Packing Lessons from 10 Months of Travel

The final installment of my long-term travel lessons is one that applies to all kinds of travelers. Whether you are traveling for months at a time or just a week-long vacation, smarter packing is always important!

Pack Light. Pack Smart. You can always buy things.

I packed too much for my Europe trip and within the first few days, I was already tossing things I no longer wanted to carry around. These were things I had planned on getting rid of at some point along the trip, but I hadn’t expected that I would be dumping them after five days.

Schlepping around with a bunch of luggage is never fun. When you are traveling long term, you are going to be carrying these bags around A LOT. There will be times when you are in a place for one night and on the move again the following day. Repacking and carrying all of this stuff gets really old really fast. You will begin to hate your luggage.

In places like Europe, you will be going up and down stairs at hotels, hostels, and train stations. Nine times out of ten, the escalator at the train station is not working. Or it’s going the opposite direction that you need. Maybe there is an elevator, maybe not. Having a lot of luggage makes every part of travel more difficult.

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at the end of my Asia trip when I had acquired some extra baggage

For my trip to Asia, I knew that I only wanted to carry a backpack, specifically a small one that could be carry-on luggage. I was immediately so much happier just traveling with a backpack – I didn’t have to think twice about stairs or puddles or crappy sidewalks (or if there are even sidewalks). Getting around is just SO MUCH EASIER. And yet, I still felt like I had too much stuff. I packed things that I could get rid of along the way, but I realized quickly that I didn’t need much. Laundry is cheap and I wore the same clothes every day. Everything I brought was machine washable and generally pretty wrinkle-free. Keeping a simple color scheme helped maximize my options.

Bring things you can get rid of. This is a tip I incorporate in any kind of travel I do, but it’s immensely important when traveling long-term. You will inevitably bring stuff that you no longer need and, rather than carry it around for six months, you can just GET RID OF IT. Throw it in the trash. Donate it to a hostel. Make a friend and give it to them. Should you find yourself in need of that thing again, you can always replace it. While I brought plenty of things that I planned on trashing at some point during my trip, I still brought quite a few things I really liked: jackets, shoes, clothing. Even though I knew I might not need them during the rest of my trip, I couldn’t bear to part with them. And thus I was stuck carrying around a pair of jeans and a jacket for the majority of my trip in Southeast Asia when I only needed them for about one week in Vietnam. (On the flip side, those clothes came in handy when I returned to the US and it was a bit chilly, but it was still really annoying to have them all that time).

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the last time packing my suitcase in Europe

Pack stuff that can do double duty. This is a good tip no matter how long you are traveling for but goes a long way when you are trying to minimize how much you are carrying around for months. One of my favorite items is a Turkish towel that can be used as a beach towel, a coverup, a blanket, a bath towel, a wrap skirt…

One of the most essential items I brought (and something I always bring when I travel) was a reusable tote bag. These are incredibly useful and don’t take up much space in your bag. The tote bag is perfect for carrying groceries, going to the beach or park, using as a laptop bag, or even for schlepping my recyclable bottles and cans to the bins.

Bring clothes that are easy to wash. Doing laundry is significantly easier when you can throw everything into the washing machine together! If you do have items you need to hand wash it can be tricky to find a good place to wash & dry the clothing. I had a packable clothesline in my bag which I used quite often in Europe for bras, underwear, and swimsuits (or for everything when there was no dryer available which is often the case). But in Asia, I generally used laundry services and gave them all of my dirty clothes. I stuck with sports bras that would be easy to wash and the one “nice” dress I had was also machine washable. My go-to shops for a lot of my travel clothes were Athleta and Lululemon – they offer a lot of great comfortable clothing that doesn’t wrinkle and is easy to clean. (And athleisure is great for when you are sweating all of the time in Asia or European summer!)

 

Color schemes are your friend. Maintaining a “color story” is a great packing tip in general, even just for a few nights away. When you are traveling longer, however, it makes things even easier! Sticking with a few basic colors means you can mix and match everything in your bag and come up with new outfits. It makes it easy to just grab a few things and get ready quickly. Also, you are going to get sick of the stuff in your bag. Keeping things simple means it can be easy to replace items with new things you buy even if they don’t quite fit into your color scheme. (And for those of you who are bored with just wearing a few colors, embrace mixing and matching while you travel!)

 

And if you are only going to wear it once, don’t bring it. I had a few of these items with me in Europe: clothes that I really just needed once or twice. Save some room. You can make do without it, I promise. And if you are really desperate, you can always buy something!

Stay organized. For me, the worst thing about living out of a bag (and repacking all of the time) was trying to keep things organized and not losing anything. I swore by packing cubes and compression bags to help keep my stuff sorted. It was so much easier to find things when they were in separate bags and I eliminated a lot of digging around. These bags are great for creating more space in your luggage and it is super easy to unpack when you just have to take these out of your bag to get to your clothes.

 

Good stuff to bring along:

  • A good universal adapter with USB ports
  • Locks – both for your luggage and for hostels/dorm rooms. I stuck with a combination lock for hostels, but the luggage locks can be used as well for both.
  • SIM cards / a phone you can use with an international SIM card. I typically picked up SIM cards at the airport (and I had a cheap Android phone from Belgium that I used during my trip).
  • Waterbottle & cutlery kit – A refillable water bottle can save you money and help save the planet. I did not bring mine to Asia and totally regretted it! And I brought reusable chopsticks, but no cutlery. There were so many times I wished I had a knife or fork while I was on the road (see: eating takeaway in your hotel room or hostel). Definitely worth packing a small set.
  • Microfiber towel – It won’t take up much space in your bag and you will definitely need a towel for many hostels that will charge you to use their towels
  • Laundry soap – Always good to have a few packets in your bag, though you may also be able to buy it cheaply while traveling. I found some cheap packets in Thailand that I carried around for a while.
  • Instant coffee – Sure, it generally tastes terrible. But if you are a coffee drinker, sometimes you will get desperate. I always like to have some packets of instant coffee on me just in case…
  • Tide pen – You cannot buy these anywhere overseas. Bring one.
  • A solid first-aid kit packed with all of the essentials (and more).

 

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