Pack smarter: How to keep your travel documents and luggage organized


Only my closest friends know that I'm not the most organized traveler. It's a secret I've managed to hide pretty well. But when I tried to check into a hotel in Cape Town, South Africa, recently, the truth came out.

I unsnapped my passport holder and a tsunami of airline ticket stubs, grocery store receipts, and COVID-19 test results spilled onto the counter. The scraps of paper betrayed the length of my trip, from a Qatar Airlines boarding pass to an expired PCR test result from Lisbon.

"Take your time," a receptionist at the SunSquare Cape Town Gardens Hotel encouraged me as I fumbled for my passport. But that only made matters worse. The passport was stuck between slips of paper, and the hotel clerk's reassurances just made me spin my wheels.

I know, I know. I should have been ready with my ID. I should have filed away those receipts weeks ago.

How do you keep all your stuff organized when you travel? That question is harder than ever to answer because travel has changed since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Now you have to juggle your ID or passport with your boarding pass and COVID-19 paperwork, including your vaccine documentation and PCR or antigen test if they're still required.

It's no small task. I've seen passengers approach an airline ticket counter with stacks of papers. They don't seem to know which end is up. To make matters worse, many hotel and airline workers are relatively new and aren't always sure what they're reading or what they should be checking. It's chaos.

"Travelers have to prepare and pack even more carefully before their trip," says Rajeev Shrivastava, CEO of, a global travel insurance marketplace. "It can be easy to forget things when you're packing your carry-on with everything you’ll need for the flight, updating your travel documents, and checking the weather and COVID alerts for your destination."

Travel with the right carry-on luggage

To get organized, you need the right luggage. Frequent traveler Mia Clarke prefers any travel-friendly carry-on bag or backpack. Make sure it has a zippered front pocket.

"This will ensure that you have the flexibility to access your toiletries, medications and other items easily," says Clarke, who founded a company that manufactures power inverters. "Keep some of your toiletries, like toothpaste or toothbrushes, a water bottle, and a travel-friendly hand sanitizer in the side pocket of your bag so that you always have these items close at hand."

I'm partial to a backpack because generally, no one will hassle you about it on a plane, even on one of those deep-discount airlines where they charge you for carry-on luggage.

Use packing cubes

Packing cubes for different types of items (clothes, shoes, electronics, etc.) let you organize your suitcase and get right to the thing you need.

That's what organizational expert Kate Hart does before she travels. She likes packing cubes, which allow her to organize clothes, wires and electronics in separate compartments.

"For example, have toiletries in one place, warmer wear or cardigans in another, towels in the third cube – you get the idea," says Hart, a manager for a U.K.-based relocation service.

You can take the modular concept a step further. Modular luggage allows you to stack a backpack or duffel bag on top of your roll-aboard. That allows you to roll your luggage anywhere, except maybe on cobblestone roads. If you can stack your luggage and use packing cubes, you are well on your way to being more organized.

How do you keep all your stuff organized when you travel? That question is harder than ever to answer because travel has changed since the beginning of the pandemic.

Make a checklist and use it

"Prepping for a trip requires tracking a huge amount of information," says Chris Emery, editor of, a guide to vehicle-based adventure travel. "A checklist will keep you organized when things get hectic."

The checklist should contain a list of essential items. Take photos of your luggage and its contents, too, just in case you have to file a travel insurance claim.

Organizational experts like Emery refer back to their list to make sure they didn't forget to pack something – or that they didn't leave something behind when they're returning home.

Pay attention to the details

Here's one detail you'll want to keep handy: your passport number. They'll ask for it again and again when you're traveling abroad. I've almost memorized mine. If you can't do that, then keep it somewhere on your phone.

"You need your passport number for all the forms, and it's easier and quicker to get it off your phone than constantly digging it out of its safe storage place," says Robin Cline, founder of Cline & Co. Travel Consulting. "It reduces the chance of misplacing your passport too."

Here's something else you probably need to memorize: your phone number. I know, it sounds silly, but you never call yourself. Almost every form requires that you put your phone number on it. Don't forget the "+1" country code if you're abroad; otherwise, calls and texts will never get through to you.

Make digital copies of important documents

"Have documents accessible both on paper and digitally," says Annie Sisson, travel consultant for indie travelers and founder of Into the Bold. "Create a file folder on your phone and keep the PDF versions of your documents there."

You may never need the document. But if you can't retrieve your passports for some reason, your hotel or cruise line might accept a photo emailed to them – it has happened to me.

Digital backups are also important in case you lose your passport. Note: Frequent travelers who need to apply for visas should consider getting a duplicate U.S. passport.

Bob Bacheler, managing director of the medical transportation company Flying Angels, also recommends a backup wallet with a government-issued photo ID such as a Global Entry card, passport card or other identification the TSA will accept to board a flight.

"If you have to replace your passport, it's far easier if you can present a copy of the passport and a valid, government-issued ID," he says.

Yeah, there's an app for that

Some travel advisers use an online spreadsheet, shared calendar or a program called Axus to create and share itineraries. If you're designing your own trip, you can also download TripIt, an itinerary management app that organizes all of your travel bookings in one place.

Taryn White, chief travel officer for The Trip Wish List, likes TripIt because it also contains public health and safety advisories, cancellation policies, new travel guidelines and country-specific travel information.

"The document uploads are incredibly useful for storing online images of your vaccination cards, mobile QR Codes, passport copies, and photos of your luggage," she adds.

I've used TripIt and Axus and prefer the flexibility of an online calendar. But to each their own.

Less is more

Notice a theme here? The pros will tell you to consolidate all of your belongings into a carry-on, create a simple list, back all your important papers up online, and pay attention to the details.

It boils down to this simple advice: Less is more. If you want to stay organized, lose some of the baggage before you leave.

Christopher Elliott is the chief advocacy officer for Elliott Advocacy. Email him at [email protected] or get help with any consumer problem by contacting him at This story originally appeared in USA Today.

© 2022 Christopher Elliott


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