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One for the road: How to pack for business travel

Categories: basics


Screen shot 2011-06-21 at 5.53.25 AM
Apple & Bee Carry All Traveler, $69.95

“I am in the running for job that would require 50% travel,” Lisa writes, “and knowing myself, I am horrible at packing. I always over pack, and then I still don’t seem to have the right things. Most of the advice I see online just seems dated or unrealistic.”

Let’s start with the basics. Lisa is going to be on the road a lot for this job; she needs a packing strategy that won’t leave her feeling like she’s living out of a suitcase, and that won’t mean constantly loading and unloading her bags in between trips. Her first step will be to think about what pieces can live permanently in her luggage — specifically, her toiletries case.

Toiletries — makeup, shampoo, and all the other things we need to get pretty every day — are often the most difficult part of packing. To avoid last-minute suitcase overcrowding (because admit it: your cosmetics bag is probably the single biggest thing you jam in your suitcase), Lisa should create a travel toiletries bag. Start with a medium size bag, like the one pictured here, from Apple & Bee, and fill it with TSA-approved bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and face wash (3 ounces only). She also wants to add any other hair or skin-care products she is using daily, but in small sizes; she doesn’t need an entire jar of face cream, just a few day’s worth. The drugstore has little containers that she can use for this; label each to keep track of what’s inside.

Lisa should also do the same for her makeup. She needs to pare her routine down to a few basic products and buy duplicates of those; they can be packed in their own bag and live permanently either in her suitcase or in her handbag or tote. Business trips are not the time to experiment with new makeup strategies — Lisa wants to stick with a look that is professional and simple, which means fewer products.

What else goes in the suitcase? This depends on what Lisa will be doing when she travels, and where she’s going. She should start by mapping out her itinerary for each day; this gives her a chance to think about what she wants to wear. For the first couple of months, I would suggest that Lisa do this for every trip — it will seem like a big hassle, but it will give her a sense of how her work week is going to unfold, which is important when you’re planning what goes in your suitcase. I’m willing to bet that her travel will consist essentially of the same kinds of meetings and appointments over and over, which means that after a couple of months she will know exactly what she needs to have in her suitcase.

But in the beginning, Lisa needs a list. Once she’s written out exactly what each day holds (client meetings, presentations, etc), she can start to plan what she will wear. She needs to include everything she will do each day in her written schedule: travel days, working out at the hotel, meeting with clients, casual dinner alone or with friends. She will need to pack for all of this, and leaving something off the list because it doesn’t seem important (working out, say, because it’s not actual work, or a walking tour of a building because she’s already there for a meeting) will mean leaving something out of the suitcase.

Once she’s got her schedule written out, Lisa can start to put together outfits for her trip. If possible, she wants no more than one outfit per day (excluding workout clothes and pajamas, of course). So rather than taking something to wear to a client meeting and a completely different outfit to wear to dinner with friends, she should choose an outfit that can go easily — and comfortably — from day to evening. Think trousers and a blouse, or a skirt and sweater. And don’t worry about being overdressed for that casual dinner — if people know you’re in town for business, they’ll cut you some slack if you’re a little overdressed for the pizza joint.

Lisa should also pack pieces that can be worn more than once — a basic black pencil skirt or black trousers can be paired with different tops and accessories, for example, to create two or three distinct looks. Lisa can change out her shoes and accessories between trips, to keep this basic outfit fun and interesting, but she shouldn’t try to reinvent her wardrobe every time she goes home. Take a tip from the menfolk: it’s ok to have a uniform. It makes getting dressed in a strange hotel room a whole lot easier.

Lisa should always remember to check the weather at her destination the day before she leaves and adjust her packing accordingly, but there’s no need to completely reconsider what she’s packing just because she’s going somewhere hotter or cooler; she can add or subtract layers to compensate for differences in temperature. For slight variances in weather, a lightweight trench coat is a good investment for anyone with a heavy travel schedule; it can be worn over a suit or with jeans and a t-shirt, and the lined version can double as a winter coat in all but the worst weather.

Finally, Lisa should avoid the urge to take just one more thing — one more outfit or pair of shoes or eyeshadow – just in case. Packing is difficult because it requires us to decide right now what we will be in the mood to wear three days from now, but overpacking is not the solution. As much as she’s going to be traveling, Lisa needs to be disciplined about what goes in her suitcase. She can change out all the outfits in between trips, but she should never pack more than she’s actually going to wear. The exception, of course, is accessories; Lisa can easily pack an extra pair of earrings or necklace, and a small clutch bag is easy to slip into a larger tote.

What are your packing secrets? Have you mastered packing for business travel, or are you still carting your entire closet with you every time you go on the road? (And coming Friday: how to pack your suitcase so that nothing winds up wrinkled. Yes really!)

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4 comments so far...

  • So these are not wardrobe related, but general packing and planning tips:

    1. Keep it to carry-on luggage. Not only will you not have to worry about lost luggage, but you will improve your chances of getting on to an earlier flight on the way home if you don’t have checked bags.

    2. Remember that your carry on liquids need to be in a quart size, clear zip baggie. I usually carry that in my tote so that it is easy to grab when going through security. The non-liquid toiletries go in two small cases; one for bath items (razor, toothbrush, etc), one for dry cosmetics. Two smaller bags are easier to wedge into a corner of a suitcase than one large bag.

    3. Think about what items can replace your liquids. Makeup remover wipes instead of liquid. Mineral makeup instead of liquid foundation. Solid antiperspirant instead of gel.

    4. Get a haircut that needs minimal styling. Hotels provide dryers, but not curling / straightening irons. Learn to live without one. A hairstyle that doesn’t require products to look good will simplify your packing and allow you to sleep in a bit longer.

    5. Get extra power cords for all your gear and keep them in a small cosmetics case in your suitcase. Bonus points for gadgets that use the same cord.

    6. Pack an extra pair of underwear, just in case your flight home is cancelled.

    k-t  |  June 21st, 2011 at 7:22 am

  • k-t, those are all BRILLIANT tips. Thank you!

    One warning, though: a razor may not make it through security. It depends on where you are and how thoroughly the TSA agents are screening bags, but that’s the sort of thing they’re still confiscating. Fortunately, most hotels have razors available for guests.

    Susan  |  June 21st, 2011 at 8:21 am

  • I used to travel for work all the time and find the tips above to be excellent.
    I would add:

    -Depending on the length of your trips don’t always feel like you have to carry everything on. I had some 10-14 day trips and it wasn’t feasible to carry on all that I needed. My luggage was not lost once in 5 years of up to 10 trips a year.
    -Once you get your toiletries bag packed you might find you enjoy using it at home. I still mine hanging in the bathroom- it is always ready to go on the road, but also comes in handy in having everything in one place at home!
    -If you’re on the road for long stretches bring some comfort items to remind you of friends and family you’ll be missing!

    Erin  |  June 21st, 2011 at 12:59 pm

  • I always stayed with keeping to either black or brown and bringing 2 pairs of shoes. After picking one main color, I’d select tops/cardigans/tanks that I could mix/match. A scarf or two can really change the look of an outfit as well. Pick items that don’t require ironing . Bring items that you can just hang up and can de-wrinkle when you take a hot shower.

    Grace  |  June 21st, 2011 at 8:18 pm