After airlines having lost my luggage multiple times and a ruined Christmas holiday, I became serious about traveling light and rarely check my luggage now. So much so, that friends are amazed when I travel for two weeks or more with a carry on. And when they see me wear fresh clothes every day, they ask: “How to you get all that into your little bag??” Today, all my secrets will be revealed… well, at least my packing secrets!
If you want to travel with a carry on only, follow as many of the tips below as you can! And don’t worry, this is not the kind of list that suggests to travel with 3 shirts. While I want to travel light, I still want to wear clean clothes and look respectable. I have done this not only for leisure, but also for business travel! And if you were told to roll your clothes or use organizer cubes, make sure to read on! The photos in this post and the list of clothes at the end are proof from my recent 4 week ASEAN Explorer trip that his works! My carry-on for this trip is within the measurements and weighed less than 7kg, meeting even low-cost carrier weight restrictions!
1. Bring two pairs of shoes!
Don’t leave yet, hear me out! Shoes are the biggest offenders in taking up space in your luggage, whether it’s boots or bulky sneakers. I travel with two practical pairs of shoes that cover multiple purposes! For a business trip, that would be one pair of dress shoes and one pair of sneakers I can wear on the street or to the gym. On a beach trip, I’d wear a pair of sneakers or loafers (depending how nice the hotel is) and bring some flip flops. In winter, I wear a pair of boots and bring some sneakers. Always wear the bulkier shoes on the flight and pack the lighter ones. My shoes are general neutral colors, so I can wear them with all my clothes. They are comfortable and of good quality – you don’t want them to break down in the middle of your trip!
2. Bring carry-on size toiletries!
I just heard a second gasp, but don’t worry! Toiletries are the second biggest offender when it comes to weight and space! After 9/11, the toiletries on board were limited to 100ml (3ounces), which meant you have to seriously limit what you bring, if you don’t want to check your luggage. Fortunately, 100ml is plenty for a two week trip, in most cases. You can buy a lot of toiletries in travel sizes today, for example toothpaste, folding tooth brush, shampoo, lotion, etc. All the special lotions and potions you need to look your best and that come in big, heavy glass bottles, you can fill into small plastic bottles. You often only need a drop of this and a little bit of that every day, so get bottles in a size that are sufficient for your trip. Consider using the soap, shampoo and conditioner the hotel provides. Depending on the class of hotel, those can be very nice brands! And, in case that just doesn’t work for you, here comes my first big revelation: They have stores in other countries! Shocking, I know! Plan on buying things that you need a lot of, like sun tan lotion, aloe lotion if you didn’t use enough of the former, shampoo, soap, toothpaste or insect repellent at your destination. If you tried and tried and it still doesn’t all fit into one plastic, quart size bag, separate the fluids and hard items: solid deodorant, medication, razor, tooth brush, etc can go into a separate small bag!
3. Bring only the clothes you need!
Many people, who remain unnamed, pack by standing in front of the closet and picking all the clothes they like, they bought with this trip in mind or their favorites… and end up bringing half the clothes back home without wearing them. Think through, what you need on this trip! First, I need a clean shirt, socks and undies every day, so I will pack one for every day! If the trip has very different activities, like hiking during the day and performance at night, I’ll bring a few extra! I’ll pack enough pants to wear each 2-3 times. These should be the items that you will wear every day to the activities you have planned!
4. Select versatile clothes!
Bringing specific outfits, for example a shirt that only goes with one pants, is a killer! I’ll bring versatile clothes that can be casual or dressed up, for example a jacket that goes with jeans and t-shirt or slacks, dress shirt and tie! Or a cardigan or vest that also goes with both and adds a warm layer! Most of my clothes mix and match easily, especially shoes, pants, jackets vests, cardigans – so I only need one of them and not multiple!
Also, think about your destination: Are you going on a city trip, with performances and nice dinners? Bring more dressy clothes that mix and match! Going on an adventure? Pack a convertible pants that can be long on a mountain hike or short in midday heat! I’ll pack good sneakers instead of hiking boots! Ever since on the Inka trail a porter in flip flops ran past me in my hiking boots, I have left those behind!
5. Only bring some “maybe” items
I only bring one item of things I may or may not need! For going to the gym – I bring one set of workout wear! Not sure about the opera? I’ll bring slacks, a dress shirt and tie! And here comes my second big secret… wait… they have laundry in foreign countries, too! I know, who would have thought? If I end up going to the gym or a show more than once or am short of some clothing item, I have it washed. I avoid the (expensive) hotel laundry and use a local laundromat or wash-and-fold instead! I also do that whenever I travel for more than two weeks.
6. Fold your clothes, don’t roll!
I realize I’m walking into a packing-recommendation-minefield here, but whoever recommends to roll rather than fold your clothes has clearly never compared the two methods side by side! I fold my clothes with as little overlap as possible, so there are few crinkles and little air in between. It’s a lot less volume (because of less wrinkles and air captured), easier organized (because you have all your shirts or socks in a stack and can see which is which) and leaves your clothes looking better when you want to wear them! As you can see from the photos, I can easily fit a whole stack of shirts, undies and socks into carry-on backpack, get to everything quickly and waste no space! In comparison, the rolled clothes flow over the same luggage, about 50% more space.
7. Don’t use organizers if you want to save space!
I know, another favorite recommendation of “packing experts”! Seriously, how can adding packing cubes save you space or weight? NOT! If you use a large check-in luggage, sure, they can help you organize and keep things accessible. But they are a waste of space and weight allowance in carry ons, so leave them at home if you want to travel light!
8. Planning to shop – bring disposable clothes!
Are you worried that your shopping at the destination won’t fit for the return trip? Bring clothes that are at the end of their aesthetic life span and give them away at the destination! Especially, if you are traveling to a country poorer than your home country, you will do the locals a favor. Instead of giving old’ish clothes away in a rich country, where they end up as cleaning rags, because the charities don’t want to deal with them, you can give them away in a poor country were the people can actually use them and are grateful for it. My old clothes are worn all over South East Asia and Africa by now!
9. Warm climate – bring light clothes!
We are now getting close to the end of my list and the finer art of packing light! After traveling and shopping a lot in South America and Asia, I noticed that a lot of the local clothes are much thinner and lighter than what you buy in Europe or the US – much more appropriate and comfortable for hot climates! A stack of thick cotton t-shirts and polo shirts bought in the US is almost twice as high (and heavy) as the same number of shirts made of thin pima cotton or microfibers. They are more comfortable and save a lot of space and weight. The same is true for jeans and pants!
10. Bring easy-care items!
I found a lot of the modern fibers to be especially practical for travel. Some of the micro fibers will be more comfortable in hot weather and will wrinkle less. They also dry much faster, if you end up washing them and they are lighter to boot! Can’t find a laundry and need a fresh shirt – handwash at the hotel and they dry over night! They might be a little more expensive than regular shirts, but that might be worth it, if you wear them a lot!
Bonus Tip: Go easy on the gadgets!
I know, this is a tough one, as I’m a big fan of having the right gadget for the right job! But I limit myself when traveling. I have seen people with the gadget bag easily exceeding the carry-on limit. See, if you can do with an eReader OR a tablet, an in-ear headset instead of the on-ear Bose, a travel zoom camera instead of your bag of SLR gear. I will have separate posts for the best travel gadgets, I know that could be a whole different blog!
Here is the list of clothes I brought on the ASEAN Explorer Trip and that are shown in the pictures (1 set worn, rest packed):
6x Polo Shirts
4x Buttoned Shirts
4x Long / Convertible Pants
1x Flip Flops
Toiletries, First Aid/Medication