever crushed or damaged. Hanging bags are always hung or laid flat on top of everything else.

What's most effective about my method of packing is that it lets me pack outfits together on one hanger. Each outfit is stored and folded in a dry-cleaner-type plastic bag so that once I reach my destination, I can simply hang up my clothes and wear them without having to press them. Packing by outfit enables me to figure out, while packing, exactly which undergarments, stockings, shoes, scarves, and purses I will need. All my shoes are packed in flannel shoe bags, and I use the same type of bag for belts and evening clutches. If I am traveling with a hat or two, I use a lightweight shopping bag, so the hats won't be crushed.

I have also devised a list of essential "do not forget" items. I refer to this list so that I don't neglect to pack vitamins, a favorite tea, a couple of pieces of ribbon or waxed twine (to tie zippers closed), extra resealable plastic bags, jewelry, sunglasses, contact lenses and cleaning solutions, a hairbrush, checks, cash, and my passport.

This packing system works well and is easy to incorporate into your next trip. I hope that you will find it as useful as I do.

How to Pack a Suitcase for a Five-Day Trip
In this suitcase, there is plenty of room for nearly a week's worth of clothing. The key is to keep everything in separate and neat bundles, while making use of the built-in compartments.

1. Sweaters
To maintain the shape of my knitted tops and chunkier sweaters, I line the back of each garment with a few sheets of acid-free tissue paper before folding. These items should never be stored on hangers, either at hotels or at home; doing so can cause the fibers near the shoulders to stretch.

2. Footwear
Shoes are usually the heaviest cargo in a travel bag. To prevent them from crushing delicate clothing, I tuck them around the perimeter of the suitcase. Each pair is kept in an individual drawstring-topped shoe bag. I stuff the toes of my pumps and other dress shoes with acid-free tissue paper; socks go inside sneakers and slides.

3. Assembled Outfits
To streamline both packing and dressing on trips, I plan my outfits ahead of time, complete with shoes and accessories. I put each outfit on a single hanger (unless the top is a sweater) and wrap it in plastic.

4. Accessories
In addition to packing my shoes in pouches, I also place belts in one bag, undergarments in another, and tights and leggings in yet another. This ensures that the suitcase stays organized, even in the rare event it is searched at the airport.

Tangle-Free Chargers
These days, traveling means toting around a lot of electronics. I pack each charger separately in a labeled resealable plastic bag so everything is visible and at my fingertips.

Computer Protection
Laptops have to be taken out of their cases at airport security checkpoints, so I keep mine in a jumbo resealable bag to minimize handling. The power cord goes into a smaller bag.

Light, Easy Reading
I carry my Kindle, which lets me scan an array of books and newspapers, and my cashmere scarf with me on every trip. I also bring my toiletries (in containers that hold less than 3 ounces), a change of clothes, and my contact lens container and solution, just in case I am separated from my luggage.

Uncluttered Carryall
A messenger bag is roomy, can double as a pocketbook, and holds everything I need. I rely on a few coordinating accessories, including a large, sleek walletlike clutch by Perrin, to hold miscellaneous items.

Instant Identifier
One trip to the baggage carousel is proof enough that nearly all suitcases look alike. A bright-green ribbon tied to the handle distinguishes each of my bags from everyone else's.

Security Measure
Many luggage locks are forbidden under security regulations. So I tie the zipper pull tags on my suitcase together with a piece of waxed twine. That way, I can tell if it has been opened.

To Relax or Exercise
Comfortable, breathable clothes are always good to have on a trip. I'll wear them on the plane during a long flight or save them for an impromptu hike or workout.

How to Pack an Ensemble for Traveling
My trips are always extremely busy, so I plan what I'll wear to each event to ensure that I don't take extra clothes. With this one-outfit-per-hanger system, wrinkles are minimized, and I can hang up items as soon as I arrive.

Step 1: Hang the bottom First, you need a good dual-purpose hanger with metal clips and a secure grip. Attach a pair of jeans or pants or a skirt at the waist.

Step 2: Add the shirt
Slip the top onto the hanger, covering the bottom piece. If possible, keep all the buttons closed so that the shirt and collar will lie flat.

Step 3: Fold and wrap
Place the outfit facedown on a bed or a table. Tuck the pant legs under, creasing at the knees or in thirds. Then fold in the shirt's sleeves, and make a final fold at the bottom to fit inside the suitcase. Slip a clear plastic garment bag (you can use one from a dry cleaner) over the entire bundle, tucking in any excess plastic.

Comments (15)

  • 16 Sep, 2013

    The most important packing advice I ever got was to pack one full outfit in your carry-on if you have to check your bags. That way, if you go to London and your bags go to Istanbul, you can still appear at that 9:00 a.m. meeting the next day in something other than the comfy sweats you wore to travel in. Getting a credit from the airline to replace your clothes doesn't do you much good if the stores aren't open before you have to be somewhere!

  • 14 May, 2013

    Question: What kind of plastic do you wrap your hung outfits?

    3. Assembled Outfits
    To streamline both packing and dressing on trips, I plan my outfits ahead of time, complete with shoes and accessories. I put each outfit on a single hanger (unless the top is a sweater) and wrap it in plastic.

  • 11 May, 2013

    Outfit package: I lay all parts of an outfit on my bed: pants, blouse, sweater, socks, or stockings, undies, bra, jewelry in a bag,.,Then roll all of it like a jelly roll. The outfit is fully packed. do each outfit this way. Very fast to get dressed in your hotel and quick to repack. I don't use a hanger.I was skeptical about rolling my clothes BUT it is easy on your clothes and more fit into a smaller suitcase! And no wrinkles!!! Also pencil pouches work great for stowing cords, makeup etc.

  • 11 May, 2013

    Whenever I go on a trip for more than five days, I try to only bring one neutral color, with color accents on accessories like scarves, which are easy to pack in a plastic ziplock bag. Plastic ziplocks make it easier to find underwear, socks, etc. when unpacking. I pack my suitcase and always go back and take something. I bring layers for changes in weather and slacks and tops which are interchangeable. Man tailored shirts are great as jackets over tees and the no iron ones travel well.

  • 10 Aug, 2012

    As a former flight attendant I can pack for a month's trip to Europe in one carry on suticase and a large purse/laptop bag. 1) pick one neutral color (black) and inject color with tops and scarves; 2) take only 2-3 pairs of shoes--dressy, walking and sandals; 2) hooded raincoat and layers underneath for warmth (red, so can be seen); 3) take only necessary toiletries/makeup (mineral) in small containers; 4) wear largest shoes, coat, sweater, etc. on plane; 5) have expandable bag for flight home.

  • 23 Jul, 2011

    I made a worksheet and itemized check list so that I don't forget anything. I list outfits/with appropriate accessories, etc.

  • 19 Jul, 2011

    Excellent ideas, some of which I've user in the past. Now just give me the the financial means to travel again in this economy!! I really can't afford it any more.. :-(

  • 18 Jul, 2011

    I'd recommend anything colorful (awful combinations work great) for marking your bag to be recognized instantly. Badges, scarves, colors that don't match.
    And for locking the checked-in bags, either colorful cable ties, or TSA approved SearchAlert locks. You can instantly see whether the bag has been opened.
    T-shirts and similar items take least space when rolled instead of folded. I can do easily 1-2 week of holidays without any checked-in luggage.

  • 17 Jul, 2011

    Unless you expect your travel time to be years and years, it really isn't necessary to use acid free tissue. In place of tissue paper, I often use plastic bags, tee-shirts, or even my slip, to pad more delicate items to keep them from wrinkling. I found on a recent trip that packing similar items (like undies) in zippered mesh bags kept them together and easy to find when I unpacked. The mesh bags also kept things from shifting and reduced wrinkling.

  • 17 Jul, 2011

    Great article. I never thought of packing an outfit like she suggests. I do use plastic travel bags - the ones that you roll up and squeeze the air out. Allows you more room in your suitcase and keeps things together.

  • 17 Jul, 2011

    Travel Smith has a lot of nifty things to help with making packing easier and yesterday I found that Bed Bath and Beyond here in the Atlanta area now carries these same items. I bought a Bag Bungee , which sells for $14.99 , for $10.69 with their $5 off coupon! Check out BB&B in your area

  • 17 Jul, 2011

    Shrink wrapping your luggage before checking it is useless. They will tear it off to search the contents. They are unlikely to replace a canvas cover, either. I just accept that my luggage will go through a particular hell before it is returned to me. That's part of the price of travel.

  • 1 Apr, 2011

    I fold and pack one whole outfit including underwear in a large ziplock bag with the jewelry that goes with it in small snack size ziplocks and place between the clothes so they aren't seen with the naked eye. Friction of the clothes rubbing against each other causes wrinkles...this eliminates this as well.

  • 20 Apr, 2009

    Hi, I have been delighted with everything I have ever purchased from Travel Smith. I just got a catalogue with a great messenger bag in it, one you might like. I am not familiar with the one you are referring to, but you may find what you are looking for on their site. Hope this helps! : D

  • 20 Feb, 2009

    Does anyone know where I can purchase a messenger bag like the one featured in the 2009 MSL issue?
    JC