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man sitting on floor at airport with open luggage lost item
Chanyanuch Wannasinlapin/Shutterstock

The 5 Worst Packing Problems and How to Solve Them

When it comes to packing, a small mistake like putting a seemingly innocuous but prohibited item (like a too-large bottle of shampoo) in your carry-on bag can snowball into a messy chain of events. Fortunately, travelers faced with such packing problems have options. Whether you’re dealing with a confiscated item in the security line, a surplus of souvenirs, a nasty spill, or a broken bag, a bit of packing emergency know-how can mean the difference between a disaster and a worry-free getaway. Here are tips on creatively problem-solving some of the most common travel packing problems.

Packing Problem #1: Airport Security Confiscates Your Prized Possession

A TSA agent searches luggage at an airport.
Carolina K. Smith MD/Shutterstock

If a security officer finds your five-ounce bottle of designer perfume and removes it from your carry-on bag, is it lost forever? Not necessarily.

I don’t recommend arguing with a TSA officer over something easily replaceable such as a jumbo-size tube of toothpaste, but if they confiscate something that has value to you, politely ask if you can take the item away from the checkpoint. If you’re lucky and the officer says yes, here are your options:

  • If you’re certain you have plenty of time before your flight takes off, you can go back to your airline’s check-in counter and either check your carry-on bag or ask to have the prohibited item placed in your checked luggage. Keep in mind that you will have to wait in line at the check-in counter and at the security checkpoint all over again, so you may need an extra hour or two before your flight is scheduled to depart. There is no guarantee that the airline staff will be able to help you out, so don’t return to the check-in counter unless you have time to spare; otherwise, you may risk missing your flight for nothing.
  • If you haven’t checked a bag and you drove to the airport, take your item to the parking lot and place it in your car. Again, be very aware of how much time you have, especially if you’ve parked in a lot that is a lengthy walk or ride away from the airport. You will have to wait in the security line all over again.
  • Did someone drop you off at the airport? If he or she is a very good friend (or someone who owes you a favor), give that person a call and ask them to turn the car around. Promise to bring your helpful friend a souvenir from your trip.

Packing Problem #2: Too Many Souvenirs

Woman traveler choose souvenirs in the market at Ubud in Bali, Indonesia
Elizaveta Galitckaia/Shutterstock

Many travelers forget to save a little extra space in their suitcase for souvenirs. Others only travel with a carry-on, which means that some souvenirs (think liquid toiletries, jams, or spirits) may be prohibited past the airport security checkpoint. With no room in your bag for anything larger than a postcard of Tuscany and only a carry-on in which to cart two weeks’ worth of clothing, how do you squeeze in those bottles of pricey Italian Brunello di Montalcino you picked up while wine tasting in Tuscany?

Many travelers ship souvenirs back home—especially large or fragile things like handmade Moroccan rugs or Waterford crystal. A reputable shop that caters largely to tourists (and sells big and expensive items like furniture) will likely ship your goods back home right from the store. However, without shipping insurance or a tracking number, you have little control over the fate of your purchase.

A second option is to mail the item yourself. I recommend using major international shipping companies like UPS and FedEx as opposed to a local post office because overseas postal services may be unreliable and/or very slow. Be sure to get your shipment insured and write down a tracking number.

Your third, probably cheapest option is to pack a foldable bag that takes up little room in your suitcase. A soft duffel or zippered tote bag will work. If you end up with a mass of bulky souvenirs, you can unfold the extra bag and check it at the airport. Although you may end up paying a checked bag fee for an extra piece of luggage, this might be a more economical way to cart your souvenirs home than paying for international shipping, which is not cheap. Wrap some T-shirts or sweaters around any breakable items.

Packing Problem #3: You Left (Insert Essential Item) at Home

man sitting on floor at airport with open luggage lost item
Chanyanuch Wannasinlapin/Shutterstock

As you’re pulling up to the airport, it hits you: You’ve forgotten your cell phone charger, raincoat, guidebook, wallet, or some other item that you need on your trip. Don’t panic. Take a deep breath. Have you forgotten an item of clothing or an electronic device? It’s time to think positive and maybe even treat yourself to something new at an airport shop, or plan ahead to pick up a replacement on your travels. Or make the brave choice and go on without your favorite possession.

I probably don’t need to tell you to turn the car around the second you realize that you don’t have your wallet or passport. But if you’ve arrived at the airport with only a few hours before your flight (not enough time to get home and back), and you’re without proper identification, you have a problem. If you’re traveling domestically, you may still be able to board your flight, though you’ll need to take additional steps to get through security and there’s no guarantee of success. If you’re traveling to any international destination, there is no way you’re getting on a plane without a passport.

But if you do miss your flight, you still have a chance to save your vacation. First, go to your airline’s check-in desk and try to get on the next flight. If you’re already on your way home, pull the car over and call your airline. Airlines’ policies on missed or canceled flights vary, so you may find a sympathetic ear or you may end up paying full price for a new ticket.

Packing Problem #4: Your Luggage Breaks

Broken traveling luggage at the airport

I’ve never seen a suitcase fail in the middle of the airport, although I’ve often envisioned this scenario after stuffing my rectangular bag so tightly that it ends up in the shape of a ball. With wear, tear, and overpacking, though, broken zippers do happen, and broken suitcase zippers may or may not produce a gaping hole with your underwear hanging out. Are you no longer carrying a suitable suitcase while traveling? Here’s what you do:

Proper preparation is the best way to handle this situation; duct tape should be at the top of your must-pack list. But if you forgot your trusty tape and your bag has a gaping hole, you’re going to need to find some tape, STAT. Whether you’re at the airport or you’ve already arrived at your destination, search for a shop, find help at your airline check-in counter, talk to your hotel concierge, or even ask around to see if any fellow travelers have some duct tape to spare (someone will, trust me).

A broken bag is the perfect opportunity to use those arts-and-crafts skills you learned in grade school. Is your zipper tab broken? Hook a paper clip through what’s left of the zipper (ask any store cashier for a paper clip if you don’t have one). If the situation is dire and your bag is non-functional, ask a store employee for some plastic bags in which to pack your things until you can get to a store that sells luggage.

Packing Problem #5: Something Spills All Over Your Stuff

toiletry bag cosmetics in luggage
LightField Studios/Shutterstock

If you neglect to pack your liquid items in plastic bags, the rough-and-tumble ride from check-in counter to baggage claim may result in punctured plastic containers or broken bottles.

Is your favorite cashmere sweater slathered with costly face cream? Stay calm. Your clothes may or may not be ruined, depending on what has spilled and how long it’s had to set in. Heat sets many types of stains, so don’t dry your damaged clothes with a hair dryer or use hot water on them. If possible, bring your clothes to a professional cleaner. Or, if you’re staying at a hotel that offers laundry service, ask the staff to clean off your clothes. You may have to purchase one or two new items so that you don’t go naked while your clothes are being cleaned (reframe: it’s an excuse to shop).

Travelers who are in developing countries or places where there are no dry cleaners should roll up their sleeves and get to work. If you’ve brought along your favorite travel-size stain remover (which should be a toiletry bag staple, starting now), use it as your first step. Don’t have access to a stain remover product or detergent? First, flush the stain with cold water. Dab, don’t rub, so that the stain doesn’t spread. Dab stains with white vinegar, a great natural stain remover, or use dishwashing soap diluted with water, which effectively removes most stains (ask the hotel kitchen staff if you may borrow some vinegar or dishwashing liquid).

Before you submerge any stained item in a basin of water, press a towel against the stain to make sure that it doesn’t easily come up; if it does, it could color the water and stain more of the fabric. Dry sweaters and delicate pieces by rolling them in clean towels and then hanging them on hangers or the shower curtain bar.

Travelling? Consider some of these carry-on options:

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

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