Packing for the Business Traveler
by Karen Multer
updated Aug. 12, 2020
Even the most ambitious and organized don’t typically enjoy packing for a trip. Any kind of trip. For the business traveler, that lack of enthusiasm becomes a monthly if not weekly grind, and presents its own host of unique challenges. I speak from experience; for the past 20 years I’ve trekked from one coast to the other and one continent to the next, often back-to-back, and occasionally wedged in the center of a personal holiday with my family. Travel is wonderful, but it ain’t always glamorous.
Knowing how to pack – and do it efficiently – can make the difference between an extra glass of champagne at the neighborhood bistro or a lost hour at the baggage carousel. I humbly offer a few choice tips from a half million miles of globetrotting.
Rule 1: Pack the same for a week as you do for a month
I rely on the same general clothing options whether I’m speaking at a conference in San Francisco or visiting friends in Paris. And I pack the same way if I’ll be on the road for four days or four weeks. Friends and family comment on my stealth process, and that my complete wardrobe and extras always fit in a basic 22’’ roll-aboard with room to spare. You can do it too, I promise.
Step one is learning to maximize your wardrobe; start by selecting a black and white foundation, in intelligent wrinkle-free fabrics, that’s easily varied by matching and complimenting colors.
I like to lay out clothing options I plan to take and assemble an outfit for each day of the trade show I’ll be working, then snap a photo of each ensemble. On the road, if I forget which blouse went with which skirt I check my phone. If something doesn’t go with most if not every outfit, it stays home.
This includes professional corporate attire; my corporate event wardrobe includes suits, weather-appropriate outerwear, plus casual clothes, undergarments, toiletries, and a selection of shoes for a variety of possibilities. It all fits in the same 22” roll-aboard. How?
Rule 2: Everything goes with everything
Whether I’m speaking at a trade show or climbing bell towers in Europe, my standard clothing rundown looks like this:
- 1 black pencil skirt
- 1 pair of black trousers
- 1 black tailored dress
- 1 black blazer
- 1 pair mid-heel black pumps
- 2 pair of hosiery or tights
- 3-4 brightly colored shells and blouses
- 3-4 scarves (in your client’s company colors where possible)
- 4 pairs of socks and underwear
- 1 pair of black dress shoes
- 1 pair of athletic shoes
- basic workout clothes (yoga pants, t-shirt, light sweatshirt) – doubles as pajamas
Then on the airplane I wear a pair of jeans, another shirt or blouse, a light sweater, whatever coat fits the weather demands at the other end, and a comfy pair of black walking shoes. My primary digital life (laptop, tablet, cables, adaptors) goes in my carry-on computer bag along with snacks, water bottle, book, and earphones.
That’s it – a week or a month, same general content. Underwear and socks are easily washed out in a sink (or laundry facility if time allows,) everything goes with everything else in a variety of combinations, and it all fits easily into my carry-on suitcase. A trick?
Rule 3 – Roll your clothing, don’t fold it
It’s been proven in multiple studies* that rolling (or bundling) clothes is a far more effective use of space than folding. Rolling rarely increases wrinkling and often reduces it. There are exceptions of course – blazers, dress shirts, creased slacks, linens. But for cottons, socks, underwear, T-shirts, workout clothes, sweaters, light jackets, scarves, ties, pullovers, jeans, and many other items, rolling is the way to go.
Stuff your shoes with socks and underwear rolled in clean plastic bags and those go in the bottom of your bag. Then pants and skirts. Next blouses and tops. Blazer and sweater are folded inside out and placed on top. Accessories slip into crevices with plenty of space for a toiletry case containing make-up and TSA-approved liquids.
Be frugal. Be determined and efficient. If it doesn’t fit in the roll-aboard it doesn’t go on the trip. Once you get the hang of it, the restrictions actually become liberating. Why?
Rule 4 – Always carry on, never check luggage
Checked luggage is risky, time-consuming, expensive ($25-100 depending on the carrier,) and religiously avoided by savvy travelers. Bags are lost by the airlines, rerouted to other states or even countries, left in the rain and heat, piled and crushed by handlers, frozen in a plane’s undercarriage, and left on exposed baggage carts until vehicles and belts become available for off-loading. Too many things can go wrong so end the stress and keep your bag with you.
Delayed flight creating a short connection? No worries if you have your bag at your side. Late arrival at the airport? No stress when you don’t have to check luggage (cutoff times for passenger bag check-in is now between 45-60 minutes.) Need an extra jacket, toothbrush, or medications mid-flight or in the terminal? Your bag is in easy reach.
Worst case scenario, if you lack status on your carrier or have a higher number boarding pass the plane may run out of overhead space. You’ll be asked to gate check your bag, but there’s no charge, and you’re assured your luggage goes on your flight. Your bag will typically be returned to you on the jetway rather than at the baggage claim carousel saving time, money, and potential kilometers of unnecessary walking.
One note; even with gate check, your bag is still at the mercy of luggage handlers and subject to the belly of the jet. Remove all electronic equipment and cables, jewelry, client information, and important documents that aren’t easily and quickly replaced. If a disaster occurs, everything else can be purchased but you always arrive ready to roll.
A final argument for carrying on board: Remember how the airport looked the last time you flew during a major storm or holiday crush? Flights cancelled, travelers and agents frustrated and angry, customer service lines stretching hundreds of feet. While your fellow tourists wait hours to rebook or transfer baggage you’ll be on your mobile with an airline representative, luggage at your heels, zipping between gates and terminals to catch the next available ride.
Rick Steves, the popular PBS travel guide and writer, puts it perfectly; “On your trip you’ll meet two kinds of travelers: those who pack light and those who wish they had.”
In the event you have no choice but to check a bag, Upon Arriving recently posted a great guide by Daniel Gillaspia addressing fees, rules, and tips on how to save time, hassle, and money.
Rule 5 – Rules are made to be broken.
If you’re required to carry things for others or supplies for an event, or expected to return with additional items, you’ll need to check a larger suitcase. Trade shows and meeting in Europe or Asia are typically more formal and require multiple suits and accessories. That Baltic cruise may include a formal Captain’s night (tuxedo, gown) or costume party. If you need to check a bag, be sure it’s for good reason.
A final side note on what to put in that 22” roll-aboard. Regardless of the locale, your clothing for any event should reflect a high degree of professionalism and never detract from your credibility. A trade show in the Middle East suggests more conservative dress appropriate to respect for cultural norms in that part of the world; shoulders covered, a skirt to the knee, no cleavage (it’s always safer to err on the side of conservative even in the USA.) Asian and most European events call for business attire, so don’t try to get away with business casual or you’ll stand out in the wrong way. Pack intelligently, but even with these guidelines I use a 22” carry on for 95% of my own work.
Packing light doesn’t need to be difficult and should, for so many reasons, be a goal any traveler aspires to. Even a business traveler. An added bonus to all that extra space in your bag? Plenty of room for that fabulous leather jacket you found in Florence!
*articles on rolling or bundling versus folding
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