Packing light is an art, and you can master it too.
Not long ago, my friend picked me up from the airport. As soon as I got into her car, she marveled at the size of my luggage. I had been away for three weeks and all I carried was a carry-on bag. Come to think of it, I could have traveled even lighter.
An avid traveler herself, my friend claims to be hopeless at packing and says she truly doesn’t know how to travel light. She’s the kind of person that regularly finds herself paying excess baggage fees. So, she asked if I could share any tips that would help her pack light. In fact, she suggested I write a post about it.
So here I am, giving you my two-cents (well, more like twenty) on how to travel light.
My tips will have you change your packing pattern, and you will find yourself packing light but – most importantly – smart. I will have you pack what is reasonable and necessary, and leave at home what you truly can do without while you travel.
I promise you all the changes I suggest are doable – even though right now the thought of not packing that fourth pair of shoes makes you panic. In fact, here’s an idea that may make you feel better: start implementing the changes that seem the easiest, and each time you go on a new trip, add one more.
Anyhow – continue reading to discover all my tips on packing light. But first, let me point out why packing light is SO. MUCH. BETTER.
Why Packing Light Is So Much Better
I wasn’t born a smart packer. In fact, I’d say I used to be quite the opposite – and called myself “unsuccessful backpacker.” I even wrote a post about the things not to do to be backpacker.
For my 6-months backpacking trip across Central and South America, I carried a 75 liters backpack that carried 18 kilograms of weight. The daypack I wore in the front must have weighted no less than 8 kilograms (and most likely 10). That’s a total of 26 kilos as a minimum.
You can only imagine what an effort it was to walk around with that backpack – I certainly couldn’t run to catch a bus last minute! Yet, I felt like I could not ditch any single item. Not only that: I kept accumulating souvenirs and other stuff that I really didn’t need.
It took me a few more trips to master the art of packing light. And let me tell you: the more I travel, the more I appreciate how much better it is to travel light. It’s so much better for my back; so much quicker to pack, and all in all simply liberating.
Not convinced yet? Here – let me sum up the reasons why packing light is better.
Light luggage is easier to carry
One thing I have learned traveling around so much is that things can and will go wrong during a trip, and you may find yourself in need to actually run to make a flight / train / bus / ferry. Like the time there was a power outage in London and despite having planned to be at Stansted airport 3 hours in advance but only made it there a minute before the check-in desk closed. Or like the time I got stuck in traffic in La Paz and had to get off the taxi and rush to the bus station.
The last thing you need when you need to rush is a heavy bag holding you down. Smaller and lighter luggage is so much easier to carry – and so much easier on your body (think sore backs for carrying to heavy a backpack!).
If you don’t believe me, wait till you get to my age and reconsider.
Pack and unpack in no time
If you hate packing as much as I do, why would you put yourself through the burden of packing half of your closet for a trip? Packing light is actually much faster, because you have less stuff to place in your bag. Just as well, unpacking is quicker too!
Layovers are so much easier
And so are multi-destination trips, actually.
Should you be flying long distance and have a long layover, you may decide to get out of the airport and spend some time wandering around town. Getting out of the airport (and then back in) is actually much quicker and easier if you travel light.
The same happens if you have a train connection somewhere – it’s much easier to get out of the station and go somewhere for lunch if you have a small carry-on bag rather than a massive suitcase.
Packing light will make your life easier also financially, especially if you are traveling by plane. First of all, if you travel light you can be sure you won’t have to pay excess baggage fees. Just picture yourself at the check in desk, having to lift your bag and place it on the scale and doing so with the confidence that it won’t go over the baggage allowance. Isn’t that a great feeling?
But there’s more.
If you manage to keep the weight of your luggage below a certain limit – this unfortunately varies, depending on the airline, with Ryanair allowing 10 kg, KLM allowing 12 and Alitalia allowing only 8 – you can even avoid the checked luggage fees, and travel carry-on only, which is so much cheaper.
Wait – it’s not over yet!
If you manage to travel light, you can avoid having to pile your bags on those annoying airport carts which are costly and horrible to push around. And, once you get to your hotel, you will be able to carry your bag to your room and thus avoid having to tip the porter.
See? Much cheaper already!
Now, without further ado, let me share all my tips for packing light. And remember: you are going on a trip, no a fashion show!
Packing Light 101 – 21 Tips To Travel Light
Use a carry-on size bag
One of the biggest mistakes we make when we travel is to fill up our suitcase to the brim.
Packing light is so much easier when you use a small carry-on size bag. This may seem rather obvious, but the smaller your bag is, the less you will be packing. The larger the suitcase is, the more stuff you put in it.
This may not be an immediately actionable tip – not if you are meant to leave tomorrow and you came here looking for some quick fix.
But for your next trip consider buying a smaller suitcase or backpack.
TIP: When picking a new suitcase or backpack, check its weight! If you shop online, retailer sites like Amazon or REI will give you the exact dimensions, including weight.
Here is what I use and recommend:
SUITCASE – I use an Eagle Creek Warrior. It weights 1.9 kg which means that, depending on the airline, I can still pack 8 more kg. And most airlines will accept it as carry-on. Get it on Amazon here and on REI here.
Weight your bag!
One of my tips for packing light is to actually weight your bags rather than guessing how much they weight. In other words: don’t show up at the airport thinking your bag is definitely below 10 kg to find out it actually isn’t and then end up having to pay for checked baggage.
It happened to me once and I wasn’t pleased (besides, I eventually spent the money I had saved by purchasing a super-economy ticket).
Make sure to get a digital scale that you can even take with you on your trips. You can find it on Amazon here.
Stick to a packing list
One of the biggest mistakes you may make when packing is to take out your suitcase, pack whatever you need in it, and then – realizing there is still some space left – pack more stuff that you probably don’t even need. Don’t do that!
Write yourself a packing list a few days before your trip, and stick to it. If you can’t figure out what to pack because you are uncertain of what the trip may require, look for a packing list online. Search terms such as “what to pack for X destination” will bring out a wealth of information that will definitely be useful.
I have written specific packing list for a number of destinations and occasions:
- All The Useful Backpacking Essentials For Long Term Travel
- Hiking Gear And More: The Perfect Patagonia Packing List
- The Perfect Hiking Packing List For A Long Distance Trek
- Jungle Clothes And More: Everything You Should Include In Your Amazon Packing List
- What To Wear On Safari – The Ultimate Packing List For Africa
- What To Wear In Sri Lanka: Essential Items You Shouldn’t Travel Without
Bring items you can mix and match
This is one of my favorite tips for packing light. The key here is to create outfits before the trip, rather than during the trip itself. If you manage to take items – pants, shirts, skirts, sweaters and even shoes – that you can mix and match in terms of style and colors, that means you will be able to create more outfits with less items.
And that in turn means you won’t need nearly as many clothes.
The same goes for shoes: pack shoes that you can easily match with most outfits.
This brings me to the next tip.
Don’t pack all your shoes
No matter how much you’d like to bring a pair of shoes for every occasion, I recommend sticking to a maximum of three pair of shoes, plus a pair of flip-flops you can use to get out of the shower (in fact, to get in the shower if you are staying in a hostel dorm with shared bathroom) as well as going to the beach / walking around.
Here is what I use:
FLIP-FLOPS – After years of using Havaianas, I switched to Crocs and I am never going back. They are much lighter, significantly more comfortable, and come in a number of designs. You can get them on Amazon here.
SANDALS – I found the most comfortable pair of sandals in a shop in Sassari and now they come with me on any trip to a warm destination. Birkenstocks sandals are am excellent alternative and they come in colors that are super easy to match. You can get them on Amazon here or on REI here.
WALKING SHOES – I have a pair of Tropicfeel that are perfect for walking and easy hikes. In fact, I have even used them to get in the water – they dry so quickly! You can get them here. Alternatively, I take my pair of Paiz canvas shoes – they pack light and they can easily dress up.
For winter trips, I opt either for a pair of biker boots or a pair of sneakers such as these.
WAIT! I know what you are thinking: hiking boots are heavy and bulky, so how do you pack those if you are meant to be packing light?
This brings me right to my next tip.
Wear bulky and heavy items
I often come across people on hikes that are not wearing the right kind of shoes – and end up with a sprayed ankle. Their typical excuse for not wearing hiking boots is that they didn’t pack them because they are too heavy.
Well guess what – you can wear them for your actual flight and that will make you save space in your bag.
The same goes for any other bulky item you may wear – including a jacket. Airports and planes are usually so cold anyways that you won’t regret wearing them!
Don’t pack clothes “just in case”
I used to swear by the “just in case” mantra and always took that extra warm jacket, even when traveling to a tropical country, thinking you’d never know if you may need it.
I have stopped doing that because the odds of temperatures being freezing in a tropical country are pretty slim, which means I always ended up with unused items in my suitcase (which is the opposite of traveling light) and I realized that if I really find myself in need of an extra warm layer, I will most likely find a shop that sells it.
Use tech gear
Tech gear is a life saver and a must when packing light, especially if you are visiting a cold country.
Instead of packing (and wearing) layers to keep warm, just pack technical gear ie a good pair of base layers, a warm fleece, a wind breaker jacket. I am a massive fan of Kuhl when it comes to tech gear. Patagonia is another excellent brand.
By all means, ditch the jeans! They are so heavy that won’t do anything for you if you want to travel light; they aren’t comfortable to wear on long haul flights, they won’t keep you warm when it’s cold outside (or cool when it’s hot).
Use packing cubes
Packing cubes are one of the smartest inventions ever. They help even the most disorganized packer to keep things nice and tidy; they help keep down the number of items you pack and thus packing light; and depending on the kind you get they even compress your stuff a bit, helping you save some space (which you should leave empty, BTW!!).
Bag up shoes
Shoe carrier bags are expensive and heavy. However, you certainly don’t want to put your shoes in your suitcase just as they come, especially when their sole is dirty. Do you want to know what I use? Large (or, depending on the shoes) very large Ziploc bags. They weight nothing and they are the kind of thing that you will certainly have at home. I use them over and over and occasionally get a new one.
TIP: Pack an extra empty bag to throw your dirty laundry in!
Ditch the toiletry bag
I must admit that this was one of the hardest things for me to do. I love a good, pretty toiletry bag with all the separate compartments. However, most of them end up being quite bulky.
Most of the time I end up having to take out my liquids at security checks at the airport and place it in small transparent plastic bags, so I eventually settled to just use those instead.
If on the other hand I am checking in my bags, I use a drawstring toiletry bag such as this one.
Use solid toiletries
Solid toiletries are one of the smartest inventions ever – especially for packing light.
First of all, you won’t have to bother with the liquids allowance at the security checks. Furthermore, they won’t accidentally open and spill all over your suitcase.
So, consider opting for solid shampoo and conditioner, a bar of soap instead of shower gel, a deodorant stick, and even a bar of body moisturizer.
My favorite brand for solid toiletries is Lush, but since there’s no shop in my hometown, I have had to look for alternatives. HiBar is an excellent one. You can find it on Amazon here and on REI here.
Alternatively, use travel size toiletries
If you really aren’t a fan of solid toiletries, opt for travel size ones. 100 ml of shampoo will certainly last for a 3 weeks trip! Most pharmacies sell travel size bottles that you can refill with your favorite products. You can also get them on Amazon here.
GOOD TO KNOW: Can’t find a travel size sun lotion at your local pharmacy? Look at the airport duty-free!
Share your toiletries with your travel partner
This obviously only applies if you are traveling with someone. I mostly travel solo, except for a yearly trip with my sister. On that occasion, we split the list of toiletries we need to bring. That includes bringing only one electric toothbrush and charger (and obviously a toothbrush head each!); one shower cap – chances are we’ll find a cheap one at the hotel anyways; and so on.
Try a menstrual cup
If you know that you are bound to get your period during your trip, you will have to pack sanitary pads and tampons – which take up space in your suitcase.
A good – and actually very environmentally friendly – alternative to those are menstrual cups. I encourage you to try one (or more) out a few times before your trip, because they are not all the same and it takes a while learning how to place them and take them off.
If you have established that’s not your thing, do your research on whether you can find tampons easily in the place you are visiting – you’d be surprised to know that they are hardly a thing in some countries, especially in the most rural areas.
Bring a travel towel
A travel towel is a good, lightweight thing to bring with you, for those times you want to go to the beach, or in case you are staying at a hostel that doesn’t provide towels (it actually happened to me plenty of times, including a year ago in Ethiopia).
A good alternative to travel towels are sarongs. They pack super light and dry really quickly.
Only take prescription medications
I normally recommend packing some medications for any trip – even if you want to travel light. You will definitely need to bring with you any prescription – ie, I have asthma and need to take medications on a daily basis.
When it comes to non-prescription drugs, you can usually get them off-the-counter pretty much anywhere. If you still want to carry some from home with you, just pack one of each (ie one paracetamol, a hydration pack, etc) – to keep you until you can find a pharmacy.
Opt for deflatable / collapsible versions of objects
Travel pillow, water bottle and the like are all very useful, but they also take lots of space. The good news is that you can opt for the travel version, which is much better when packing light.
Do laundry on the way
I once went on a two weeks trip for which I packed 14 pairs of underwear. I am not kidding! Ok, I was 19 and wasn’t really into packing light yet – and for some reason it never crossed my mind that I could ask the hotel to do my laundry, or that I could wash socks and underwear in the sink with soap.
So, here is a piece of news: most hotels and hostels offer laundry services or have washing machines that you can use. This means you can safely travel light without having the worry of having to reuse dirty underwear.
Bring a bluetooth keyboard instead of a laptop
If you are going on holidays, you will hardly need to bring your laptop with you. Yet, if you know there may be occasions when you need to look at your email (and answer to one or more), and you will have to struggle with the keyboard on your phone.
I found foldable bluetooth keyboards to be a good compromise. They pack 10 times lighter than a laptop and are much better than having to write a whole email on your phone.
You can get a bluetooth keyboard on Amazon here.
Pack small headphones instead of massive one
I know that Bose noise canceling headphones are as good as it gets for listening to music, but I am afraid that if you want to travel light you will have to opt for a small pair of headphones instead. I usually just take the headphones that came with my iPhone.
Bring a Kindle
I must admit that I am not the biggest fan of Kindle. I really, truly, wholeheartedly prefer paper books, for a million very good reasons (I can’t get over the smell of paper and ink!).
However, a Kindle is so much better if you want to travel light. If you are on a longer trip and as avid a reader as I am, you will be going through a few books and there is no way you can take all the paper versions with you.
I am a fan of Kindle Oasis, which is waterproof (so you don’t have to worry if you spill a bit of wine over it!) and has an adjustable light. You can get it on Amazon here.
GOOD TO KNOW: You can even get a travel guide on a kindle!
Ditch the things that aren’t necessary
And now, finally, let’s talk about the things you can really do without – this is mostly for the girls here!
Hairdryer – if you are going to a warm country, you won’t really need to dry your hair. But what if you are traveling to a cold destination? If you are staying in a hotel, you will definitely find one in your room. If you are staying at a hostel, the reception usually has one. And if you really want to bring your hairdryer, “just in case,” opt for a compact one that has a folding handle, such as this one. Remember you may also need a plug adapter.
Hair straightener or curling iron – again, ask yourself if you really need to straighten your hair while traveling. If you ask me, the answer is no. But if your answer is YES YES YES, make sure to buy a travel size straightener such as this one.
Jewelry and make up – chances are that after a long day of walking around, you won’t really be bothered to put make up on, let alone sit around for an hour waiting for your nail polish to dry. A mascara and a lipstick will be more than enough! The same goes with jewelry: bring a pair of earrings that easily match all your outfits, and consider buying some locally as a souvenir. Pack a small amount of perfume in a travel size spray bottle.
Last but not least make sure to empty your wallet of all your loyalty cards. Chances are they won’t be needed where you are going.
Do you have any more tips for packing light?