Ten holiday packing tips

Found yourself staring into your closet and wondering how to start packing for your holiday trip? With baggage fees being pretty standard, traveling with just a carry-on has its perks – especially during the holidays. Not only does it save you money, but you won’t get caught up in the hectic crowds hovering around baggage claim or have to worry about your things getting lost in the shuffle.
While we can’t help you decide on your festive outfit, we can help you make the most of your luggage space, regardless of whether you’re headed home or off to roam. Here are some tips that have helped us make sure we’re packing like a pro this season.

1. Have the right tools.

First and foremost, we’d recommend investing in a quality, lightweight carry-on that feels like butter when you glide it through security. But do your homework before you go. What may be carry-on size for one airline may be too large on some low-cost carriers, and you don’t want to be hit with the higher fee to check a bag at the airport. Measure your bag before heading to the airport with our augmented reality bag measurement tool right in the KAYAK app and you’ll be good to go.

2. Utilize every ounce of space

Have you ever returned from a trip only to unpack and realize you didn’t wear half of what you brought? The key to successful packing is to keep yourself from stuffing your entire wardrobe into your suitcase and to mix/match outfits that can go together. Consider staples in a neutral color scheme that can be easily dressed up or down.

Once you’ve landed on which items will be coming along for the ride, the best way to pack your stuff if you’re crunched for space is to tightly roll your clothes. Worried about wrinkles? Use tissue paper when you roll to help prevent creases.
Similarly, fill up all the other spaces. Insides of your shoes. Your socks. That weird pouch in your suitcase that isn’t the right size for anything. All these spaces are underutilized and can provide some much-needed packing power. Shove socks and underwear in your soles. Pack jewelry in the built-in pouches. Wrap electronics in sweaters and put chargers in your socks. Get creative and find new ways to bring more stuff without taking up more room.

3. Don’t wrap gifts.

If you’re traveling to visit family or friends, ship gifts instead of packing them. You’ll save precious suitcase space and skip the hassle (especially for larger items). And, if you’re doing your holiday shopping online, you can have your gifts shipped directly to your destination for no extra cost. But if you’re planning on bringing gifts with you, don’t wrap them. It’s almost guaranteed you’ll be “randomly selected” for a search and all that pretty paper will be in tatters by the time you reach your destination.

4. Think before you pack food.

The holidays typically come with lots of edible treats, but if you’re flying, remember the rules still apply (even when it comes to Grandma’s homemade jam). If it’s the consistency of liquid or gel (think jams, puddings, eggnog), unless they fit in a quart-size ziptop, you can’t carry on. That said, pies, cakes, cookies and other solid foods are allowed on board. Just prepare for extra screening (and if you’re traveling internationally, remember there may be additional restrictions on food).

5. Oversized or oddly shaped items may cost you.

Anyone who’s tried to gift a bicycle knows that oddly shaped items pose a bit of a wrapping challenge – and the same goes for flying. Airlines often have different rules and fees for larger, more awkwardly shaped things (think skis/snowboards, surfboards, golf clubs and bikes). Do your research into fees before you book, as the fee for checking a pair of skis on one airline may be half the price of another.
Getting into the festive spirit with a little ice skating? TSA allows properly packed ice skates on board. Skiers and snowboarders heading off to shred for the holidays (along with golfers heading somewhere sunny) are also in luck. Many major carriers offer ski/snowboard gear and golf clubs on board for no extra fee (other than the regularly scheduled checked baggage cost). Just be sure your equipment isn’t well over the standard baggage size allowance and, as always, read the fine print before heading to the airport.

6. Remember that episode where Joey wears all his pants?

Channel your inner Joey. Wear your heaviest layers to the airport: jacket, sweatshirt, boots, pants, etc. Because they can weigh your bag, but they can’t weigh you. After you get through TSA, you can always change into something more comfortable. PS you can always tie or fasten something around your suitcase handle, too.

7. Get merry. Just not too merry.

Meeting the 3oz requirement, it’s okay to pack a few nips in your liquids bag (although many airlines won’t let you drink your own booze on board). Either way, if your airline is serving drinks, go easy on the in-flight cocktails. 30,000 feet + a low-grade buzz works okay, but once you pass the line into drunk territory you put your flight status (and the comfort of your fellow passengers) at risk. Also, if you’re flying out on New Year’s Day — try to book an evening flight and pack some Alka Seltzer. One of the worst things you can do for your hangover is hit the skies.

8. Don’t pack what you can easily buy.

Just leave toiletries at home. Guaranteed, wherever you’re going you’re sure to find the necessities nearby. And for those who would say, “But it’s more budget-friendly to pack my shampoo from home,” have obviously never had their travel-sized conditioner explode all over their iPad. Twice.
Plus, if you have your destination address handy, you can always have your online orders sent directly there – just make sure you account for that extra room needed on the way back.

9. Kids need less than you think.

Any parent has gone through the last-minute frenzy of packing enough toys, books and entertainment for their little one. Should we bring Binkie Bear? What if we get to our destination and there’s – gasp – downtime? Here’s the thing: kids don’t need a lot of stuff. A few toys are plenty. Your tot who can entertain themselves for hours with wrapping paper isn’t going to suddenly become an Einstein requiring constant mental stimulation once they step on the plane. But if you’re flying a low-cost carrier without seatback entertainment, a tablet preloaded with some of their favorite shows is easy to pack and can work wonders.

10. Edit, edit, edit.

First, pack everything you think you need. Go to bed. Wake up. Then, unpack and repack everything you actually need. One party outfit will suffice. You can wear jeans at least 2-3 days in a row. The chance of needing a tank top in December in Chicago is about 0 in 10. Making a list of everything you need to bring (like the ski essentials listed here) and sticking to it can also do wonders.
Whether your plans include going home to see family or taking the time to explore a new place, our Roam for the holidays guide has the tools you need to be prepared. From destination ideas to packing lists, we’ve got tips and information that’ll ease the stress of holiday travel so you can focus on feeling merry and bright.


This blog was originally published on December 18, 2018 and updated on October 26, 2022

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