Whether you are packing for a business trip or going on vacation, it pays to travel light. Minimalists have an edge, both financially and in terms of mobility.
Lately some airlines have given us one more incentive to lighten up, with strict limits for carry-on items, fees for checked baggage, and weight limits for both. Among the harshest: European discount carrier easyJet, which allows only one carry-on piece (a woman's handbag counts), and charges $20 for checked baggage of up to 20 kilograms (44 pounds) with a surcharge if you check at the gate.
Transfers by cab to your hotel can add up too, especially with extra fees tacked on in some cities for airport pickups, late-night fares, and baggage by the piece. Plus, in countries where small cars are prevalent, your behemoth might not even fit in the trunk.
When dragging your suitcase over cobblestones, you'll be especially glad you traveled light. Photo: Deborah L. Jacobs
If your trip includes several stops, what you save on cab fares could be enough to pay for an extra day or two of vacation. Amsterdam, Paris and Hong Kong are just a few of the most popular cities in the world to visit where you can save a bundle by getting into town by public transit, rather than in a cab.
When there's no alternative but to tote your own load, you can't put a price tag on mobility either. Light travelers can maneuver more nimbly on and off trains, where outside of the United States there may not be porters to help; and dash along the frictionless surfaces of airport terminals. (Dragging even a rollaboard over cobblestones is a workout, though.)
By avoiding potentially long waits at baggage terminals (not to mention the risk of lost luggage) the carry-on crowd also saves precious time on vacation.
The trade off is that you must live with less, which involves what may seem like some tough choices about what stays and what goes. No matter how long you are away for, pack just one week's worth of clothing. Here's how to think--and pack--like a minimalist.
1. Put things in perspective. The evolution of travel and lightweight materials enables us to move about relatively unencumbered. It wasn't always so. During the early 19th century, suitcases were mostly made of leather. To transport toilet articles, the wealthy carried elaborate kits, outfitted with small jars and boxes made of crystal, ivory and silver.
Still, to pack light, you must be willing to live with less. If that notion makes you uncomfortable, remember it's only temporary; consider it a vacation from your possessions. Barring a terrorist incident or a natural disaster while you are away, all your stuff will still be there when you get back.
During the 19th century, royalty and the wealthy traveling by train carried toilet articles in bags like this one, which belonged to King William III. Photo: Museum of Bags and Purses, Amsterdam
2. Choose a capacious carry-on. For a recent European vacation I invested in the 22-inch Timbuk2 conveyor wheeled duffel bag (about $200). It weighs just seven pounds; has removable skate board wheels and grab straps in four places; and fits in most overhead compartments. Unlike the roll-aboards used by many business travelers, it doesn't have a stiff frame, which gives you a lot of flexibility about what--and how--you pack. I also like the unstructured packing space; if you feel a need for compartments, you can create your own using plastic bags.
Although the Tumbuk2 proved light and mobile, two weeks into its maiden voyage this month, I noticed a pea-sized rip, smack in the middle of the front, that I could not attribute to anything but ordinary use. I plan to explore whether the bag's lifetime guarantee will cover this. Osprey, Eastpak, Samsonite and Kipling have similar, comparably priced models that don't look any more durable. (I have no financial allegiances to any of these companies.)
Whatever bag you choose sets the limit on how much you can take: if it doesn't fit, it doesn't go. On the other hand, don't feel you must fill every available crevice. You will welcome the extra space for those must-have souvenirs (more about that below).
3. Bring ample footwear. Shoes are the non-negotiable essentials, and take up the most room in your suitcase. So without going overboard, figure out what's appropriate for the activities you have planned. When I need to bring hiking boots or winter boots, I wear them on trains and planes, and carry a pair of ballet flats in my purse to change into once I'm on board. The only footwear that goes in my suitcase is a pair of sneakers or comfortable walking shoes, and a set of flip flops that I use as bedroom slippers; to pad around hotels; and when going to the beach or swimming pool. (For more information, see Seattle lawyer Wendy Goffe's post, "How To Find Comfortable Shoes That Don’t Compromise Style.")
4. Be a minimalist with toiletries. Pare your list down to what you absolutely need. Hotels have gotten skimpier with amenities, but you can usually live off the land for soap and shampoo. On the other hand, if you wear contact lenses, you should bring enough of the various solutions you use since they may not be readily available where you are going. If you use makeup, carry just enough to last for the length of the trip--small containers or samples are great for that. A pair of earplugs and a set of eye shades weigh practically nothing and can help you get your beauty rest in noisy hotel rooms.
5. Layer to change your look. This approach gives you more outfits and the flexibility to adjust for weather changes--for example if your trip takes you to various climate zones, or you run into a heat wave or cold snap. For example, one long-sleeve button-down shirt, two camisoles, two tank tops and a cardigan can be combined in multiple ways.
6. Dress it up or down. Light-weight, wrinkle-free separates that can go dressy or casual make the most of each inch of packable space. By day three semi-dressy tops go casual with cargo pants (when touring, stash your cash in the pockets to deter pickpockets). In the evening, pair them with a wrinkle-resistant tube skirt and ballet flats for a more polished look.
7. Teach kids to help. Young children are natural tourists. Pack too many toys, and you may wind up carrying their stuffed animals and picture books through museums, for example, while they find endless amusement in the audio guide and growing number of interactive exhibits. If they are old enough to help pack, let them choose which items to bring.
You don't need as much other paraphernalia as you might think either. On trips to Malysia and India when my son was two and three respectively, a car seat turned into an extra piece of baggage since taxis there didn't have the seat belts necessary to secure them. Nor did I need the 100 diapers and powdered milk I toted on the first of of these trips; the former were readily available, and he refused to drink the latter.
That said, a few extra clothing changes for the inevitable spills and spit ups don't consume a lot of space. At the earliest opportunity, make kids responsible for their own belongings. Even a four-year-old can maneuver a small wheely--a skill mastered during the pull-toy days.
8. Use apps to the max. Even when traveling on business, I generally leave my laptop at home and rely on an iPad and iPhone to stay connected. During the past several years I have shed yet more baggage by using a variety of smart-phone apps, instead of toting weighty paraphernalia. Some of these apps are specifically designed for travel and touring. For example, I use the Camera+ app to take pictures, like the one at the top of this post and in the accompanying slideshow; convert currencies and measures of altitude, weight and temperature with Converter+; and wrote this article and kept background information about each destination on Evernote. (For more information, see my post, "Road-Tested Travel Apps.")
9. Wear the bulkiest items in transit. This goes not just for shoes, but for clothing too. Jeans, which are heavy and take up a lot of suitcase space, are great for travel because they are so durable. Don't travel in shorts or a skirt, which can be easily packed. If it's too warm to wear the jacket or coat you've brought, sling it over your arm.
10. Wash, rinse, repeat. You can't beat the convenience of a hotel laundry service, but it can cost almost as much as certain items of clothing. In some locations, self-service laundromats are your only alternative. A drop-off laundry service (priced by the pound) is a happy middle ground.
To tide you over, rinse things out in the hotel sink. (If you expect to do a lot of this, bring rubber gloves to avoid dishpan hands.) Pack a mild soap power for the purpose or live off the land if you're staying at a place that provides shampoo or bath gel. Dry your garments on towel rods or the retractable clothes lines that many hotel bathrooms now have, or string up one of your own.
What about souvenirs? Truth be told, I bring back a lot more than photos and memories from my travels. My sweet spot is for inexpensive, everyday items, as I wrote here: custom-made clothing from Southeast Asia; musical instruments; local footwear; and textiles. Anything that doesn't fit in my suitcase goes in what my husband calls “overflow bags,” also acquired along the way. The more unusual ones include a tote from the island of Mykonos in Greece made of the same fabric used to construct boat sails (I used it to bring home hand-knitted sweaters); an indestructible woven plastic bag from Oaxaca; and a Malaysian rice bag that I used to transport a lacquer tiffin from Myanmar.
I didn't need an overflow bag coming home from my latest vacation, in Europe. But this time the must-have souvenir was a beautiful cheese slicer purchased in Amsterdam. To airline officials, this household item is a deadly weapon. So I had to check my little duffel for the return trip. After a seven-hour transatlantic flight, I waited more than an hour to retrieve my suitcase at the baggage-claim carousel at New York's JFK Airport. It just strengthened my conviction that it's much better to travel light.