Service member pulling a suitcase

Suitcase Survival: What to Pack During PCS Season

As PCS season descends upon the military community, I would like to offer some lessons learned about a topic not often covered when moving: living out of a suitcase for a few months. All of our previous moves have been from one state to another, so we never put too much thought into what to pack with us in our suitcases for the actual move because we knew our stuff would arrive not too long after we did. This time, we had three weeks of family visits in different climates and then an unknown amount of time before we would be reunited with our belongings in Okinawa. To complicate matters, we could only have two 70-pound suitcases smaller than 62 linear inches, and one carry on item per person, and we knew we needed to take advantage of every square inch! I highly recommend investing in the biggest lightweight suitcases you can in order to make the most of your baggage limits.

Next we needed to decide what exactly was important enough to fly over with us. Since we were traveling with a cat and dog, we had to pack supplies for them. Since the military doesn’t recognize our pets as dependents (shocking, I know!) that meant that we had to give up one suitcase for their needs. Here is the breakdown of our four suitcases. My husband and I each got one suitcase for all clothing related items. Another suitcase was solely toiletries and other non-apparel items.  Our last suitcase was dedicated exclusively to pet supplies (who knew that one small dog and cat needed so much stuff!).

What and how to pack

Pack LOTS of clothes! Seriously, pack more clothes than you think you will need.  And when you think you have too many, add more! We were without our household goods for three months, which meant that we kept wearing the same few weeks’ worth of clothes we had over and over again. By the time the rest of our clothes arrived, we felt like we had a whole new wardrobe to choose from. Also, be sure to pack a dressier outfit (and don’t forget the coordinating shoes) in case you have an event to attend or you get called for a job interview.

Consider the climate. We left my parent’s home in South Carolina in October and it was still relatively warm. We were blindsided by the frigid Seattle air when we arrived to take our flight to Japan. We ended up having to buy warm sweatshirts and could have saved money if we had just thought about it ahead of time.

Pack hangers. While on leave, it was nice to hang up our clothes so that we weren’t rummaging through our suitcases all the time. Hangars made it feel a little homier by having our clothes unpacked and neatly hung in the closet.

Love plastic storage bags. We made sure that all of our liquids, creams, and gels were safely secured in plastic zipper bags.

Remember your pet suitcase. Pack their bowls, treats, and small bags of their food at the top of the “pet suitcase” for easy retrieval. If your pet has a special toy or blanket, pack that, too. You can even find disposable litter boxes with prepackaged litter at a pet store. We bought one for each of our stops on our way to Japan.

Consider space saving bags (the travel kind that do not require a vacuum). We didn’t use them, but we know plenty of people who did. Maybe if we would have packed more clothes like we should have, we would have needed these!

Pack some fun stuff for the kids. Pack toys that they can play with in your temporary lodging room. Many people devote half of a suitcase to toys, blankets, and other familiar items for kids to have to make them feel more comfortable at their new destination.

Tips for your carry-on luggage

Baby Wipes. Keep those germs at bay

Entertainment items. Pack extra batteries for your DVD players, tablets, e-readers, etc.

A power strip. During layovers you can charge everything at once with only one open outlet.

Ear plugs and/or sleep mask. Both of these handy items will help you catch some much needed Zzzzzs.

Medications.  Always best to have these with you in case of lost luggage.

PCS documents.  From passports and birth certificates, to school records and area clearances, hand-carry these items. Have extra copies already made in case they are needed. Make sure this bag does not leave your sight (pretend it is gold).

Basic toiletries. Trust me, after flying for a while you will start to feel a little icky and will want to freshen up.

Surprise toys for kids. Many parents pack small toys to give as surprises throughout the trip to keep kids from getting bored, things like a coloring book and crayons, matchbox cars, or a new DVD to watch.

Local currency for your destination. Be sure to convert a small amount of US money into local currency at your airport before you leave.

Your service member’s uniforms. Could you imagine this getting lost with your baggage? Talk about a sinking feeling. Do whatever you need to do to carry this on the plane with you.

Immediate pet needs. Keep any little things they might need while in transit with you.

These tips are not all inclusive, but hopefully they help! And remember that it isn’t the end of the world if you forget to pack something. Everyone does!

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  • Brittany says:

    This helped immensely. We are PCS’ing back to the states from the UK in September. Thanks!

  • Serena says:

    We are going to Germany I’m worried about the many perfume and hair product bottles I have in my house that I want to take with me it’s a bin full of liquid items. How do I bring that?

  • Social Media Admins says:

    Hi Serena, you can verify items you are allowed to take with you on the TSA website here: For more travel tips you can use the Plan My Move tool from Military OneSource: