Packing Light: How and Why

The more I travel, the less I pack. I mentioned in 12 Tips for International Trips how I took the entire luggage set when I studied abroad for a semester. That was a little bit more long-term, and therefore different, but I still think that packing so much is completely unnecessary, and here’s why.

Why pack light?

Here’s the TL;DR for this section:

  • Large amounts of luggage is a pain when you change accommodations.
  • It can be difficult to carry a lot of luggage through train stations, airports, etc.
  • On trains, larger luggage usually is stored near the door, not your near your seat.
  • On many airlines, you’ll pay for extra luggage.

Skip to How can I pack lighter? or read on for more details.

Unless you’re staying in one place for your entire trip, taking luggage to different accommodations is a huge pain. At minimum, you’ll have to lug it through your hotel and pack it into a rental car or taxi, but it will often be more than that. I couldn’t tell you how many miles I’ve drug my suitcases through cities.

Taking a lot of luggage on trains can be a task because you often have to carry it up and down stairs to get to the platform, then find space on the train for big suitcases, which is sometimes out of sight and sometimes above the seats. I’ve even hauled it up to the second bunk with me on sleeper trains.

I recently returned from a trip to Europe with 5 family members. Before the trip, I convinced them all to pack only a carry-on and a backpack. Before we left, I heard a lot about how it was hard to limit themselves to that amount of luggage (especially for those of us who stayed for 2 weeks instead of 1), but when we were getting on and off trains, everyone said how glad they were that they didn’t have more, plus the water busses we took in Venice had luggage restrictions and wouldn’t have allowed large pieces.

Sometimes, it seemed simple, like we were just going to switch trains in the same train station, but then it would be a little more complicated than that. For example, in Rome Termini, we had to walk somewhat far and through some crowds to get from the long-distance trains to the local trains. After that walk, everyone was glad to not have more luggage than they did.

In the end, taking less just simplifies a trip. I’ve never been unable to find anything I forgot or ran out of; unless you’re going somewhere extremely remote, you should be able to buy anything you forgot. Remember that people live there, too. Jenn and I both ran out of contact solution in China, but guess what? Chinese people also wear contacts. No problem. 

The exception to packing light for international travel is medications, including over-the-counter meds because they’re often different in other countries and can be difficult to figure out if you’re not fluent in the language.  Also, don’t forget to make sure you’re not taking something that you think is harmless but is actually illegal in the place you’re going if you’re traveling internationally.

How can I pack lighter?

Clothing

First of all, I don’t pack more than about a week’s worth of clothes anymore. I’d rather do laundry than drag it all around with me, and I make sure I book myself at places with laundry available at least once a week. If you’re going to be changing climates or traveling at a time like spring or fall when the weather can vary, it’s a little trickier but still possible. 

I also try to pack versatile clothing. I try to take as many things that can work with other things as possible.  I usually only have one nicer outfit with me unless I’m going on a trip that I know I’m going to be dressing up a lot on. I do the same with shoes. I don’t need a bunch of different pairs of shoes, especially since they’re usually heavy and take up a lot of space.  Three pairs of shoes should be your max, but two will often work. I also combine workout clothes and clothes to sleep in so that those aren’t two separate categories. 

Another thing that I do after I’ve chosen what I want to take is make sure everything has something to go with it so I don’t end up with random extra pieces. When I pack, I just pull out all of the things I want to take, but then when I go through things, I realize that a pair of pants I packed won’t go with any of the shoes I’m taking. Go through everything you plan to take and make sure it can make a complete outfit and that the amount of each item you have packed makes sense (for example, don’t take a crazy number of shirts for a weeklong trip). 

Toiletries

It’s easy to overpack toiletries. Try to figure out how much you actually use in a week and go from there. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll need full-sized items, so figure out how much of a travel-sized item you’ll need.  Two travel-sized toothpastes still take up a lot less space than one full-sized one. I also have small refillable bottles that I pack with whatever I’ll need for a particular trip (such as laundry detergent or sunblock). Remember that you can always buy more if you run out. 

Other Items

Think through your things and how you can reduce them. For example, if you’ve got a smartphone or you’re taking an iPad, Kindle, etc. (so pretty much everyone here, right?), you don’t need to take paper books. Download books and save a ton of space and weight. It’s also unlikely that you need both your iPad and your laptop. Try taking only one of those. Think about headphones with the same mindset. Do you really need the huge, bulky ones? Probably not. Take earbuds instead. Get an inflatable neck pillow or a Trtl instead of taking a filled pillow.

Don’t pack unnecessary items. For example, it’s pretty rare that an accommodation won’t have a hair dryer. Even most hostels have them. Check the site of the places you’ll stay and skip this bulky item.

Put some things back.

First of all, don’t start with you biggest suitcase because you’ll just fill it. Start out with your carry on.  After you pack, take a good look at everything. Look at each item and make sure it’s truly something you’ll use. Don’t load yourself down with things you may end up using at some point.  Just because you have space in your suitcase, that doesn’t mean that you have to fill it. Don’t get tricked by that “I bought this special item for this trip and even though I’d never use it at home, I’m sure I’ll use it here!” mindset either (with a very few obvious exceptions, like a passport, electricity converter, or neck pillow). 

Try packing a little less for your next trip. Even though it takes a little more planning ahead of time, I’ve never regretted packing light. Let me know your other tips for taking less in the comments!

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8 thoughts on “Packing Light: How and Why

  1. Great tips! I’ll try to do that on my next trip for sure! My biggest problem is also the weather as I’m always afraid that I might get too cold… Thanks for sharing! Will you be sharing your trip to Europe? 🙂

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  2. Bethany…I’m totally onboard with the packing light. We’re taking backpacks for our upcoming trip and will be gone 17 days. However, I know I’m going to want to buy things while we’re on our international trip. Did you ship things home, or did you leave space in your luggage?

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    1. Hey Kerry! I usually don’t buy a whole lot, so I just add it to my luggage. I try to take some things I can get rid of, like just the right amount of toiletries, to free up some space, too. I’ve wondered about shipping things home, but I’m always afraid it will be super expensive. You’ll have to let me know if you end up doing it. I’m sure it varies, depending on country though.

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  3. Great info Bethany. As one of your family members who listened to you about only packing a carryon and a backpack for Europe I’m so thankful you talked us into it. I actually try to do that every time I travel now.

    Another thing I do is use contact lens cases to store lotions such as eye cream, night cream, tinted moisturizer, etc. It’s saved me a lot of space and is plenty for a few weeks.

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