How to Pack a Suit in a Carry On

Bennett Collins

If you’re like me, you’re at the point in life where weddings are becoming the newest thing taking up my weekends, and business is part of my day to day life. The question of how to present myself in formal settings, as though my life is totally together, is getting louder in my head. 

This gets even more complicated when travel is involved. 

Getting a suit from A to B without needing a professional cleaning and pressing on the other end is important, and the struggle is real. For one thing, all that dry cleaning is time consuming and expensive, especially if you’re only traveling for a short period and can’t afford to wait. For another, it’s a lot of unnecessary effort.

Believe it or not, it is possible to pack a suit in a carry on. There’s no sorcery involved, just packing a suit the right way and having the right bag to get the job done. 

From the bag’s end of things, this means having a large enough bag. The Outbreaker Backpack is large enough to pack a dress shirt, suit, shoes, and more for a business or wedding weekend trip—without wrinkles, dry cleaning, or a bulky garment bag.

From my own research, there are plenty of videos and how-to graphics out there that show ways to pack a full suit wrinkle-free, and there are is a clear consensus around best practices. For overstressed travelers, I have good news—you don’t need to tie yourself in knots to do it right.

Before we begin, there is one overarching piece of advice. Whatever you do, do not overpack your carry on when you’re trying to preserve the wrinkle-less integrity of your jacket, pants, dress shirt, and shoes. 

Even if you fold and pack everything correctly, if any portion of the suit is crushed under pressure for long durations of time, wrinkles, collapsed collars, and crushed shoes will be the outcome. Compartmentalized packing like what you find in Tortuga backpacks will help, but even compartments won’t protect squished fabric. 

Don’t take the risk. Leave the extras at home when you have to travel with a suit. 

Disclaimer: The following advice is for when you do not have time to iron, steam, or dry clean any items in your suit. 

How to Pack Suit Jacket and Pants

There are folks out there who advocate wearing your jacket on the plane if you don’t have room in your carry on. It may make you the sharpest dresser on the plane, but it will still result in small wrinkles. 

Even if you take your jacket off and fold it correctly, laying it on top in the overhead bin can still turn a pristine folded jacket into a rumpled mess. Never mind the risk of someone else’s food-related clumsiness on a plane. 

And while a garment bag might get along well with the flat surface inside the overhead compartment at first, it’s all but an open invitation for your seat-mate to lay their bag on top of it. 

If you want to avoid arriving wrinkled, the best practice is to pack your suit properly in your carry on bag, not to wear parts of it in transit. That way, the suit is always protected in your bag. 

There are two ways to pack your suit and pants to minimize wrinkles. They’re both dependent on the space in your carry on. Again, do not overpack your bag when you have to travel with a suit.

The Fold Method

The fold method is the most popular approach and has been demonstrated to work time and time again, and has been advocated everywhere from GQ to Brooks Brothers. 

The fold method is simple. Methodically fold your suit coat’s shoulders into each other, with the lining facing outward, to retain the structural integrity of the suit. Then, fold the suit coat into the pants to avoid horizontal creasing of the pants.

This method is best for those with little space in their carry on, or those who want to avoid the use of plastic as described below. It will not cancel out an overstuffed suitcase, but it does allow you to make strategic use of the space you have.

This method is best for those with little space in their carry on, or those who want to avoid the use of plastic as described below. It will not cancel out an overstuffed suitcase, but it does allow you to make strategic use of the space you have.

The Dry Cleaner Bag Method

If you don’t have much else to pack in your carry on, or you’re willing to sacrifice space for a nearly wrinkle-free suit coat and pants, the dry cleaner bag method is the simplest and most efficient method.

Very simply, keep your suit coat and pants in the plastic dry-cleaner bag, hung on a hanger, and fold the suit in half horizontally. This method will keep your folded jacket protected in your suitcase rather than leaving it unprotected in the overhead compartment. 

On the other hand, using a dry cleaning bag is not an efficient use of space. If you have to travel for a longer period and carry more than just your suit, the fold method is the better option.

How to Pack a Dress Shirt 

The shirt is arguably the trickiest thing to pack. If you need extra help, we have a whole separate article on how to do this well. To distill this article into its main points:

  • Fold—do not roll
  • Lay the shirt on a flat surface and fold arms into the middle, halfway up the sleeves
  • Fold in each side 3 in. and then fold the shirt in half from the bottom once, and again for a tighter fold 
  • Shirts made of wrinkle-resistant fabric are better than non-iron materials 

Bonus tip #1: Personally, I take out the collar bones (the plastic/metal pieces that go into the collar wings) to avoid bending them. 

Bonus tip #2: If you’re packing more than one shirt, layer them facing opposite directions.

How to Pack a Waistcoat and Cumberbund

There’s a time and a place for a three-piece suit, just as there are occasions that demand a cumberbund. Those are typically the occasions when packing a suit carries even more stress, since they’re more formal than other business-related, suit-worthy occasions. 

The good news is that neither of these items is complicated to pack. For the waistcoat, make a fold along the vertical center back seam and then a horizontal fold (just two folds altogether).

For a cummerbund, just roll it instead of folding it and stick it in a shoe.

How to Pack Dress Shoes

Truthfully, I think packing dress shoes is a risky thing to do and these are the only item of your suit outfit that I would wear on the plane. Pack your casual shoes instead. That way, you know your shoes will be in good condition when you land. Plus, cleaning your shoes is much easier than cleaning a full suit. 

If you’re going to pack your dress shoes, make sure they’re stuffed so they don’t collapse and crease. Stuffing them with dress socks, or even rolled-up ties or your cumberbund, would be better than nothing.

How to Pack Ties, Socks, Belts, and Accessories

Picture the horror of a rumpled tie. It’s sloppy, it’s in poor taste, and it turns a good tie into an embarrassment. Don’t let travel be the reason your accessories ruin your professional look.

The good news is that packing these items is pretty straightforward. All you have to do is roll your neckties, bow ties, and belts (depending on your taste in neckwear, of course). Pack your pre-folded bow ties in a spacious part of the bag. Roll or fold your socks, as you wish. No one will look as closely at your socks, but still. 

Keep your pocket square, cufflinks, suspenders, and any other accessories to your suit in a separate bag that keeps them together and easy to access. Tortuga backpacks in the front compartment have handy pockets that can be useful for this as well.

TL:DR

It’s really important not to cram a suit into an overpacked bag if you’re trying to avoid wrinkles and you don’t have time to get the suit dry cleaned or steamed.

  • Do not wear parts of your suit on the plane, except your shoes, to avoid small and large wrinkles.
  • Fold the suit coat and pants, together, with the lining facing out.
  • Or, keep the coat and pants hung on a hanger in a dry cleaner’s bag and make a single horizontal fold
  • Roll ties, cummerbunds, and socks
  • Vertically fold waistcoats along the seam and then make a single horizontal fold
  • Keep cufflinks, suspenders, and folded pocket squares in a small bag to make life easier

Folding dress shirts can be tricky. Luckily, we’ve written an entire article about how to do this. 

 

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