Travel Gear: Save Time And Money By Packing Light

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Most hardcore independent travelers will agree that you can pack for a year ’round the world in just one carry-on. Being able to fit your life into one backpack is almost a meditation exercise for me. It makes me feel free. But since this is a money blog, here are some financial benefits of packing light:

  • More fun time. You don’t have to arrive to the airport as early, and you don’t waste time waiting around at the baggage claim after arriving. Now you have more time to soak in the culture!
  • No lost luggage. You don’t have to worry about lost or damaged checked luggage, and spending money replacing items in a foreign country.
  • Increased airport flexibility. Being one unit allows you to easily be “bumped” onto another airline, or you might go standby on an earlier flight. Similarly, if you miss a connection, you don’t have to pray that your luggage will still show up.
  • Cheaper transportation. You can take public transportation everywhere with ease – subways, crowded trains, even hanging off of a farmer’s truck. You can also walk longer distances without suffering.

So I thought I’d share some of the somewhat specialized gear that I actually don’t mind spending money on. I would have to say 75% of my stuff was bought at either the REI Outlet or Columbia Outlet stores.

Luggage – REI Tour Pack
I don’t think REI makes this anymore, but it’s a pretty simple bag and cost about $125. It’s basically a big squarish backpack exactly the size limit of a carry-on, with nice padded shoulder straps and compression straps too. Good quality, YKK zippers. There is also a small detachable daypack – perfect for carrying your rain jacket, maps, guidebooks, and bottle of water when out and about. A similar bag would be Rick Steves’ Classic Back Door Bag

The general idea here to have it be lightweight, look casual, and be fast-drying. That way you can just hand wash them at night in the hotel room and have them ready to go in the morning. I love my REI Sahara Convertible Pants. They convert to shorts easily, so it’s one less thing to pack. You can also buy hiking or “travel” shirts, socks, and even underwear that can be hand-washed and will dry overnight. My next purchase will be some nice travel boxers of Ex Officio. Technically, you could simply buy one of each of these, and just wash as needed! I think I’ll spring for at least 3 of each.

I always bring a good fleece jacket, but since I own one already that isn’t an extra expense.

Silk Money Belt
This “personal lockbox” allows me to sleep in hostels and walk around busy areas while keeping my passports and credit cards safe. It’s highly unlikely someone will poke around there without me noticing. Besides, it’s actually pretty comfortable. Here’s an example for $13.

Extra Toiletries Kit
I basically bought some cheap travel-sized (and TSA approved) plastic bottles, and made a duplicate of all the personal products I use everyday. I don’t move things in and out of my toiletry bag, it’s always 100% packed. Contact lenses, toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, comb, whatever. So when I need to pack, I just grab it and go.

I would like to say I have a sleek 3 lb. laptop and some nice GSM cell phone/internet hookup, but I actually don’t pack anything electrical with me besides my camera. Just about everything I need can be accessed by finding an internet cafe. I can post to blogs from anywhere, or even log into my computer remotely if desired.

More Links
Packing Light & Right – Rick Steves
Carrying off the art of one carry-on – SF Chronicle
The Travelite FAQ

Please share your own tips as well in the comments! Right now I’m trying to figure out how to fit in a week in Thailand in March or April. Gotta work on my mid-term goal 🙂

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  1. Great post! I definitely think you’re right on the money with all your suggestions. Smart packing goes hand in hand with keeping expenses down, limiting extraneous consumption, and increasing your enjoyment of travel experiences!

    The North Face brand hiking shirts are excellent for independent travel (although on the expensive side :-/). They are stylish enough for any situation, and of high quality: they can easily stand up to several weeks of wear-during-the-day / rinse-and-dry-at-night. From my experience, two such shirts are sufficient for one or two weeks abroad.

    When I travel, I bring only two pairs of shoes: good hiking boots and nice-looking sneakers. The sneakers go in the bag when I’m traveling — they take up much less space than the boots, and it’s relatively easy to take off the boots on a long plane ride if you feel confined. Wandering around towns, I tie the boots to the outside of my pack by their own laces.

    Flip flops / sandals can be purchased in warm locals (such as Thailand). Find a small local store with bamboo/plastic flip flops — these will serve just as well. I prefer spending one or two dollars on these each time than buying and transporting expensive specialty hiking sandals (e.g. Tevas), although your mileage may vary.

    If you’re staying at hostels, pick up your own lock beforehand and get used to it. Combination gym locks are definitely secure and easy to transport, but personally I prefer a key-based lock (just keep the key with you in your belt pouch). Attach the lock to the outside of your pack when not in use for easy carrying.

    Maybe someone can help suggest something for me? I’m looking for a lightweight waterproof rain jacket for warm to cool climates — just the rain layer. Any recommendations? 🙂

  2. GoldnSilver says

    I totally agree. female travelers might think it is not possible to pack everything in a carry-on size backpack (toiletries…etc), but trust me it can be done(I still manage to look presentable on my excursions). You just got to think/plan strategically, and bring only the essential items.

    I got the purse version of the Silk money bag 2 years ago, I absolutely love it. I use it on every trip since.

    Clothing wise – Often times you don’t need to bring a thick jacket to keep warm; dress in layers is the key.
    Invest in a good pair of waterproof hiking shoes. You will not regret it.

  3. My wife and I got some great gear at the REI super clearance sale last year. I think it starts in early February (that was according to the guy at REI last night). We thought the current “clearance” sale was the “super clearance” and were dismayed to see the prices not so hot. Anyway, wait until a couple of weeks and there should be several expedition packs marked down from $200 or more to about $50 or $60!!

    Last year, we got the Osprey Atmos 50 pack for $60 which is currently selling at REI for $199. We also go the Kelty Coyote 4900 for something ridiculous like $45…it currently sells for $199 also. We also got a smaller REI travel pack for $15 or something like that. Over the summer, we went to Europe for a month and my wife packed her Osprey Atmos and I decided to not take the Kelty Coyote (it’s a big pack that looked like it may have to be checked in) and took the smaller REI travel pack. Mind you, this is about the size of a regular laptop backpack, but I used it for one pair of REI convertable pants (I wore the other pair I had), a couple of shirts, some undies, socks, and my toiletries. I also had my camera hip pack strapped to the top of the bag as well. Overall, I loved the experience of not having too much gear to schlep. I remember seeing people dragging their monster suitcases around Venice and just not enjoying the experience. Also it forced us to be very cautious about what we bought. Buying souvenirs amounted to tiny refrigerator magnets. Also we could get away with the excuse that we literally had no space to bring home gifts for everyone (both ways to save your hard earned dollars).

    We got one new camera (I detail the decision here: to go along with my Rebel XT. It was the Kodak V705. The rationale was that it has a wide angle lens that could and did come in extremely handy for taking photos in tight places or just picking up more of the scenery. It made “stretch your arm and take photos of yourself” very nice since it picked up much of the background and looked like a regular photo that we would ask someone to take for us.

  4. I’ve been on a few backpacking trips with just a backpack, but unfortunately, due to airline regulations it is now impossible for me to take it as a carry-on. When you factor in enough 3-oz sample size toothpastes, bug repellent, sunscreen, shampoo, lens solution, etc. to cover the trip, you have much more than will fit into the required quart-sized baggie. Also, my lens solution comes only in 4-oz containers (or more), and I don’t want to risk contaminating it by transferring it to something else.

    Consequently, as far as I’m concerned, since the summer of 2006, it’s impossible to travel for more than one week with just one carry-on. How I miss the good old days.

  5. I actually decided last backpacking trip to bring a wheeling carry-on instead. best decision I’ve ever made. The previous trip I had shoulder issues for months from doing the silly frontpack/backpack that results from too much gear too many bags. This time, I was able to put my girlfriends pack on the handle of my carry on and be the pack mule the entire trip. This allowed us to shop around for a hotel/hostel that was to our liking with the right price.

    I don’t think this idea is ideal for every trip, but worked great for us. Even in Mexico, with uneven, crowded sidewalks the system worked most everywhere. On gravel, I would carry both bags like 2 suitcases, balanced but heavy.

    some classic advice from my father: Bring half the clothes and twice the money!

  6. My wife and I did the backpack europe thing – learned that you really dont need as many clothes as you thing – pack light! Also, we bought a inexpensive alarm lock for our bags. That way, we could sleep comfortably (well, mentally comfortably at least) on trains and long distance public travel.

  7. money belts are a waste of time. i never used one in all my 537 days away and never felt like i needed it. in fact those with it were a bigger target b/c it was obvious they had money to hide.

    as for thailand, go in april. its when the thai new year is and well, that is something amazing!

  8. No phone? Well yeah, then you have to bring the charger too, I guess. Money/ID is always something I worry about constantly. I’m not sure the belt would help me too much because I’d fixate on it falling off and would probably keep checking the contents. But I love the idea of having everything in a backpack. That’s definitely do-able as long as your not going anywhere too fancy.

  9. Perfect timing. i’m going to Europe for 2 weeks in March. If there are any recommendations on traveling light with a baby (7 months), i’d appreciate it.

  10. @ of my best friends just left on a bike trip.

    2 bikes
    8 Panniers
    2 Sleeping bags
    1 tent

    And heres a picture of everything they are taking for 2+ years.

  11. check out for some good packing tips

  12. Sleep in a hostel? Are you crazy? You obviously haven’t seen the movie Hostel otherwise you’d think twice about doing that. *shivers*

  13. GoldnSilver – Kudos for being able to fit it all in one bag. Is the purse version the one that hangs from your neck?

    Adam – Definitely, I have a lock for both my main bag and a lock for my daypack while walking.

    JJ – It’s possible, but you just have to really want it. Or just buy what you need at the airport when you get there.

    teeej – As long as it works for you, then go for it. I think those full-frame backpacks people lug around are just too big. Getting a smaller pack means just having less stuff. Also, not bringing regular cotton shirts or jeans and sticking to the hiking-type clothing saves a ton of weight.

    matt – How do they know you’re carrying a money belt? You shouldn’t be able to tell you’re even wearing one. I didn’t like mine as much either until I felt a stranger’s hand in my pockets taking my pocket money!

    ken – sounds like quite an adventure.

    mimi – I’m not a fancy person 🙂 No phone for international trips. Id say the chances of a good money belt falling off are about the same as your pants falling down spontaneously 😉

    Robert – Ha, hostels are great, esp. if you are traveling alone. Lots of great friendly folks. I probably am going to stay away now that I am married though – being forced to upgrade!

  14. I’ve always traveled with only one carryon bag and never checked anything until I met my wife. She insists on bringing a gigantic suitcase every trip to fit all her cosmetics, so it kind of defeats the purpose for me to do the one bag deal since I still have to stand at baggage claim every time and lug her stuff for her.

    On the upside, carrying more things allows us to bring a set of nice clothes (suit & cocktail dress) when we hit up the nice restaurants or lounges @ our destination. And with a big suitcase, you can buy more stuff and bring it home =P

  15. I used and traveled to Europe for two weeks with one carry-on bag! It changed my life! I now NEVER travel with anything more than that bag. I love it. It’s helped me not miss planes, move easily to another flight, and just peace of mind. I never thought it was possible, but it is!! I love it!

  16. Just a note, for those of you like me who like to take extra camera batteries…new law as of 1/1/2008: Lithium batteries that are not inside a device (i.e. spare batteries) MUST BE CHECKED.

    I try to pack light but Jonathan’s suggestions seem more suited for a non-city vacation. When traveling to cities, it’s nice to pack things that don’t make you stick out like a tourist (the big backpack). It’s also nice to pack some nice clothes and shoes as mentioned above.

  17. Sorry, I think I made a mistake. The lithium batteries must be carried on. Doh

  18. For Thailand for a week I think you’d be just fine with with just a regular backpack. 5 pairs of underwear, no socks. a t-shirt, a couple of short sleeve button down cotton shirts from the thrift store. swimsuit. flip flops. a pair of those zip off pants/shorts. camera. toiletries. Half a towel.
    No need to worry about hostels there — plenty of decent guesthouses with private rooms and bathrooms. Usually ended up spending about $6/night, sometimes up to around $10. A ‘hotel’ with sat TV and all can be around $25.

    Just as a warning, most of Thailand is hot, dry, and brown in April, especially before the rains start around the 15th. Go on Thai new year and be prepared to be pelted with water buckets at every turn. =)

  19. My wife and I visited Thailand for our honeymoon. I’d been before; the country has changed quite a bit over 8 years between my visits. Still, the scuba diving off phi phi is sensational.

    We took one empty check-in bag, one filled with scuba stuff we wanted and one carry-on for a two week trip. The airport guys at customs couldn’t believe we went for two weeks with so little. Uh, laundry service is super cheap and it’s not like we needed anything beyond shorts/shirts.

  20. Thailand??? Seriously???

    I just lost a lot of respect for you.

  21. What’s wrong with Thailand? (Never been, please enlighten.)

  22. Yeah, what’s wrong with Thailand? It’s some of the best scuba in the world and in year’s past it was a sensational value. I spent a month there in 99 and only spent $800 (including airfare!).

  23. Great advice – also I find the following really helpful:

    1.Check if destination has a hairdryer, bathrobes, beach towels, bathrobes.
    2. Check temperatures –do not bring “just in case” clothes for instance a jumper if it will be 31c.
    3. Write a list of everything you plan to bring – helps you to plan.
    4.Wear your heaviest coat, shoes, etc. on the journey so you aren’t carrying them!
    5.Buy travel-size or tester size versions of your favourite toiletries.

  24. check out

  25. The ymylholster is a cool alternative to the money belt. I fit my passport, cards, phone and other travel essentials inside it.

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