I’ve spent most of the past few years bouncing from place to place to place, and although that’s a ton of fun, it definitely means that I need to pack up my things way too often and prepare to move on to the next place. Packing used to be the bane of my existence, but I’ve come to terms with it by now, especially since I’ve started adopting a number of packing practices that make things a bit easier on me. So without further ado, here are my top ten travel packing tips that will make your life a little easier, no matter what kind of trip you’re planning!
1. Know your luggage restrictions.
Seems simple, in theory, but these days, it seems like every single airline, train company, bus company, and ferry has a different set of luggage restrictions, and they’re not always easy to work out (especially when you’re traveling on budget airlines, or if you’re traveling with oversized luggage like skis/snowboards or musical instruments). Before you even start to pack for your trip (actually, before you even book your ticket), though, do a quick online search and make sure you know what the luggage restrictions are for your specific carrier.
The reason I recommend checking baggage restrictions before booking, say, airline tickets, is that they can make the different between which ticket you purchase in the end. That budget airline’s ticket may look like the cheapest one, but if you’re planning to check a bag as well as bring a carry-on, you may find that it’s ultimately less expensive for you to fly with a non-budget airline that rolls in its baggage fees. Or if you were planning on flying but have the time so that you could take a train, you may find that the train is less expensive once you factor in luggage costs for your flight in addition to transportation to the airport and other fees that your flight ticket don’t take into account.
And it may be that you’re not worried about extra costs that baggage fees may add to your trip. But at the same time, wouldn’t you rather downsize a little and spend that extra money on a nice meal or a sightseeing activity that you might otherwise not do?
2. Get luggage you can handle.
One of the most common problems I see with travelers—especially amongst expats—is people packing into way more bags than they can feasibly carry on their own. And I understand, if you’re going to move abroad for a few years and stay in the same place, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have all the things that will make that new house feel like a home. However, if you’re only going to be staying there for six months and then plan to do some traveling, you’re going to limit the traveling that you can do if you have five suitcases that need to come along with you.
Personally, I love to travel with a backpack, and although I once traveled with a 70L backpack, I’ve lately been using a 40L backpack! (For those of you unfamiliar with backpack sizes, that 40L backpack is small enough to count as a carry-on bag.) It’s really all in what you’re comfortable with, but even if you’re not planning to do some low-budget bus travel, if you can’t schlep it from the baggage carousel to the taxi counter—then you’re carrying too much.
When you’re packing up whatever luggage you’ve chosen, make sure you’re paying attention to the bag’s center of balance, too. You’d be surprised at how much heavier a 40L backpack can feel when all your heaviest things are at the top rather than in the bottom or middle of the bag, or if they’re away from your bag rather than right up close to it.
3. Downsize that pile of things.
Again, if you can’t easily move it, you’re limiting yourself. The thing is, whether you’re packing for a couple days, a couple weeks, or a couple years, you’re probably planning to bring more than you actually need. I’m all for being prepared—in fact, between the travel that I do and the ski stuff that I do, it’s rare that you’ll find me without duct tape, a packable blanket, a clothesline, and other small items that I consider to be essential when it comes to a wide range of emergency situations.
What you won’t see me carrying, however, are five bathing suits, three sweaters, twenty pairs of socks, and every item of electronics that I could possibly own (even as a digital nomad, I can get by with a phone and my laptop—and maybe my backup iPod, just in case). My best advice? Write down what you think you’ll need, and then see if you can’t cut that list in half.
One great way to downsize is to make sure that you’re packing items that are versatile. When I’m traveling, I like to pick a specific color scheme and pack pieces that fit into that scheme. Despite what some may tell you, it doesn’t all have to be neutrals, either! Neutrals tend to be easier to keep clean on the road, but if you know you’ll have access to laundry services along the way, you may not need to worry about this any more than you would back home.
4. Stay organized!
I can’t stress enough the benefits of staying organized when you’re packing. Reason being that as soon as you arrive somewhere, there’s going to be that one thing that you need to find, whether it’s your passport, your pajamas, your charge cord, or…
There are a number of different ways that you can stay organized, whether it’s packing cubes, vacuum bags, or whatever else. For me personally, I’ve traveled for long enough at this point that I…just kind of know where everything is and everything goes. There’s a routine to my packing. But when I first set out, I definitely had separate vacuum bags for my shirts, bottoms, and everything else, and I still have those for my socks, underwear, and other smaller items that might otherwise get lost.
As you’re packing, make sure you’re thinking about how frequently you’ll need certain items or which items you’ll need first when you get to your destination. For example, if I’m going to be arriving someplace jetlagged and in the evening, I know I’m going to want something to sleep in not too long after I’ve arrived, and I’m not going to want to dig through everything to get to those things, so I try to pack them towards the top of my bag. On the other hand, I probably won’t need a swimsuit quite as frequently, and I probably won’t be as impatient to find it in my bag since usually I’ll use it on a preplanned outing or for an afternoon dip in the pool. So my swimsuit can be buried a little deeper.
5. Don’t forget your charge cords and adaptors.
Some people travel to get away from it all, and they leave behind their computers, tablets, and other gizmos. But most people carry at least their cellphone with them so that they can take pictures, check email, communicate with folks back home, navigate unfamiliar roads, and whatever else. The key thing to remember if you’re bringing any sort of gadget is to pack all the components that you’ll need, like charge cables, external battery packs, or SD cards.
The sorry truth is, these parts and accessories aren’t always easy to replace depending on where you travel and how old your device is. My best advice? Make a list of what you need. And because cords can get tangled in your bag, I recommend grabbing some twist-ties and looping them around your coils to keep them from coming undone as you dig through your bag.
When traveling abroad, don’t forget to bring adaptors for those chargers too! Chargers for laptops and phones tend to have converters built into them these days so that you don’t have to worry about voltage, but the actual socket shapes vary depending on where you’re going. Of course, you can usually pick up adaptors abroad, but they may not be as cheap as back home and you may get frustrated having to hunt for one directly upon arrival when all you want to do is charge your phone. Also, if you’re bringing any brand new electronics with you, you may want to consider purchasing insurance to cover them in the case of loss or theft. The risk of these unfortunate occurrences is generally the same back home as when you’re traveling, but people on vacation-mode sometimes forget to be as vigilant as they would otherwise be.
6. Pack essentials in a carry-on bag.
While we’re on the subject of electronics, here’s a reminder to make sure all those things—including their chargers!—are packed into your carry-on bag. If the airline should happen to lose your bag, or even if your bag ends up taking a bit longer to get to your destination than you do, you don’t want to find yourself stranded without something crucial, and you definitely don’t want to find yourself suddenly needing to replace your computer or your laptop or whatever else you might treasure.
Personally, I don’t travel with much of anything valuable because I don’t want to have to worry about it. But there’s a difference between valuable and essential. Another thing that would fit into this category would be any prescription medications that you might take. As for me, my carry-on bag usually has my laptop and my camera in it, as well as a spare change of clothing in case I get stuck in transit.
If you’re traveling internationally, one last, critical thing to make sure you pack in your carry-on bag is any sort of documentation that you may need to carry to go through immigration. Of course, you’ll want to make sure that you have your passport with you, but you may need additional paperwork such as pre-arranged visas or documentation showing that you don’t intend to stay in country, such as a return travel ticket. And if you are traveling with prescription medications, make sure you’ve looked up the local laws regarding possible import restrictions prior to your trip, and make sure you’re carrying a prescription with you along with the medication. The last thing you need is to get it confiscated upon arrival! You can usually look up these regulations online with your state department or check with the local consulate for the country you’ll be visiting.
7. Do a trial run.
When I’m about to leave on a trip, I have a tendency to procrastinate. On the last day before departure, you can generally find me running around with a whole list of errands—call the post office to hold my mail, clean the fridge and pantry of anything that’ll spoil in my absence, do that last-minute laundry so that I actually have clean sock to pack…and so on.
What you don’t want to be doing on top of all of that is finding out that your bag is too small. The frustration of having to pare down what you’re carrying could result in tears (trust me, I know) or else in impulse-buys of entirely new (and way too oversized) luggage that’ll fit everything on your list. So a couple days before, I like to do a dry-run and pack up the bag exactly as I plan to when I’m actually packing to leave. Don’t worry if not all your laundry is done yet or if you’re still waiting to pick up XYZ from the shop. Just get it as accurate as you can so you can start thinking about downsizing further if necessary.
8. Don’t worry so much about toiletries (in most places of the world).
Things are changing, and the products that you’re familiar with back home are becoming easier and easier to find in various countries around the world. You may not be able to find the exact brands that you’re used to (although even this is becoming more common), so if there’s something that you absolutely cannot live without (for example, that face cream that’s the only thing standing between you and a pizza face to rival a teenage boy’s), you may want to bring that. But shampoo, toothpaste, and other basic products are easy to come by, in some form, in a lot of places in the world, including the backroads of Asia!
One thing that you may want to consider packing since it typically ends up being more expensive and, frequently, less effective than back home is sunscreen. Again, it’s one of those things that’s becoming more prevalent around the world. However, whenever I’m in Southeast Asia, for example, I have a hard time finding sunscreen that doesn’t including whitening agents in it (I have a good mix of Irish and Scottish heritage, so I definitely don’t need to be any paler). Or there was the time that all I could find for sunscreen in Spain was 20 SPF (not going to cut it for me) and cost a whopping €19 per bottle. The thing is, when you need sunscreen, you generally need sunscreen, so personally, I’d lump this in with your necessities and prepare for all possibilities.
If you are bringing toiletries with you and you’ll be traveling by plane, make sure that you’re either packing your liquids, creams, and gels into a checked bag or else stowing them (in containers of 100ml or less) in a quart-sized baggie. Plenty of well-known brands now sell travel-sized bottles of your favorite shampoos, toothpastes, and hand creams, so there’s no longer any excuse for being that guy that holds up the rest of the long security line because they “forgot” that they couldn’t bring that 300ml shampoo bottle in their backpack.
9. Carry some back-up cash.
It may seem strange to pull out the cash when you’re going on a trip, especially if you’re going someplace like Western Europe or North America where you know that most times, you’re going to be just fine paying on your cards. But on the off chance that one of your cards gets shut off while you’re traveling due to “suspicious activity” (which can happen even if you’ve alerted your bank that you’ll be out of the country, unfortunately), it never hurts to have a backup stash of cash that you can exchange into local currency.
Another reason to do this? What’s your plan if you arrive at the airport and the ATM is out of order or won’t accept your card…but the only way to get into the actual city is to take a bus or a taxi or some other transportation that only accepts cash? These days, we take it so much for granted that we can always use our cards that we often don’t remember that sometimes when we travel, things don’t always go according to plan. Throw some dollars or euros into your bag just in case. If you don’t spend them on your trip, you could always use them at some point in the future.
10. Stress less.
Despite this lengthy article covering all the packing tips I can think of, the one that comes to mind the most is stress less. It goes back to the whole toiletries thing: most of the things that you’re thinking of bringing with you are things that you could replace abroad anyway. Am I suggesting that you jet off to your destination with nothing in your bag? No. But if you showed up in France with no luggage, you could probably buy a couple shirts and another pair of jeans and some toothpaste, and you know what? You’d survive. Ditto for Thailand. Ditto for Brazil.
Obviously, depending on your trip’s budget and the activities that you plan to do on your trip, that may not be the most ideal situation. But the thing is, these smaller things like forgetting to pack enough socks shouldn’t make you stress enough to ruin your trip before it’s even started. Depending on your personality type, it may take you years of practice before you can calm down about packing. But when in doubt, take a step back, take a deep breath, and remember why you’re going on this trip in the first place.
What’s your most useful bit of packing advice? Share it below!