Packing for travel when you have ADHD is often achieved by three less-than-ideal methods. The first involves throwing everything in a suitcase a few hours before departure and praying to the travel gods that you have packed at least a few useful items (10 bikinis and zero thermals for a ski trip, anyone?). The second way involves meticulous anxiety-fuelled overpacking to cover every possible eventuality (hello heavy luggage charge). The final is avoiding all travel due to the logistical stress of packing. Over the years, I’ve resorted to each of these different methods.
Several issues cause travel to be particularly stressful for people with ADHD – such as struggling with executive function, time blindness and working memory. It might seem like common sense to neurotypical people, but seemingly simple tasks can require more deliberate thought and strategic planning for those who aren’t. Below, find my top tips to help other people with ADHD pack for their travels – and I’ve enlisted some ADHD experts for their hacks too.
Get ahead on the prep
One way I alleviate any packing-related anxiety is to sort out as much as possible at least two weeks before I travel, bar the actual packing itself. Often that includes creating my itinerary, booking any vaccinations I might need, sorting out travel money (usually added to a Revolut card on an app) and double checking my travel insurance is in date (I keep mine on auto renewal for ease). Then I buy anything specific I might need for the trip.
It’s also the time to tick anything off your list that you might forget if you’re in a hurry, and things that could help you in that last-minute rush before you travel. Download any apps you may need (not everywhere uses Uber for example), make sure your suitcase has the correct address tags (or try AirTags, which are trackable via your phone), download TV shows to watch on long flights and make any arrangements for any dependents while you’re gone (children, animals and even plants).
You might need to check some ADHD-specific things before you fly in this crucial two-week bracket. First, if you are taking ADHD medication, check the official website for the country you’re travelling to – often, they are classed as controlled drugs, so you might need paperwork from your doctor or sealed prescriptions. I always keep a letter from my doctor with details of my diagnosis on hand, too. Keep a hard copy of this and anything else you need in a folder in your hand luggage. “I keep all essential travel documents together in a wallet in a specific drawer throughout the year, so my ESTA, passport, etc., are always together and in the same place,” says Grace Timothy, host of the podcast Is It My ADHD?
Pick a packing method to avoid overwhelm
“When packing, the first challenge for people with ADHD is having too many options,” explains Steph Camilleri, coach and founder of The ADHD Advocate. “ADHD is not so much a deficit of attention as it is a surplus of attention, which can lead to feeling overwhelmed and crippled by choice – known as decision fatigue.”
Dr James Brown, biomedical scientist, co-founder of charity ADHDadultUK and co-host of The ADHD Adults Podcast, explains that making physical lists is crucial for mitigating overwhelm. “There is no level of detail too small for a packing list. Even taping your list to the suitcase and ticking items off as you put them in can help, as we can easily grab something to pack, put it down somewhere and forget we haven’t packed it.”
If making a packing list sounds daunting, it could also be worth “body doubling”, an essential strategy for people with ADHD. “Body doubling is when you pack or make a packing list with someone else, meaning another person can double check you have what you need,” Dr Brown adds.
I find tear-off packing lists invaluable to my travelling process, whether I’m going away for one night or weeks. They allow me to check off items as I pack them, and I scribble down anything else I might need. Grace Timothy uses this clever hack for travel packing: “First, I create two planning sessions because I know I could get overwhelmed or bored if I do it all in one go. I’ll have snacks and water to hand and some overly familiar music playing so I don’t get distracted. The first session is just planning and making lists; I run through each day in my head to cover all the toiletries, clothes, shoes – anything I might need. The second session is a few days before a trip, where I put everything on my bed and then pack it. That gives me time to wash anything that needs it – and use reminders on my phone so I don’t forget anything I use right up to departure.”
Whatever method you pick, the takeaway is that you need a packing game plan. This packing list has everything you could ever need on a trip and is a great tool to help you make sure you don’t forget anything.
“Just don’t leave packing to the last minute,” Steph says. “Start at least one clear day before. Pack what you have and note what you still need to pack.” But be wary of packing too early. I’ve learned that it’s easy to start packing a week before and then forget what you’ve packed. A day or two before you travel is ideal.
Choose the right luggage
When it comes to what to pack your wares in: the two requisites for me are good quality and easily identifiable. I’m a fan of Rimowa because their repair service is easy to use, they’re hard-wearing and come in bright colours. Attaching some brightly coloured tags can help identify your suitcase on the carousel to avoid walking off with the wrong case (for the record, I only made it as far as the taxi the last time I did this.) As I mentioned above, you should ideally invest in tracking your luggage. I’ve left my suitcase at various places in airports three times (...in the last year) so it’s worth investing to save yourself the stress.
Taking a waterproof backpack gives you space to be hands-free, and it can work as a travel bag, day bag and gym bag, too – multitasking items are always a win. A smaller handbag means your travel documents are within easy reach, and it can double up as a day or evening bag when you arrive at your destination. If I have anything loose, like bottles or scarves, I tend to karabiner them onto my backpack if there’s no space.
Pack like a pro
After years of packing countless outfits, I’ve learnt that I can always make do with less, which eases decision fatigue. One daytime outfit can work for two-three days, and I’ll only take a maximum of three evening outfits, even if I’m away for a couple of weeks. Then it’s a case of switching up my hair, make-up and accessories to make them work differently. Just make sure you try on the outfits before you pack so you can see what you need to accessorise accordingly. You could even take photos of outfits to reduce overwhelm at your destination.
It’s worth investing in packing cubes or bags to help section out what you’re taking. “I use them to zip away dirty clothes once worn – I can dump that pile into the laundry as soon as I’m home, cutting down my unpacking time. Or I’ll pack a carrier bag so I can separate as I go,” says Grace.
Create your own chill kit
However you’re travelling, it’s worth taking a relaxation kit with you that covers your basic comfort and self-care needs. I tend to sleep through a flight, use the time for beauty treatments or download documentaries and travel TV shows about the destination I’m visiting. “For the onboard experience, it comes down to what you find rewarding; for some, it’s music; for others, it’s specific games or fidget toys. The biggest tip I can give is to make sure you have a way to charge your phone for a long haul if your particular source of reward is phone-based as if you run out of battery, it will be a long and tortuous flight,” advises James.
It’s worth planning how you want to use this time – relaxing can be tricky with ADHD brains that are constantly pacing, so preparing for the journey can help. Part of this might include working out how to deal with sensory issues. If you want to sleep, then eye masks and essential oils might help, or use earplugs to muffle noise if you’re reading.
Always unpack when you get home
Travel is taxing for anyone, let alone if you’re neurodivergent, so holidays can mean hangovers – and not just the alcoholic variety. ADHDers can get “people hangovers”, a type of exhaustion from constant interactions with people, and “holiday hangovers” from overstimulation and sensory overwhelm. Give yourself an extra day to re-adjust after a trip if you can, and make sure you have everything you need for when you get back before you go on your trip, like food in the freezer.
And so to my final tip: empty your suitcase as soon as possible. For me, this annoying travel admin is resolutely the worst part of coming home, but I know that if I don’t do it within a 24-hour timeframe, I’ll have weeks of using the suitcase as a dumping ground or “floordrobe” that I will dip in and out of. Give yourself an unflinchingly hard deadline for unpacking to put everything back in its place.