8 Ways to Pack Better for Work Travel

Anne McAlpin knows packing. First, because Oprah says so (McAlpin appeared on her show about two decades ago) and second, because more recently she went on a 21-day trip around the world with only a carry-on. We asked McAlpin, author of Pack It Up: The Essential Guide to Smart Travel, for her tips on packing wisely for a work trip.

By Meredith Heagney


Be Thoughtful About Your Carry On Packing List

You know how airlines let you have a carry-on and a personal item, usually a small bag? Pack those items strategically. 

Always be prepared to be separated from your carry-on and have it stowed last minute, McAlpin says. And while it will probably arrive on the baggage belt without incident, behave as if it could get lost. 

That means that if you can’t deal with being separated from an item, you’ll keep it in your personal bag. This goes for devices, critical printouts, medications and even your signature lipstick, if the thought of being without it makes you desperate. 

McAlpin employs a three-bag system: Her purse fits into a multipurpose soft black tote that then counts as her “personal item,” and her carry-on bag is for clothes and nonessentials. She tucks a soft-sided reusable bag into the side pocket of her carry-on if she has to grab items out of it last-minute. Flight attendants are usually happy to let you shove a small, squishy bag overhead even if they take your boxy suitcase away, she says. 

For Travel Clothing, Pick One Color

Choose one color to focus on, plus neutrals that go with that color. When everything works together, it’s much easier to assemble looks. 

“I put all my clothes out on the bed and I make sure everything mixes and matches with that color,” McAlpin says. Besides the classic white, black and tan, dark denim is a versatile neutral that can be dressed up or down. 

It’s OK—in fact, it’s smart—to repeat skirts and pants, so always bring more tops. McAlpin does a 3-to-1 ratio. 

Decide Between Cool Weather Clothing vs. Hot Weather Clothing

This seems obvious, but temperature concerns extend indoors, too. Maybe you’re going to Miami, so you’re expecting to sweat—but then your client’s office is an air-conditioned frozen tundra. Prepare with layers, such as a scarf that goes with everything in your bag. If you don’t need a formal structured jacket, skip it; sweaters pack better and are more comfortable anyway. 

Footwear: Business Shoes and Traveling Shoes Only

Wear one in transit, and pack the other two. Better yet, only take two pairs of shoes. You can wear the same heels or flats for the whole trip, plus a pair of dressy sneakers for down time or casual events. 

As always, think about how much you’ll be walking using Google maps to check distance between locations if needed. Heels are much less cute with bloody, blistered feet inside them. 

Downsize Your Jewelry and Makeup

Except for the stuff you never remove, like your wedding rings, McAlpin warns against packing pricy jewelry. Put the gems you do bring in a hard case, like an Altoids tin or even a days-of-the-week pill case, to keep them sorted and safe.

If your makeup is threatening to spill out of your quart-sized bag for liquids, think of where you can pare down. Contact lens cases are cheap and a great way to carry tiny amounts of foundation, eye cream, moisturizer and sunscreen. 

Learn to Uncrinkle Clothes on the Go

Thankfully, we live in a time of less wrinkly clothing options. For your knits, t-shirts, shorts and pajamas, roll the items instead of folding them to keep them as smooth as possible. 

For clothes that do wrinkle, like cotton shirts, McAlpin has developed a strategy using plastic dry cleaner bags, if you’ve got them, or plastic trash bags from your kitchen, if you don’t. 

Here’s how it works: You encase the wrinkle-prone item in a plastic bag and lay it in your suitcase, then lay another bag-enclosed item on top, stacking. When you’re done, put your rolled items on top and fold the bottom of the plastic bags over them.

Plan for Downtime While Traveling

If you’re going somewhere where you might actually eke out a few hours for yourself, pack a couple of items just for you. This might mean a swimsuit for the hotel pool or a pair of running shoes to hit the park. 

If you’re transitioning from a business trip to a vacation, McAlpin strongly recommends you ship your business clothes home. It frees up your physical load and  your mental load, she says. “It really helps me separate my business from my fun time.” 

Don’t Panic

And if you follow all these tips and still think you’re forgetting something? Oh well. It’s 2019. Clothing stores and pharmacies are everywhere. There’s same-day Amazon. Hotels have laundry service. Your favorite lipstick is probably at a nearby makeup counter. “There’s always an option,” McAlpin says. 

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