How to pack like a pro: Travel experts share their tips for making the process less overwhelming

A woman putting clothes into a suitcase.
Travel experts share their packing tips — including advice on what to do if you're traveling with kids. (Getty Images)

Vacations are supposed to help people enjoy some rest and relaxation. But they can also create their own unique set of headaches — like how and what to pack. Do you really need four pairs of shoes? How many dressy dinners are happening? What if it rains? And is it overkill to pack a different swimsuit for every single day of your beach getaway?

According to Pamela Holt, travel expert and executive producer/host of Me, Myself & The World: The Art of Solo Travel, packing too much of the unimportant stuff is the number one mistake people make when packing.

“Having traveled to over 90 countries and territories solo, I would say over-packing and forgetting certain essentials are my most common packing mishaps — and it seems like this is a common issue for most people when packing for trips,” Holt tells Yahoo Life.

Another common mistake she sees is people not giving themselves enough time to pack. “In an ideal world, I like starting the packing process five to seven days prior to my trip,” says Holt. “This doesn’t mean that I begin packing my suitcase five to seven days early, but I begin taking stock of what I’ll be bringing with me.”

Holt says getting a head start on packing gives travelers enough time to plan outfits, gather travel documents, do laundry and stock up on essentials like prescriptions, which can take a few days to fill — without feeling rushed or stressed.

What else can you do to avoid stressing out about what to pack (besides forking over a huge baggage fee to just bring it all with you)? Here’s how to simplify the process.

“When it comes to packing for trips, the number one issue most people experience is feeling overwhelmed,” Janice Moskoff of Gather and Go Travel tells Yahoo Life.

To ease uncertainty about what to bring, how much to pack and which luggage is best, Moskoff recommends starting with a packing list, which can be universal or tailored to your specific destination. “I love reusable and comprehensive checklists because they let me turn my overloaded brain off and go fully automatic when getting ready for a trip,” says Moskoff.

Once you’re ready to start packing your bags, Moskoff recommends the following hacks:

Go heavy on the tops and light on the bottoms. Use a ratio of three tops to one bottom when packing to give yourself more outfit flexibility without taking up extra space, she suggests.

Invest in compression packing cubes. In addition to maximizing your space, using these cubes will help keep your items better organized. For example, use one cube for tops and another for bottoms, allowing them to function like dresser drawers in your luggage.

Roll your clothes. Tightly roll your clothes versus folding them, even if you use packing cubes. Rolled clothes will take up less space.

Use refillable and easy-to-clean travel bottles for toiletries. Invest in TSA-approved reusable bottles that are easy to fill and label for shampoos, conditioners, cleansers and other personal care products. Using them will take up less space and streamline packing.

“Packing for kids takes up time, energy, effort and space,” says Moskoff. Here’s what she suggests doing to make it feel less “like a chore”:

Pack by outfit, then roll the outfit. The biggest time-saver for parents is to create complete outfits for each day of the trip — bottoms, tops, underwear, socks and sweatshirts (if needed) — then roll the entire outfit into one sushi-style roll. Not only will your kids think this is clever and fun, but you will also simplify the what-to-wear question for each vacation day.

Bring extras of everything. Kids have accidents, become sick and get dirty. If you will not have easy access to laundry or want to avoid doing it on vacation, bring extras of the basics you need most (like tees and underwear).

Bring one complete replacement outfit and pajama in your carry-on. If your family plans to check bags, take emergency backup clothes on board in case of accidents, sickness or lost luggage. Everyone will be grateful for the fresh clothes.

Start having your kids help you pack from a young age. Make a packing list and let them check off items as they pack. Moskoff suggests making it more fun by attaching the list to an official-looking clipboard and giving them their own pen. “Over the years, doing this will train them to pack themselves,” she says. “I promise the investment of time and energy is worthwhile. From their early teens, my kids could pack independently without my help. It is perhaps one of the best time-reclaiming gifts I ever gave myself.”