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Published March 01, 2013, 11:35 PM

Are you an overpacker? Try these tips to lighten your luggage load

HONOLULU – Cheese puffs were just one of the items that came out of a student’s suitcase in Australia when she was told her bag was 20 pounds over the airline limit.

By: Anna G. Larson, INFORUM

HONOLULU – Cheese puffs were just one of the items that came out of a student’s suitcase in Australia when she was told her bag was 20 pounds over the airline limit.

“I couldn’t believe the things that were coming out of that suitcase,” said David Hamilton, a Concordia professor and general director of the Fargo-Moorhead Opera who travels around the world with college students and on his own.

Overpacking is an issue for a lot of people, said Hamilton, who spoke with The Forum from Honolulu, where he’s singing with Hawaii Opera Theatre.

Hamilton requires students to bring their packed suitcases to class before trips. After hauling heavy suitcases around campus, students often realize that less is more, he says.

Hamilton usually travels with only a carry-on bag. For trips longer than a month, he checks one bag and brings one carry-on.

To perpetual overpackers, traveling without checked luggage might sound like an impossible feat, but Fargo resident Denise Mathern says it’s doable. She typically takes only a carry-on bag and says she’s never found herself wishing she’d packed more.

Her proudest packing accomplishment was fitting a snorkel and fins plus a week’s worth of clothing in a carry-on backpack.

“You don’t need a lot to look and feel great,” Mathern says. “I always focus on the things that, when I put them on, I just feel great.”

Her packing method – she calls it a science – starts with dividing items into two piles: “Got to have it” items and “if there’s room, I’ll take it” items. Seeing everything laid out makes for easier packing that won’t be overwhelming, she says.

One of Mathern’s favorite space-saving tricks is thinking about ways to rework a bare minimum number of tops, bottoms and dresses. For her, the bare minimum is usually underwear, two bathing suits, one pair of capris and two or three tops or four or five sundresses, one set of workout gear and two pairs of flip-flops.

“You can mix and match and wear the same things but feel different,” she says.

Sundresses are her beach-vacation uniform, and she wears them twice – once in the evening and once the next day on the beach. Jewelry and dressier sandals elevate the sundresses for evening dinners, and the next day she doesn’t have to worry about keeping the dress in pristine condition.

Hamilton shares Mathern’s mix-and-match mentality.

“Even if you and your traveling companion get sick of seeing them, you’re never going to see these other people again so who cares?” he said.

His No. 1 tip for traveling with only a carry-on is to not stress about what you did or didn’t bring.

“Unless you’re going to a third world country, you can pretty much get whatever you need at your travel destination,” he says.

Checked baggage fees, long baggage-claim lines and the possibility of lost luggage are incentive enough for Hamilton and Mathern to pack lightly.

Both frequent travelers shared their top tips for smart packing.

• Always carry your essentials. “Be sure you have a change of underwear shirt and socks in your carry-on in case the airline loses your luggage,” Hamilton said. Essentials could include glasses, medications and underwear.

• If you check luggage, know the address of your final destination. “The airline needs to know where to bring your luggage if it’s lost,” Hamilton said.

• Think about your trip activities and pack accordingly. “Oftentimes, you can wear the same things twice,” Mathern said.

• Wear the heaviest items on the plane to save space in your luggage. “I layer up since I’m usually chilly on the plane anyway,” she said. “I wear two or three light layers.”

• Versatility matters. “I try to really have stuff that is interchangeable,” Mathern said. “Make sure that you can wear everything with everything in case something gets stained or ruined.”

• Buy liquids, gels and other products at your destination. Mathern and Hamilton buy basic items at their travel destinations since they typically only travel with a carry-on bag. While liquids are allowed in carry-ons, both say that buying them at the destination saves valuable space.

While Mathern is OK with buying products at her destination, she says other people might want to pack their favorite products with in case they can’t find them.

• Save room for purchases. Mathern packs an extra bag, “something really squishy that doesn’t take up a lot of room,” in her carry-on in case she buys items on her vacations.

• Don’t bother with “maybes” … or do. Hamilton said people usually never wear the “maybe” items they take with.

On the contrary, Mathern likes to take a few of her “might want” items if they fit in her carry-on bag.

• Forego a hair dryer since most hotels have them. “If the hotel doesn’t have a blow dryer, you probably don’t even need to worry about your hair,” Mathern said.

She also chooses to bring either a straightener or a curling iron, but never both.

• Pack military-style. Rolling clothes into small balls spares space, Mathern said.

She stuffs her shoes or sandals with balled clothing for more space, and packs everything around the shoes. Rolling doesn’t create any more wrinkles than folding, she said.

• If you must check a bag, heed luggage weight limits. “Airlines can really sock you if you’re over the limit,” Hamilton said.

The weight limit for checked luggage for most domestic flights is 50 pounds.

What to know about carry-on bags

Traveling with only a carry-on bag requires some packing knowledge.

We rounded up common questions travelers might have about carry-on bags.

• How big can my carry-on bag be? Most airlines flying out of Fargo allow carry-on bags that are up to 22 inches high by 14 inches wide and 9 inches deep.

Check with each airline to be sure your bag meets its requirements, especially if traveling internationally.

The Travel Nerd website, www.travelnerd.com, has a carry-on luggage size chart for reference.

• Am I charged for a carry-on bag? It depends on the airline. Most don’t charge for one carry-on bag.

Allegiant and Spirit Airlines do charge (minimum $25), but the fee depends on routes and other factors.

• Can I pack items like lotion and hair spray in my carry-on bag? Yes, liquids, aerosols and gels are allowed in carry-ons, but with some restrictions.

Each traveler is allowed one quart-size, clear zip-top bag. Each liquid, gel or aerosol in the bag must be 3.4 ounces or less by volume.

Medications, baby formula, baby food and breast milk are allowed in reasonable quantities exceeding 3.4 ounces, and are not required to be in the zip-top bag. Those items must be declared for inspection at the checkpoint.

All liquids, gels or aerosols in the zip lock bag must be put in their own bin at the security checkpoint.

• How many carry-on items can I bring? It depends on the airline, but most allow one carry-on bag and one personal item, like a purse or computer bag.

Source: Transportation Security Administration

Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525