Business travel combines two irritatingly contradictory goals: the need to travel light and the need to wear some of the bulkiest items of men’s clothing.
Experienced travelers will know the danger of checked luggage, and understand the vital necessity of getting everything into a carry-on bag. It’s the only way to reach your destination 100% confident that you’ll have the clothes you need the next day.
So how do the experts do it?
We have a few secrets for you.
Step One: Own the Right Bag
When we talk about packing light, we’re talking about carry-on luggage.
If you have the luxury (or necessity) of checking a bag, the game changes a little. At that point you can use either a full-size hanger bag with room for several suits and shirts or an upright suitcase.
But if you want to get it all into one bag, you’re going to have to choose carefully.
You want as large a bag as you can get without risking airline limits. Because not all airlines have the same policies, a bag that’s advertised as “carry-on acceptable!” by a luggage company could work for many flights — and then leave you in the lurch on an international flight, or a transfer to a stingier airline.
Currently, a bag that is 22″ x 13″ x 9″ will meet all major airline’s carry-on maximum limits. This is always subject to change! Always look up major airlines’ current standards before buying new luggage.
Many airlines are slightly more generous than that; most American companies (as in “from the United States of America,” not as in “owned by American Airlines”) will allow 24″ x 16′ by 10″. But you want one bag that works for all purposes, so go ahead and get one that meets the slightly smaller European standards as well.
The most common carry-on style is a small rolling suitcase with stiff rectangular sides. It’s essentially a scaled-down suitcase and it works just fine.
The biggest disadvantage of the rectangular case is that it’s not very forgiving of men’s jackets — they are usually broader than the case and much longer, meaning there’s no good way to fold them for a neat fit.
Other options that may work include:
· military-style duffels (cylindrical, top-opening, soft-sided bags)
· small hanger bags (flat, soft-sided bags with built-in hanger loops)
· athletic-style bags (horizontally-oriented duffels with a shoulder strap)
· large messenger bag (flat rectangular bag with a shoulder strap)
Each style has advantages and disadvantages. Hanger bags are great for suits but leave little room for anything else, while duffels and athletic bags are easy to pack but look sloppy and tend to crumple the clothes in them.
You end up picking your battle on this one — and if you really don’t have a strong opinion, a rectangular rolling case that’s just under the allowed dimensions is usually the best option. If nothing else, it’s very easy to calculate its exact size if you end up in an argument about whether or not it should be checked.
You don’t want to get off the airplane or walk into the hotel and meet someone you’re going to do business with carrying a bright-colored nylon bag. It sets the wrong tone, and you never get the first impression back.
A good business bag should be dark, somber, and simple. Avoid unecessary hardware and bright colors. A tasteful monogram is fine — and a bit of a status symbol — but don’t go much beyond that in terms of decoration. Remember:
· Leather is dressier than canvas, canvas is dressier than nylon, and nylon is dressier than synthetic felts, furs, or other clearly artificial surfaces.
· Black, charcoal gray, and navy blue are always appropriate; everything else is not.
· You don’t have to match your luggage perfectly, but it shouldn’t stand out.
· Leather handles and trim is always better-looking than nylon.
· Shoulder straps are more comfortable but less professional.
· Rollers and handles are fine on the go, but collapse the long handle and pick the bag up by the small, horizontal one when you meet someone.
There’s a certain amount of leeway here — a bag in deep hunter green canvas with light chestnut leather is probably fine — but for the most part you’re not trying to make a bold statement. You want something that looks practical, elegant, and minimal.
Step Two: Bring the Right Items
So you’ve got the right bag: maximum possible dimensions, your preferred style, and business-appropriate aesthetic.
What goes in it?
Remember that our goal here is to pack light and to pack for business. That means a wardrobe made of a few versatile pieces rather than a different outfit for every occasion. You’re traveling — expect that you’re going to have to wear the same jacket a couple of times.
A weekend can usually be done with one jacket, two pairs of pants, and two shirts, plus sundries. That gives you enough variety that you’re not in the same outfit all week, but keeps the space needs to a bare minimum.
If you’re going longer than two days, a second jacket probably becomes necessary, along with a few more shirts. At that point at least one of the shirts should be a more casual style that can be worn without the jackets.
Jackets for Business Travel
“Business” means wool, and “travel” means nothing too finicky. Leave the linen suits and the Super 150s at home — they’ll just wrinkle en route.
Your best bet is a plain, dark jacket in medium-weight worsted wool. That keeps it classy, goes with most trousers and shirts, and will be the least likely to show travel creases and wrinkles.
If you’re going long enough to need two, bring one dressier jacket and one sportier one. An easy way to do that is to bring one suit and one sports jacket, and then use the suit jacket with unmatched trousers for a third outfit if needed.
Trousers for Business Travel
By the same token, if you’re going to need a suit at any point, figure on using it both as the matched suit and as two separate pieces for other outfits. A dark gray suit for your most formal occasions easily becomes gray trousers that can pair with a lighter sports jacket for a more casual look.
Apart from any pants that come as part of a suit, be thinking in terms of wool or cotton slacks rather than jeans. Jeans are bulky and less multipurpose — if you need to look relaxed and casual, you can do it just as easily in brown or gray slacks or a pair of khakis, and those can be dressed up further than jeans when needed.
Shirts for Business Travel
Unless you’re a die-hard purist, go ahead and go for the wrinkle-free cotton shirts. The treatment is a mild one that’s safe for nearly everyone’s skin, and it’s nice to have the option of not pressing your shirts at the hotel if you’re short on time.
That said, cotton dress shirts are the way to go, precisely because they can be pressed — most hotels will provide a small iron and ironing board on request, and it’s a good way to look extra-crisp on business trips.
One plain white shirt and one plain light blue shirt is a good pair for your lightest packing; if you have room and need for more than two, make the third something with a little color and pattern that can be worn more casually.
Shoes for Business Travel
If you only have room for one pair, make it plain black leather oxford balmorals.
If you’ve got room for two pairs (and you almost always do, especially since one can be worn onto the plane), bring the black oxfords and then a pair of dark brown leather shoes. The brown ones can be a touch more casual, but should still be something you’d feel comfortable wearing a suit if you needed to.
If you’re willing to wear one and pack two — which is getting crowded in carry-on luggage, but doable — the third can be something casual like loafers or topsiders (boat shoes). Alternatively, if you know that exercise is going to be part of your networking needs (or if you’re just really, really dedicated to hitting the gym even when you travel), bring a pair of tennis shoes instead of casual leather ones.
Accessories and Sundries for Business Travel
It’s always the little things we forget, so make sure you’ve got all the small items you need to complete your outfits:
· Neckties — one for each day of the trip
· Pocket squares — one plain white, and one or two more in color
· Socks — one pair per day, matched to the trousers
· Underwear — one pair per day
· Undershirts — ditto
· Belts — one to match each pair of shoes you bring (tennis shoes don’t need a matching belt)
· Cufflinks — only if you wear French cuff shirts, obviously
· Any tie accessories (clips, pins, chains, etc.) if you use them
· Toiletries (a Dopp kit is a nice way to keep them all together)
There’s no need to look for “travel” versions of most of these, apart from the liquid toiletries, which will need 3-oz. containers for air travel. The key thing to be thinking about, like the larger items, is interchangeability — you want to pack as few ties and belts as possible, so choose the ones that go with multiple pairs of pants, shoes, etc.
Step Three: Pack Your Bag Efficiently
The physical act of packing the bag has two goals: getting as much stuff in there as you can, and getting it all from place to place without damaging the bag or its contents.
It’s always worth thinking about how much time you’ll have for clothing maintenance once you arrive: if you know you’re going to have a day of downtime before your business commences, you can pack a little more carelessly and count on having time to press your shirts on-site, and possibly even have your suits pressed (some nicer hotels have in-house cleaners for just this purpose).
But always remember that air travel can leave you with unexpected delays, and try to get things there in ready-to-wear condition.
Every man has a slightly different school of packing, but in general, you want to follow some common-sense guidelines for what goes where:
- Shoes on the bottom is almost always a good starting place. They’re your least flexible items, so use them as a base layer that you can push softer items down on top of. Consider a shoe bag as it will keep your clothing clean from sand and dirt.
- Fill shoes with small items like belts, ties, or socks. This both saves space and helps keep the shoe from collapsing when you push down on it, so go ahead and fill them pretty firmly.
- A mentioned before stick shoes (and anything in them) in a dustbag. This protects your clothes from any dirt on the shoe, and gives you a handy surface to wipe them off with after you wear them as well.
- Rather than folding shirts and jackets horizontally (across the body), fold them vertically so they’re a long, narrow column and then roll them loosely. This prevents deep creases in the middle and lets you fit more of them per packing layer.
- Keep toiletries together in a small case. This keeps them from rattling around and potentially leaking on your clothes, and it gives you something to carry them in if you don’t have an en suite bathroom (uncommon in the United States, but something you’ll occasionally run into in other countries).
- Wear a sharp outfit with a jacket onto the plane. This gives you an extra set of business-appropriate clothes without using any luggage space up at all, and it also helps keep you from looking like a mess (a common travel phenomenon) if you bump into someone you know at the airport.
- Don’t be shy about using the “personal item or computer” if the airline gives it to you. Slip a paperback book, e-reader, or other preferred form of entertainment into the laptop bag for the flight. You can even bring a laptop bag or briefcase filled with small luggage items if you don’t actually need a portable computer.
- If you don’t get a “personal item” in addition to your carryon, wear a jacket with good-sized pockets so you can carry a book and some snacks.
- Leave a little room in the suitcase for souvenirs. You never know.
Most of these are simple, common-sense guidelines, and that’s because packing light for a business trip is exactly that — common sense. Eliminate the things you don’t need, pack the things you do need sensibly, and you won’t have any problems.
Sample Packing List for Frequent Business Travelers
For a Bare Minimum Weekend Trip:
· One suit, dark worsted wool
· One pair medium-gray wool trousers or khaki slacks
· One pair black balmoral oxford dress shoes
· One leather dress belt with a small metal buckle
· One white cotton dress shirt (point or spread collar, not button-down)
· One light-colored or white with light patterning dress shirt (any collar style)
· Three pairs socks (match to trouser colors)
· Three pairs underwear
· Three undershirts
· Two neckties, conservative colors with light patterning
· One white cotton or linen pocket square
· One colored cotton square (can complement, but not match, your neckties)
· Cufflinks and tie clips/chains/pins if needed
· Toiletries (preferably in a travel kit)
For a Week-Long Trip Add to the Above:
· One blazer or business-appropriate sports jacket
· One pair wool or cotton slacks, any business-appropriate color
· One extra white shirt (alternate with the other and launder as needed)
· Two patterned dress shirts
· Two to five extra neckties as needed
· Two or three extra pocket squares
· Casual leather shoes (or tennis shoes if you anticipate gym time)
· One pair of underwear per day
· One undershirt per day
· One pair of socks per day
Wear on the Plane:
· Comfortable slacks or dark, stylish jeans
· Casual blazer or sports jacket
· Lightly-patterned or light-colored dress shirt
· Brown leather shoes (business-appropriate)
· Socks, underwear, undershirt, etc.
· Colored pocket square
· Dress watch