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 traveled carry-on only.
An avid traveler herself, my friend claims to be hopeless at packing and says she truly doesn’t know how to travel light, to the point she often has to pay excess baggage fees. So, she asked if I could share any tips that would help her pack light.
So I thought I’d write a post on why and how to travel light.
With my tips you will learn how to pack light and – most importantly – smart. All my tips are easy to implement.
Start implementing the changes that seem the easiest, and each time you go on a new trip, add one more.
Why Packing Light Is So Much Better
I wasn’t born a smart packer. In fact, I used to call myself “unsuccessful backpacker.”
For my 6-months backpacking trip across Central and South America, I carried a 75 liters backpack that carried 18 kg of weight – that’s almost 40 pounds. The daypack I wore in the front was no less than 8 kg (almost 18 pounds). That’s a total of 26 kg (58 pounds) as a minimum.
Moving around with that amount of weight was a lot of effort. I certainly couldn’t run to catch a bus last minute! Yet, I felt like I could not ditch any single item, and 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. Now, the more I travel, the more I appreciate how much better it is to travel light – better for my back; quicker to pack, and all in all simply liberating.
Not convinced yet? Continue reading.
Light luggage is easier to carry
Things can and will go wrong during a trip, and you may 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 I made it there a minute before the check-in desk closed.
A heavy bag will hold you down. Smaller and lighter luggage is easier to carry – and easier on your body.
Pack and unpack in no time
If you hate packing as much as I do, why put yourself through the burden of packing half of your closet for a trip? Packing light is faster, because you have less stuff to place in your bag. And unpacking is quicker too!
Layovers are so much easier
And so are multi-destination trips, actually. If you have a long layover, you can get out of the airport and wander around town – which is much quicker and easier if you travel light. Similarly, when you have a train connection 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.
If you travel light you can be sure you won’t have to pay excess baggage fees. But there’s more.
If you manage to keep the weight of your luggage below a certain limit – which varies depending on the airline, with Ryanair allowing 10 kg (22 pounds), KLM allowing 12 kg (26.4 pounds) and Alitalia only 8 kg (17.6 pounds) – you can even avoid the checked luggage fees.
Wait – it’s not over yet!
If you travel light, you can avoid piling your bags on those annoying airport carts which are costly and horrible to push around. Once you get to your hotel, you can carry your bag to your room and avoid tipping the porter.
Packing Light 101 – 21 Tips To Travel Light
Use a 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 will feel compelled to bring. 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.
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 (little over 4 pounds) which means that, depending on the airline, I can still pack 8 more kg (17.6 pounds). Most airlines will accept it as carry-on. Get it on Amazon here and on REI here.
Weight your bag!
Weight your bags rather than guessing how much they weight. Don’t show up at the airport thinking your bag is definitely below 10 kg (22 pounds) to find out it actually isn’t and then end up having to pay for checked baggage.
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, and then – realizing there is still some space left – pack more stuff that you probably don’t even need.
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. Searching for 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
The key is to create outfits before the trip, rather than during the trip itself. If you manage to take clothes that you can mix and match in terms of style and colors, 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, stick to a maximum of three pair of shoes, plus a pair of flip-flops you can use to get out of the shower (or 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, 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 an 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 love my 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. If I go on a hiking trip, I take my Solomon hiking boots. You can get them on Amazon here or on REI here.
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
Wear your hiking boots on your flight as that will make you save space in your bag. The same goes for any other bulky item – 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”
The odds of temperatures being freezing in a tropical country are pretty slim, much like the odds of being able to wear a lovely tank-top in Siberia during the winter. Besides, if you really need an extra warm layer, you will most likely find a shop that sells it.
Use tech gear
Tech gear is a life saver, 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.
Ditch the jeans! They are heavy; 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 traveler to keep things nice and tidy; they help keep down the number of items you pack; 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.
Pack an extra empty bag for your dirty laundry!
Ditch the toiletry bag
We all love a good, pretty toiletry bag with all the separate compartments. But most of them are quite bulky. Besides, you’ll have to take out your liquids at security checks at the airport and place it in small transparent plastic bags, so why not use those instead to begin with?
If on the other hand you are checking in your bags, you can use a drawstring toiletry bag such as this one.
Use solid toiletries
Solid toiletries are one of the smartest inventions ever. 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.
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.
Alternatively, use travel size toiletries
If you 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.
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
If you are traveling with a friend you can split the list of toiletries you need to bring. That means bringing only one electric toothbrush and charger (and obviously a toothbrush head each!); one shower gel, and so on.
Try a menstrual cup
If you know you’ll 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 environmentally friendly alternative are menstrual cups. Try it a few times before your trip, because not all menstrual cups are 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 – they can be 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 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
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, 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 take lots of space. You can opt for the travel version, which is much better when packing light.
Do laundry on the way
Most hotels and hostels offer laundry services or have washing machines that you can use. 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. If you know there may be occasions when you need to look at your email (and answer to one or more), and you may struggle with the keyboard on your phone, you may want to bring a 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
Bose noise canceling headphones are as good as it gets for listening to music, but for the sake of packing 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
Paper-book lovers, check this out: 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. You can even get a travel guide on a kindle!
Kindle Oasis 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.
Ditch the things that aren’t necessary
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 need to dry your hair. If you are traveling to a cold destination and staying in a hotel, you will definitely find one in your room. If you are staying at a hostel, the reception usually has one. If you really want to bring your hairdryer opt for a compact one that has a folding handle, such as this one. You may also need a plug adapter.
HAIR STRAIGHTENER OR CURLING IRON – Do 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 – After a long day of walking around, you won’t really be bothered to put make up on or 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 buy some locally as a souvenir. Pack a small amount of perfume in a travel size spray bottle.
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?
These posts may come in handy when planning your next trips: