The suitcase is on the bed ready to be packed for the big trip. You look at the pile of clothes and other “stuff” waiting to be loaded in, and you look back at the suitcase. It’s like watching a tennis match, back and forth, back and forth. Your mind is trying to comprehend how you are going to fit that pile of clothes and “stuff” into that suitcase.
Well, let me tell you if I can do it so can you? It has taken a long time to manage it finally, but I have finally learnt the art of packing light. And I will never be crossing back to the dark side of overpacking again.
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I am going to start by saying I am no fashionista.
Nor am I an Instagram Influencer able to take the perfect photo of myself, I am almost 50 and not petite. So if you resonate with that, read on.
I like clothes, and I love to feel great. I have always been a jean loving girl and will wear them everywhere. But things have changed over the last few years and my wardrobe used to have a lot of nice dresses, pants and jackets hanging in it. But now it does not. I don’t have a literal wardrobe/closet because the house/converted shed we live in doesn’t have them.
But I do get nervous before I travel when I worry that I won’t fit in. I have realised that I don’t anyway, so there is no point spending money on new outfits or trying to dress differently. It’s important to feel comfortable, so wear what you like.
My only advice is to dress with confidence. Don’t make yourself a target for pickpockets by dressing too much like a tourist.
Why Pack Light?
You might have a 30 kg luggage limit, and a carry-on allowance. You think why not to take it all because I can.
But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
Whether you love hats, big jewellery, shoes it doesn’t matter. You can still pack light and be you. As long as the pieces you choose can make multiple outfit combinations, you will be fine. It just means you don’t take ALL your pieces.
It’s hard to cut down, you think you will get bored, but in reality, travel itself becomes the focus. Does it matter that you wore an outfit in one destination and again in another? You could wear the same outfit every day, and no one would notice. The only person who knows (or cares) is you.
Packing light means:
Freedom on travel days
No needing help to lift a massive suitcase onto a train and leaving it at the front of the carriage in the storage racks because it’s too big and heavy to fit in the overhead rack. It might get stolen if the thief can lift it, but at the very least wouldn’t you have peace of mind if your luggage was near you.
Save your back and neck – every time I travelled, I ended up with a sore neck and shoulders.
EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.
That usually means I end up with a headache, and for the entire trip, I am suffering from pain. Because it doesn’t get better, each time I travel to another destination, it gets sore all over again.
Pickpockets and thieves look for travellers who are distracted. When you have too much luggage to worry about, it’s impossible to be at ease.
From the time you get on the plane, you are lifting, pulling, shoving or organising your luggage. You are juggling a handbag, carry-on bag and a suitcase.
How can you be aware of your surroundings and on alert if you are trying to wrestle with your luggage? You make yourself a prime candidate for theft. Wouldn’t you rather fewer outfit choices, and less stress over being robbed?
Ease and Convenience
Carrying a small suitcase or backpack means you don’t have to worry if your accommodation has stairs because you can easily carry your luggage.
No lifts and lots of stairs at train stations are no longer an issue when you can carry your luggage.
And finding your way from the station to your accommodation through cobblestone laneways is not difficult with a light bag. Think you won’t need it because your private transfer will drop you at the door?
Sure, in a lot of cases that can work, but not places like Venice where the private water taxi can only drop you at the closest stop to your hotel. Of course, you can find a porter, and pay him, to take your bag to your hotel. But what a hassle.
Better to be prepared for anything. And don’t forget your private transfer doesn’t have endless room for all your luggage.
On a trip to Boston, after disembarking the train from New York and going in search of a taxi, we waited for hours. Yes, hours. As taxi after taxi ignored us, we were finally picked up by one who told us no one wanted to pick us up because of all our luggage.
I still don’t know how we managed that ride. All those suitcases and bags were loaded on top of the kids and us. Dangerous and far from ideal.
Here are my 10 Rules for Packing Lightly
- Check the weather, so you don’t take unnecessary clothing.
- Stick to a colour palette so that everything will mix and match (or at least most of it does)
- Don’t worry about fashion, pack what you feel good in.
- Wear your heaviest clothes on the plane including your jacket.
- Use an app to organise your packing so you can see how many outfits you can create from your minimal wardrobe (this was a gamechanger for me)
- Packing cubes. Learn how to use them, and you will never look back.
- Pack only one weeks worth of clothing
- Wash clothes every second day
- Don’t stress about it; when you are travelling you won’t care
- You can buy whatever you are missing
Don’t be a slave to fashion
Travel is expensive even as a budget traveller. Then a lot of people add the extra pressure of having a “travel” wardrobe.
But why do you need a separate wardrobe? Why not utilise what you have? It’s a cheaper option, less stress. Maybe all it takes is a different way of looking at things.
I belong to some travel-themed Facebook groups. One, in particular, specialises in packing. I read over and over posts from people worried about whether they will fit in. Guess what? You will fit in whether your T-shirt is from Madewell or Target.
The only time you will not fit in is if you were “touristy clothes” — loud matching T-shirts announcing where you are from. Bum bag (fanny pack) strapped around your waist (although I do believe they are now a designer piece).
You can certainly have style without becoming a slave to fashion. The best way to fit in and feel comfortable is to do you.
My Perfect Packing List for Cold Weather
I have included my perfect packing list. This one is particularly for cold weather as I usually try and travel in offseason. For warmer climates packing will be even easier. Swap out jumpers for more tops or dresses. You will also be able to pack a more extensive variety as there will be no need for coats or jackets and boots.
- 2 x Jeans/Pants/Bottoms
- 2 x Lightweight Jumpers
- 1 x Merino Cardigan
- 2 x Tank/Singlet Tops
- 2 x Long Sleeve Tops
- 3 x T-Shirts/Top/Blouse
- 2 x Pair Ankle Boots (or include one pair of comfortable walking shoes)
- 1 x Pair Gloves
- 3 x Pairs of Wool Socks
- 2 x Scarves
- 1 x Warm hat
- 1 x Coat/Jacket
- 3 x Bras
- 5 x Underwear
- 1 x Pair Sleep Shorts (I sleep in one of the tank tops)
Personal Item for Plane
Pack the following into your handbag/backpack, or whatever personal item you choose to take on board, and that will fit under the seat in front of you. This bag is where you will stash your more breakable purchases (but not alcohol, remember the liquids rule) –
- Laptop/iPad/tablet (if you are taking one)
- Small bag with everything you will need on the plane – socks, lip balm, earphones, hand moisturiser, eye mask, Kindle or book, tissues/wipes, earplugs – take this out and throw on your seat before putting the bag into the overhead locker.
- Clear Liquids bag/makeup
- Travel Wallet with your passport and boarding pass
Outfit for Plane
Remember to choose your outfit to wear on the plane from the list above. Most packing light posts tell you to wear your heaviest shoes and coat on the plane but that’s not always feasible. If you can certainly do that, but if not choose what is most comfortable.
For me, travelling from Australia, which means two long haul flights if I am going to Europe, I wear what I will be able to sleep in on the plane, and I don’t want to have to be bothered with trying to wrestle with a coat if it’s not necessary.
I usually wear one of the pairs of jeans (my stretchiest and most comfortable), don’t worry about a belt because I don’t want the hassle of taking it off through security, boots or shoes that will allow for my feet to swell a bit. I wear compression socks once I am on board. My tops need to be layered and I usually have a wrap or large scarf to use as an extra blanket if needed. If I do have a coat I wear it onto the plane and usually store it in the overhead lockers with my bag.
I find I don’t need it during the flight.
The crossbody bag that I use at my destination during the day, is packed into my luggage. I need a larger bag like a backpack or tote to fit everything in and you are usually only allowed one piece of luggage and one personal item with the carry-on. Even if I could take it I wouldn’t want to juggle that many bags.
The Key to Packing Light
Dressing for You
Years ago, I made the mistake of buying new clothes for my trip. Big mistake! The clothes were uncomfortable, didn’t go with anything else I already had in my wardrobe. And it wasn’t me.
One of the biggest mistakes people make is taking clothes they don’t love and feel comfortable in. If you don’t love it at home, you won’t love it travelling. And if it hasn’t been road-tested, it shouldn’t be in your bag.
I had bought clothes I thought would look good but didn’t feel like me. Since then I have learnt what my style is, which became a major turning point in my quest to pack light. Find your style and making choices for that tiny suitcase becomes a whole lot easier.
Now? I wear my tried and true clothes I wear at home. It might sound a little boring compared to an exciting new travel wardrobe, but you will feel great in your favourite outfits from home and won’t worry about whether you fit in.
The biggest lesson I have learnt is that overall the world is a casual place. More often than not you won’t even change for dinner after a long day exploring. And if you do, you can dress up what you have. Whack on a nice necklace or a new scarf you have bought, a pretty pair of earrings, and you will be fine.
And if you are like me, you will end up buying new clothes and wearing those. So, all those extra outfits you packed “just in case” won’t even make it out of the suitcase.
It’s all about thinking smarter, not taking more.
Dressing for the Season
On one trip we were in Italy in Summer. Never again if I can help it. I hate the heat, and I was certainly not prepared for an Italian Summer. That trip started in the USA before heading to Europe for two months. I knew I was in trouble when I was wearing pants on a 38°C day in New York City and didn’t have any light alternatives.
I had made the mistake of not checking the weather and just based my packing on our previous trip to the States in Autumn.
When we got to Italy and faced more heat, and the crowds, I took myself to the markets, chose some light summer dresses and proceeded to wear those for the rest of the trip. Even though I had packed lighter for this trip, there was still a lot of wasted clothing items in my suitcase.
On the trip to Italy in November, last minute, I ditched my wool coat and only took my black rain jacket which ended up being fine. It is thick enough to keep the wind out and was warm enough with layers underneath. And it was great for those rainy days. No umbrella needed. You can find my packing list for Italy in Autumn here.
I would have liked my wool coat on the colder days, but in the end, it was just too much weight.
A lot of people suggest taking the packable lightweight down jackets that fold down to a little ball. Eventually, I will invest in one of these, but for this trip, I didn’t want to spend too much money on new purchases before leaving. And I already had the rain jacket in preparation for walking the Camino later this year.
Good Shoe Choices
Bring good walking shoes.
There is no need to bring umpteen pairs of shoes. Just 2-3 pairs that cover everything that you will be doing. Work out your activities and define the shoes that will be most useful. For me, I would bring a pair of ankle boots that are suitable for a lot of walking and maybe another pair that are a little dressier.
I had been stubborn on this trip, and I hadn’t wanted to spend more money before I left on new shoes.
In the past I have taken casual shoes I found comfortable, added some inner soles and I have been good to go — very few problems.
But on this trip, for whatever reason, I walked a lot more. And I have developed some pain in one foot over the last couple of years (the joys of ageing), and I did not take that into account.
After one and a half weeks of miserable pain, and a terrible blister on the bottom of one of my toes, I couldn’t cope anymore.
I bought a pair of Ecco boots, not the most attractive, but they were like putting cushions on my feet. I was lucky to get them on sale, and they were much cheaper than what I had priced them for at home.
Not only are they comfortable, but they are also lined and waterproof, so I see myself wearing these for many years to come.
There are many walking shoes on the market these days, and you don’t have to opt for runners. I will be investing in some Sketchers (or similar) for the warmer months I travel, and another pair of tan ankle boots so that I can change up my look and give my feet a rest.
Also, remember where you will be walking. The cobblestone streets and laneways in Florence, as they are in a lot of Italy, are uneven. Throw in some rain, and you could easily take a tumble.
Like I did.
Right into the middle of the street.
And my pride took a beating as well.
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My toiletries and makeup fit into my liquids bag.
I take minimal makeup consisting of:
The rest of my toiletries consist of:
- Small Bottle multipurpose Castille Soap Body & Face Wash (I also use this for laundry)
- Quarter each of Shampoo & Conditioner Bars
- Toothbrush and mini tube natural toothpaste
- Small bottle Jojoba oil for facial moisturiser (or samples)
- Small tube of Magnesium cream as a moisturiser (also eases muscle cramps)
- Tiny bottles of any essential oils I feel like taking like peppermint
- Small tin of deodorant paste
- Small tube of Sunscreen suitable for use on the entire body
I buy a small can of hairspray when I arrive and anything else I may need. I also throw in hand sanitiser.
You can find everything I take here at My Healthy Travel Toiletries.
The weather where you are travelling may be different from home. On my last trip to Italy, I thought I had it covered because our winter is similar to the autumn temperatures I would be experiencing in Europe.
But what you might not consider is that at home you are rarely out in that weather all day. If it’s sweltering, you more than likely will be inside with air conditioning, and in winter, well, it could be the opposite to what you are used to.
European homes and accommodation are well heated. You need to dress in layers so when you are inside you can peel them off. And warm enough when walking around, particularly at night.
Layering is THE only way to packing lightly, effectively. You may not be able to fit in a coat or more jumpers, but you can layer and stay warm just the same. And then when you are inside in the warmth, you can peel those layers off.
Merino wool tops are fantastic. I use both short sleeve tops and long sleeve and then layer as I need to. I also have a couple of merino wool cardigans (cascading and short) that add the perfect layer for warmth and easy to take off when indoors.
Merino wool clothing is lightweight yet extremely warm. They are easy to wash, but they also don’t absorb odours, so if you can’t wash as often as you like, they will stay fresh.
I found a good scarf makes all the difference in the cold. I like to take only one scarf and then buy one for myself at my destination, a nice souvenir to bring home.
I saw women walking around, hunkered over, in the cold wearing a tiny little scarf that would be fine for autumn in a hot climate. When the wind is bracing, and you are wandering outside a good wool scarf is great. And if it’s big enough, you can wrap it around your shoulders inside if you are cool without your coat on.
Choosing the Clothes to Pack
I used an app.
I found YourCloset and downloaded it onto my phone. I thought I would have a bit of fun with it. What I didn’t realise is that it would play a crucial role in packing lightly.
Like a lot of us, I am visual. Seeing something is a lot more powerful than writing about it, creating a list or thinking about it.
That’s what I started out doing when I thought about the clothes I would take. I quickly rattled off my favourite tops, cardigans, pants and shoes. I thought I knew the type of cross-body bag I wanted, but I couldn’t really decide.
But when I used the app, it all changed. It was a little tedious, to begin with, taking photos of my clothes on light or dark backgrounds, editing the image and learning how to use the app. All in all, though it only took an hour or so, not as much time as it felt like.
The results were amazing. When I started to create combinations of all the clothes I thought I would take, I realised that a couple of items could only be combined with a few other items to create outfits. I was not going down that path again, taking a favourite item only to wear once or twice. My rule was that each item needed to be included in at least three outfit combinations.
Being able to see all the outfits proved invaluable. I could quickly see the items that were only in a couple of outfits, so I could easily discard them from the packing list. The old me still wanted to throw them in “just in case”, but this time I stayed strong.
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The key to fitting it all in
I used these years ago and had forgotten all about them. I had been to a travel packing workshop a few years ago and tried that method last time I travelled. Layering is fine, but I found it tedious. I found I could fit so much more in with the packing cubes.
As long as the items you take don’t need ironing the cubes will work fine. For the items that do need ironing, Eagle Creek has a packing system that will accommodate those needs.
I scratched around and finally found my old packing cubes. I can’t even tell you what brand they are, but I think they were a little cheap. Because I didn’t want to spend too much money before leaving, I ordered only one more, an Eagle Creek Original Pack-It Cube and it has been brilliant. Eventually, I will purchase a whole Eagle Creek Set so that I can replace my old packing cubes. I love the quality and together with my old one that is the same size they fit side by side in the top half of my suitcase leaving the other half for the bulkier jumpers, my coat and second woollen scarf which both folded up and packed down nicely.
Remember – it’s not about what you can fit, carry on luggage now gets weighed so It’s important to weigh your bag as well. My limit was 7 kg for my suitcase and 5 kg for my personal item (handbag/backpack/tote). You can buy luggage scales anywhere they sell luggage so make sure you budget for one of those.
Choosing a Suitcase
I am currently using a small suitcase from American Tourister. The reason I chose it was because of its size – 50 cm long and because it was the lightest bag I could find.
I also wanted a bag with two wheels as I have found that four wheels that glide, great for at the airport, don’t fare so well being dragged along cobblestone walkways and streets.
The one I have has an inbuilt lock which was excellent and a soft-sided back so that it would be easier to fit into tight spaces and I could open from the top. The hard shell suitcases need to be opened like a clam, not always practical when you have to squeeze something in or retrieve an item quickly.
Choosing a Personal Item
I didn’t get it right on the last trip. I used the black backpack pictured above and didn’t like it at all. I don’t feel safe with a backpack.
Next time I will buy the large tote I originally wanted to purchase. I thought the backpack would be easier, but it just wasn’t right for me.
The Longchamp Le Pliage Travel Bag in large seems to be extremely popular. They are a little on the pricey side, but I have heard so many travellers recommend that I am considering one.
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If you are ready to try and pack light and take carry on luggage only, then I urge you to keep trying until you get it right. Like everything, it takes time to tweak the process.
Or maybe you just want to take a smaller suitcase and pack lighter. Either way, you will not regret it.
Enjoy the freedom of travelling light.
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