Travel Insights Blog
Travel Insights Blog
Want to make packing a little less stressful? Whether you’re an overpacker, a procrastinator, a minimalist, or somewhere in between, discover the psychology behind each type so you can make it work for you.
Packing is hard. Along with getting through airport security and figuring out foreign metro systems, it’s up therewith the most stressful parts of travel. Some call it packing anxiety, some just call it an absolute nightmare, but no matter what you call it, the struggle is real. So real that a quick Google brings up countless listicles of tips and tricks to smooth the process and soothe your nerves, helping you get to the airport with your ID and all your chargers — ideally, on time. And where there’s a first-world problem, there are dozens of startups trying to monetize the solution, like these apps and services designed to simplify and de-stress your packing process.
While paying a company to deliver a pre-packed bag to your hotel room might seem a bit overboard, most of us would gladly accept a little packing help. If you’ve ever had to pack for a trip, you know that what seems like a simple task — how hard can it be to pick stuff up and put it in a bag? — can quickly snowball into hours of complete chaos and confusion that ends with you crying in a pile of your middle-school jeans.
Okay, maybe that one was just me. But there are many reasons why packing can feel so overwhelming, no matter how many times you’ve done it; countless factors to consider. First, you need to figure out what you’ll need — which is harder than it might seem, considering you don’t always know everything about your destination, and even if you did, you can never fully predict what the future holds.
Next, once basic needs are covered, come the wants: What outfits will future you want to wear? What books will you want to read? Many of us struggle here, not wanting to deprive our future selves of a shirt that we might wear or a book that we might read, even if we haven’t in years, despite having the option. Finally, you weigh this whole jumble of choices against your constraints: space, weight limits, cost of checked bags, etc. With so many factors and trade-offs, packing becomes a complex and highly personal mental process that we all navigate according to our unique values, desires, life circumstances, beliefs and emotions.
As psychologist Laura Fielding explains, our stress levels tend to increase when we travel, a natural response to separation from the comfort of familiar environments. Packing becomes one way to deal with this anxiety: the better prepared we can be, the safer we feel. This can bring out a level of perfectionism as we aim to set ourselves up for success. Not to mention, travel is often a rare treat, so the stakes feel even higher for making it a perfect experience. You might be a little annoyed if you forget to bring your headphones to the gym one day, but forget headphones on the trip of a lifetime, and suddenly, it’s much easier to spiral.
When packing perfectionism strikes, it’s good to remind yourself that there’s no one right answer to the puzzle, no single “perfect” suitcase. Just like there’s no one right way to travel, there’s no single best way to pack — both are highly personal. Still, we tend to categorize people by their packing styles, so much so that some of these packing personalities have filtered into pop culture stereotypes. Think high-maintenance fashion girlie lugging around a cart full of designer suitcases, or the broke college student on a gap year backpacking through Europe with one flannel, or the high-power businessman with a sleek carry-on that miraculously fits an entire suit, not a single wrinkle.
Of course, these are exaggerated; stereotypes always are. Still, we all probably know people who lean towards one type or another — and maybe even judged them for it. While there might be objective perks to some packing styles, like saving money on bag check fees, it’s hard to say that any one style is better than another. Each one reflects a set of values and involves certain trade-offs. As always, understanding is the first step; once you know why people pack the way they do, it becomes easier to accept their quirks. You might even tweak your own packing habits for a smoother travel experience, working with your personality, not against.
With this in mind, let’s dig into three common packing personalities: the over-packer, the procrastinator, and the minimalist. Think of these not as diagnoses but as archetypes to try on. We’ll explore the psychology behind each behavior, sketch out some pros and cons, and throw out some tips for each tendency. Less stressing, more finessing.
The overpacker is easy to spot: they’re barreling through the airport crowd with five giant suitcases in tow, their overstuffed backpack hitting you on the shoulder. Are they transporting the world’s biggest collection of vintage roller skates cross-country? No, just leaving for a weekend girls’ trip.
Overpackers carry their fair share of cultural stigma, written off as disorganized, impractical, high-maintenance, or simply not “good” at packing. But bringing along lots of belongings is a totally normal and reasonable response to the stress and uncertainty of travel. To soothe our innate fear of the unknown, we arm ourselves with familiar objects that can offer either practical value or psychological comfort.
In this way, it makes sense why we often associate overpacking with less experienced travelers–the more we travel, the more comfortable we get with the process, and the more we pare down our list of essentials. Still, overpacking doesn’t always go away with practice. Some people might simply be more attached to physical belongings, or experience more travel anxiety. If you also tend to procrastinate, the last-minute crunch might push you to pack more, since you end up too rushed to carefully think through what you need.
The downsides of overpacking are obvious — more bulk to lug around, possibly higher bag fees at the airport, and of course, the stigma of being seen as “high maintenance” (note that we usually associate overpacking with girls and women). But there are also clear perks to having more of your stuff with you: physical and psychological comfort, preparedness for more situations, not to mention more outfit options. Your minimalist friends might even rely on you to lend them some toothpaste or clean socks–the double standard is real.
So if you’re feeling a little called out right now, don’t worry, there’s no need to join Overpackers Anonymous or change your whole personality to avoid a $50 bag fee. At the end of the day, it’s all about awareness, and making choices based on what you value most. That said, there are a few ways to fine-tune your packing process, especially if you notice that you’re always bringing more than you need:
Jot down some general observations in the notes app of your phone — do you always pack twice the number of pants you need? Never end up wearing dressy or colorful pieces on vacation, even though you like the idea of them? Next time you’re packing for a trip, you can glance over this list and adjust accordingly. This way, you’re not just packing less to pack less, and you can feel confident that you’re not leaving behind anything you’ll regret not having.
If you usually pack five pairs of pants for a week-long trip, can you make do with three similar ones instead, since this won’t really affect your outfit options? Another good tip for packing lighter: choose one style and color scheme for the trip and pack pieces accordingly, so everything matches and can be worn with everything else. Voila, maximum outfits with minimum pieces.
Try to plan ahead so you’re not throwing your entire wardrobe into a bag at the last minute (more on procrastination below).
Many airlines offer several tiers of economy depending which add-ons are included, like seat selection, priority boarding, cabin bags and checked bags. If it makes more sense to pay for bags separately, always pay online before you get to the airport, since there’s usually a discount.
Packing procrastinators come in all different flavors, shapes and sizes: overpackers, under-packers, and everything in between. Some might even be expert packers, their perfectly rolled t-shirts and individually labeled toiletry bags distracting you from the huge bags under their eyes from staying up all night.
As with all types of procrastination, it might seem like a simple case of laziness, lack of organization, or bad judgment. But the reality is much more complex. At its core, procrastination is emotional — when we procrastinate, we avoid doing things we think will make us feel bad and do something that makes us feel better instead. Procrastinators might deal with their anxiety or frustration with packing by putting it off until the last minute, especially if they know from experience that they can get it done in time without any major negative consequences. While this doesn’t sound like the smartest strategy — and usually isn’t–there can be some upsides to being a packing procrastinator. You might be more laid-back, go-with-the-flow travelers who won’t fall apart if you forget to pack your favorite scrunchie–or even your underwear. Just as overpackers tend to be better prepared, procrastinators can be more flexible, less likely to freak out if things don’t go according to plan.
That said, in its more extreme forms, procrastination tends to compound stress, your own and possibly for the people around you, and can cause unnecessary setbacks, like running late or forgetting a travel essential like a passport. If you have a feeling your travel experience might be smoother if you could get the procrastination under control, read on for some tips. On the other hand, if you’re a die-hard night-before packer and have perfected the art of packing for any trip in under an hour, keep doing you.
But wait, before you close this tab — there’s a lot you can actually do to coax your procrastination brain. Since procrastination is rooted in emotion, it makes sense to start there. There’s lots of advice from psychologists for chronic procrastinators floating around the internet, like practicing forgiveness and self-compassion to challenge the cycle of negative emotions that keeps us trapped in an unproductive pattern.
A lot of procrastination comes from putting off tasks when we don’t feel in the mood, assuming the right mood will magically come later. In reality, the right mood doesn’t usually come, but you can create it by getting started anyway. Oftentimes, when you actually start the dreaded thing, you realize it’s not as bad as it seemed.
It’s exactly what it sounds like: when you’re avoiding a task, try identifying the next step you would take, if you were to do it–even if you’re not. The key is not to force yourself to start, but to mentally break it down so it seems more concrete and less daunting. Then, you might realize that you don’t really mind doing it–at least, just that one step.
There are a few perks to this approach. First it takes minimal energy in the form of getting up and actually moving–it can be as simple as pulling up the notes app when you’re scrolling in bed. Plus, it pushes you to do the cognitive work of packing upfront, so that the physical process of packing becomes quicker, easier, and more organized. Even if you put the rest off until the last minute, you’re much less likely to get overwhelmed or forget essentials.
Take your bag out long before you plan to start packing, so that the reminder is always there. Who knows, it might even motivate you to start a bit earlier.
Once you have your bag out on the floor, try squeezing in mini packing sessions throughout your day. Folding laundry? Set aside a few pieces. Running errands? Pick up those travel-sized toiletries you need.
For example, schedule blocks of time into your calendar, treating them like a work meeting or another important commitment that you wouldn’t miss. Or, try an accountability buddy; if you’re traveling with others, agree to keep each other posted on your packing process, texting each other updates or pics. Bonus: it might remind you to pack something.
If packing personalities were early 2000s romantic comedy characters, the overpacker would be the glam, high-maintenance girlfriend, the procrastinator would be the edgy, chaotic and cool best friend, the minimalist would be the “chill girl,” the flawless girl next door who all the boys are in love with. Like the chill girl (or cool girl), minimalism is a cultural ideal that’s recently captured our imagination, despite being arguably unattainable. If you keep up with pop culture, you’ve probably noticed the trend, with public figures like Marie Kondo of the Netflix show Tidying Up and Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, aka The Minimalists, preaching the gospel of less is more. Even notorious fashion addict, frequent traveler and Gen Z icon Emma Chamberlain has recently released a three-part episode series on minimalism on her podcast Anything Goes, one of which is all about travel and packing.
On one hand, there’s an understandable urge to question and correct Western consumerist values, especially in the face of environmental crisis. Minimalism might be an especially appealing ideal for the travel community, since it echoes many of its values, like prioritizing experiences over things. These ideological overlaps make minimalism seem like a natural match for trendy contemporary travel lifestyles like digital nomadism or van life, or even regular travelers who value simplicity, sustainability, or even spirituality.
It’s also a practical choice for many kinds of travelers. On one hand, you have your broke backpackers, who are minimalists more or less by necessity–it’s hard to travel on a budget with a giant suitcase. At the same time, there’s also a corresponding aesthetic ideal: think gritty, bohemian glamor of road trip tales like Easy Rider or On the Road. There’s a certain associated personality: wild, free-spirited, adventurous. On the other hand, you have your corporate minimalists, the expert travelers who pack pristine, pressed business wear into a sleek carry-on that costs more than your car. This type of minimalist tends to value efficiency, competence, and practicality. If they refuse to check a bag, it’s not because of the cost per se, but the principle: wasting money and time that could be better spent elsewhere.
With both kinds of minimalism, a subtle sense of superiority can creep in. Maybe you feel like you’ve cracked the code, figured out the undeniably best way to pack while others are floundering with their overweight suitcases. Maybe you’re proud that you can get by with less. Certainly, developing your own streamlined method of packing feels like a badge of honor. Plus, it pays to be a minimalist; extra bags usually mean extra costs, like checked bag fees and taxi fares.
Still, there’s nothing inherently morally superior about packing a smaller bag, just like there’s nothing inherently bad about packing too much stuff, or waiting until the last minute. In each case, the effects of the action matter more than the action itself. If you’re creating extra stress by forcing yourself to pack a carry-on for a month-long trip, it might not be worth it. As Chamberlain notes in her podcast episode, there are certain downsides to minimalist packing, like having to do laundry more often. In a sense, minimalism means sacrificing preparedness for convenience: if you bring only the bare minimum, you’re accepting that you might not have everything you need for every situation. For certain trips that require specific gear, like skiing, a minimalist approach just doesn’t make sense. Plus, the cost savings might be offset if you end up having to buy more things at the destination.
If you’re a minimalist, you might be used to dishing out the packing advice, not receiving it. Still, as with every packing style, there’s always more to consider and more to learn.
Be honest with yourself about your intentions–are you genuinely interested in helping the other person, or are you trying to flex your packing prowess? Even if you’re coming from a good place, try to remember and respect that everyone has their own preferences and their own process. There’s nothing more stressful (and annoying) than someone hovering over giving pointers as you try to pack. Likewise, rolling your eyes at a friend’s giant suitcase isn’t going to help you get out of baggage claim any faster. At that point, what’s done is done; you can let your masterful minimalism speak for itself, and trust that your friends will take mental notes — or even ask you for tips — if they want. Plus, there are practical reasons for keeping your overpacking friends on your good side: you never know when you’ll need a clean pair of socks or an extra hat.
As with all packing, make sure your decisions are based on your own needs and values, not an arbitrary standard. If you always pack a carry-on because you hate waiting for baggage claim and are comfortable with just a few outfits, keep doing you. If you always pack a carry-on just to prove to yourself (or your friend / dad / ex who always packs a carry-on) that you are in fact capable of only packing a carry-on, and thus a morally superior human being, maybe that’s something to note.
That way, you know you’re not leaving out any essentials, especially if your tendency is to aim for the smallest bag possible.
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