9 Tips for Traveling the World with Only a Personal Item

Sometimes a handbag comes along too

We see travel tips all the time for packing light and think: That’s still too much! If you can’t fit it all under the seat in front of you, then you haven’t packed light enough. We pack so light that we frequently get stopped at customs and asked if we forgot our bags. Nope! We just don’t like to be weighed down. It doesn’t matter how long or in what season we are traveling. The only time we bring an extra bag is when we need our snorkeling gear or drone 😁 And even that goes in a small, easy to manage carryon.

Packing light takes a bit of planning, but it’s absolutely liberating and cost effective. You don’t have to pay for a checked bag or wait for it at baggage claim or risk it never arriving at all. Also, you don’t have to fight for overhead storage space on the aircraft—though if it’s available, we usually throw our backpacks up top so we can get a little leg room. Also, our bags are never too heavy to carry on our backs for long periods of time.

So here are a few tips for traveling with just a personal item—no matter what time of year it is.

1. Start with the bag you want to bring, not the stuff you want to bring

Bags are made to be filled, so as a general rule, whatever bag you bring will be stuffed. If you lay out all the items you want to bring, and find a bag big enough to fit it, you’ll just wind up bringing even more stuff until the bag is full. So pick the bag you want to carry and don’t bring anything more than what fits comfortably. Pick something easy to carry and made of lightweight material. We use packing cubes and know how many cubes fit in the bag (a medium and a small). So when the cubes are full, we’re done packing—though the chargers, hat, extra pair of shoes and neck pillow get stuffed around the cubes. Some people opt to roll their clothes and place them directly in the bag because packing cubes take up space. [UPDATE: I just got compression bags and they are life changing!] Whatever you decide, the point is to pick the bag first. If it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t go.

2. Bring Castile soap

Toiletries can weigh your bag down, and Castile soap is the wonder of wonders. It’s biodegradable; gentle on faces, bodies, and hair; and can be used as laundry detergent. Throw a few 3 oz bottles of this in your bag, and you won’t need many other products. I need conditioner (which is usually available at hotels and Airbnb’s, but not always), moisturizer, sunscreen and toothpaste. Many of these products are available in non-liquid forms (bar shampoo and conditioner, for example) to help with airport security limits. Also: You can buy almost everything you need nearly anywhere around the world. Shopping locally can be a great experience!

3. Pack quick dry, neutral colored clothes

Quick dry, wrinkle free clothing is your best travel companion. Sun dresses with a few shrugs and a sarong. Some nice REI collared button-down shirts that can be dressed up or down work great. No jeans! They are too bulky. Bringing thinner material pants will take up less room and less drying time if they need to be washed. UPF long-sleeved T-shirts are great for any gender and can be dressed up with scarves or jewelry. Black, gray and brown work great for shirts and pants and can be accessorized. ExOffico quick-dry underwear are awesome. And a thin raincoat doesn’t take up much room at all.

4. Bring only one pair of spare shoes

Wear your bigger walking shoes on the plane and bring a smaller, lighter pair in your bag that can be dressed up or down and also worn for serious walking or out on the town. You can probably get away with a pair of flip flops riding for free in the shoe bag with your spare pair. But that’s it. No more shoes. Let it go and feel liberated. Since you already packed neutral colors, your shoes will go with everything anyway. Some people bring only the one pair on their, but we’ve had shoes bust, get totally soaked or cause a blister. Make sure your main pair is waterproof and broken in, but have a light backup pair in case of emergency!

5. Wear your bulky stuff on the plane

If we travel in winter, we’ll wear our coats on the plane—they serve as a nice blanket if the journey gets cold. A travel-ready down jacket can fold into nothing in a corner of your bag, too. Make sure you wear your bulkiest shoes on the plane and on other travel days because they’ll take up too much precious space in the bag. You can always take your shoes off on a long plane ride (hopefully you’re wearing socks as a courtesy to your fellow travelers and the flight attendants).

6. Wear things twice and do laundry

Do you really need to wear a new outfit every single day of your trip? Maybe. If you’re traveling through Southeast Asia at the hottest time of the year, you might need to wear three outfits a day. But this is where the quick dry clothes are most beneficial. For the dress wearers, it’s easy in warm weather: 6 sundresses, a sarong, a bathing suit or two, a hat, some scarves and a shrug or two might be all you need. For the pants wearers, a few T-shirts, button-downs and quick-dry pants will work in addition to the bathing suit and hat. Throw your clothes in the hotel sink to soak while you shower and hang them to dry while your out for the night or sleeping. Alternatively, laundry services are often cheap, fast and efficient in places like Southeast Asia—or you can try renting an apartment or Airbnb with a washer, which we like to do sometime in the middle of a trip. When we travel in winter climates, we never need more than two daytime outfits and two evening outfits—in addition to our clothes we wear on travel days. They can be worn more than once. No one will call the fashion police. Really.

7. Use your smartphone for everything

Bringing too many electronics can really weigh you down. We’ve learned to use our phones for everything: picture taking, movie watching, blog writing, reading, listening to audiobooks, researching, looking at maps, hailing rides … and making phone calls. So all we bring is the phone, our Bose earbuds, a small portable charger and a universal adapter (which works in every country) with several USB ports.

8. Plan ahead

We don’t spend much time packing, but we do spend a lot of time thinking about what we’ll bring. What’s the weather like? Is there rain in the forecast? Will we be spending our time on the beach or trekking through jungles? We like to carefully think about what we’ll need and bring only the clothes that make the most sense for the particular journey. You don’t want to let weather get in the way of your adventure, so be prepared to enjoy your experience whether it’s raining, snowing or as hot as the surface of the sun.

9. Ship things home

We don’t buy souvenirs for the most part, but every once in a while we may want to shop. In Hong Kong, it was cheaper to mail purchases home on the slow ship than to pay for a checked bag. In New Orleans, we bought a beautiful painting and had it shipped home for a small fee. Shipping makes travel easier and also helps us not to damage the products on our trek.

So there you have it! Whether you roll your clothes or use cubes, whether you wear more than one outfit a day or one outfit for multiple days, we promise you that traveling with only a personal item is easy and liberating. In fact, many times we find that we could’ve packed even less and been just fine.

Remember that all you really need is your passport, smart phone and credit card. 😁

Do you have any tried-and-true packing tips? Let us know in the comments.

2 responses to “9 Tips for Traveling the World with Only a Personal Item”

    • Fantastic! Carrying only a personal item really helps as we recover from the pandemic and flights are cancelled and changed at a moment’s notice.

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