As an airline pilot living out of a suitcase, it’s an absolute necessity to pack well – whether it’s for work, pleasure, or both. Over the years, you learn to optimize what you take, while learning some tricks along the way.
I’ve traveled on hundreds of work/business trips, ranging from 2-day to 19-day trips. I’ve gone on expeditions and solo trips that lasted several months without coming back to home base. Still, I manage to live exclusively out of a carry-on suitcase.
So what’s the secret? Well, I’m about to tell you!
What’s the secret to packing? Here’s how to avoid paying for overweight baggage fees but still have enough for weeks on end
Over years of traveling, I’ve learned one thing: you need to equip yourself with the best accessories to maximize utility and minimize weight and room. Simply put, you need to pack smarter, not harder.
There’s so much ingenuity and innovation going into making travel easier. Many products are being designed to take up less room in your suitcase, weigh less, while being more useful. It’s becoming much easier to minimize what you pack.
Another factor – taking things on trips you don’t end up using. Sometimes you do have to bring stuff just “in case”, but other times you end up carrying a bunch of dead weight around for no good reason.
That’s where this guide comes in. As a pilot who does this for work, I hope I can help you best learn what you need to pack – and what you don’t.
Packing the essentials: the best products you can use to pack less – but take more
Here are the best products you can use to maximize what you pack – without paying oversize fees or checking in a bag.
Whether these products reduce the space you use, the weight of your bag, or simply improve your quality of life while traveling, they all have a place – and that’s in your suitcase.
1) A good carry-on suitcase to avoid check-in fees and reduce wait times
Well, the first thing you might need is a carry-on suitcase. And the first step to maximizing what you can pack starts with having a good one.
Almost all pilots I know rely on just a carry-on for all of their travels, even when leaving for weeks at a time. Checking in a suitcase and waiting for it on arrival just eats up so much extra time – and for the inconvenience, you often get to pay a fee. No thanks!
So here are my 5 top suitcases recommendations. You’ll see why the extra inch or two really does matter.
2) A travel-sized backpack you can rely on
Another great tool I use is a backpack. Having a solid one that meets the size limits of carry-on size for low cost carriers, such as Frontier or Spirit (and European airlines) is a fantastic way to get out of some ridiculous bag fees while packing more.
3) A J-Hook – the best secret for traveling comfortably
So you have your suitcase and your backpack. Let me tell you a secret to rolling in comfort. It’s called the J-Hook.
The first time you latch your backpack onto your suitcase, you’ll gasp at how easy it is to pull your luggage. Suddenly, there’s no weight pulling down on the handle, and no bag to hold up against the handle of your suitcase.
Next time you’re at an airport, look at pilots and flight attendants dragging their bags. They almost always will have one of these J-Hooks. They’re just so convenient, I’m surprised they’re not more common with the traveling public!
4) Packing cubes to help organize everything
Such usefulness… such effectiveness… such hygiene. Packing cubes are a great way to keep things apart in your suitcase.
But they’re especially great at compressing each individual item (shoes, jackets) so you can squeeze more in. It really makes a world of difference for packing more in less space.
5) SD Cards: The Best Kind of Memory
If you have any sort of camera, laptop, GoPro, Android phone, or any modern device really, it’s best to be packing extra memory.
Right now, SD cards are as cheap as they’ve ever been. You never know when you’ll need one. Trust me, they tend to be much more expensive on the road.
I made this mistake on my trip to Bolivia last year, and spent hours looking for one. I won’t make that mistake again.
6) A Compressible Winter Jacket
Over the last couple years, clothes companies have really come far in diversifying the products they offer. In particular, Eddie Bauer has a line of jackets that literally fold into their own pockets.
No longer do you have to encumber yourself with huge jackets that take up half your suitcase. Packing made ridiculously easy.
7) Re-Usable, No-Smell Shirts
Having a reversible shirt basically lets you pack half the shirts you normally would. The materials used, such as cinnamon fabric or merino wool, are excellent at reducing odors, saving you vital room so you can pack more.
Plus, not having any tags scratching your neck is nice too.
8) Special Packable Shoes: the sole of your bag
Lightweight, versatile shoes are a HUGE factor in packing light. If you can reduce the number of pairs of shoes you bring by one, it could be the difference between excess baggage fees or getting away fee-free.
If you can’t, try to find shoes that are compactable and lightweight. Typically, shoes are the heaviest items we bring in our suitcases.
Just remember that the next time you’re thinking of packing that extra pair of shoes. And remember, flip flops are in style!
9) Water Resistant Shoe Bags
Over the years, I’ve learned that the type of shoe bag you use is extremely important.
You don’t want to pack your shoes in a plastic bag with no air intake, because then your shoes stink. If you pack them directly into your bag, then your bag stinks. Maybe I just have smelly feet?
Anyways, there are plenty of great, breathable options that solve these issues.
10) Compression Socks – vital for long trips
Compression socks are a fantastic way to keep the blood flowing on those long flights.
Plus, they remove stress and reduce the chance of getting varicose veins and excess fluid retention. Compression socks help relieve pain and discomfort related to plantar fasciitis. Over long flights, this leads to reduced fatigue, soreness, cramping and prevents injuries at the same time.
11) Tide Pods: The Essence of Minimalist Packing
Tide pods are possibly the biggest aspect of packing less is dividing your trip into even groups of days. For example, you could pack for a 10 day trip with 5-6 days of clothes, or a 4 month trip with one week of clothes.
Tide pods give you the flexibility to do laundry on your own. Most hotels and airbnbs I’ve been to have washing machines. Usually, the tough part is drying! But I’m sure you can manage. Just don’t eat the tide pods, please.
12) Noise Canceling Headphones
The best purchase I ever made was noise-cancelling Sony headphones. I started out with the WH1000XM2’s for a couple years, and upgraded to the XM3s about a year ago. I’ve never looked back.
The XM4s are supposed to pack a 20% improvement in noise cancellation. Not sure how that’s possible – flights are already dead silent with the XM3s. All I’ll say is, technology is amazing, and these make great gifts.
13) A passport wallet to keep your passport in usable shape
When I first started traveling extensively, I never really thought about keeping my passport in good shape. It spent 90% of the time in my pocket.
It didn’t take long until my passport was literally worn so badly you couldn’t see which country it belonged to on the front. When I got a new passport, the FIRST thing I did was buy an RFID-resistant passport holder.
14) A Solid Travel Adapter & Converter
It’s not really a shocker, but packing a high-quality power adapter/converter is super important. It’s not something you want to break down in the middle of a long trip. Trust me….
If you are only going to Europe and really want to minimize on the space your adapter takes in your bag, here’s a great option.
15) A Powerful Power Bank
Packing a power bank will keep you out of tough spots. Whether you’re on a super long trip, on an extended hike or camping trip, or you forgot your charger, these will have you covered.
Plus, they don’t charge much for them. Only $25-35 for a good one. Electrifying!
16) Tablet/Phone Cases with a stand
We’ve all done it. You know. Lean your phone against your cup on the seatback table, and watch it fall two seconds later.
Lots of airlines are ripping out perfectly good seatback entertainment in search of better economics. Use that money saved on your flight ticket to buy a new, better phone case with a kickstand.
17) Melatonin: Don’t Fight the Jet Lag Unequipped
18) Lifestraw: A great way to avoid traveler’s sickness
Having a life straw is literally life saving. Not only for you, but for the school child that gets water for an ENTIRE year with every purchase.
You can basically drink water from anywhere with a life straw. It’s amazing. It’s great in developing countries or wherever/whenever (Shakira?) it’s hard to find fresh, clean water.
Plus, it could save you quite a few runs to the grocery store for water bottles. It takes almost no room and is super easy to pack.
19) Clear Liquids Pouch
This will make your life easier going through TSA, assuming you don’t have TSA Pre Check or CLEAR.
Plus, they help to keep your packing organized.
20) Travel-Sized Toiletry Bottles
While there are pre-customized convenience kits with everything you need like this one, my recommendation for something that’s more environmentally friendly would be these re-fillable travel-sized bottles.
Packing these over one-use bottles enormously reduces your plastic usage. If not for yourself, do it for mother nature.
These travel-size containers are the key to not having to check in your bag. I personally use mine for my toothpaste and sunscreen.
21) A wallet that can carry bigger currencies
I used to have a slim wallet. I loved it. Until I started traveling more internationally. Unfortunately, not all money is the same size as US Dollars.
In Europe, Euros vary with amount – for example, a one euro bill is much smaller than a fifty Euro bill. Anything bigger than a 20 Euro bill sticks out of normal American wallets. That is a great way to seduce pick-pockets.
22) A Dirty Clothes Bag
Inevitably, you’ll want to separate your dirty clothes from you clean ones.
Here’s my pro tip, and it doesn’t involve buying anything. There are usually 2 of these available in any hotel closet. They’re usually cheap, plasticky, and rip after some time, so it’s up to you.
Packing sturdier dirty clothes bags is probably a much better option.
23) Pens – because you always end up needing one when traveling
As a pilot, these pens have always been my favorite. Not sure what it is about them….
Anyways, you’ll have tons of forms to fill out. Don’t forget to take pens. These are great.
Other Optional but Helpful Travel Gear
A Laptop Bag that’s Actually Easy to Open
We see it all too often. That person, struggling to unzip their bag, find their laptop, and take it out.
Don’t be that person. Just get a better, more travel-friendly laptop bag.
An International Sim Card or the best international data roaming plan
These days, staying connected while traveling is more of a necessity than just a desire.
Check out the best international sim cards and how they stack against American carriers.
A Small, Portable, and Packable Tripod
Going solo? If you’re headed on a solo trip and you don’t want to constantly hassle other people, or you want to take more time to perfect that shot, a Tripod will do the trick.
They’re light, and small – two great things when packing.
A Debit Card with No ATM Fees
ATM card fees can be a major expense if your bank is not available where you travel.
Fees are even higher if you travel internationally. Luckily, banks like Charles Schwab have debit cards with no ATM fees.
If you want nothing but the best for your hike, you’re probably much better off packing your own equipment rather than renting whatever is available.
Gum is important to bring, especially if you’re susceptible to pressure changes in the airplane or if you’re congested.
BTW, don’t fly congested. Or with any symptoms. We thank you.
Travel Cooler Bags: Fitness on the Road
If you want to stay fit on the road, cooler bags are essential. Learn more about staying as fit as possible while traveling.
In the article, you’ll also learn about some portable workout equipment that packs nicely in any suitcase.
If You Have a Drone, Protect It With a Case!
Lekufee makes great carrying cases to protect your drone. Protect that investment!
First Aid Kit
For those that like to be prepared, a first aid kit really doesn’t take much room. And it’s pretty inexpensive!
If you packed less, taking a sewing kit can definitely extend the life of much-needed clothing.
There are travel-size kits that don’t take up much room, but you may still have to check in your bag because of the scissors.
Pack That VPN (Virtual Private Network)
This is especially important if you’re traveling to China – otherwise, you won’t have access to social media. Apps are available with subscriptions, sometimes costly.
Packing Extra Knowledge
I hope this guide helps when you’re packing for that next trip!
Note: I do receive a commission if you click the links for products in the article. I own and have used all (or similar) items I have listed – no item is listed that I don’t 100% recommend. Thanks again for reading!