Traveling with just a carry on bag (hand luggage) isn’t as hard or as complicated as it appears. If you search the internet you will find a plethora of techniques – some more reasonable than others. In the end, light travel distills down into five basic principles:
- Pack a capsule wardrobe
- Layer Clothing
- Wash clothes while on travel
- Minimize liquids
- Minimize electronics and use USB
Lets look at these in order:
Pack a capsule wardrobe
Capsule wardrobes have a few key pieces of clothing that can be combined together to create multiple different outfits. They work especially well for travel – you can have a variety of looks with just a few items of clothing. The key for any capsule wardrobe is to have all of your clothing items “go” with all of your other clothing items. Then you can mix and match them. For example, two pairs of pants and four shirts can be combined into eight different outfits. If you layer items, you can get even more combinations. Creating a capsule is probably the hardest part of light travel. It requires planning ahead of time. The payoff comes during the trip itself. Your luggage is small, but you still have plenty to wear. Capsule wardrobes work for both business and pleasure travel.
Layering clothes is one way to get multiple looks out of the same pieces of clothing. Layering also allows the traveler to accommodate different temperatures. Avoid bulky heavy items that can only be worn alone or on cool days. The best clothes for layering are thin and light. These also have the advantage of drying faster when laundered. On hot days an item can be worn as a single layer. On cooler days it can be combined with other items to create multiple layers. For example, a tank top can be worn alone on a very hot day, with a sweater on a cool day, or under another shirt on a cold day. No matter what the temperature is, you will be dressed appropriately!
Wash clothes while on travel
Many travelers bring a separate outfit for every day of travel. All that clothing creates bulk and weight – especially if the trip spans multiple weeks. As an alternative, bring only a week’s worth of outfits. Launder them as they get dirty and then wear them again. There are several ways to do laundry:
- Sink washing. This works well for shirts and underthings. Consider washing your undies at the same time you take a shower.
- Use a laundry service. Many hotels have a drop-off service where you can leave your laundry in the morning and pick it up after sightseeing.
- Use a laundromat
Bring clothing that is easily washed. Leave your delicate items and dry-clean-only clothes at home if possible. The payoff for doing laundry during travel is huge – you can reduce the weight and size of your luggage by over 50%.
Liquids are very heavy, take up a lot of space, and can leak inside of your bag. On top of this, they are now restricted to 100 ml / 3 oz for carry on bags. The savvy traveler knows that there is no need to carry around an entire 12 oz bottle of shampoo for a two-week trip. Instead, the traveler tries to minimize the usage of liquids. The key to reduced weight is to take “just enough” and no more. There are two ways to do it:
This is a key area for women, and one of the hardest for them to overcome. Most of the problem lies in last minute preparation. If you have decanted your toiletries and makeup ahead of time, you are much more likely to use minimized liquids during your travels. Consider taking a rainy day and decanting your liquids ahead of time. It will also reduce the stress of packing at the last minute!
Minimize electronics and use USB
Electronics are great, but they can add several pounds to the weight of your luggage. Computers, hair dryers, and electric razors are convenient – but heavy. Consider leaving all of them at home. Many hotels have computers available to their guests. They also have hair dryers if you ask. Smartphones, e-readers, and tablets are great alternatives to computers. If possible, try to use electronics that are charged via USB cable. The cables for USB are significantly smaller and lighter than standard power cords. Many USB chargers can handle both 120 and 240 volts, making them ideal for travel. Most USB devices are charged off of a micro-USB cord. The only exception is Apple products. That means that a single 2.1 A USB charger and a micro USB cord will charge all of your USB devices. Better still, buy a dual USB charger and 2 micro USB cords. You’ll never have to fight over the outlet again.
These five principles of light travel aren’t guaranteed to make you an immediate one bag wonder. It takes a while to figure out what will – and won’t – work for you. Yet with the basics in hand, it won’t be long before you are travelling with just a carry on bag.
Update on July 11 2017 – added in reference to travel capsule core
Can you please write about luggage (and show what you use)? It’s harder for women I think, to find a good suitcase. Please ladies, stop buying hard sided wheelie bags! I don’t get it. If you must have wheels buy them separate then you can pop them into your (softsided backpack/suitcase) and pop it in the overhead or under seat where it will fit every available nook and cranny because it twill take up less space, is soft sided and has no wheels! Arrive at destination pop your case onto your (portable) lightweight wheels and off you go. Works for me except I don’t even use the portable wheels. Here’s one more thing to think about: If you buy a wheelie bag and the wheels break you are out wheels and a bag. If your wheels are separate, you still have a good bag and just need to get more wheels. In my perfect world there would be no wheelie bags.
I do discuss luggage a bit on my “getting started” page. This includes reference to my favorite piece, the LL Bean Quickload Travel Pack.
I believe that light travel isn’t about suitcases as much as it is about the proper technique – selecting a versatile capsule wardrobe, keeping electronics light, and minimizing liquids. If you do these things then your bag will be light enough where you won’t need wheels. Traveling without wheels has a lot of advantages, especially if you are trying to beat weight limits. That said, some people have medical limitations where wheels are the best solutions for them. One of my favorite travel friends is well into her 70’s. I would rather she travel with wheels then not at all.
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Lea K said:
Be cautious about hotel computers — many of them are infested with spyware or other malware which can (and sadly often will) hijack your computer accounts. That will certainly put a damper on your trip! Minimize your electronics for sure, but not at the cost of your online security.
For personal travel, I can do everything I need on my phone. For business travel, I have a small and light laptop. It’s heavier than no laptop, but necessary.
Cindy Heazlit said:
I agree. Smart phones do just about everything.
Hotel computers are good for printing out boarding passes though. Usually you only need your name and confirmation code so you’re not divulging much.
Just be sure to register with the US Dept of State as a traveler before you go. Logging in to the DoS website doesn’t work from a mobile device or from outside the country.
Cindy Heazlit said:
They have an app for that. Look for “Smart Traveler”.
One other way around it is to get the Chrome app browser and use it in desktop mode. This eliminates the mobile version.