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Packing light is easier said than done

illustration by ben voldman

Ali Ehrlich helps people pack for a living, but that didn't prevent the Boston wardrobe consultant from bumbling with her own suitcase on a recent trip to the Dominican Republic.

Arriving at the airport to check in, she discovered her bag was over the 50-pound limit. Expecting to pay an overweight fee, she was, instead, told it was prohibited and had to empty the contents.

"It was mortifying having to unload in the middle of the JetBlue terminal," she said.

It's hard to walk through an airport without seeing sufferers from OSS (Overstuffed Suitcase Syndrome), one of traveling's greatest challenges, especially in the age of irritating baggage fees. Christine Sarkis, senior editor at SmarterTravel, said creating a generation of better packers starts with clothing itineraries.


"It's extreme," she admitted. "If you know your activities each day, jot outfits for each on your phone or a piece of paper. It sounds silly, but it's an effective way to utilize each clothing item."

In practical terms, that means knowing what to wear when, and, more importantly, how often you can wear each garment. Function trumps fashion.

"Banish one-use items unless it's for one-use events such as a wedding. Other than that you should be able to use things in your bag two to three times for a weeklong trip," Sarkis said.

It's a sound strategy, one that Ehrlich, owner of Right Up Your Ali, uses with clients such as Sarah Valentini. The owner of Radius Financial Group, Valentini is "terrible" at streamlining her vacation and work travel wardrobes.

"I have always overpacked, and it's always random things. I never thought about full outfits. I'd pack too many things and still get where I was going and not know what I was going to wear," she said.

The Hanover-based business traveler, who prefers not to check bags, said she had always tried to lighten her load, but often found herself unable to reconcile the dozens of garments laid out for a trip with the magazine articles advising that a single black skirt would suffice.


"I would end up with way too much and never wear half of it," she said.

When Ehrlich took over suitcase duties, Valentini stopped worrying about her wardrobe. "Before I leave for a trip, I'm always working like crazy, and I leave packing to last minute and throw a million things in the bag," she said. "She packs and it's perfect."

When Valentini vacationed last summer on Italy's Amalfi coast, Ehrlich packed her comfortable shoes for sightseeing days, nice outfits to wear to dinner, a jacket for the day forecasting rain.

"I went to Italy with a carry on and I even had room to bring things back," she said.

Sarkis said the key to carry on-only traveling is minimizing precious suitcase space, and ticked off a half dozen suggestions: Pack complimentary colors. Fold flats in half. Roll up rain boots. Stuff clean socks into shoes. Downsize toiletries.

"Knowing what's offered at your destination can free up both space and weight," she said. "Some hotels will give you toiletries, loan you extension cords."

As for the suitcase itself, Sarkis said the ideal lightweight luggage weighs five pounds or less.

"Don't waste your weight on the luggage itself. If you're going to carry on, you don't need the same level of structure and durability. There's not going to be a baggage handler throwing your suitcase 20 feet," she said.


Infrastructure weight is less an issue with checked bags, but that's when packing can become unwieldy. Ken McKaba founded ShelfPack, a suitcase with built-in shelves, which appeals to travelers who are looking for organization amid the depths of their luggage. Following a successful summer Kickstarter campaign, ShelfPack allows travelers to pack on attached fabric mesh shelves and lower them into the case.

"You still have to pack strategically," said McKaba, a former software engineer whose California-based company currently manufactures only one moderately large style. "You have to have a little plan: The things you want should be on the top shelf."

ShelfPack is 14 inches deep, but expands to 42 inches in height when all four shelves are erected. It weights 14.5 pounds empty.

"This is for multi-person or multi-day trip. It's great for families," McKaba said. "I'm not a carry-on evangelist. I can't only pack carry-on for two weeks."

Luxury travel expert Tiffany Dowd has also accepted her overpacking ways, a badge she wears proudly while racking up 125,00 airline miles across five continents a year.

"Some people are more carefree. I happen to love shoes. For me, it's the power of accessorizing."

Still, Dowd, founder and president of Luxe Social Media, has acquired several space-saving tricks so she can maximize her stilettos and espadrilles. She brings dry detergent in a Ziploc bag so she can hand wash frequently worn basics and packs three tops for every bottom. She carries perfume in a Travola atomizer and scarves double as belts.


"I always bring a nice pashmina or shawl, and it doubles as airline blanket. That way I don't need to pack a bulky jacket," she said.

Ehrlich, who aspires to pack only what will fit in an overhead compartment, is "always better about doing it for others than doing it for myself."

"When people hire me, I do research. But I don't think I'll ever be able to do carry on. Maybe New York for a weekend, but even that's pushing it," she said.

Jill Radsken can be reached at