5 Tips to Pack Like a Pilot

Posted by at 10:35

Though it looks like I’m the worst procrastinator when it comes to traveling, having lived out of a bag for more than a decade as a pilot I can quickly throw together a 17kg case only 10 minutes before leaving. This contains 5 days of clothing both work and casual, adapted to various climates, alongside gym clothes and a few extra essentials. 

Tips packing your suitcase

Packing can be a nightmare for even the most seasoned traveler, especially if you’re packing for different climates and special occasions. So, for all of you on the cusp of throwing your entire wardrobe into that Samsonite, here are my top 5 tips from within the industry to packing like airline crew.

Pilot Jonathan during a trip

1. You can never plan on every eventuality, so don’t pack for it!

I’m sure anyone can relate to unpacking your bag after a trip only to find half of what you packed unused. That’s extra weight you’ve dragged along with you ‘just in-case’. You’re much better off packing what you know you’ll need, usually just one change of clothing for each day away.

If you’re going to be attending formal as well as casual events, then pack smart, pack clothes that are a little dressier than casual, a little more fun than professional. You can always dress things up and down with accessories like ties or scarves. My favorite is the buttoned short-sleeved shirt; works a treat on the beach, and is dressed up under a light neat long-sleeved sweater.

A business trip where you want to hit the gym and pool? Pack a pair of swimming shorts with pockets, they’ll cover you for treadmill as well. And if you still worry you might be missing something when you get to your destination, don’t forget…

2. Burkina Faso also has shops

I can’t stress this enough. Whether you’re headed to the Himalayas, the Amazon basin, or taking the slow boat to Antarctica, you’ll always find someplace that sells what you forgot. What’s more, it’s a great way to treat yourself to a souvenir you can enjoy for years after your adventure. Gone for more than 10 days? Consider washing on your way, pretty much the whole world does laundry.

And if you’re worried about being that off-sized difficult person like me (shoe size 47, US 13 ), don’t fret. Where you can buy it, or wash it, you can also repair it. The greatest pair of jeans I’ve ever seen belongs to a Brazilian globe trotter whose 13 year vintage blues have been patched over with material from all over the world, each piece a different story. Incidentally, on the topic of Jeans…

Suitcase Packed

3. Jeans and Trekking gear are your best friends

Denim is the greatest piece of multipurpose fabric around. Seconded by Gore-Tex. If you don’t own a good fitting pair of dark blue jeans that can pass with a shirt/blouse on casual office day, get one. Now. Check for pocket size and durability. Purchase. Congratulations, you now own your primary travel clothing item, worldwide.

Denim is brilliant, incredibly durable, and easy to clean (even with wet wipes). Second, get yourself trekking essentials; a thin all weather waterproof Gore-Tex jacket with collapsible hood, neat looking dark brown/black/blue trekking shoes that breathe in warm conditions, and lightweight tear-off khaki slacks (the kind where you can unzip the trouser legs into shorts). All three are lightweight and compact, quick drying, and will keep you warm or cool in all conditions. If you’re worried about not being fashionable for an unforeseen event, revert to point 2.

4. Have your basic 3

When it comes to packing, you’ll always forget something. Some of these will cause a bit of headache if you need to replace them on the road. These fall into your basic 3 essentials, so it’s good to define what they are for you and you’ll be less likely to leave them behind. Here are mine.

Personal Hygiene
A simple toiletry bag, containing your prescription medication, deodorant, toothpaste, and a travel hair brush (better than a comb, one of those fold and pop out types with a mirror set in the handle). If you need to pack make-up, take only the basics. A great tip; Keep a plastic resealable bag in your toiletry bag for airport security liquid restrictions.

Spare Undies and Socks
You can always get some on the road, but you don’t wanna be going commando trawling a Bangkok market with an upset stomach. Carry one extra pair of socks and undies, two if traveling for more than a week (You can wash/repair items on the road, see point 2 above).

Mobile Phone with it’s USB charging cable
I’m always amazed at how essential a smart phone can be when traveling. From getting urgent help if you lose your wallet to locating your accommodation in the middle of bum-poo-nowhere at 3am, you’ll be glad you have your phone. Keep it charged and skip the power adapter plugs by packing a USB charging cable, USB plugs are EVERYWHERE.

Keep your basic 3 with you at all times, have it in your carry-on (cabin) luggage; You don’t want to find out your check-in (hold) baggage, with medication, has gone missing along the way. And if you do forget something, no drama, see point 2 above.

5. If you’re gonna wear it on the way there, make sure you’re gonna wear it when you’re there

Imagine you wore your goose feather jacket from home through a mild blizzard on your way to Vancouver airport only to then drag it for 5 days through the streets and malls of Dubai. Not handy. If you’re gonna wear it on your way to the airport, think about how you could use it where you’re going; remember in cold climates you can layer clothing that you’ll use individually at your destination. This also saves packing space. My last trip to Myanmar had me leaving Amsterdam wearing a thin but warm hoodie underneath my thin Gore-Tex waterproof trekking jacket.

Pilot Jonathan during his travels

That’s it, that’s how I, and most of my colleagues, handle our trip bags, which we kick together 10 minutes before we kiss our loved ones goodbye and head out the door. I’d love to hear if you have any tips as well that you’d like to share, maybe you could help me bring my baggage down to 16kg! Above all, I hope this helps make your next trip stress and worry free. Traveling should be about enjoying the independence that comes with the adventure.

Sounds familiar?

It’s quite possible you’ve heard or read this before. We’ve posted this blog in March, 2016. So this actually is a repost. But let’s be honest: you can never have enough packing tips, right? ;-)

 

54 Responses to 5 Tips to Pack Like a Pilot

  1. Gordon C

    Rather than a toiletries bag and separate polythene bags for security, most chemists now sell robust transparent ‘zip-loc” toiletries bags, buy two small ones and have one for liquids/gels that need to be shown at X ray, and other one with tablets, toothbrush, brushes etc, easier and quicker if you only have carry on luggage

    • Jonathan Franklin

      Great tip Gordon. I have seen those, and that definitely gets two birds with one stone Thanks for the tip!

    • Ineke van Mack

      Where are these availsble? Sounds incrediblybuseful!!

  2. Mahesh

    Good tips Jonathan. I am huge aviation enthusiast and a fan of pilots :) I love traveling and I always make sure that my traveling baggage is packed like a pilot’s one not as a “traveling baggage”

    • Jonathan Franklin

      Mahesh, glad to have a fan! Where will your next adventure bring you? And challenge your packing prowess?

  3. penelope burreci

    Good one Jonathan! All true advice. Ladies however tend to take more than men in their baggage and I find folding things into small packages enables one to take a lot more,
    careful folding and packing gets everything in neatly.

    • Jonathan Franklin

      Penelope, I realized this as well when writing the article. I’m always impressed at how my female collegues both in the cockpit and cabin manage to squeeze so much in so effectively. Folding definitely helps, I can even recommend rolling clothing up; fold it so that your shirts/pants are about 20cm wide, and roll them up, massive space saver!

    • Marie-Claire

      +1 to Penelope. Looking forward to reading a similar post from a woman pilot.

  4. Madge Cooper

    Best trip I ever had was from Canada to Ireland & return for 8 days. Only had 1 a carry on bag. Packed 2 pants and 3 tops, sweater & all weather jacket, etc. I was delayed getting to the airport on way home, because I had no checked baggage they held the plane for me. One bag gives an incredible sense of freedom, plus not being tired from managing large bags. Great idea about the Smart phone & USB cable.

    • Jonathan Franklin

      Madge, great to hear you were able to catch your flight! Ireland is amazing, one of my favorite places to go. Glad you liked my tip on the USB cable, and if you are still a bit worried, or need to take an extra laptop adapter along, look for those travel adapters that have built in USB ports.

  5. Chris Hunt

    I am an expert packer because we go on holiday for weeks on the motorbike. I am female and have ONE pannier only. We use a couple of compression bags for clothes. I only need a few clothes. Hardware is the issue – iPad, phones, chargers, electric hair brush. Medication is essential as is my Kindle – leaving that WOULD cause me to panic. Make-up is reduced to about 3 items. Even after all that, I still take too much and have posted back excess clothing (top tip) after about a week knowing I will not wear it.

    • Jonathan Franklin

      Compression bag are handy as well, that’s a good tip too. Have you considered perhaps leaving the iPad behind, and depending on the functionality of your phone? With regards to the clothing, maybe try washing on your way, bring quick dry clothing that will drip-dry overnight while you sleep

  6. Hans

    Hey Jonathan,
    what will be your next plane, as KLM is phasing out F70? Embraer?

    • Jonathan Franklin

      Hi Hans, indeed last I remember the Fokker should be a thing of the past in 2018. KLM assigns it’s pilots to aircraft according to seniority. As it stands I’m probably in the last group of pilots to fly the Fokker until the end, and then perhaps the Embraer. I’m actually looking forward to flying this beautiful beast until her last days with KLM

  7. Lucy Ann

    My top tip-do not skimp on the actual bag you carry-on. It needs to be light weight and efficient. In my company I am known for only ever having carry-on and having great variety. Carefully planned footwear and great accessories make people forget they have seen the actual clothing pieces multiple times

    • Jonathan Franklin

      Lucy, very very true! A good bag will go a long way, as will the right accessories

  8. Laura

    Interesting article. However, 17 kgs seems like a lot to me!

    We always travel to Austria for Christmas and even with all the Christmas presents for our family there, we have an average weight of about 16 kgs. I never considered that lightweight packing! Most shorter trips I just have a carry on backpack, even when I need to bring a laptop. This summer we’ll go hiking in Lapland and all of our luggage including all of the camping gear (tent, air bed, sleeping bags etc) is 15 kg per person. Anymore would break our backs since we’ll be hiking 20 km per day with it for nearly three weeks.

    • Jonathan Franklin

      Gosh Laura, I wouldn’t want to drag 20kg around on my back either! My only ‘defense’, if you could call it that, to having a 5-day travel bag weighing 17kg is it’s my life away from home; I’ve got changes of clothing alongside changes in uniform clothing, which unlike hiking gear isn’t quite designed for lightweight and compact purposes. That with gym gear, your pair of goggles for chlorine pools, it gets close to 17kg. I’m also a tall guy, my jeans tend to get folded twice over ;-)

  9. serjit kaur

    Went to New York last week for a couple of days. I found it funny at both sides of the airport I was asked where my bags were. I pointed to my ruck sack and said this is it. I was amazed by the odd looks I was reviving. I had all I needed in the ruck sack. All of my clothes were rolled up together. My socks and underwear pushed inside my boots . Didn’t bring much toiletries toothpaste and deodorant as I new the hotel would have showed gel and shampoo. Same amount of make up that fitted into plastic bag. And the clothes I was wearing I also used on my trip.

    • Jonathan Franklin

      Serjit, you and I travel alike. I once pulled off 3 weeks through Australia, in winter, with just a small backpack that was cabin trolley sized, only because half the space was for souvenirs for family back home! It is fun when customs gives you those strange looks when they inquire where the rest of your luggage is.

  10. Scott Secker

    Great tips! I work in the offshore oil and gas industry where packing light is necessary if a helicopter trip is needed, and we have to pack our safety gear and essentials for up to 8 weeks away.

    One tip I can give is what ever you are packing into be it a rucksack, suitcase or duffel bag is to roll stuff and use socks to hold it all together. Not packing the socks balled up saves valuable space and keeps things together.

    • Jonathan Franklin

      Thats a great tip Scott! Im gonna try that next trip I take. Do you work on rigs in the North Sea? You might be on one of my flights if you travel through one of the helicopter hubs on the Fokker 70

      • Scott Secker

        I am from Aberdeen but I work world wide. In Ghana at the moment. I’ve often flown on the Cityhopper F70’s and am a little sad to see less of them, now usually on the E190’s or 737. The F70’s have character…… I also miss the F27’s. Living in Dyce in the 1980’s the sound of the Rolls Royce Dart was everywhere. Alas no longer….

        Our company uses KLM extensively so the chances are I have been on one of your flights!

        • Jonathan Franklin

          Now you’ve got me jealous Scott! I never got to experience the F27, heard what a beautiful beast that was!
          Next time you’re on the Fokker, and hear it’s me up front, come say hi after the flight!

  11. Anja McGowan

    I always bring oldish but clean underwear and socks on my travels and throw them away as I go along! Safes bringing smelliest back and you travel lighter on the way back or it gives you a chance to buy goodies if you see something nice!

    • Jonathan Franklin

      No better souvenir than that awesome pair of happy socks you picked up in Berlin! Great tip Anja!

  12. Jo

    In regards to toiletries and make up, I have lots of the free sample sachets from magazines and visits to various make up counters so I use those. It’s also less messy as nothing ever leaks. If I have to take shampoo/shower gel I literally only take enough for that first shower as everywhere on the planet sells stuff like that!

    • Jonathan Franklin

      Jo that’s a great tip again! Thanks for that. A bar of soap from the hotel is also a great bridger until you get some on the road.

  13. David

    Blizzard in Vancouver? I think you’ve got your Canadian cities mixed up.

    • Jonathan Franklin

      David… My Canadian boyfriend just whacked me over the head for that one too. Let’s say it was a cold winter, or the “Neighborhood” of Vancouver, in Edmonton. Thanks though!

  14. Walter vK

    As an OBC (on board courier) I have learned that it is better to buy anything liquid at your destination. So no toothpaste or deodorant. Just buy the smallest of both at your destination. Also most hotels will provide you with it if you ask them.

    • Jonathan Franklin

      Walter, great tip on asking the hotels! Thanks for that

  15. Fabrice. M

    The point about USB ports is spot on. In hotels for instance or in a home (if you are a keen AirBnB user) modern televisions usually have 2 or 3 USB ports you can use to charge your phone (which should ALWAYS be fully juiced up when you are away, they have become essential survival gears) or tablet.

    For the packing compacting is key in my experience: roll socks in the shoes, intertwine & roll shirts and trousers, it produces an invaluable gain of space.

  16. Jonathan Franklin

    Intertwining is a great tip, thanks Fabrice! And re USB, I’m so happy so many more hotels just have ports in the room

  17. dionisius

    saya ingin berpergian seperti seorang pilot atau pelaut dengan membawa barang yang penting, mudah di jangkau dan ringan di dalam ransel

    • Jonathan Franklin

      Dionisius, saya setuju. Itu membuat lebih mudah juga jika Anda memiliki perjalanan panjang. Terima kasih atas komentar!

      *Dionisius, I agree. It makes it easier also if you have a long journey. Thanks for the comment!*

  18. Atie

    Did you mention weight of shoes or boots?
    wear the heavies, pack the light ones and roll your Tshirts up.
    Happy travels x

    • Jonathan Franklin

      Atie, that’s a great tip as well! I usually always wear the pair I’m travelling with, but if you need more than one pair that is a great tip

  19. Ana

    Completely agree!
    I am a woman and my concern is about shoes. I try to carry only an extra pair (usually heels) and wear a pair of flats which I can wear everyday
    Aldo like to make a list and keep it in the case for nect trip

    • Jonathan Franklin

      Ana, also great feedback and tip for the fairer gender, thanks for that!

  20. Mia

    For ultimate minimalest toiletries ever (this coming from a woman): baking soda. It is actually the best deodorant ever – am quite sporty and this is the only thing that prevents stink in my workout clothes, been using it for a decade now – and it works as toothpaste as well, or even facewash if you use it sparingly. Also a great medicine for upset stomach. Most of all, it is natural and biodegradable, so if you’re going hiking in the Nepal and you want to leave no trace, this is it. I put mine in a TicTac container – easy dosing and carrying.
    (Great blogging Johno!)

    • Jonathan Franklin

      Mia, never considered that! Thank you for the tip! I’m going to get myself a pack of TicTacs to use to carry the soda! Minty fresh breath for the next few days, here I come!

  21. Rianna

    Invest in good quality shoes, preferably handmade. Will make you reach your 16kg goal. And is a belt really necessary when you have the perfect fit of clothing?

    • Jonathan Franklin

      Hi Rianna, good shoes do go a long way! That’s why I think hiking shoes that look the part, or quality shoes that will last all terrain should be your choice. A belt can be handy in many situations, and it is fashionable in some cases. Since you’re wearing it, it won’t go in your luggage, so why not wear one? Thanks for your comment!

  22. Manon

    I travel for work every second week through the whole of Africa. For years I have tried to travel light…. in vain. Therefore my advice if you can’t travel
    light: buy the largest Samsonite you can find and fill it. And get a porter at the airport to carry it for you ;-).

    • Jonathan Franklin

      Hi Manon. I can imagine there are also destinations and trips that need a bit of everything. But you’re right, a good suitcase is a great investment! My KLM crew bag has lasted me 6 years now. It’s on it’s final legs and needs replacing, but considering how much it’s been through it’s clear a good bag does go a very long way indeed.

  23. Thomas

    Great post! Have nice day ! :) rejjm

    • Jonathan Franklin

      Thanks Thomas, glad you enjoyed it! Have a great day as well!

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