Here's an intensely practical article to help you when you travel this summer – or anytime. It's Part 1 in a 5-part Summer Travel Series.
Sometimes we do it right, sometimes not. Here’s what happened with me last summer – both what I did right, what I did wrong, and what I learned from the experience.
First, I’ll give you a brief background. Our family of six (me and my husband + our three emerging adult children + the new wife of our oldest) traveled for almost a month last summer in Europe, specifically, England, Wales, Ireland and Italy.
Sounds exciting? Well, yes. But this article is about (drumroll…) packing!
Here’s what we did right:
1 | We limited ourselves to carry-on-sized bags, even if we decided to check them in.
This was a genius call (of my husband’s) for all of us and enabled us to move around much more freely than do some travelers.
Yes, with proper planning and packing, it is entirely possible to fit everything you need into a check-in bag (22 inches high x 9 inches deep x 14 inches wide | 55.88 cm x 22.86 cm x 35.56 cm). Note, technically, these measurements include wheels and handle.
My older son and daughter-in-law even managed to fit in clothes to go to fancy afternoon tea at The Ritz while in London, even while under this packing plan. So yes, it can work.
2 | We brought these essential items – and used every one:
- Downy Wrinkle Release (cannot sing enough praise for this item), travel size
- A multi-use, multi-outlet converter. Here’s a good one on Amazon.
- Quart-sized (.95 liters) ziplock bags. Roll up several. They can be very helpful along the way.
- A simple, collapsible laundry bag.
- Solid shampoo, conditioner and soap bars (here’s a set with good reviews to try). Avoid spilling, easy to pack.
3 | We limited our purchases along the way to small items we could bring home with us. This meant jewelry, stationary and Italian paper, scarves and other collectibles, mostly for gifts. We have a tradition to purchase a mug wherever we go as a remembrance of our time, so we made sure to pack initially to allow for items like that.
Now, here’s what we didn’t do right:
1 | I packed too much.
Even though we used carry-on bags, I packed mine too full from the start. By doing this, my bag felt cumbersome from the start, heavy and awkward. One reason is because I brought four pairs of shoes – two sandals, two closed-toed. This was two pairs too many. I could have gotten by with just two.
Even though I knew the principles for packing well, I simply messed up. One of those principles is to build everything around a single color or pair of colors. Everything. With a good packing job, everything should match everything in your suitcase. If you do it right, you should be able to get two week’s worth of outfits out of seven pieces of clothing.
Lesson learned: Plan your packing around one or two colors. Keep it simple. Use accessories to accent and add color. They are easy to pack. Make sure everything matches everything else in your bag. Minimize the number of shoes you bring; try to find multipurpose shoes. And consider which ones will show the dirt, if that matters to you.
2 | I rolled my clothes, but should have invested in vacuum packing bags.
Trying to minimize space is essential for freedom as you travel. If you want to move lightly, and even (mostly) effortlessly, invest in vacuum packing bags.
Even though rolling works, vacuum packing works even better. And guess what? Vacuum packing + rolling works the very best! And, in spite of the name, you really don’t need access to a vacuum to use them.
I saw so many people – probably the majority of them Americans – struggling with huge bags likely filled with stuff they didn’t need. Become a minimalist as you travel. The Europeans appear to travel so compactly. Their little bags allow them to go here and there, to and fro, in a way that seems so effortless. Don't be weighed down by your luggage!
Lesson learned: Make sure you don’t leave with your bag stuffed. Instead, minimize your clothes and other items to maximize your space. Doing so not only makes your load lighter – which adds to your freedom of movement – but it also allows space for items you may pick up along the way.
3 | I missed taking some items that would have helped me a lot.
I should have taken an easy-to-carry water bottle. Instead, I took my aluminum cup with straw, one I use at home. That straw got lost along the way. And the cup itself was not easy to carry.
I also didn’t take a folded canvas bag (as I’m advocating for below). Instead, I bought one at the British Museum (I do like it), but probably could have avoided that purchase and brought something from home. I ended up using it a lot during the rest of our travels.
Lesson Learned: Always bring a light, foldable tote bag and make sure other items you bring are easy to carry.
Here’s a shortlist of must-haves (in addition to the above) when you set off on a longer trip:
- An excellent, easy-to-carry water bottle.
- A folded canvas bag (useful as you forge out daily and don’t want to bring a heavy bag or backpack, useful upon return to potentially fill with items you may have purchased).
- Deodorizer for close-toed shoes, especially if you’re traveling in hot climates. Trust me on this.
- A very small “safety kit:” a few band-aids, a small container of pain reliever, stomach medicine like Tums or Pepto Bismol.
- A collapsible backpack (if you end up taking an additional carry-on bag), one you can whip out for outdoor adventures.
- A compact umbrella (depending upon where and when you’re traveling).
- A small amount of laundry soap, packed securely in a ziplock bag.
I would also strongly suggest a set of items to make your travel go more smoothly. Take a look at this travel pillow, this sleep eye mask and these earplugs. (Of course, for all of these, there are many excellent options available.) On the latter, I make sure to have plenty of good, restful music playlists downloaded from my Spotify. Another app I really appreciate and use both at home and travel is WaveSounds. It works when you’re offline, too.
Finally, although I did not mention it earlier, we had several additional people join us at various points throughout our travel. These included three of my husband’s brothers (plus his wife and high-school-aged daughter) as well as my daughter’s college roommate, Kati.
I learned a clever idea from Kati I’d like to share here. She decided she would wear mostly long dresses and comfortable walking shoes as she traveled (two weeks for her). Her reasoning was she would then not need to worry about matching tops and bottoms and could concentrate on simplicity. Also, long dresses can be cool in the heat and yet properly conservative (sometimes combined with an over shirt or sweater) when needed in certain cultures. Although I have not tried her method with a long trip yet, I’m thinking about it for our next travel overseas.
Traveling light – whether on the road or in the air, or even in life – has so many advantages. I’m not an expert at this – yet – but I’m working my way there. After all, it’s a journey in and of itself!
What tricks for travel packing do you use?