How to Pack Books for Vacation: A Mathematical Formula

This content contains affiliate links. When you buy through these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Elisa Shoenberger


Elisa Shoenberger has been building a library since she was 13. She loves writing about all aspects of books from author interviews, antiquarian books, archives, and everything in between. She also writes regularly for Murder & Mayhem and Library Journal. She's also written articles for Huffington Post, Boston Globe, WIRED, Slate, and many other publications. When she's not writing about reading, she's reading and adventuring to find cool new art. She also plays alto saxophone and occasionally stiltwalks. Find out more on her website or follow her on Twitter @vogontroubadour.

You’ve decided to go on a trip. You might be going to a place for a few days or for a few weeks. But the best part is that you’ll be going with friends and family. By which I mean your books.

Traveling presents a great opportunity to go out into the world and meet other books. It might mean going halfway around the world to go to a special bookstore that was a former theatre or to gawk at beautiful illuminated manuscripts.  Or maybe it’s a chance to read a book somewhere besides your couch or bed. 

But the biggest problem that bibliophiles face is the daunting question: How do you pack books for a trip?

So, after many hours in the library/laboratory and years of experience of traveling with books, here are some helpful hints so that you can best pack your suitcase.

Deciding What to Read

This is the hardest part about packing books. What will you want to read? Some people opt for light reading, the famous beach reads. Others want to catch up on those hefty tomes that they just never have the time to get to. There’s also a healthy group of folks who want books relevant to their trips. 

The best laid plans of mice and men.

The only obvious solution is to pack a lot of different books. Throw in a murder mystery novel or two along with a critical history of pickling. And maybe a book of Renaissance poetry and that romance novel that’s about the chemistry of chemistry. You have to account for whether you’ll be in the mood for a snack or a big literary meal. Bring Moby Dick but don’t forget to bring The Devil Wears Prada, too.

Too Many Books

Once you’ve picked out your books, you now have an even harder problem to solve. How many books should you actually bring with you? Unfortunately, our suitcases are finite spaces, not the bags of holding that we really should have by now. It doesn’t help that storage space on planes has been getting smaller and smaller every year, akin to the trash room a la Death Star. Plus, they are getting super grabby with fees.

If only we were in the days when steamer trunks were the norm. (A moment of silence for the steamer trunk, please).

So given the constraints of suitcases and airplane fees, what should you do?

The most obvious thing is to use an equation. Yes, a tried and true equation that will tell you exactly how many books you’ll need for your trip. It accounts for days of travel, different genres you want to bring, difficulty of books, and the size of your suitcase.

The Equation

D = number of days of the trip

G = different genres of books 

r = relative difficulty (from .01 to 1, easy to challenging)

S = square inches of suitcases, bags 

B = book size in square inches

Image of equation dividing S by a combination of the other variables

So if you are going away for 4 days, D=4

and you have three genres of books:

Relative difficulty : G1 = .03  G2=.08 G3=.02

S = large suitcase, 288 square inches + backpack 15.5 square inches

B = 54 square inches

Voila! You get 10.8 books. Always round up to 11.

Easy peasy. You don’t need clothes, right? After all, isn’t traveling all about living in the same T-shirt and shorts day in and day out?

Also, guide books don’t count in the book total. That’s just a given.

Packing the Suitcase

So now that you’ve actually figured out what books you are going to bring and how many, now the hardest part is figuring out how to pack them. You don’t want to put them all in any one suitcase, since that’s asking for trouble. It’s important to spread them out just in case something untoward happens. You don’t want to put all of your eggs in one basket. 

You’ll have to be strategic and figure out which ones will fit in your personal item and in your checked suitcase. So, for the plane or train, you’ll want a primary book and then a secondary when you finish the first or realize you don’t like the first. And then a tertiary, as well. You have to plan if there’s a delay. Nothing is worse than a delay and lacking reading material. You might have to talk to the person next to you, and that is not what you signed up for.

Don’t forget that you can stuff your coat full of books as a last resort. Especially with those ever shrinking luggage weight maximums.

Q&A Time

Q: What about ereaders? Wouldn’t that save a lot of room?

A: No. They might seem like space-saving devices, but batteries are not forever. Books are. (Except for the Library of Alexandria…Too soon?) Plus, if you are going international, you’ll have to find a plug to match the endless puzzle of outlets. Why bother?

Q: What about buying new books?

A: Good point. Consider getting a new suitcase. It’s worth the airline fees to bring home your travel library. I mean, why else are you traveling but to get more books?

That should keep you in the pages for your trip. On second thought, an ereader would be a good addition to those 11 books. Yeah, I’d bring that too.

If you want more advice on book packing, check out this Rioter’s advice on book packing. Or here’s a list of 100 great travel books. You should bring all of them on your next trip.

Happy traveling!