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This Is the Best Way to Pack a Suitcase

Folding, rolling or packing cubes? We tested all three methods to find the best one.

Are you packing your suitcase wrong? Whether you're trying to save space in your carry-on bag, or just don't want wrinkled clothes, how you pack matters. You can certainly haphazardly shove clothes and shoes into your suitcase and sit on top of it to make it close, but there's a better way.

Despite traveling often, I had never given much thought to how I pack my suitcase. That is, until I compared the three most common packing methods -- folding your clothes, rolling them, putting them into packing cubes -- head to head. I wanted to see which method takes up the least amount of space, uses luggage space the most efficiently and minimizes wrinkles.

The results surprised me and changed how I've packed my suitcase ever since.

Folding: Most people's default

Chris Parker/CNET

Folding your clothes feels natural. Assuming you have somewhat organized dresser drawers or closet shelves, most of your clothes are already folded, so it's easy to grab them and plop them in your luggage. Whatever's not already folded can be in a matter of seconds.

The pros

It's fast and easy, usually requiring little more effort than opening a drawer, grabbing a shirt and putting it in your suitcase.

Folding works well for structured clothes, like dress pants, jeans and button-down shirts. The last two items are usually folded on store shelves and you can easily recreate those folds to minimize wrinkles when packing.

The cons

You're more likely to get creases in your T-shirts and other thin, soft clothing items by folding them.

It uses space less efficiently, taking up more room in your suitcase and leaving small gaps.

If you stack your folded clothes one on top of the other, it can be hard to get out that shirt you want buried in the middle. You can avoid this by folding and stacking front to back or side to side.

Rolling: Compact and versatile

Chris Parker/CNET

Many people swear by rolling their clothes. It can take extra time, but the payoff is being able to fit more clothes in your suitcase and, in some cases, reduce wrinkles.

The pros

You can fit more clothes in your suitcase. To test this, I packed the same 16 clothing items -- two dresses, four T-shirts, three button-downs, two sweaters, three pairs of jeans and two pairs of pants -- in the same suitcase, once folded and once rolled. The folded clothes suitcase was nearly full, while there was room for at least three more items in the rolled clothes suitcase.

You can see your clothes more easily, because they aren't stacked on top of each other. This is particularly useful when you're staying somewhere that you can't unpack your clothes.

The cons

Rolling is great for T-shirts, pants, casual dresses, swimsuits, and pajamas, but not so good for bulky clothes, like sweaters. They can take up more space when rolled versus folded.

It's harder to roll button-up shirts, and rolling is more likely to cause creases in them because the fabric gets bunched up as it rolls.

Forget about rolling formal wear, like a gown or suit. They are better off folded or packed in a garment bag.

Packing cubes: The organization upgrade

Chris Parker/CNET

I didn't understand why people are enthusiastic about packing cubes until I started this experiment. Now, four years after I originally published this story, I am still using the packing cubes I bought to write it. 

There's not a single trip that I haven't used them for in that time -- I've shoved them into a duffle bag for an overnight away and used them in large checked bags. Not only can they help organize your outfits, they also compress your clothes to save space and let you isolate dirty clothes from clean ones. 

The pros

Packing cubes are endlessly versatile and come in many shapes, sizes and styles (check out the options from Baggu if you like prints). You can use them to organize outfits, including shoes and accessories, into a single pouch. Or, you can separate your pants, tops, dresses, pjs, underwear and socks into separate pouches so that you can easily find what you need at your destination.

Another benefit of packing cubes is that they can compress your clothes, allowing you to bring more with you and giving you more suitcase space. Anyone who has tried to fit too many clothes into their carry on (guilty) can appreciate that.

They also let you move things around and find the item you want. No more digging through layers of pjs when you just want to grab a sweater out of your carry-on.

The con

The only downside of packing cubes is that they are another thing to buy on top of a suitcase or duffle bag. Most sets start at $20 and go up from there, and that's just another added expense. You don't need them to effectively pack a suitcase -- the methods above are just as good. 

That said, even two packing cubes can make a big difference in keeping your bag organized, so if you have the cash to spare, it's worth giving them a shot.

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OK, so what's the best way to pack my clothes?

A mix of all three! Before this experiment I was firmly on Team Folded. Now, I'm a convert. By combining folding, rolling and using packing cubes, you get the best of all worlds.

  • Folding button-downs, jeans, formal dresses and dress pants allows you to prevent wrinkles.
  • Rolling the rest of your clothes helps you make the most of the gaps in your suitcase that folding can leave. Plus, it lets you pack more.
  • Packing cubes help you stay organized, and you can use either method above to prep your clothes before putting them in a cube. I found that rolled clothes in a packing cube takes up the least amount of suitcase space.