What are packing cubes?
Ever since airlines have become increasingly disinterested in the needs of travelers and increasingly interested in packing as many of us onto airplanes as is physically possible, the fees and limitations associated with how much luggage you can bring along with you and how much space it can take up have become more and more stringent. As a result, travelers have been forced to become creative and crafty in their packing methods, and out of this forced ingenuity have risen new tools in bag-stuffing known as packing cubes.
Packing cubes are small, lightweight bags of various sizes, often with a see-through mesh window, that can be used to stuff your critical travel items into organized and dedicated sections of your bag. In theory, these cubes allow you to get more into your luggage without sacrificing organization by fragmenting your bag space into smaller, stackable bags. For example, you might have one small packing cube for your toiletries, medications and toothbrush, while another, larger bag holds your dress shirts. Yet another cube might be dedicated to all of your socks and another could carry your underwear.
Packing cubes were born as a natural extension for those travelers who generally stayed organized by using ziplock bags as dividers and organizers for their travel needs— cubes arrived as a more dedicated, durable alternative to these often flimsy solutions. The name packing cube, though originally used to describe the geometric design of many original solutions of this type, has come to be a widely-used term for a diverse range of packing solutions as variations on the original shape have emerged. Since they’ve begun gaining popularity, packing aides have divided frequent travelers who feel very strongly about either their benefits or drawbacks. Proponents believe that they can allow you to get way more into your carry-on or checked bags and make living from a suitcase a less stressful and more organized endeavor. Here are a few of the different types of “packing cubes” available as well as their various benefits and drawbacks.
These are the original vanguards, the brave innovators that launched the battle for supremacy in the wars for dominance in travelers’ luggage. Okay, they’re basically mesh rectangles with zippers. But their stackability and luggage-friendly shape make them worthy companions for many airport warriors. They’re also beloved for their organizational power, their mesh see-through panels allowing travelers to more effectively live out of their suitcase without a nightmare re-packing scenario at the end of every trip. When travelers need a specific item, they simply remove the corresponding cube and then return it when they’re finished. It’s an excellent solution for both obsessive organizers and habitual over-packers, allowing travelers to fit more items into their luggage without an explosion of shampoo bottles and loose socks taking place every time they forcefully unzip their bag. Here are a few things to consider when considering packing cubes, or using the cubes you have more effectively.
- Benefits- Packing cubes are an ideal choice for organization-minded packers. If you like to know exactly where every last item is, from your nail clippers to your work-out shorts that (let’s be honest) probably won’t make an appearance in the hotel gym, packing cubes will turn your suitcase into a neat-freak’s dream. No loose items ending up sadly adorning the very bottom of your bag, not found until weeks after the trip when you happen to be packing for the next one. With cubes, everything has its proper place and you’ll be able to see which case carries which items, so you won’t be completely disassembling your luggage with every single use.
- Drawbacks- Though they’re purchased primarily by travelers looking to jam more into their bags, packing cubes are in reality more of an organizational tool than an effective method of bag-stuffing. With packing cubes you’ll find that your maximum bag space is increased, but not exponentially. Their rounded rectangular shape means that you’ll be leaving cracks and spaces where more luggage could fit if packed freely, and you’ll find that lumps created by various items within those cubes will make them stack unevenly, minimizing their space-saving benefits. You may also eventually find yourself frustrated by constantly zipping and unzipping the various bags to get to your many travel items and perhaps could end up wishing everything was simply sitting open in your luggage. But if that image makes your organized brain want to cry perfectly symmetrical tears, then packing cubes could be for you. It should also be noted that packing cubes’, well, cube-like shape makes them better suited to shaped, framed luggage rather than duffel bags.
- Uses- It’s all about the stacking. When it comes time to fit your packed cubes into your luggage, don’t just toss them in willy-nilly, defeating their organizational and space-saving purpose. Look at that open suitcase like your own personal game of Tetris. Make those cubes fit in every nook and cranny and do some rearranging until you find the perfect fit that allows you to pack in as many as possible. And don’t feel as though every single item you pack has to fit into a cube. Use the cubes for your major categories, and use the nooks and crannies left over to stuff other items in. You’ll thank yourself later.
- Shapes, Sizes and Types. Packing cubes come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, from the smallest cube for medications and toiletries to the largest container for shirts, pants or other large items. Though their name suggests a boxy shape, packing cubes can be found in many different rectangular configurations, from tall and thin to short and wide. There are waterproof versions available, as well as cubes that replace with zippers with velcro or belt-type clips which can increase the ease of closing and opening. They also come in versions with and without the small, see-through screens, allowing you to choose between ease of use or total privacy for more personal items.
Packing folders are a variation on traditional packing cubes and are shaped like cubes that have been squashed flat— they’re wider in surface area but shorter in depth, making them ideal for folded clothes, documents, and other traveler items that are best packed while laid flat. Think of a fabric envelope for your items. They’re often laid flat along the bottom of bags, but they’re most effective when used with deeper luggage and arranged file-folder style, side-by-side. Many have handles on top tailored to this kind of organization, which allows travelers to open up their bag and remove the “shirts” or “pants” file while keeping the others in their proper place. Here’s everything you need to know when considering packing folders for your next big (or little) trip.
- Benefits- Packing folders are more compact than cubes, allowing you to fit more into a bag at a time. They’re ideal for shirts or dress pants, allowing them to be kept in their folded state throughout all the bumps and jostles of traveling, ensuring that they come out still looking fresh-pressed and ready for that big presentation or night at the bar after the presentation. Packing folders are also an organizational dream, taking the OCD-lovers ideal of file folders and applying it to packing. They’re a great way to take your luggage from an overflowing mess to a textbook example of flawless organization.
- Drawbacks- File folders don’t work quite so well when laying flat, and they can often take up a large amount of vertical real estate. If you don’t have a fairly deep suitcase or luggage bag, these guys might not be for you. They’re also fairly specifically suited to clothes and other items that can lay flat— toiletries, electronics and other small or oddly shaped items will collect at the bottom of the folder, creating a bulgy mess that sort of defeats the purpose. You’ll also find that packing envelopes don’t come in the greatest variety of sizes—most are about the area of a folded shirt.
- Uses- As we mentioned above, you’ll be the most happy with packing envelopes if you use them in a deep bag, not laid flat but rather side-by-side like a file folder. They’re designed to be used this way, with handles at the top allowing you to slip one out without disturbing all the rest. Considering that most styles lack the see-through benefits of packing cubes, we recommend buying a few different colors and color-coding your packing, always keeping pants in the red folder, shirts in the blue folder, etc…
- Shapes, Sizes, and Types- If you’re looking for a wide range of diversity when it comes to packing folders, you might be disappointed. Many are roughly the same size, and the main variations come from how they open. Some fold open like a mailing envelope along the top, while others unfold at each corner. These are convenient for packing, but be wary of them falling open as a result of improperly velcroing shut. Opt for quality when it comes to this style— you’ll thank yourself later when your underwear doesn’t come spilling out all over the floor at LAX.
Popular with campers and backpackers, compression sacks are often cylinder-shaped bags that allow packers to stuff a great deal of items into each sack. They help separate items from each other and are ideal for soft luggage that’s able to be squished and squeezed to fit tight spaces like overhead bins. Like other modular packing solutions, compression sacks are helpful in making packing and unpacking a quicker, more organized experience. They come in various sizes and types, and their origins in the backpacking world mean that you can find some that are highly waterproof and protectively sealed. Here’s what you need to know before buying compression sacks.
- Benefits- Compression sacks are true workhorses when it comes to stuffing as much as humanly possible into your luggage. Their duffel-shaped design means that you can jam everything but the kitchen sink deep into their depths, and keep compacting until each sack is a solid, oval-shaped brick of traveling bliss. They also squish down just fine without losing their shape, and a few of these tossed into your duffel bag will increase your luggage capacity by leaps and bounds. Plus, their durable construction will protect your precious items when they’re left sitting outside the plane in a downpour for three hours (not that this has ever happened to anyone).
- Drawbacks- What you get in storage space you sacrifice in organization— compression sacks are basically smaller duffel bags to stuff everything into. You can keep some sense of order by using specific sacks for specific categories, but outside of that each sack will be an avalanche of items that you might have to pour out each time you want to retrieve something from their depths. They’re best suited for large items that you want to condense, like sweaters, coats, and blankets. But keep in mind that any clothing items that go into a compression sack will come out more wrinkled than you ever could have imagined. No matter how carefully you roll that brand new dress shirt, it will emerge looking like it spent too long in the bathtub and became prune-y. If you decide to go with compression sacks, be sure to dedicate one to a portable clothes steamer.
- Uses- Save your packing cubes for toiletries and smaller items and use compression sacks for big, bulky space-hogs like puffy sweaters and large coats. Grab one end of each item and stuff it deep to the bottom of the bag, methodically pushing each section of the item as deep as possible into the sack and then repeating on the next item. You’ll be amazed at how much you can fit into even smaller compression sacks. Lay them side beside and fill in any spaces between them with additional items. Isn’t fitting an unholy amount of stuff into your luggage what this is all about?
- Shapes, Sizes, and Types- Though most compression sacks will look essentially the same, there’s a fairly wide range of quality and features, mainly in the area of durability. Remember, these were made for backpackers, so if you’re looking for a waterproof, heat-proof, crush-proof option— they’re out there. But if you just want a cheap way to overpack to your heart’s content, inexpensive and less feature-heavy options are available as well. Compression sacks also come in a wide range of sizes, so pick a few different ones and find out which ones work best.
Here we’ve included just about everything you need to know generally about the main types of packing aides and suitcase stuffers, but new styles and types are being created every day. Consider this a get-started guide, and go out and become an expert yourself on the various ways to pack effectively and efficiently.
Though lots of travelers swear by packing tools like cubes, folders and compression sacks, they’re definitely not for everyone. Some critics don’t care for the added step of having to unzip another bag within a bag, and others feel that leaving the luggage space open allows them to stuff more into their suitcases and duffels. In understanding the potential of packing aides like these its crucial to see them not only as space-savers but as organizational tools that will keep you from losing your mind while living out of a suitcase. Packing cubes can ensure that everything has its own proper place, so that you’ll know where to look when you need it and know where to put it when you’re done. However, their ability to save space does come with in inherent drawback— more items means a heavier bag, and some bags may be so overpacked that they’re cumbersome and not worth the trouble.
When it comes time to choose your packing cubes, envelopes, or compression sacks, the key is to do your research. We don’t recommended buying every kind at once — try one or two packing aides that intrigue you and then determine whether they’re right for you. Your wallet and suitcase will thank you for taking your time in deciding, and you’ll be more informed when your fellow road warriors ask for themselves. Traveling can be a tough endeavor, and the major airlines’ desperation to turn a profit has only made them more crafty in finding ways to make you miserable along the way. Packing cubes could be your opportunity to stick it to “the man” by bringing along everything you want, instead of having to choose whether its more important that you pack your video game system or a second pair of shoes. With packing cubes, you can bring both!
Tim Leffel is founder of the Practical Travel Gear blog, as well as the Cheapest Destinations blog and the narrative webzine Perceptive Travel. He is the author of The World's Cheapest Destinations (now in its 4th edition), Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune, and A Better Life for Half the Price.
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