How to pack your life into one suitcase

And (perhaps more importantly) how not to…

I am going to be honest with you right from the start: I failed. I failed miserably. I fully intended to pack my entire life into one suitcase when I moved to America to become a nanny and I absolutely, undeniably failed. I caved to the packing pressure and paid $100 to take the dreaded ‘second suitcase’. I was one of the only girls in my au pair training group to do so, I probably shouldn’t have done it and there was a brief moment when I truly thought my biceps had turned to jelly while trying to carry 40kg of luggage through a train station in South West Connecticut.

 But apart from that one moment, I honestly don’t regret taking a second suitcase. There is no way I could ever have replaced the items in it for less than a $100, and a few hours of difficulty on the way to the airport meant I could be a little bit less practical and a little bit more sentimental.

That may make me the least qualified person to give packing advice, but I do think learning from experience is the most effective way to improve. Case in point – less than a year after the second suitcase debacle, I managed to pack an entire months worth of stuff in to a carry-on, which I think shows a marked improvement! So here are some of the packing tips that I have learnt and some of the things I wish I had known before.

See that grey one? That’s my suitcase. And the black one? Also mine…

  • Do be a little bit sentimental. It can be so easy to prioritise the ‘essentials’, but if you are moving for a gap year or a semester abroad, you are going to want some of those personal items that make anywhere feel like home. I am so glad I decided to pack my childhood teddy and the photo album my best friend bought me for my 21st birthday, even if that space could have been used more practically.
  • Don’t mail anything to your destination. Unless you are shipping a box of rare and exotic bird feathers, it will always be cheaper and easier to buy new or find space in your suitcase. Air mail is incredibly expensive and you always run the risk of a package arriving damaged, late, or never arriving at all
  • Do be critical. Leave behind those leggings that have seen better days. Leave behind those heels that make your legs look amazing but you can barely walk in. Leave behind those formal dresses that you love but will never have an opportunity to wear. Ask yourself how many times you have worn an item in the last six months. If you don’t love it, won’t wear it or won’t need it – leave it behind.
  • Don’t forget to weigh your suitcase. I would always choose to pay $100 for an extra bag than end up surprised at the check-in desk by $250 of overweight luggage fees. Plus, an extra-heavy bag is just asking for a serious case of the jelly biceps
  • Do talk to people. Whether it’s a host family, a new flatmate or a friend who lives in the city, there are people who may well want to help you out. For example my host family provided me with bedsheets, towels and a hairdryer – all things that would have taken up a huge amount of space in my suitcase or been an unnecessary extra expense. You can also sweet talk visitors to bring or take home small items (but try to limit yourself, after all you don’t want to take up their whole baggage allowance!). If a family member is visiting in October, maybe they can wear your favourite (but bulky) winter coat on the plane. If a friend is coming for a trip at the end of your gap year, maybe she can take home a few of the books you purchased on your travels. Never underestimate the power of communication.
  • Do make a list. For a short holiday, I would just throw anything into a suitcase but for longer trips I like to start making a list about two weeks before I go. That way I can add things as I think of them, tick things off when I put them in and reduce the ‘oh my god did I pack my travel plugs’ stress because I can see in black and white that I definitely did.
  • Don’t overlook your hand luggage. Okay technically this may count as taking a second suitcase, but with a little thought you can cram a lot into a wheeled cabin-size bag. If you are feeling extra sneaky, pack heavy items into your cabin bag because it never gets weighed. (This is unofficial advice – please don’t blame me if you fly with the one airline on Earth that weighs cabin bags!)
  • Do what feels right. At the end of the day, it’s your choice. If you want to take a second suitcase then you should damn well take a second suitcase. If you can’t live without your giant bottle of only-available-in-that-one-shop conditioner, then make space and fit it in. The things you pack are the things you have to use and wear for the length of your trip, and they have to be things that you are happy to see when you open up your suitcase. So my final piece of advice is essentially to ignore the rest of these tips and go with your gut – I don’t think it will let you down.


Feeling stressed about packing? Here’s a puppy in a backpack to cheer you up!
Hopefully these tips will be helpful if you are packing for a gap year, a house move, a semester abroad or even a long holiday. I would love to hear your packing tips in the comments below!

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