Don't check, carry! Tips for packing the perfect bag

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I'm sure you've heard by now: American Airlines is charging $15 for each bag you check with them this summer. You know, because it doesn't cost ENOUGH to travel already; now you can PAY to possibly have everything you are bringing with you go missing or get squashed.

It's almost enough to make a girl stop checking her bags.I always check my suitcase; I hate dealing with that one extra bag when I'm getting on and off the plane. But I also always pack a smart carry-on, with all the things I cannot live without at my destination. For me that includes things like my laptop and cell phone (with assorted chargers), spare contacts, and extra underwear; I can (and have) gone days with just that and nothing else. But what if you don't really want to wear the same clothes for your whole weekend getaway -- what do you put in your carry-on bag then?

The trick to traveling with ONLY a carry-on is to edit ruthlessly; do not bring ONE SINGLE THING that you don't actually need. How do you know what you need? You have to plan.

I like to start my packing by mapping out my trip, day by day, and listing every activity and event. I know that sounds weird, but it really helps; when you can see precisely what's on the schedule, you can think more clearly about what to put in the suitcase. This also makes it easier to eliminate those what if? outfits -- you know the ones I'm talking about: what if we go dancing? what if we go shopping? what if we meet George Clooney and he wants us to come to a party at his house?

Unless you have spoken personally with George Clooney, do NOT pack for dinner with him. Seriously.

Once you know what you're doing, get in your closet and decide what you're going to wear. If your goal really is to pack as little as possible (and to save that $30 to buy drinks or a fun souvenir) then you will need to think about pieces that work together and can be worn more than once. Start with a basic color palate, something neutral and flexible; for summer, I love navy and white, but black or camel works well too. Pull pieces that can work multiple ways: a sleeveless top that goes with shorts for day and a skirt for night, for example, or a dress that can double as a swimsuit coverup. I would suggest neutral bottoms (khaki shorts or a black skirt) and colorful tops (a pink tank, which will go with both the pants and the skirt).

Lay everything out on the bed and arrange it into outfits. Yes, I'm serious -- put it all together so that you can see how it looks. Dare I even suggest that you TRY IT ALL ON? Because you should, you know, to make sure it all looks the way you hope it will. Eliminate anything that only works one way; every piece needs to be part of at least two outfits. Remember: the goal is to get it ALL in ONE bag that you can CARRY ON the plane with you. To do that, you have got to be ruthless.

By now you're thinking, OMG I will be wearing the SAME CLOTHES for THREE (or five or ten) DAYS! Well, yes, you will, but think how much easier it will be to get dressed. And really, life isn't a fashion show; you're not going on vacation so that everyone can see how fabulous your wardrobe is, you're going so that you can relax and visit friends and see a place that is not where you live. Who cares if you're wearing the same skirt more than one day while you're there? Leah Rozen, People Magazine's movie critic, puts it this way: “Know that by packing light, you will always be dressed well enough, though you’ll rarely be the best-dressed person in the room.”

Honestly, I'm good with that, especially if it makes life easier.

But what SPECIFICALLY should you pack? That's up to you! Pack things that you love and enjoy wearing and feel comfortable in; avoid buying a whole new wardrobe for a trip. If you do buy new things, test them out at home first to make sure that they really work for you. When you're taking as little as possible, you can't afford to have anything that doesn't actually function in the way it is meant to.

For tips on how to get it all into your bag (and what NOT to put in your carry on), skip on over to Independent Traveler.com; they've got the dish on rolling vs. folding vs. bundling.

One Bag talks you through using a packing list. See, it's NOT just me! And if you're having a hard time making a list, you can let the Internet make one for you: The Universal Packing List asks you where you're going and what you're doing, and then tells you exactly what to take. Brilliant.

Susan Wagner writes about style at Fashion Find and The Working Closet, and about everything else at Friday Playdate. She will be checking her bag when she flies to San Francisco next month and praying that she doesn't have to spend five days in the same outfit.

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