Look around and you’ll see many travel blogs offering tips for packing light with a carry on. Unfortunately, some of these tips are bad advice. Many of the tips have a grain of truth to them or are true under certain very specific conditions. The problem comes when someone applies the advice under all circumstances or takes it out of context. The traveler will end up packing heavier or going to extremes in trying to pack light. “Good enough” is usually good enough for most trips. I’ve listed some of the most common tips below, my observations on why the advice is “bad”, and what you really should do about it.
Bad Advice – An examination of common packing tips
Take 3.4 oz (100 ml) containers for liquids
Why it’s bad advice – The TSA imposed a maximum liquid allowance of 100 ml (3.4 oz) for carry on bags. The key word here is “maximum”. The maximum allowance isn’t the same as what you really need for your trip. If you use 3 oz containers in your liquids bag then it will quickly fill up. You’ll have room for 5-6 products at best, forcing you into making compromises on what you want to bring.
What you should do – Decant your liquids to the smallest size needed. For a two week vacation you’ll need around 1/2 – 1 oz of liquid foundation, 1 oz of moisturizer, 1/4 – 1/2 oz of face serum. You’ll probably need the full 3.4 oz of sun screen and bug juice. If you need any encouragement to decant your liquids then this post from Travelite should convince you. What a difference in space!
Use space bags
Why it’s bad advice – Compressing an item isn’t getting rid of the weight. Using space bags encourages you to pack more than you need because there is extra room in your bag. You’ll end up taking extra clothing and end up with an extremely heavy bag. Good luck lifting your bag into the overhead bin or taking it up the stairs! Many space bags weigh several ounces, adding to the weight of the luggage. The compression bags also crush your clothes.
What you should do – Compress light items that you are taking anyway. Squeeze down sleeping bags, puff jackets, and pillows to save space and to help organize your bag. Use ultra light stuff sacks instead of using heavy space bags. By the way, I rarely travel with a pillow unless I’m going to Africa. The drivers are great but taking a dirt road at 45 mph is literally a pain in the butt!
Use packing cubes
Why it’s bad advice – Packing cubes may organize your clothing, but they can’t possibly help you travel lighter. Cubes have weight so using them adds weight to your bag. Cubes compress clothing like space bags, encouraging you to bring more stuff just because it fits. More stuff means more weight. There’s only one way a packing cube helps you travel lighter – you leave the extra stuff home because it doesn’t fit in the cube.
What you should do – Consider bundle wrapping as it doesn’t need any packing cubes. This is the best choice if you are going ultra-light. If you do use cubes, then realize why your bringing them – for organization, not light travel. Cubes are also great if your bag doesn’t have tie down straps. Cubes will hold the clothing in place and keeps it from wrinkling. If you must use cubes then spend extra money for the Sil-Nylon version. They are significantly lighter than the regular version and just as strong.
Mail your cold-weather gear to/from your destination
Why it’s bad advice – This advice only applies under very specific and special conditions and should never apply for general travel. The first condition is when you are going to a place of extremes. By extreme I mean “I need this gear to stay alive”. Camping on the side of a mountain where you can’t evacuate for multiple days? Then sure, bring on the heavy-duty gear. Bring an extra checked bag because there is no guarantee that you’ll ever get your gear if you mail it to your destination. Ask me about the time my “8 days shipping” to Hawaii turned into a month! The second condition is when you are on a multi-month trip that spans several seasons. You may wish to mail your ultra-cold weather gear so you don’t pack it for months at a time. People don’t need special cold weather gear under most conditions. There is no need to mail it.
What you should do – If you are traveling during the winter you’ll be wearing your cold weather gear most of the time. There’s no need to pack it because it is already on your body. For variable conditions use high quality regular clothing and layer for warmth. A light weight rain jacket and rain pants give great protection from the elements. Add in long underwear, a down jacket, and layers as it gets colder. Make sure your dress boots are waterproof so that they work in bad weather.
Use special jackets that have lots of pockets
Why it’s bad advice – You usually hear this advice from the manufacturers of jackets with lots of pockets. They want you to buy their product so they can make money from you. One example is Rolf Potts “No Bag Challenge” that is now touted by many bloggers as the gold standard. This was a fun experiment to see if it was possible to travel with no bags. That’s all that it was – an experiment at the extreme end of the spectrum. It ignored the fact that Rolf had to make some tough compromises, such as wearing zip-off pants and hiking boots in Paris. It also ignored one common problem with these types of jackets – all that gear in your jacket puts weight on your neck and shoulders. Here’s a great post from The Professional Hobo on the challenges of going no-bag as a woman.
What you should do – Pockets are good and wonderful. Buy clothing that has pockets. Get a tailor to add pockets to your favorite jackets, skirt, dresses. Carry the necessary things in your pocket, such as wallets and phones. Don’t rely on special clothing to compensate for poor packing techniques. Use these jackets for extreme conditions, such as when you are traveling ultra-light or when you are trying to beat an airlines weight limit for carry on bags. Scuba divers, that’s you!
Bring a personal item in addition to your carry on bag
Why it’s bad advice – Many airlines, especially in Europe, don’t allow a personal item. You get one bag as your hand carry allowance. One. A personal item also encourages you to pack sloppily because you are using it for overflow. That isn’t traveling lightly at all.
What you should do – Bring a personal item but make sure it fits inside your carry on bag. Slip it out of your carry on bag when you take your seat on the plane. You’ll have your key items at your feet if needed, but are still traveling lightly with one bag.
Throw clothing out
Why it’s bad advice – Can you think of anything more disrespectful than wearing your rags to visit someone? David Sedaris said it well: “Comfort has its place, but it seems rude to visit another country dressed as if you’ve come to mow its lawns.” If you are willing to throw your clothing out then it is in pretty bad shape or it looks ugly on you. The other issue is that you still have to carry the clothing around for most of the trip. You’ve saved nothing while looking like a slob.
What you should do – Leave your expensive fashions at home but bring clothing that is clean, well-mended, nice looking, and culturally right for where you are visiting.
Pack two wardrobes if you are going to two different climates
Why it’s bad advice – You have a very limited amount of space in your carry on bag. Now you are going to use some of that space for clothing that you can’t wear the entire trip? This limits your outfits and is a very bad waste of space.
What you should do – Pack clothing that you can wear in both climates. Bring light weight items and layer them for warmth. Use small and compact extender pieces to add layers and waterproofing.
Use all available space in your carry on
Why it’s bad advice – This is actually a misquote of some good advice – “Use space efficiently”. Using all available space means packing the bag full and encourages you to over-pack. You will have no room for souvenirs! Using space efficiently means packing your bag so that there isn’t wasted space. This keeps the bag small without bulges or lumps. A bag that looks small is less likely to get targeted for gate check.
What you should do – Pack efficiently and try to make your bag as small as possible. This will make it easier to move around and reduces the chance of a gate check. So what does packing efficiently mean? Don’t waste space. Put smaller items such as eyeglasses, belts, and socks into your shoes. Avoid hard sided boxes that won’t squish down (the exception is for protecting fragile items). If you pack efficiently your carry on bag should be 1/2 to 2/3 full. That leaves room for souvenirs!
Use an expandable bag
Why it’s bad advice – An expandable bag suckers you in to packing more. You are always thinking “I can unzip the expander section if I don’t have enough room“. This mind set means you won’t try as hard to reduce excess clothing and gear. There’s another problem too – an expanded bag is never carry-on sized. Never. If you expand the bag you are cheating other users from carry on bin space. There’s also a good chance your bag is targeted for a forced gate check.
What you should do – Avoid bags with expansion zippers. The zipper adds weight to the bag. Bring a packable duffel bag or mail items home if you want room for larger souvenirs.
Get the best roller bag you can afford
Why it’s bad advice – You don’t always need a roller bag for your travels. In many cases a travel pack is a superior choice. Roller bags are heavy and can take up most, if not all of an airlines carry on weight limit. Roller bags work poorly in snow. Roller bags encourage you to pack heavy because you’re not wearing the weight on your back.
What you should do – Evaluate your trips and your physical condition to choose the best bag for your travel style. Go with a travel pack where possible. Use a roller bag if your business travel requires it or if your body can’t handle a pack.
Most advice is conditional
When examining advice, always consider the source. Ask yourself :
- Is it always true?
- Is this a special condition?
- What message is this advice conveying?
Readers, have you encountered misleading advice?