Packing Cubes vs. Compression Bags: Which are Better for Travel?

Packing Cubes vs. Compression Bags: Which are Better for Travel?

While packing for a trip to Portland, I posted, "Finally trying out packing cubes!" on Instagram. In response, I got a flurry of messages from excited friends. "Packing cubes are a life changer! They’re the best!" one said.

The fanfare around my shiny, new packing cubes made me feel like I had just entered a secret, in-the-know club of savvy travelers. But it also made me realize that while I’ve traveled with compression bags and sacks, packing cubes were a different game. I’d always thought of them as similar, but packing cubes and compression bags have different pros and cons for travel.

Compression bags—also known as space bags—help you fit more stuff in your bag. Packing cubes, on the other hand, help you organize your luggage.

The real question is: which one makes the most sense for your travel needs? In this article, we break down the difference between packing cubes and compression bags to figure out which one is worth investing in for your next trip.

Packing Cubes for Travel

What are Packing Cubes?

Packing cubes are rectangular organizers made of sturdy fabric that unzip on three sides, kind of like a mini suitcase.

"Think of a packing cube as a dresser drawer in your carry oncarry on. Each cube holds similar items to make packing—and finding stuff on the road—easier,” says Tortuga writer Laura Lopuch.

Travelers primarily use cubes to pack and organize their clothes before putting the cubes inside their backpack or suitcase.

Packing cubes are usually sold as a set. The best ones will include different sizes and allow you to see what’s inside without opening them up again. When not in use, they fold flat and can be left in your bag when you aren’t traveling.

Are Packing Cubes Worth It?

Yes, packing cubes are absolutely worth it.

Here’s what makes them useful:

  • Keep your luggage organized. Use packing cubes to group your clothes (e.g. one cube for undergarments, one for socks, and one for tops) so you always know where to find things when you need them.
  • Help clothing stay neat and wrinkle-free. With packing cubes, your carefully folded or rolled clothing is less likely to come undone and get wrinkled. Rolling is the best method for packing clothes in a cube.
  • Prevent small items from getting lost. Little things, like socks, tank-tops, or your last clean pair of undies are less likely to disappear mid-trip.
  • Allow you to pack and unpack quickly. Take out just the packing cubes you need for one night without having to unpack or rummage through the rest.

How to Use Packing Cubes

Using packing cubes is straightforward. While there’s no wrong way to use them, you’ll get the most out of your packing cubes if you use them for organization.

Packing cubes can be used for toiletries, electronics, or other items, but I find small toiletry bags or cord organizers to work better for those items.

To use your packing cubes, first group your clothes together and designate a bag for each grouping, like t-shirts or underwear. Next, roll (don’t fold) your clothes so you can easily see everything in each cube. Avoid under or overfilling the cubes, just like you would avoid overfilling your backpack. If you end up with a half-empty cube, try consolidating.

Finally, put the cubes in your backpack or suitcase, and win a game of Tetris. Stack them efficiently to eliminate unusable space in your bag. For maximum organization, buy a second set of cubes and layer them on top of the first set.

The Best Packing Cubes for Travel

To avoid overpacking, buy a set of three or more packing cubes with at least one large cube and two smaller ones. While some sets come with more, carry-on-only packers will rarely need more than four.

Look for cubes made of durable fabric with strong zippers.

Tortuga Packing Cubes

Unlike most cubes, the Tortuga Packing Cubes are built to last. The zippers are made by YKK, the best in the business. The fabric is a durable sailcloth with enough structure to stand up while still being lightweight in your luggage. With the mesh lids you can see what you packed in which cube.

These cubes were designed specifically to fit in Tortuga's travel backpacks but are flexible enough to work in most bags.

Do Packing Cubes Save Space?

Packing cubes help to consolidate your clothing and keep it dense. So, yes, they do save a bit of space. But if saving space is your priority, skip ahead to the next section.

Compression Bags for Travel

What are Compression Bags?

Compression bags (aka stuff sacks aka space bags) are not the same as packing cubes. Rather than organizing the items inside your luggage, a compression bag will compress bulky items, usually clothing, to help you save space in your luggage.

Compression often—but not always—lack the organization features of packing cubes. They are also more likely to wrinkle your clothes because of the compression. They are best for travelers who want to pack more in their backpack or suitcase like those packing sweaters or coats for winter trips.

You will also find compression sacks that you can stuff items into and compress by pulling on external straps. These are common at outdoor and camping stores, like REI.

You’ll find three types of compression bags:

  1. Compression Bags: Plastic bags that look like big Ziploc bags.
  2. Stuff Sacks: Nylon bags with webbing straps, similar to what you’d put a sleeping bag in.
  3. Compression Cubes: A hybrid between packing cubes and compression bags.

All are thin, lightweight, and designed for travel, no vacuum required.

Tip: While shopping, you’ll find home storage compression bags and travel compression bags. They are not interchangeable. Home storage bags are usually larger and designed to compress with a vacuum. Avoid these. You’ll want to search for travel compression packing bags to get the right type.

Are Compression Bags Worth It?

While compression bags can help organize and group items together, the main reasons why you’d want to use a compression bag instead of a packing cube are to:

  • Pack clothes more compactly. Unlike packing cubes, compression bags allow you to fit more in your bag. Just don’t use this as an excuse to pack more than you need.
  • Step down from checked bag to carry on only. If you’re trying to transition from checking luggage to traveling carry on only, compression bags can help you get there by packing the same amount of stuff in a smaller bag.
  • Separate dirty from clean laundry. Stick your dirties in an airtight compression sack to keep them from stinking up the rest of your bag.

How to Use Compression Bags

Packing with a compression bag depends on the type you’re using.

For compression bags—the ones that look like a big Ziploc bag—fold, don’t roll, your clothes and fill it up. Before sealing, roll the bag like a giant tube of toothpaste to get all the air out of it. Then, seal, flatten, and pack away.

To clean these bags, wash with dish soap and a sponge. These bags look like the ones that you would use for home storage but don’t require a vacuum.

For stuff sacks—the kind that look like a sleeping bag sack—you can roll or fold your clothes before packing them inside. Then, tighten the drawstring and tug the straps on the outside to shrink down the pack. To clean these, you should be able to toss them in the wash, but check the care label on your bag first.

The Best Compression Bags for Travel

The best compression bags for travel are ones that you can compress without a vacuum. You’ll also have to choose between a traditional compression bag, a compression sack, or a compression cube.

Traditional compression bags for travel fit better in square luggage like a suitcase or backpack. Stuff sacks work in any kind of bag. 

If you can, look for compression packing cubes that marry the best organizational features of packing cubes with the space-saving features of a compression bag.

  • Best Compression Bag: Eagle Creek Pack-It Compression Sac Set ($30). The sacks can be manually compressed by rolling and squeezing the air out. Be careful not to overstuff them.
  • Best Stuff Sack: Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Compression Sack ($36+). Jenn, our editor, has carried her Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil for a decade and used it hard across six continents. Unlike drawstring-only bags, this compression sack has straps connecting the top and bottom which makes it easier to compress the bag and keep it closed.
  • Best Compression CubeTortuga Compression Packing Cube ($40).  Expand or compress the cube as needed to fit more clothes and keep them organized. Think of it like a hybrid between a packing cube and a stuff sack.

Packing Cubes vs. Compression Bags for Travel

Packing cubes help travelers organize their backpack or suitcase, keep clothes neat and unwrinkled, and prevent small items from getting lost. But they don’t shrink down the size of your clothing much.

Compression bags work best for fitting more stuff into your backpack or duffle bag. They’re also useful for helping you step down to a smaller piece of luggage. However, they don’t organize your luggage well and can wrinkle your clothes.

Compression packing cubes offer some of the benefits of both: the organization of a packing cube and the space-saving benefits of a compression bag.

While we love condensing our bags, we recommend doing so by packing less stuff, not by taking more clothes but pushing the air out. Compression bags are better for longer-term storage as opposed to travel. If you’re relocating for six months or more and will overlap with winter then compression bags are a good choice.

If you’re taking a shorter trip or will be relocating more often, they’ll become a hindrance because you’ll have to compress everything each time you pack your bag. Instead, pack layers, not bulky clothes, and organize your clothes in packing cubes.

Back to blog