4 travel essentials that made my life much easier this fall

I’ve always said I don’t travel enough to be good at it, unlike those people who can pack up a week’s worth of clothes and gear in twenty minutes, zip through airport security unflustered, and not wake up a thousand miles from home realizing they forgot their makeup bag, again.

Over the past few months, for a mix of personal and professional reasons, that’s changed. I’ve been traveling a lot, and surprised myself by getting pretty good at it. I’m not great—this last trip I forgot a few non-essential but nice-to-have meds, I left a trail of belongings across the U.S., I begged a suitcase from a new friend so I could transport my new books home from a conference. But I’m better than I was at the start of summer. Much better.

Today I’m sharing a few small and large pieces of gear that helped enormously in my fall travels.

My travel essentials:

Calpak packing cubes

I placed my order after friends who travel for a living said these packing cubes were a must. I was skeptical, but now I’m a believer. They’re great for organizing: on my last trip I had one “West Coast” cube and one “East Coast” cube, which saved time and stress. But I really love them because they let me fit way more into my suitcase.

Before I got these packing cubes, I didn’t think I could possibly fit a whole week’s worth of clothes and book tour supplies into a single carry-on, at least not during sweater season. But with the cubes, I had so much extra room on my shorter trips that I worried I’d forgotten things. I hadn’t—and put the extra room to good use on the way back, bringing home books and coffee from my travels. (Heads up: because of the density these lightweight cubes make your bag HEAVY, but golly, does it hold a lot.)

I have these specific packing cubes, but they’re sold out almost everywhere right now. (Grab them for less at Nordstrom Rack while you can.)

4 travel essentials that make life easier

Away carry-on

I discovered Away when they first sponsored What Should I Read Next? two years ago … and fell head-over-heels in love. If you’re a casual traveler, I’m not sure if the extra expense would be worth it. But if you frequently wheel your bag through major airports, or worse, through the NYC transit system, believe me when I say my Away carry-on is eleven notches up from my previous $80 Target suitcase. (I love Target, but serious suitcases just aren’t their bag.)

My Away bag (it’s the regular carry-on) holds a ton, is easy to organize, and easy to close. (You know it’s a good sign when airline personnel ooo and ahh over your bag, saying this is a nice one! But what I really love is the stable and graceful maneuverability. Also the pink. (It’s “blush” on the Away site.)

My first Away bag was black, but can I recommend getting yourself a fun color instead? I don’t typically like to stand out in a crowd, but gate-check pick-up (or worse, the baggage carousel) are a breeze when your bag stands out from the crowd.

A note about the battery, a feature that allows you to keep your devices charged on the go: in early smart suitcases, removing the battery was a hassle. In the new versions it’s a breeze—I’d pop this auxiliary charger out of my bag before carrying on (it works in or out of your suitcase), pop it in my purse, and plug in to keep my phone battery nice and high (for watching The Office onboard and calling an Uber when I landed).


I’ve never traveled with earplugs … until this trip. A kind Texas reader brought me a travel survival kit including a pair of earplugs, because sleeping in a strange place is hard. What she didn’t know was my Fort Worth hotel ended up being a hundred yards from a ten-lane highway abutting a bustling train depot with horns that sounded all night long. They worked so well I started using them in every city, because I never find hotels to be as quiet as I’d like.

These earplugs are now permanent residents of my travel toiletry bag.

L.L. Bean toiletry bag

In the past, I didn’t attempt to organize my toiletries; I just dumped them in a gallon-size ziploc bag. It was a mess. When I saw my friend’s L.L. Bean bag, I didn’t hesitate—I just asked her what size I should buy. (Medium.)

It’s easy to pull this out of my suitcase for airport security; unzip and hang it up for easy access in the hotel. It holds a ton of stuff if you need it to, but you can also pack it lightly to save suitcase space.

How adept are you at traveling? Any tips or tricks to share? I would love to hear YOUR favorite travel essentials in comments! 

4 travel essentials that make life easier

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  1. Angela Mills says:

    I am not good at traveling, but one thing I do is I start my packing list on my phone at least a week before I go. I keep adding to it as things pop into my head. I think of myself, head to toe, and I also walk through my day in my head and make note of what I’ll need.

    Doesn’t always keep me from forgetting something, but it helps a ton.

  2. Kacie says:

    We also use packing cubes (I have the eBags variety). I’d say on my list is TSA pre-check for myself and husband, and our kids can also use it since they are under 12. A perk from one of my credit cards. Worth it!

  3. Lauren says:

    I have major carry-on envy right now…I traveled a lot this summer, mostly back and forth to the East coast where my sister got married, and I wanted to be a part of some of the fun leading up to it. I’m not bad at travelling, and even managed a trip last winter to Europe and 3 different climates in December – Iceland, England, and Greece. Plus a 24-hour layover in Istanbul on the way home. I subscribe to the rule of one item of clothing per day away, but I actually packed way less this time because it was such a long trip and we were going to have access to laundry facilities. I also tend to pack things I can easily layer or mix/match together, to keep things light. I used to carry a HUGE bag and have to check it every time, and always had stuff I never used or needed. I’ve gotten better over the years, and now it’s rare I carry more than a carry-on, and even for that I try to use a duffel so that I don’t have to gate-check. I’m also really on top of keeping my phone charged!

    • Barbara says:

      If you have TSA pre-check, you don’t have to take your toiletries out of your suitcase at security. Without it, I think TSA will require the quart zip-lok bag.

      • Claire says:

        The way it has been described to me several times by TSA folks is that with PreCheck you still have the same 3-1-1 requirements with clear bag and small bottles, you just don’t have to fish it out of your bag and put it in bin. Plus, I’ve been in smaller airports, or in an airport late at night and the Precheck line is closed. Best to be ready with the ziplock.

  4. Dfitz says:

    I am also In Love with away luggage!! How can that be??? Color, battery, sturdy!! I am already ready to purchase another one!!

  5. sarah says:

    If I’m going to need to sleep on a flight I download an audiobook of Edgar Allan Poe (or something similar). The combination of poetic and familiar puts me to sleep.

  6. Marsi says:

    I never forget to pack anything because I refer back to my previous packing lists (in my Leuchtturm notebook) as I create my new list. The only items that typically change on my new packing list are shoes and clothes — dependent on where I’m doing, what I’ll do there, and what the season is.

  7. Kate says:

    I ordered this set of containers for liquid when traveling and I adore it. They don’t leak, hold enough for a week+ worth of hair washing and are so compact when loaded up that I know it’s a space saver. Admittedly, they’re a little weirdly labeled, but still a great deal. I just returned from two weeks in Morocco and this was my favorite packed addition. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B072J252B4/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o02_s01?ie=UTF8&psc=1

    I’m also a big fan of this Eagle Creek money belt https://www.amazon.com/Eagle-Creek-Terrain-Money-Black/dp/B01LZZ6E1G/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1539790686&sr=8-1-fkmr0&keywords=eagle+creek+zipper+belt. It’s flat and discreet enough that I wear it regularly as a plain belt, but for travel it’s nice for carrying around things and not having a pooch from a typical money belt.

  8. Erin says:

    First and foremost, I never go anywhere without my Lululemon Vinyasa scarf – I freeze on airplanes, and it also doubles as a pillow if I roll it up. My usual carry-on bag is my REI Trail 25 pack – it holds so much, has great features, and is super affordable. I also love my Patagonia Black Hole bag (it really is a black hole!), along with my REI packing cubes. A reusable water bottle is helpful (it’s important to stay hydrated at 35K feet), and on overseas flights I always have a couple of Xanax with me to help me sleep, which allows me to quickly acclimate to the new time zone. Happy travels!

    • Anne says:

      It’s so funny you should say that—my assistant accompanied me on book tour travels, and she always travels with her Vinyasa scarf! She loaned it to me more than once to save my hair from the rain. 🙂


    So if you haven’t discovered the world of Amazon basics – do so. They carry many of the basic things for travel such as packing cubes for a fraction of the price that you find elsewhere. Also, things like charging cords for Apple products, fabulous quality sheets and bedding. PS, They use the same manufactures as Pottery Barn and West Elm for so much less $$. Tip from an insider who works there! Check it out!

  10. SAK says:

    I have a pre-packed set of electronics for traveling – including an extra laptop charger. Always ready to go and I can add extras in (plug converter for recent Europe trip) and take out (laptop charger when it doesn’t go). But I always have the right number and type of cords and power strip to handle them all.

    • Terri says:

      This is a great suggestion! Power cords are my most frequently forgotten item and I travel a lot. I should just break down and buy a second set to keep in my travel bag.

  11. Susan Jones says:

    Packing cubes are a must for me as well as Bose noise cancelling headphones. My checked suitcase is bright turquoise and my husband’s is lime green which are quick to spot at baggage claim. We have recently gotten Global Entry passes which work for foreign as well as domestic flights for trusted traveler’s to get Front-of-the-line security check. Fee is $100 for 5 years.

  12. Leslie says:

    I also have a LL Bean toiletries bag that I have had for over 10 years. My grandmother had bought it for me as a gift. So, longevity is definitely something the bag has, but since being married to my husband who travels frequently for work, it is used monthly almost!! It has been a huge time saver. We already have it packed with essential travel items and just add our toothbrushes and a few extras when going. It is literally one of the best travel accompaniments one can buy!

  13. Janene Misak says:

    I have a Vera Bradley toiletry bag (very similiar to your LL Bean one!) which I keep stocked with most of the items I need. When I get home from a trip, I try to restock before I put it away It saves me time and forgotten items! I am drooling over your Away carry-on – so practical and so cute!!

  14. Rachel says:

    I’m looking for a sleep mask for planes — I’ve never used one before, but the last plane I was on left the lights on for half of the trans-atlantic flight. I really need to sleep so I can get a jump on the jetlag. Any ideas?

  15. Lizabeth Snell says:

    more than 1 audible book on my phone, earphones & knitting. (can listen & knit, but not read from the page & knit)

    • Sloan says:

      Do you have metal needles or wood? And have you taken them on international flights? I want to take mine when I travel, but I worry about that part.

      • Lizabeth Snell says:

        I take plastic circular needles or bamboo. Only time they were ever challenged was in China, where I had bamboo ones & had to give them up. Never had an issue here. (Except one flight attendant who insisted I put them away for take off & landing) They’re always in my carry on. 🙂

        • Sloan says:

          Thanks! I will have to get bamboo for my next trip. Curious- what did you do with your knitting in China since you had to lose the needles?

  16. Gina says:

    I travel a lot for work, and my best tip is just to whittle down what you “require” as much as possible.
    I keep prepped goody bags that contain everything I need all ready to go in my travel drawer at home: my 3-1-1 bag is refilled after every trip and ready to go. I keep a bag that contains duplicates of all needed cords and chargers. I keep all my cosmetics in a little bag that I can grab and go. It’s so easy to pack since I just grab these three bags, 2 pairs of shoes (in Daiso shoe bags), and a few clothes. Easy peasy!

  17. Claire says:

    A week before I travel I put a laundry basket in the corner of my bedroom and toss things in there as I think of them. By the time I start packing I’m more than half done. Love packing cubes. Also love a mesh bag I use for any electronics (picture something larger than a pencil case but similar shape). I pack a couple of bag nylon totes. There is always a tiny little night light in my toiletry bag for hotel bathrooms so I don’t have to turn big light on. If it’s going to be a hard trip I like to pack my slippers. Always bring my own tea. Global Entry worth it.

    • Heather says:

      Ha! I do the laundry basket pre-pack too! It especially helps with packing for the littles whose stuff may not always be where it’s supposed to.

      • Claire says:

        Yes, it’s the little things that I might forget. I also have a dedicated plastic box that is only for travel stuff. The mini flat iron, the packing cubes, adapters, little sized toiletries–anything that I pretty much only use for travel. This has saved me a lot of headaches. If I was a fab list-maker I might not need this but I’m not. I make the lists–but then “forget” to look at them.

          • Claire says:

            When you’re traveling, looking better faster is key. My mini flat iron is unavailable on Amazon now, but the reason I bought this one is that the iron fits into a fabric sleeve and then there is stretchy elastic that corrals the cord, which makes it compact.

    • Bridget says:

      Depends where you are going and what time of year. I pack a pair of jeans, black pants, a black skirt and four tops, two sweaters, perhaps a simple knit dress, shoes for walking and a dressier pair, two scarves, a coat and a purse. I love a cashmere scarf that is like a poncho for in flight and cooler weather. The color palette is usually black, camel and gray. I think of my travel wardrobe as a uniform. By the end of a trip I’m dead tired of my clothes. But a capsule wardrobe works.

    • Anne says:

      They were VERY different wardrobes for the different trips! One pair of jeans, tops for that region’s weather, a light coat for the PNW, a cotton dress for the Southeast in August.

  18. Kate says:

    I always leave a giant binder clip or two in our suitcases. No matter how nice the hotel or remote the destination, I will always wind up with a room with light shining through the gap between the curtains. The binder clips hold the curtains together perfectly.

    • Sandy says:

      I love Flanabags (I think sold by eBags) because they’re clear and come in quart size and others. I use one for makeup, one with things for the shower and another with my night and other toiletries. If going through security I put all the liquids in another FLanabag. The LL Bean bag would be too bulky and inflexible for me.

  19. Definitely get Global Entry/pre check. Never check bags. Use a duffel rather than a roll aboard so it will not need to be gate checked. An extra long charging cord for the cell phone. Ear plugs. And bring your exercise clothes! If you don’t, you definitely won’t exercise but if you do you might. Have an extra set of travel sized toiletries and make up so your 3-1-1 bag is already packed.

  20. MacKenzie says:

    My mom bought all of us kids one of those L.L. bean bags when we went to college. I used it until it fell apart and I asked her to buy my husband and I a new one for Christmas 2 years ago we now use it for all our travels. I bought a double of everything we would need for toiletries so we don’t even have to unpack it when we get home we just put it in the bathroom closet for the next trip.

  21. Mary Duncklee says:

    I agree with you about packing cubes – and I’ve converted a lot of people.
    I keep a toiletry bag just for travel, so I don’t have to worry about forgetting anything. I check to see if anything needs replacing before I put it away at the end of a trip.
    I also have a travel checklist – helps with all the misc. essential stuff like chargers.

    • Diane Armijo says:

      I agree with you Mary – I have a toiletry bag that is always ready to go for travel. And a travel checklist. I did not have a checklist for years, but once I developed one it is so much quicker to pack for any trip.

    • Mary Duncklee says:

      Some packing cubes are compression ones – so they squish the items in them. I just use regular ones – easier to stay organized and to live out of a suitcase.

  22. Janet says:

    Pre-check is life-changing and soooo worth it. “They” recommend if you take 3 or more trips a year. I have been traveling at least once a month for the last 2 years and am always grateful I took the time to sign up.
    Also a scarf of some kind and a cardigan with pockets for travel day and yoga pants are way more comfy than jeans.

  23. Lori Bailey says:

    Spring for leakproof toiletry bottles that you can refill. After wiping out leaky liquids from a toiletry bag several times, it’s worth the investment, and kinder to the planet than rebuying the pre-packaged ones over and over.

  24. Marie says:

    Large Ziploc bags are the only accessory that is absolutely necessary to pack light. They are clear, you can see whatever is inside and you can suck the air out of them. I don’t know anything about the cubes but I can’t imagine anything better than Ziplocks. My kids and I travel every summer, and we always always take our carry-on luggage right to the check-in and then ask if they could be stored underneath at the last minute just before boarding. We travel light, we save the baggage fee here in Canada and our bags are the last ones to go on the plane making them the first ones to come out. I’m not sure I have ever travelled with a bag that I had to check and pay for.

  25. Christine says:

    After 13 years of work travel, I can pretty much pack and go in about 15 minutes. I’m a no fuss, minimal accessories dresser. My must have list is super short. I rarely take more shoes than the ones I wear to the airport. And just because you’re going to be gone for say two weeks doesn’t mean you have to pack 14 days worth of clothes. Unless you’re going to a third world country, most hotels and AirBNBs have laundry facilities or a laundry service. My husband and I did two weeks in Europe in the fall. One carryon suitcase each. TSA Pre-Check is a must. Although, if you are going to get it please make sure you know how to go through that line. As more and more non-frequent travelers are getting it, the holdups can be frustrating. Don’t stress over packing. Again, unless you’re going to a third world country, you can probably pick up what you need along the way. Only stress over things like your insulin or your heart medication. I never get on a plane without a bottle of water and a snack. I’ve been on very long flights with turbulence the whole way, so no drink service.

  26. Renee P. says:

    We travel as a family so I purchased a custom-made (Etsy) passport holder that fits all of our passports AND a pen! I found that I always needed a pen when filling out customs forms – now I have everything together. All of my other travel tips have been mentioned already 🙂

  27. Cheralaine Cole-Johnson says:

    3/5 of my children (and seven grandchildren) live a flying distance away. Anything that simplifies travel is a plus. On my last trip, I took a checked bag that contained nothing but clothes for one of my grandsons. In the future, I will mail a box and just take a carry-on. Also,
    TSA pre-check is totally worth it!

  28. There are so many great suggestions in this comments section!! My essentials are my huge scarf (seriously, it’s about as tall as I am, so it can double as a blanket, a wrap-around for the beach, a cape if I need to fight crime, etc.), and a sleep mask (I’m not fussy, anything that will block out light). And I am an obsessive list-maker, so I’ll always start drafting a list of what I’ll need to pack at least a few days out; that way, there’s no umm-ing and ahh-ing about what to take, I already know what needs to go in and it’s done in five minutes flat. Happy travels!!

  29. Julie Williams says:

    Love these! I would love to know info on the straw purse that is in your picture. I like it a lot! One travel tip I have found valuable is to throw in one of my foldable nylon bags. I have used it as a beach bag, place my purse in it if I want to keep it clean, to hold travel purchases that don’t fit in my carry on and my favorite part is I can toss it in the wash and let it air dry!

  30. Lisa says:

    I travel for business 1-2 x month and I STILL don’t have it down. Traveling from a doubt herb climate to northern makes it harder as I tend to overpack. Precheck is a must and a lifesaver! I need to get packing cubes and find a Good lightweight packabke winter jacket (it’s 70s home & 30s where I am today and I goofed with no jacket). Maybe someday I’ll get this down ?

  31. Third Ruth says:

    Thanks to this information, I have decided to try packing cubes (Bagail on Amazon–their Basics weren’t in stock until late Nov and that’s too late), after watching too many YouTube videos about them (whilst muttering to myself that I REALLY needed some sleep). There are any number of informative videos, including one about making your own from things at Dollar Tree…and I loved how many different ones had the family cat visit during filming!! I had not even heard of packing cubes until yesterday.
    Thank you!

  32. Odette says:

    Many cities now charge for shopping bags. Before I bought a couple that pack in their own little pouch, I stuffed a regular plastic grocery bag in my day pack. It weighs nothing and comes in very handy. I’d add to the list: a tiny flashlight; a set of plastic utensils (for leftovers or grocery store foods); a couple of ziplock sandwich bags; and a travel clothesline.

  33. Renee P. says:

    I also forgot to mention the Mobile Passport app (US customs) for easy re-entry to the U.S. Enter your passport info in advance and then answer the customs questions when you’re re-entering. It was SO fast and easy to use when we returned from Israel last winter.

  34. Christie n MT says:

    This is such a great thread. I am planning a Bucket List trip to Scotland for next summer (inspired by multiple reads of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series) & I’ve never traveled outside of the US before. I’ve been looking at the Away luggage – anyone use their carry ons overseas?
    Bring on more tips for simple packing for Europe!

  35. Pam says:

    We have packing cubes for our family. We often share suitcases so everyone has a different color. It makes it easier to find your clothes in the suitcase. It really helped when the kids were younger and we had to help them find their clothes. We could just say their color.

  36. Katherine D says:

    I always carry a small tote bag, a large garbage bag & several gallon size zip-locs. They weigh nothing & come in handy for shopping, wet clothes & so many other things.

    I also have a small pouch of things I need at bedside – Pen, tissues, lip balm, nail clippers. I keep it packed all the time so I always have what I need.

  37. SassyApple says:

    I’m not a frequent flyer, but I have terrible travel anxiety. I finally realized the only thing I couldn’t replace within 24 hrs is my glasses (I use a national chain pharmacy). This has helped ease my travel anxiety immensely!

    • sarah says:

      Yes! I don’t go anywhere without both an extra pair of glasses and two pairs of prescription sunglasses. I also always remind my husband to bring his extras. It is literally the only thing that would totally wreck my trip if I didn’t have.

  38. Kristen says:

    I keep a couple of clothespins in my toiletries bag. Perfect when you buy food at the grocery store and need to clip an unfinished bag of chips or cookies shut. Also useful for hotel curtains that don’t shut and hanging laundry in hotel room bathrooms.

  39. Corrie says:

    I travel internationally for work, generally 3-4 trips per year. Each trip is about 15 days. I have somethings that I have purchased just for travel and they stay in my roller board. Helps immensely when packing. I also use packing cubes – they make settling into my hotel so easy and I never forget anything. I had to laugh when I read the first paragraph -describes me perfectly. I work with Third Culture Kids and provide summer camps for them. I use my checked bags for camp stuff so all my needs fit nicely into carry on bags. Hope you get used to traveling. The airport feels like home to me.

  40. Diana says:

    This post was perfect timing (almost) because it came while we were on a trip! It made me question my love of traveling, or at least flying with small children.

  41. Great tips! I’ve been traveling with that exact LL Bean bag for over a decade. It looks like it has been used but despite many, many trips from short road trips to camping to cross country trips to international that bag has been going strong. Seven years into our marriage I think I might need to buy my husband his own now that we sometimes travel separately for business. I’ve been curious about the Away bag too! I’m on the cusp where I don’t travel quite enough right now to justify the expense but if that ever tips I’m getting one (and in a fun color).

  42. Tina says:

    I never travel without a laundry bag. Traveling with small children could probably be an entirely different post but when my kids were really small I used to go to the dollar section of walmart or kmart and buy a bunch of little things they’d never seen before. I’d unveil them one by one on the airplane. We also travel to rural Sweden a lot to visit relatives. This summer it was hot and dry and we were all using a single well – so, dry shampoo was essential. I would recommend that for any travel. It made life really easy when we just needed to freshen up and no time (or water) to shower.

  43. sarah says:

    I was recently on a 10 trip to various places in Europe and brought along two things that were really helpful. One was a bag of dark chocolate covered almonds. A handful of almonds can easily get you through a meal if needed. The second was a tiny, dual voltage hair dryer bought on Amazon.

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