One of the biggest traveller debates just behind backpacks vs suitcases is whether or not to use packing cubes. I have only recently started using them and I admit that this was brought on by actively deciding to downsize the amount of luggage that I would take with me.
So here are the top reasons and gripes that I have with packing cubes.
Bad reasons to use Packing Cubes
First of all the main reason that people tend to opt for packing cubes is because of the additional “compression” factor and the ability to fit more stuff into a suitcase or bag. To be honest, as an expert in over-packed bags, I think that this argument is not all that strong – at least not for suitcases. If you are using a large suitcase you are more likely to reach the weight limit before you run out of space for your clothing. I have had no trouble reaching the specified 23kg and am confident that I could reach even the generous 30kg limit offered by flights such as Emirates without having to resort to packing cubes.
I am also doubtful of the amount of extra compression that you gain from having packing cubes vs the “sit on top of suitcase to zip it up” method which essentially turns your suitcase into one big compression packing cube.
Most packing cubes have extremely small zips that make me worry about compressing them too much. That said I have only ever had one packing cube failure from past it beyond the limit and to the zips credit it was the stitching alongside the zip that tore and not the zip itself that broke. However this incident dispelled the notion that you can stuff as much as you want into a packing cube and left me cautious about putting too much strain on them. In my opinion if you are going for the maximum compression you should rather be looking at vacuum bags, the ones with a one way valve that allows you to roll up your clothes and squeeze out all the extra air; or have an attachment that allows you to hook up your vacuum cleaner for the ultimate compression.
Getting round carry on restrictions
But are they useful for when you are travelling with only carry on? Well, thanks to my electronics, I usually hit the increasingly meagre 6 or 7kgs allowed on most budget airlines without needing packing cubes (Luckily I am not often asked to weigh my hand-luggage). But they do offer an important
Meh reasons to use packing cubes
Living out of your bag
For me packing cubes are more about organisation, but I am not talking about having all your shirts in one cube and underwear in another. Though my clothing is generally roughly segregated due to simplicity of keeping track of items as I pack, I always have socks and underwear stuffed into the small spaces left in any of the cubes and once I arrive and clothes start getting unpacked any organization quickly all falls to pieces. (There are people that have had success with this though and the Eagle Creek Packing Cubes have a compartment to separate clean and dirty clothing which is a must if you are going to attempt to keep everything in cubes for the duration of the trip).
I roll my shirts and having them together in a packing cube does generally keep them a bit more wrinkle free than loose in a suitcase, however there are better alternatives such as packing folders which I use for button up shirts or chinos that are more prone to wrinkling and which I would highly recommend. I am particularly fond of the Eagle Creek Pack-It Spector that is made out of the same sort of nylon material as a tent and is extremely light and thin while doing a great job.
Good reasons to use packing cubes
Breezing through security and customs
But for me the main reason to use packing cubes is to be able to go through airport security and be able to open your carryon bag to remove your laptop and toiletries without having your underwear thrown all over the place or have to seek a security guard or fellow passenger to sit on your bag while you zip it closed again.
Keeping clothes separate from your partners
They are also useful for when you are travelling with a partner. Being the
cheapskates savvy travellers that we are, we will often check in one bag between the two of us and having packing cubes helps to keep our stuff separate.
A last bit of advice, stick to half cubes. Having two half sized cubes gives much more versatility than having a single full size cube, especially as you start yo accumulate dirty clothes and want to keep them separate.