The Traveler’s Conundrum: Unpack or Not Unpack?

For frequent travelers, it’s a constant consideration: Is it worth unpacking your suitcase while on the road, only to pack it up again? Or maybe it’s not a question that’s considered, but a deeply ingrained habit akin to always checking a bag, or preferring the window over the aisle seat or setting aside certain outfits for certain travel days.

I started thinking about unpacking this fall, in the middle of a two-month trip through Turkey and Georgia. A dedicated live-out-of-my-suitcase traveler, I found myself anticipating, no, craving, the moment when I’d arrive in Tbilisi, where my husband and I would be staying for a couple of weeks. I couldn’t wait to unpack. (My husband, meanwhile, stuck to his tradition and happily kept his clothes in the suitcase and neighboring piles on the floor.)

“Unpacking, literally, is a way for people to get control of their surroundings,” said Dr. Jean Kim, a psychiatrist and a professor at George Washington University who has written on travel and mental health. “When you’re traveling, the suitcase is a piece of you — it’s your life going along with you.”

A highly informal poll conducted in my social networks revealed that not only do people take very different approaches to unpacking, but they feel very strongly about their choices.

“Clear eyes, full heart, never unpack,” said the Los Angeles-based food and travel writer Jesse Friedman.

“Last year, on the advice of my mom (of course), I started immediately unpacking everything,” said Melissa Blaustein, the founder of Allied For Startups, a start-up policy association, who often visits two or three countries in as few as five days. “It’s made my hotels feel more like home and travel easier.”

Regardless of whether unpacking practices are instinctive or carefully considered, is there a way to approach it when on the road — particularly for extended stints — that’s better or worse? I talked to some experts to answer this conundrum.

Wherever you land on the unpacking spectrum, packing thoughtfully makes for an easier, more streamlined travel experience. Dan Pierson, founder of Bolt Travel, a membership-based travel company, focuses on organization and consolidation.

“All of my clothing lives in a dry bag where it’s rolled up, military style, to prevent wrinkling. I’m able to drop that bag in and out of my backpack,” he said. “Each item, like chargers and toiletries, have their own home within my backpack. That helps me keep track of everything.”

This preference for easy, semi-unpacking — removing a bag of items that live in your suitcase — lends itself well to those increasingly popular packing cubes, lightweight organizers often sold in sets with different sized cubes to fit into your suitcase (friends and acquaintances of mine have described them glowingly as “life changing”).

“I always refer to them as portable drawers,” said Indré Rockefeller, co-founder and co-chief executive of the luggage company Paravel, which sells sets of nylon packing cubes made from recycled water bottles. “Instead of needing to do that dreadful luggage dump, you can take the packing cubes out and put them in the drawers where you’re staying, or fully unpack them for longer stays.”

If the transfer from bag to dresser drawers is a step too many, making the suitcase an organized space in and of itself can be a valuable hack. Laura Wass, founder and designer of Brooklyn-based jewelry brand WXYZ, found herself seeking a suitcase with its own built-in shelves.

“I wanted something like an old-school Louis Vuitton trunk, one you can open up and have your wardrobe right there,” she said.

She found a “very good, if not perfect” solution in the form of “The Carry-On Closet” from sustainable luggage company Solgaard — the carry-on-size suitcase has built-in shelving that can be compressed for transit, extended while stopped or removed entirely if not needed.

Ms. Wass, who has been on the road since May and also writes a blog called Passportability, has become, “kind of obsessed with creating the perfect travel tool kit. It makes so much sense to streamline, even if you’re unpacking while traveling,” she said. “It gives you the flexibility to feel like you’re at home.”

This feeling of “home” might be the deciding factor in whether unpacking, or not, is be the right solution for you.

“It’s almost a kind of territorial marking,” Dr. Kim said. “What you want to look out for is anything that increases anxiety — feeling compulsive about unpacking, or beating yourself up for not following a certain set of rules.”

Allowing for a degree of flexibility and experimentation can help with that.

“With travel, there’s novelty built into it. It’s the perfect time to test and try different things, within reason,” she said. (Dr. Kim personally tends not to unpack, wanting to avoid the possibility of leaving things behind.)

Me? I’ve come to terms with the great peace and satisfaction I now find in fully unpacking — but only if I’m in the same place for more than three nights.

And there is, it seems, no wrong answer.

“In the scheme of things, whether you unpack or not, it’s not the end of the world,” said Dr. Kim.

Lauren Sloss is based in San Francisco and covers travel, food and music. Follow her on Instagram @lsloss and on Twitter @laurensloss.

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