Managing Your Stuff When You Travel

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Air travel is back. For many of us, that means facing the thrill—and anxiety—of our first flight in a while.

So what exactly does a waning-COVID travel landscape look like? With people all over the vaccine spectrum and lots of opinions on what is safe or safer … how do we get back out in the world without feeling too uncomfortable or vulnerable?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and while there are probably a ton of travel sites that will offer you info about traveling itself (my friend Pauline Frommer’s site for one), here are my top 3 essential tips for managing you and your stuff while traveling.


We’ve already talked about the importance of making contingency plans in the workplace, especially if you have COVID-related anxiety.

On an airplane, unlike in your office, you’re dealing with even more unknowns. Most—if not all—of your fellow passengers will be strangers.

No matter what, you’ll be elbow-to-elbow with neighboring passengers after a year plus of social distancing—even after standing 6 feet apart only minutes before, waiting to board. 

Yes, the new travel landscape is full of contradictions, which is why it’s that much more important to go into it with a strategy.

This is yet another opportunity to put The Organizational Triangle® to work for you.

If you’re not familiar, The Organizational Triangle® is at the core of everything I teach when it comes to getting—and staying—organized. 

Here’s a high-level overview of the three corners of the triangle:

  1. One Home for Everything
  2. Like With Like
  3. Something In, Something Out

To unpack that a bit (pun intended) …

One Home for Everything

This means that everything you own—or in the case of travel, everything you carry with you—will only ever be in one of two places: in your hand, being used, or in a specific spot in one piece of luggage. Not shoved into any pocket, or randomly dropped into your luggage, but in its traveling “home” while you’re on the road.

I load my bookbag the same way for every trip and it has saved me countless frantic minutes of rummaging through every pocket and corner of the bag trying to find X,Y or Z thing, especially standing on a jetway or waiting at the gate.

I have one pocket dedicated just to technology. So my noise cancelling headphones, my phone and computer chargers, and any adaptors all live here.

Another pocket contains all my personal items like toothbrush and toothpaste, floss, bandaids, a travel sewing kit, and my eye mask for those long flights when I want it really dark. THIS is the pocket where my face mask and other PPE will also live.

The main pocket in the bag contains my laptop, my journal and any other books I may have brought with me. It also is where I store snacks and my large water bottle. 

My ID lives in my wallet which is always in my right front pocket. If I’m traveling internationally, I will keep my passport in that pocket too, until I get to my seat on the plane and then it goes in a recessed hidden pocket in my bag until I’m ready to go through Customs again.

I have all the major airline apps on my smart phone so my ticket and boarding pass are always there and I don’t need to worry about losing the piece of paper that could mean the difference between boarding the plane or staying behind.

Like With Like

As you can see, not only does everything have a home in my bag—I’ve also created simple zones so like items can be grouped together. 

I specifically chose this LLBean bag because of its many pockets which allow me to zone my stuff so specifically. 

Whichever bag you keep on the plane with you should be zoned similarly. Decide where you will store all of your PPE. If you are overly cautious, you can keep a backup mask in a separate bag as an insurance policy.

Like me, your snacks and water should all be together, too. Your in-flight entertainment should all be together—whether thats a book of Suduko or a novel or some piece of tech you’re going to game or stream audio or video on.

If you still use a paper boarding pass, that should be handy and with your ID. You get the idea.

The point in planning all of this out ahead of time is so that you NEVER have to wonder which pocket something is in or if you are not paying attention, just shoving something essential like your boarding pass or passport “somewhere” in a bag, only to waste time and possibly raise your bloodpressure scrambling to find it when you need it.

Something In, Something Out

While this applies best at home, the idea of reaching “stuff equilibrium,” or having enough of everything that serves you and nothing that doesn’t, still serves to keep you from schlepping more crap on the road than you need … just in case.

When your bag is packed with everything that you need to have with you on the plane, you’re done. Hopefully that means that it still zips closed and will fit either under the seat in front of you or in the overhead bin.

If you pick up a new book at the airport bookstore, that must be because you are ready to retire the one you left the house with.

Use your best judgment when it comes to this rule, but the important part is this: don’t just keep adding things until you overload your bag and it’s not only too heavy, but more importantly, it’s so tightly packed that you can no longer easily access anything without unpacking or digging around aimlessly.


For your first few flights, minimalism is probably not your best choiceressentialism is.

Travel in today’s COVID-aware environment still has all the requirements of pre-COVID times: wallet, ID, boarding pass, phone.

Plus, we’re now carrying new things that keep us and everyone around us safe: at least one mask, sanitizing wipes, hand sanitizer, and other PPE.

So the rules for staying organized during travel haven’t really changed, but the stuff we’re carrying with us has.

Your mask and sanitizer are only as useful as your ability to find them in a critical moment, so don’t just shove everything into the gaping maw of your bag and hope for the best—especially if you’re trying to do that while standing in a queue or get through security and feeling at all anxious. As soon as you stop paying attention to where you put things, that’s when you start to undermine your sense of security.

Here are my best tips for putting your travel strategy to good use when it matters most:

  • Identify pocks as the “travel home” for things. Pick a PPE pocket, a technology pocket, an entertainment/work pocket, and so on. Then, make sure you load them in order of frequency of use, from least to most, like a stuff lasagna. The key is that things aren’t so tight that you can’t find the critical items in a given space.
  • Do as much as possible ahead of time. Do you need to renew your TSA Pre-Check after spending a year grounded? Can you check in before you even get to the airport, and download an electronic boarding pass? Everything you do before ever setting foot in an airport minimizes your in-person interactions, so plan ahead and get as much done in advance as you can.
  • Bring only what you need. Staying organized is a lot easier when you can open a pocket without having items scatter everywhere because you’ve over-packed your bag. If you’re concerned, bring everything you need with you so you minimize touch points. Pack your own water bottle, snacks, sanitizer, earbuds, and everything else you’ll need during and after travel. Use an electronic boarding pass whenever you can.


Remember that your fellow passengers are humans, too—not just potential carriers of disease.

Whatever you decide to bring, don’t forget your sense of humanity and compassion, and certainly don’t be THAT PERSON elbowing others out of the way. 

Even if you’re not overly concerned about COVID, respect that other people are, and act accordingly.

If you ARE anxious, don’t assume that everyone else is a monster who’s out to endanger your health.

Give people their space. Wear a mask. Don’t push.

You know… all that good advice your kindergarten teacher gave you.


Travel might be a source of anxiety now in a way that it wasn’t in the “before times,” but the good news is, it doesn’t need to be complicated.

So keep it simple. 

Have a strategy, and don’t rush out the door the day of travel. Even if you’re not a planner by nature, pack at least a day ahead of time for your first trip so that you’re not rushed. You don’t want to create needless stress by forgetting something critical, like your mask.

Sure you can pick one up on your way, but do you really need the added stress? 

Then, when packing your carryon bag, create a home for each category of your essentials. Pack all of your PPE and on-board items ahead of time. Make sure they all fit in your bag, and make sure that where the assigned home for each category makes sense to you and is easily accessible.

Finally, stay human. We’re all still in this thing together, and it’s helpful to keep that in mind now so you can remember it when things get crowded or stressful. If you thought flight delays and gate changes were hectic before, imagine what a nightmare that could be if you’re already on edge from “all the people.”

With a little preparation and a few deep breaths, you can easily navigate the new normal of traveling and actually have fun.



  • Andrew Mellen

    Andrew Mellen has been called “The Most Organized Man in America”. His message is simple: Get rid of clutter and everything opens up. Everything means everything—your workspace, your home, your time and your life. Without clutter to distract you, you will finally have free time for what matters. One of the pioneers of professional organizing, Andrew travels the world speaking and teaching. He also works with individuals, and global brands including the New York Mets, Genentech, American Express, Time, Inc. and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He is passionate about organization, sustainability, and mindfulness, and lives by his motto: More love, less stuff! Find out how Andrew’s expertise, compassion and sense of humor can help change your life and your relationship with stuff today.

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