The last two years have been a whirlwind of travel that has taken me from the stark terrain of Afghanistan to the city lights of Toronto with numerous stops in between. And the one thing all those trips have in common is the packing.

Packing is not my favorite pastime, but I’ve gotten pretty good at it. So good in fact that on a recent trip to Las Vegas, a friend — while gazing at luggage that was hardly carry-on size — asked me how I managed to get everything into my one small tote.

There are a few simple rules I live by and they haven’t failed me yet — even when I showed up for a business trip in Florida woefully unprepared for cold weather and had to make a mad dash to a few of the local Goodwills and a Walmart for warmer clothes.

RULE NO. 1: Checking bags is not an option.

Is there anything more annoying than airlines and their baggage fees? Some are now going so far as to charge for carry-on bags over a certain size and curbside check-in. My mantra is, “I will not check a bag. I will not check a bag. I will not check a bag.” Once you’ve decided that everything must fit in that little overhead compartment above your seat, you are ready to pack.

RULE NO. 2: Take only what you need.

If you’re driving, this doesn’t matter so much, but I really hate overpacking. Do you really need five pairs of shoes, or will two work? Why take up valuable real estate in your bag, or worse, risk having to check a bag, because you think you might wear those shoes. Don’t do it. I’ve been known to overpack my cosmetics bag thinking I’ll do a special face for a night out — I’ve learned this is a trap and have seriously streamlined the makeup I take.

RULE NO. 3: Travel size everything.

That quart-size Ziploc bag can hold a lot if you pack only travel-size products. Even if you use fancy face and hair products, higher-end retailers like Sephora and Ulta typically sell what you need. Taxicab confession: I almost always bring home the bath products from hotels to stock my travel-size products drawer. My dentist also gives away travel-size toothpaste, so I’ve been stockpiling that for years.

RULE NO. 4: Mix and match.

When it comes to packing, I usually lay out outfits that go together then make sure that, if I’m in the mood, everything can be mixed up to create entirely different outfits. Jeans go from day to night by changing tops. A dress can be dressed up or down as long as it has a flattering shape and doesn’t require ironing. Jazz up an outfit with accessories, which you can bring a lot of without taking up too much space.

RULE NO. 5: Bring a jacket.

Airports and planes are notorious for being chilly. Bring a cardigan or jacket, and if you don’t actually need to wear it, it makes a good travel pillow.

RULE NO. 6: Pack strategically.

For me, packing is like a game of Tetris. Every piece has its place and the more things fit together, the less likely you are to end up with footprints from shoes, or worse, hair product and toothpaste on your clothes.

I prefer shoes in first, soles down or touching other shoes. Layer with makeup bag, accessories bag and night clothes. Follow with casual, walking-around clothes and finally, going-out wear. Just like that you’re packed and ready to go!

Hopefully this helps lighten the load on your next trip.

BONUS TIP: Get through security quickly.

I usually wear a jersey dress or leggings and a tank top to the airport because you usually have to get nearly naked to go through security these days. Take off your jacket or cardigan before going through the scanner. Don’t wear any kind of metal jewelry or belt that will get you an automatic repeat trip through the scanner. Keep your plastic baggy of travel-size goodies in your hand so you don’t waste time taking it out of your bag. And if you’re bringing your laptop, go ahead and slip it out of its case too. I prefer slip-on shoes and toe socks because I want to take my shoes off quickly and I don’t really care for my bare feet touching the floor.