travel packing guide

Smart Pack Hacks: A Guide to Avoid Overpacking


Pack smart, look chic & stay organized on your travels

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I wanted to write a packing guide for myself, as much as anyone else. The truth is I love to travel, but always seem to overpack. This compilation of “pack hacks”  are tips I’ve gathered through trial, and a lot of error, on my own travels. It’s what works for me, and what doesn’t.

Overpacking has caused me a lot of headaches. I am still recovering from seeing a porter at a train station in India with my huge bag precariously perched atop his head. I felt terrible (and wanted to immediately take him for a chiropractic adjustment). 

At the other end of the spectrum, in a fit of determined minimalism, I once took a tiny carry-on for a week in France: trés practical on the TGV and Metro, but I felt blah in the same three outfits all week, and Paris is not where you want to feel frumpish.

I am striving for the packing sweet spot. The just right. I want to pack light, but have everything I need. I want getting dressed to be simple, to look nice and feel comfortable. 

A porter carries luggage stacked on his head at a train station in India
A station porter in India carries my luggage on his head - it's the one on top

Creating a Travel Wardrobe

The more I’ve traveled, the more I have focused in deliberately creating a travel wardrobe for each trip — choosing pieces that easily mix and match to create multiple outfits that look great, with minimal effort. This is also known as a capsule wardrobe.

I will delve further into capsules below. If you would like to see some specific examples of travel wardrobes, have a look at these: Spring Capsule Wardrobe for Travel and Autumn Travel Capsule Wardrobe. I also created a capsule wardrobe for my recent trip to Africa: What to Wear on Safari. 

Why do I overpack?

I’ve thought a lot about this. I think there is something in wanting to be ready for anything, that leads me to overpack. Especially with big overseas trips when I don’t know exactly what to expect. I don’t always know what I will need, ahead of time. If I am invited to dinner in Jaipur or go to a country fair in the Loire Valley, will I have the right outfit? The unknown leads me to bring too much. 

If you want to stop reading here, and get your advice from someone who knows what they are doing, it’s probably not a bad idea. If you want to muddle through this together, here are a few packing hacks I now use, that might be helpful for other travelers who hate packing. 

Packing Hacks... How to Avoid Overpacking

I start a list, well ahead of any trip, and every time I think of something I want or need to bring, I add it. At this stage, anything goes. This list is my place to overpack. Paring back comes later.

Susan Heinrich, bistro dinner paris

Planning a Travel Wardrobe

Sometimes the right strategy starts with what doesn’t work. I have learned that throwing my favourite things into a suitcase, and hoping they will magically mix and match themselves into lovely outfits, is misguided.

Let’s call this packing delusion. I used to do it. When I packed that way, getting dressed was more stressful and I was not as happy with the result.  Or I didn’t have the bra that worked with the off-the-shoulder blouse. 

Let’s call that packing delusion – I used to do it

It’s only when I try things on, exactly as I will wear them, that I remember to bring everything.  If I am bringing the potato sack that needs the wide belt, I will have the belt. 

It also makes getting dressed on the trip much more relaxing. Some people even take photos of their outfits. That’s packing 2.0, and I’ve begun experimenting with this.  I like to take photos when I am deciding whether I like an outfit or not (as below).

Susan Heinrich trying on her outfits before packing for Paris
My least favourite pack hack: Trying clothes on ahead of time.

Try Everything On

I try everything on, and I mean everything. If I discover my favourite white pants have a stain, I can get them to the dry cleaner. If I need a new bathing suit, and don’t we all hate shopping for those, I have time to find one I feel good in. 

By the way, I really love swimsuits by Athleta and Summersalt. They are supportive and comfortable, and Summersalt has long-torso suits, ideal for long-waisted, short-legged ladies like me.

How to Create a Capsule Wardrobe

Capsule wardrobe: Can we agree that the name is ironic? Any capsules I’ve seen are tiny.  My friend Clemencia and I have travelled together in India and Southeast Asia and she travels with a suitcase small enough to be called a capsule, and she always looks great. 

She’s my packing idol. When it’s time to leave a hotel, she is packed and enjoying her second cup of coffee while I’m still in the room cursing the packing gods. 

Midlife Globetrotter visits Angkor Wat, Cambodia with her friend Clemencia
Clemencia and I visit Angkor Wat, Cambodia

I will never be like Clemencia, but I am now using a method which is getting me closer. Let’s call it the CapsulePlus. The idea with a capsule wardrobe is that individual pieces are mixed and matched to create a number of outfits that is greater than the sum of its parts. I like it when math works in my favour, so tried it out on my last overseas trip to Southeast Asia.

I chose a wardrobe based on a limited colour palette: neutrals of grey, white and black and added items with the colours orange and pink.

I did allow myself to bring a couple of extras, a flowered dress and a green linen jumpsuit (pictured above). That’s why it’s the CapsulePlus – I don’t want to be too hemmed in (haha).

I still brought more than I would have liked, but less than usual. And I did wear everything I brought, and was happy with most of my outfits.  Limiting the colour palette was very helpful for me. I’ve done this on shorter trips as well.

Midlife Globetrotter in Laos, wearing a flowered dress from her capsule wardrobe
In Laos, wearing a dress from my capsule wardrobe

If you don’t know where to start, pick one thing you absolutely love and must bring. Look at the colours in that item, or pick something else that goes with it and has colour – that’s your palette. Now fill in with some neutrals that work best, navy, grey, black, white. 

Add a few more things with the same colours as your inspiration item, solid or pattern. Every piece you add should be able to mix together to create various outfits. And try it all on first so you know you like the way it looks together.

Simplify Jewelry

I used to bring a lot of fun jewelry on my travels, thinking I wanted different necklaces and earrings with each outfit. It was too much trouble and I didn’t end up wearing them. Now I bring one or two necklaces per trip and two pairs of earrings: a small one for day, small hoops or studs, and one dangly for evenings out. 

Less jewelry is less to keep track of and makes getting dressed simpler for me. If you love jewelry ignore this advice and have fun with it.

Susan Heinrich in Laos with a scarf - scarves are an important part of the travel packing guide
With one of my favourite scarves at the Wat Xieng Thong temple in Laos

Scarves are Your Best Accessory

While I don’t care too much about jewelry, I love scarves and think they are a traveller’s best friend. I usually travel with two or three, heavier or lighter, depending on the weather where I am headed.  

They are smaller to carry in your bag than a sweater, can protect you from the sun, wrap around your neck if you are chilly, and you always have something to cover your shoulders if you are entering a church or temple.

Also, a pretty scarf makes a simple outfit instantly more stylish. They are also a fun thing to buy on your travels, and easy to pack and bring home.  

A woman's feet pictured in black French-style loafers on a tiled floor with the words: Monoprix Champs Élysées in decorative tile. Visible are her legs with blue denim and a beige trench coat. She is in Paris.

How to Pack Shoes for Travel

Another friend of mine, Cathy Thomson, is a packing pro and said that the average woman takes eight pairs of shoes on a two-week holiday. Wow! Even I know that is excessive. She and I would agree that shoe choice is critical because shoes take up a lot of space, and the right pair of shoes can serve multiple purposes. 

For example, one of my favorite travel sandals are the Nisolo Flatform Sandal. (I recommend sizing up half a size). They are comfortable enough to walk around in all day, and pretty enough to wear in the evening with a skirt.

I think we can agree eight pairs of shoes is excessive 

I can also wear them to the beach and don’t worry if they get a little wet. They do the duty of three pairs of shoes: beach shoes, day sandals, evening sandals. When I went to Africa for 18 days recently, they were the pair I wore the most. 

A woman in a skirt, only her legs and feet are pictured; she's wearing slide style shoes from Rothy's
Wearing my Rothy's to Union Square Park
Susan Heinrich in the Lower East Side of Manhattan
Wearing my Rothy's to cocktails in NYC

I love my Rothy’s slide sandals for the same reason. They can go to the beach, look chic with a skirt and are comfy enough that I wore them walking all over New York City on a recent trip (photos above). They are also made of recycled material, so they are environmentally friendly.


So How Many Shoes to Pack?

Choosing shoes you can wear in many ways goes a long way to preventing overpacking. Shoes take up a lot of space in your luggage, and are crucial to your comfort. Spend the time getting the right shoes for your trip. 

For a week-long vacation or longer, my general rule is three pairs of shoes. You can see a specific example of how I plan my shoes in the post: Shoes for Paris Travel. 

By the way, fabric bags are great to bring for storing shoes in luggage and keeping your clothes clean.  

using packing cubes as portable drawers
Small packing cube for cords/headphones and a medium for socks and underwear

Packing Cubes

It’s interesting to me that two little words “packing cubes”  can divide people. I’ve had well-travelled friends scoff when I ask if they use them. The implication is if I need packing cubes, I am some sort of amateur. It’s as if I literally need fabric cubes to keep  my life together. 

If you haven’t ventured into the land of packing cubes, I suggest buying a few and trying them out.  I find the small and medium ones very versatile. On shorter trips, I’ll take a small cube for my charging cords and a medium cube for my underwear (photo above). 

If I am going all in on the cubes, which I usually do for a trip of a week or longer, I use a large cube for my tops, another for my bottoms and a third for single pieces such as dresses and jumpsuits. 

Even if I am settling in somewhere, I can leave some of my clothes in cubes which then function as little drawers. This is great in situations where you don’t have access to a dresser. 

clothes and travel items are laid out to be packed

Leave behind 1 in 5 items

If you are a chronic overpacker, I suggest that once you lay everything out, consider removing 1 of every 5 pieces you plan to take. If you can’t remove 20%, remove 10%. If you really don’t want to, remember that you will probably want to buy something and you need space for it. 

Or, if you are going to India, now is the time to imagine that poor guy with your giant suitcase on his head. The “leave behind” really works and is an alternative to the CapsulePlus method. I lay it all out and remove the items I love the least. And I’ve never wished I had them. Ok, I have, but that is inevitable. 

Plan a trip to India with a group tour. This is our G Adventures Group in Jodhpur, Rajasthan
On a group tour in India - we were packing and unpacking every two days

Pack for your Trip Type

How efficiently you pack and are able to keep your suitcase organized is much more important if you are on a two-week tour of Peru, than if you are going to a beach resort and only unpacking once.

The need to unpack and pack multiple times is one of the things I dislike about the pace of organized tours.  You will easily be staying at seven different hotels on a 14-day tour, as I did on a trip to India. I found it very hard to stay organized, and that trip was the reason I started using packing cubes. (I’ve also written a guide to choosing an organized tour: How to Select a Small Group Tour). 

So do yourself a favour: Pack in a way that you will be able to maintain throughout the trip. You don’t want to be cursing at the packing gods, while your friend is ordering another cappuccino. 

Hooray, we’re packed, and not overpacked, let’s go have fun.

I would love to hear your packing tips! Please share your “pack hacks” in the comments below. 

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Choosing Luggage

Susan Heinrich stands in Denver's Union Station with Monos luggage - the Monos Medium Check-In and the Monos Metro backpack.
Susan Heinrich stands in Denver's Union Station with Monos luggage - the Monos Medium Check-In and the Monos Metro backpack.

One way I pack more efficiently is by using luggage that is really well designed. I just purchased a carry-on roller bag after extensive research. The brand is Vancouver-based Monos and I absolutely love it – it’s durable, well-designed, and well-priced. It comes in lots of lovely colors as well; I went with the terracotta but it was a tough choice.

If you would like to learn more you can read my Monos Luggage Review. If you are looking for lightweight luggage, I’ve  compared Delsey and Samsonite.   

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About - Midlife Globetrotter

Hey there,

I’m glad you’re here. Can we talk about midlife? I reached my late 40’s, realized my kids were growing up, and adventure began calling in a new way: big travel adventures as well as everyday ones. I want Midlife Globetrotter to be a place where we explore how to add a sense of fun, freedom and meaning to these precious years. Let’s celebrate how far we’ve come, and all that’s ahead.




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