Pack It Up

This . . .
We aim for this . . .

I’ve always said that Brett could pack a grand piano into a carry-on bag.

He developed his amazing packing skills during his years in the navy, when he had to get everything he needed for six months or so into his seabag, the only luggage besides a briefcase that he was allowed to carry on board. A seabag, made of heavy, green canvas is just 26″ in diameter and 36″ high. There are six metal grommets at the top that are folded over each other, then the bag is closed with a lock.

A six-month cruise meant not just working uniforms had to go into that bag, but dress uniforms as well, both summer and winter, as well as dress shoes, work boots, socks, underwear, hats, personal toiletries, and civilian clothes for port calls. It used to take Brett a full day to pack his seabag before he left on deployment. The bag would be rolled down to the bottom, and as each item went in he would climb in and stand on the growing stack to compress each item. It was nothing short of miraculous the amount he got into that bag before each cruise. (It was also nearly impossible to lift, but he always managed.)

versus this.
versus this.

Brett: Most uniform articles were tailored to be folded and packed inside-out, and remain wrinkle-free when hauled halfway around the world in a canvas bag. That was the easy part. Shoes, civilian clothes, books, and toiletries, were not so easy. Things that are square or rectangular could be layered in to help shape the space, but I had to avoid packing too many square things together as they tended to rip the bag. After some “square things” went in a pair of steel-toed boots, stuffed with socks and underwear to fit nicely on top of the “square things,” followed by dress shoes also stuffed with socks, and perhaps a pair of running shoes. Then I added more square stuff, and covered that with a laundry bag and clothes I didn’t expect to wear right away (e.g., heavy garments, dress uniforms, and civilian clothes). Finally I added some more “square things,” followed by working uniforms intermixed with toiletries and fragile items, and then folded over the flap that covered it all before closing. Sometimes the seabag wouldn’t close, so I unpacked it all, removed the boots, put everything else back in, closing and locking the bag, and tying the boots over the top of the bag. No unnecessary items went in the bag, and everything had to fit.

Laura: One of Brett’s (many) duties in the navy was to coordinate the packing of the “cruise box” from his maintenance shop in his squadron. A cruise box is a large, 9 cu.ft., folding “tin coffin” (as Brett says) that carries every bit of maintenance equipment, including books, tools, and nuts and bolts used by each shop. These items have to move from the ship to shore and back again before and after each cruise. Packing up a cruise box and making sure nothing is forgotten is like putting together an intricate puzzle, but one that has to be accomplished in just one day. Brett became very, very good at this and along with his seabag packing he developed some amazing skills.

Brett: How many books can you pack in a suitcase? Probably more than you can lift, so don’t even try. On numerous occasions I came upon people who thought they’d pack all of their manuals, forms, and office supplies in one cruise box only to discover that no one could lift it, or if they did lift it using hoists, ropes or chains, the handles ripped off. Unfortunately, fingers, toes, arms and legs were broken moving these overloaded boxes up and down several decks to be stacked on pallets for offloading. Some smart cookie eventually came up with the half cruise box, also known as a publications cruise box, which two people could lift when it was filled with books. Even so, it’s best to mix contents when packing anything, and never have any bag so heavy you can’t lift it. These days airlines will ding you hard anyway for an overweight bag. It’s better to save those funds for something fun on your trip.

Laura: My packing skills have come about through trial and error, and over time I have gotten better and better, need less and less, and now can get everything I need for even a two or three-week trip into a carry-on bag. I think the last time I traveled with a checked bag was when we went to China 10 years ago to adopt YaYu, and had to bring along clothing for her as well as gifts for her orphanage and foster parents.

The best thing I’ve learned over the years is to keep it simple. Less really is more when you travel. I think carefully about what I will actually need when I travel, and no longer come up with a whole bunch of scenarios that might occur, which was the main reason in the past I overpacked. Will there be laundry facilities where I’m staying or will I have to wear the same stuff over and over? Will I be toting all my own luggage around or will there be valet service (not likely)? Those are the two scenarios I think about first. I’ve heard that you should take out everything you plan to pack and lay it out, and then put half of it away because you probably will never wear or use it – that’s good advice. It is seriously much, much easier to only have to look after a carry-on bag and a tote or backpack (and purse) than having to worry about a heavy checked bag. I have yet to go somewhere where I couldn’t find something I needed somewhere out in town, even if I don’t speak the language.

Like most people, I don’t want to wear the same clothes every day when I travel, but it doesn’t require a lot of stuff to have several different outfits that I can switch around. For a longer trip (10 or so days) I typically take three pairs of black knit pants, five or six tops, and two pairs of comfortable shoes, and lots and lots of underwear. I travel with clothes that don’t wrinkle easily and pack using the roll method to maximize space in my suitcase. My favorite travel pants are L.L. Beans Perfect Fit knit pants – they’re comfortable like yoga pants, but a bit dressier. I also am a big fan of their Packaway jackets, which fold down to just about nothing and yet are warm, comfortable and nice looking for when you’re out and about. Personally though I am not in favor of buying clothes specifically designed for travel because they typically cost more and usually don’t go on sale. Overall however, it’s best to pack whatever is comfortable for you to wear.

I only ever take a minimum of toiletries/cosmetics. I usually bring along travel-size bottles of shampoo, conditioner, lotion, moisturizer, hair gel, deodorant and toothpaste just in case where I’m staying does not provide those things or I can’t find them quickly out in town, but nothing more than what can fit into a quart-size Ziploc bag. My toiletries/makeup go into the front pocket of my carry-on bag so they’re easy to pull out for security.

Brett: Always take care of your feet, and personal areas. That is, if you’re going to pack any extras, make it extra socks and underwear. My only other tip on arriving with everything you need is to wear one extra article of clothing as you travel, like a coat or sweater. If you don’t need it again at your destination, big deal; if you do, perhaps desperately, you will have a more enjoyable time for the money you saved.

Laura: One drawback to only traveling with a carry-on bag is that you can’t pack things like wine or other liquids. If I absolutely have to have something that can’t go into my carry-on bag, I will pay to have it mailed home. Actually, the cost for doing this is usually less than what you now have to pay for a checked bag, and it’s kind of fun to have a package from your travel destination arrive after you get home!

Brett: Actually, I can not pack a grand piano into a carry-on bag, but given a grand piano bag I know how to pack it.

10 thoughts on “Pack It Up

  1. I have an eye for packing – it’s like a puzzle. However, I”m still in the “pack everything you think you may need – and then some” school. I definitely think the key is getting down to a comfortable wardrobe that is stylish enough for your taste.


    1. If you can manage your luggage and what you have packed, then I don’t see a problem with packing extra stuff. I have traveled with people though who overpack, and then whine the whole time about having too much stuff, can’t seem to manage it and try to get me or others to carry it, etc. That kind of overpacking drives me NUTS!


  2. Now you are speaking my language! I actually LOVE packing in a small carry-on bag for trips overseas. I like the challenge of packing intentionally and making everything fit (with room to spare for souvenirs, of course)! I’ve learned a lot from people like Rick Steves over the years. Being a smaller woman helps as my clothes and shoes do not take up as much space as a man’s. By layering, I’m never too hot or too cold and always have a variety of outfits to wear. Usually once or twice during a two-week trip I may hand wash some clothes in the sink, but that only takes a few minutes and is well worth it for the ease of not having to deal with checked baggage.


    1. Traveling without a checked bag was a revelation – it was made traveling so much easier and more enjoyable. Brett and I will most likely check a bag when we go to Japan for three months, but not for our other trips.

      It usually takes me two tries, maybe three, to get everything to fit into my carry-on, but I always manage!


  3. Excellent post! My sister is like Brett too. She can pack real well.

    I will be packing for my U.S. trip few weeks later. May be I should take pictures and make a post with it:) I will be packing only necessary stuff on the way to the States but, I cannot make any promises for the return trip. I am a serious shopper since, US is the only place I can find my size clothing and real good prices.

    I agree with Brett on socks and underwear. I save worn-out items for vacations and after I use them, I get rid of them. My plan is to pack all I need in a suitcase and put the suitcase in an oversized rolling duffel bag. This way, I will not pay for extra luggage at least on my way to the US. I also pack two empty cylindirical plastic containers to carry back items which may spill like Maple Syrup. The containers are from some detergent and I have saved them for my trips.


    1. I used to pack my small bag into a larger one whenever I went to Hong Kong so I had plenty of room to bring back all my shopping swag! Back then though I could check both bags for free. If I was there to meet Brett on his return home from a cruise, he could also bring stuff back on the ship. And, we could mail things for free through the military postal system.

      Hong Kong was where I did my “serious” shopping – I could never find anything that fit in Japan, and the Navy Exchange carried a very limited amount of clothing. It was easy to find things in Hong Kong, and the price was very low too. So, I get your going to the US to find things. Love your clever idea of using the plastic containers to transport liquids!


  4. Thanks for posting this. Very helpful! I could have used these tips before I went to Japan last month, lol. I packed way too many toiletries because I didn’t know what would be available in the hotels and it turned out they provided far more than I’ve ever seen in the US or anywhere else. They had toothbrushes, toothpaste, razors, varieties of shampoos, body washes and lotions. So it turned out I didn’t even use the stuff I brought. Oh well, lesson learned. And I like your tips on what to bring as far as clothes. I always tend to bring more clothes than I need. And I agree about shopping in Japan. Very difficult to find clothes that fit anyone who isn’t the size of an average Japanese person. I managed to find a pair of shoes and a couple of hoodie sweatshirts that fit me, but that was it.


    1. I am still using the combs we got in our Tokyo hotel room back in 2011, when Brett and I went to meet our new grandson! The hotel provided everything we needed, which was good because we actually forgot all our toiletries because we had so many baby gifts packed. We managed to get clothes for the two of us and the gifts into 2 carry-on bags, a backpack and a tote bag thanks to the miracle of SpaceBags.

      My favorite store for knit tops is J. Jill. I wait until what I want goes on sale (it always does). The J. Jill tops I took to Japan this spring packed easily and looked nice, a bit more dressier than just a plain t-shirt and they were comfortable, too.


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