You know the drill. You’re allowed one carry-on and one personal item, and if you want to check a bag or two, you’ll pay a hefty fee to do so. Then when you arrive, you’ll need one of those airport carts to haul all your luggage to the taxi, only to find the trunk isn’t big enough to hold it all.
Don’t you wish you’d packed lighter so you could have taken the cheap public transportation to the hotel and saved yourself the hassle of pulling, lugging and carting 50 pounds of your most prized possessions around in a foreign country?
I’ve certainly learned my lesson about traveling light during my many travels overseas. Having now been to over 70 countries, you couldn’t pay me to check a suitcase. I don’t even like to take a carry-on roller bag. I now strongly prefer to just use a lightweight travel backpack. And I’m not talking about one of those incredibly large backpacker packs.
You probably think that’s because I’ve lost a lot of baggage or have had to replace mishandled and often damaged luggage. But that’s not the case at all.
It’s just that I enjoy the freedom of not being bogged down with a lot of things. I’ve come to realize that being able to walk onto the metro with nothing in my hands and no roller bag to navigate through busy streets is a relief and a blessing. And one that I would gladly give up that extra pair of shoes for, or the extra clothes that I probably won’t wear anyway. I’m just being practical.
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Why You Should Pack Light
If I haven’t convinced you yet, perhaps the thought of being late to catch your plane because you’re dragging around so much luggage will. You don’t want to be that guy, do you?
Statistics aren’t on your side either. Even though baggage handling has improved over the years, the Air Transport Industry reports that over 26 million bags were lost or mishandled in 2013.
That’s nearly 9 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers. Think it won’t happen to you? Just wait until you’re stranded in Egypt without your luggage for 4 days.
Maybe you’ll feel better to know that while you’re hanging around watching the carousel go round and round, I’ll be breezing through the terminal and headed on my way at least 30 minutes faster than you.
According to airline statistics, the average time it takes a bag to reach baggage claim is 55 minutes after landing, which generally amounts to 30 minutes of staring at an empty baggage carousel for you.
Most airlines restrict carry-on bags to 9″ x 22″ x 14″ and under 25 pounds, although some airlines are cutting back to 9″ x 21″ x 13″. Overseas discount carriers often have a limit of 20 pounds.
Additional reasons why you really want to pack light, even if you don’t take my word for it:
- The airlines won’t misplace your bag because it never left your sight.
- Now that the airlines are placing greater restrictions on the size and weight of luggage, you need to fit less in a smaller space than ever. Make sure you weigh your bag before you leave home or you’ll pay up to $100 per bag to check them. Here’s our list of the best carry on luggage that fits in the overhead bin.
- You can place your bag under the seat and won’t have to worry about finding the last bit of overhead storage space.
- You won’t wait even one second at a baggage carousel.
- You will have your hands free to do other things like buy bus tickets, hail a cab, and check for direction on your smartphone.
- You won’t break your back hauling luggage up steep cobblestone streets.
- You won’t wait even one second for a porter to bring your bag up to your hotel room.
- If you’re going on a long flight, you may also want to read this guide on how to wisely pack your carry on bag.
Now that I’ve convinced you, I’ll show you how I went from packing this much (on the left) to packing this light (on the right):
You can see that my old luggage was very well used. I’ve taken it all around the world with me. But I honestly can’t tell you what I could have possible packed in all those suitcases. There’s no way I would have ever needed all of that stuff on a 7-10 day trip.
The good news is I can tell you exactly what I’ve packed in the backpack on the right, because it’s currently all packed and ready to go on a 12-day trip to Spain and Portugal. My backpack is the most important piece of travel equipment I own. It is a Mountain Hardwear Agama 31L backpack and it weighs 13 pounds fully packed.
What I pack in my backpack for a 12-day trip. Keep in mind that I rarely pack one item of clothing per day. I almost always do sink laundry half way through the trip so I can take half as many clothes:
- 6-10 T-shirts
- 6 pairs of underwear
- 6 pairs of socks
- 2 pairs of travel pants (you need these, trust me!)
- Swimming suit
- 1 black skirt
- 3 dressy shirts to pair with the skirt
- 1-2 sundresses
- 1 black sweater
- Toiletries bag with all the essentials (toothbrush, make-up, deodorant, charger cables, adapters, medicine for common ailments, comb)
- Manila envelop with my travel plans and documents
- 1 quart Ziplock bag with liquids (hair gel, toothpaste, sunblock)
- I will also carry one small personal item (a small travel purse) that contains snacks, tablet, Kindle, noise canceling earbuds and passports.
10 Tips for Packing Smart and Light
The most important thing about packing light is to realize that you can’t and shouldn’t pack everything you need at home. You’re going on a trip away from home, after all.
- Buy the right bag — it took me we a while to find the perfect backpacks that would fit the right amount in the right way. I use the Mountain Hardwear Agama backpack. It’s a 31L pack with a sturdy back and comfortable fit. Plus it has a large interior pocket for clothing. (see the diagram – the pack is laying on its back).
- Pack neutral layers — one neutral-colored sweater can be worn with multiple things.
- Wear heavier, bulkier clothes during the journey to save space in your bag.
- Use space saver bags like eBags Packing Cubes to compress items and keep everything neat and tidy. I can’t possibly explain how much I love eBags.
- Roll clothing to save space – it really does make a big difference and it keep clothes from getting wrinkled.
- Limit Your Shoes – Find a pair of shoes that can double as both comfortable walking shoes and dressy evening shoes, to get away with only taking one pair.
- Leave accessories at home – You don’t need a lot of jewelry, scarves and earrings for a 10-day trip. If you pack neutral colors you can wear the same jewelry to all nice dinners.
- Put all toiletries in one bag – A toiletry bag comes in handy for organizing make-up and medicines. I prefer the eBags Pack It Flat Toiletry Kit. You will be amazed at how much stuff you can fit in there. I packed it full of everything we needed (medicine, makeup, toothbrushes, hair stuff, jewelry, etc) and never unpack it, so it’s ready to go for each trip.
- Never take the full size of anything – Leave large bath products at home and squeeze only what you’ll need into a 3oz travel container.
- Don’t pack a hair dryer or other small electronics – Every hotel has a hair dryer. Even hostels have them to loan. You won’t be able to plug it in overseas anyway without a converter.
- Think hard about what you actually need and don’t need. Leave out all unnecessary items. Do you really need 5 dresses and 4 pairs of jeans for a 7-day trip? NO.
Get more packing tips with this Ultimate Packing List (with printable travel checklist).
Following these tips will help you learn to pack light and save yourself from dragging unwieldy luggage for a short trip where most items are not needed. There are many ways to cut down on what you pack, but it all starts with your motivation to travel in a more convenient way.
Share your packing light secrets in the comments section. What great tips did I forget?
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Laura Lynch, creator and writer of Savored Journeys, is an avid world traveler, certified wine expert, and international food specialist. She has written about travel and food for over 20 years and has visited 70+ countries.