My 10 Vacation Packing Essentials

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vacation travel essentials by wardrobe oxygen

There is nothing better than being able to get away on vacation. Whether you're flying to a destination or packing up the car for a road trip, a quick Amtrak ride to a local city or an hours-long trip to a distant destination, your vacation will be better if you pack well. Below I share my vacation packing essentials that work regardless of my kind of travel.

When I worked in Corporate America, I had a job that had me on business travel at least once a month. I had perfected my packing essentials to save space, be ready for most anything, and look polished and professional even if I was just hopping off a cross-country red eye flight. As a blogger, I have also traveled a lot for work, but with the different expectations once at my destination, packing became more similar to vacation travel and it perfected my vacation packing essentials.

My Must-Have Luggage

Some of my vacation packing essentials are a given, some are a bit more unexpected. I would love to find out what essentials you pack; let me know in the comments. Many of my essentials are items I wouldn't have otherwise known of if it weren't for those of you in the Wardrobe Oxygen Community who have shared yours in comments here and on social!

First, let's start with what everything I pack goes in…

My Favorite Luggage: Tom Bihn Aeronaut 45

tom bihn aeronaut 45 rbag on the shoulder of a woman in a green anorak and black beanie, walking in the woods in autumn

It was 2014, and a reader contacted me asking for a two-week business casual capsule wardrobe that would fit in the Tom Bihn Aeronaut. I had never heard of Tom Bihn or this luggage and I went to the site to know the dimensions to assist the reader properly and fell in love with this company. Here you can read more about Tom Bihn and why it is such a great company.

Tom Bihn saw that 2014 capsule wardrobe and sent my husband and me our Aeronaut 45s; those bags have been our go-to for almost any trip. In 2016, I packed a two-week cross-country road trip capsule wardrobe in my Tom Bihn Aeronaut. I've even loaned out my Tom Bihn Aeronaut to friends and it has been perfect for their vacations and adventures.

This bag can be carried in the hand, on the shoulder, across the body, or comfortably as a backpack. It is designed to open it on a luggage rack and work straight from it without needing to pull everything out or have it unbalanced and spill. It's soft enough to squish into an overhead compartment or that weirdly shaped corner of your car's trunk, but shaped enough that items can stack on it without toppling. This bag is seven years old, has been on dozens of trips and still looks and performs like new.

My Favorite Toiletries Bag: Bagsmart Large Toiletries Bag

bathroom vanity with mirror; to the side of the mirror on the hook is the BAGSMART toiletries bag

I had a great water-resistant two-sided zipper bag that did me well for many years. I'd put my travel-sized products on one side, my makeup on the other, it would be the size of a packing cube and would tuck into any carryon bag without issue. The zippers eventually failed, the plastic got cloudy, and the skincare brand Pixi sent me a PR gift in a bag that was almost the same but better. This bag had a hook so I could hang it up in my hotel bathroom and still see and access all my stuff.

But as I began more vacation-like travel, I needed more room for my toiletries. On a business trip I was fine with very simple yet effective products to achieve the same look day after day. But on travel, there are bugs and sun and thigh chafing and digestive issues. There are days when you won't put on a stitch of makeup, others when you want that no-makeup makeup look, and others where a bold lip or even a glittery eyeliner is a great choice. Plus, vacations are often longer than business trips. I needed more space.

Essentially the same concept as my beloved two-sided toiletries case but bigger, I got a bag from Bagsmart. It's the same concept – water-resistant (great when a bottle opens up on a flight; keeps the rest of your luggage dry), able to hang up on a hook, clear compartments to see everything, and enough compartments to separate and organize your essentials. The shape is still similar to a packing cube, making it easy to stack it with other items or just tuck into your bag with rolled clothes around it.

The Bagsmart bag comes in two sizes; if you're concerned with fitting your entire trip into a single carry-on bag, you may wish to go with the medium. If you're heading out for more than a week, the large may be more your scene. I know some have two: one for makeup and one for toiletries. I have the striped one, though Bagsmart also has solid quilted ones and even a clear one as well as matching pouches and standing cases.

My Favorite Packing Cubes

The Tom Bihn Aeronaut bag with packing cubes half-packed circled around it.

Likely, you've heard of packing cubes. And possibly, you have seen them as too complicated, a waste of money, etc. I was there. I never used packing cubes until 2014 when Tom Bihn sent me a couple with my Aeronaut. Even then, I resisted them. But once I started using them I was hooked.

If you've mastered rolling and folding and have plenty of space in your luggage, you may not see a difference when using packing cubes. Those who are sort on space have seen that by zipping clothes into these cubes, usually made from a mix of tech fabric and mesh, will compress items to provide more space.

But another benefit of packing cubes is when you are visiting multiple destinations or will have a variety of activities and situations on your vacation. For example, our family took a road trip to Vermont a few years ago, with stops on the way in Philadelphia, NYC, and Boston. I used packing cubes to separate the clothes I needed for the cities from when we would be staying in a cabin. I wouldn't need a fleece or hiking shoes in NYC, and I wouldn't need a nice dress and clutch purse while in Vermont. This way, I could just pull out the cubes for my destination.

Also, packing cubes help you separate dirty from clean. Great for your return trip, but also great for a long vacation when some things have been worn too much and need to be separated until you get home or to a laundry.

I own packing cubes from Tom Bihn, but our family also owns packing cubes from eBags' brand and they're also quite durable and come in different colors so you can color-coordinate based on leg of your trip or family member.

Okay, and on to my favorite vacation packing essentials to go in said luggage!

My 10 Must-Have Vacation Packing Essentials

I have several vacation packing essentials I tuck into my toiletries bag (cuticle or embroidery scissors, a small sewing kit, In Case Of meds, a couple of shelf-stable snacks, and protein bars for when your next meal is a while away) but decided to share my ten more unexpected essentials below.

Now I'd love to hear from you! What are your vacation packing essentials? Is there anything I need to add to my arsenal for my next getaway?

A woman with curly hair wearing a plaid blazer holds a green fur coat over her shoulder on a city street.

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  1. I have one of these simple snap valet trays in a bright orange color that lives in my suitcase full-time. As soon as we get where we’re going, I set it out as a designated spot for keys, card-keys, glasses, and wedding rings. It’s so easy to lose that kind of thing in a hotel room or vacation rental, where you’re out of your routine and don’t have a designated spot for it! The bright color helps me make sure not to forget it. And when it is unsnapped, it takes up zero room in your bag.

    VOMANA Leather Valet Tray, Small Jewelry Catchall Tray, Desktop Storage Organizer, Portable Vanity Tray for Candy Jewelry Wallet Rings Headphone Watch (cyan + light pink) https://a.co/d/2j7y41g

  2. Thanks for all the great tips — Speaking of toiletries, would love to read your secrets and tips for packing those. I often don’t check in my suitcase (if at all possible) because of the airline luggage check-in fees now. How do you manage to pack what you need with the liquid restrictions on flights? It’s always been a hellish challenge for me, esp. for a family and with small containers.

  3. I want to try many Megababe products, but every time I go to the site, many products are sold out. I’m assuming some of that is due to Covid-related shipping/manufacturing delays, but it’s frustrating still.

  4. Ditto on the robe, which as you said, is a multipurpose item that lends comfort at the end of a long day. I also pack soft slippers, with socks or underwear stuffed inside, because I’m leery of hotel carpets, rough wooden cabin floors, or splintery decks. Plus, they just feel good, esp if your feet hurt from sightseeing.

    My #1 essential that stays in my travel bag is a nightlight! I plug it into the bathroom outlet and then keep the door slightly ajar. Check voltage and plug if traveling overseas.

    My second essential is, don’t laugh, a small roll of black electrical tape. I cover all those annoying and often flashing lights I don’t want in the sleeping area — for example, from a smoke detector or wifi router or AC unit or whatever.

  5. Tom Bihn makes the best bags! I was first introduced to them on the Academichic blog in the 2000s and we now have four, one for every member of the family. We bought our first two bags in 2014 and they look untouched. This month, we got our teenagers their own bags for travel post-COVID. They’re big enough now that they need a grown-up bag, and I sincerely think these bags could last the rest of their lives.

  6. You’ve got some great tips here! I second the EVA Birkenstocks. I have two pair and they go everywhere I go. Even in winter to wear around the house/hotel with my socks.

    I’d love to find a “free” detergent like you mentioned. And I’m ready to go all in on the packing cubes. We road trip often and I have an international trip (hopefully) in February that I’ll need to pack for.

    And if you use an Apple Watch, there’s an app that mirrors the camera and acts as a remote. So helpful.

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