traveling light

Packing light has always been a savvy travel tip, because hauling less weight means you travel with more comfort and freedom.

But now, when you consider the baggage fees implemented by most airlines, packing light makes more sense than ever. Most airlines charge per-piece fees for your luggage as well as extra-weight fees for bags over 50 lbs. (Check your airline for the latest info.)

As Rick Steves, the travel guru who has written books such as Europe through the Back Door, advises, "Pack light, wash frequently, buy it if you need it." He suggests limiting yourself to one bag of about 20 pounds.

Carry-on vs. Checked Bags

Regardless of your destination, either type of bag can be packed lightly.

Carry-on Bags

Airline passengers are generally allowed to bring aboard 1 personal item and 1 carry-on bag for no charge. There is no federal standard for carry-on bag size, but many airlines define a carry-on bag as no larger than 45 linear inches (length + width + height). It must be able to fit in an overhead compartment or under the seat. Always check with your airline for the latest rules.

The limitation of carry-on bags is that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) restricts what you can bring. Some personal items, sporting goods and tools can only be taken if checked. Visit TSA's list of permitted and prohibited items for a complete list.

The TSA says the "3-1-1" for a traveler's carry-on bag is:

  • 3-ounce or smaller containers of liquids and gels
  • 1-quart size, clear plastic zip-top bag to hold the containers
  • 1 zip-top bag per passenger.

Note: There are some exceptions for essential liquids, such as baby formula and medicines.

Check at tsa.gov for the most up-to-date regulations. Outside of the U.S., check with the airline you will be using.

Checked Bags

You'll have fewer security hassles if you check your bag. Some items cannot be carried on and must be checked. If you're taking an ice axe, ski poles or Swiss Army knife—items that could also be considered weapons—your bag will have to be checked. See the latest list of restrictions at TSA's list of permitted and prohibited items.

Traveling light is to your benefit even when checking your bag. Why? A light bag doesn't run the risk of incurring an overweight baggage fee. Plus, once at your destination, you still need to haul it around. A light bag means greater comfort and freedom.

Going by Train?

Eurail has no weight limitations but still suggests packing light. Japan Railways does not check bags but allows 2 carry-on pieces. In the U.S., traveling by train is less restrictive: Amtrak allows 2 carry-ons and 3 checked-in bags. Always check the carrier for the latest info.

Luggage Options

Travel pack

Before buying any bag, consider its empty weight. You won't be able to pack as much into a bag that is heavy to begin with.

Travel packs: These have internal frames and hideaway shoulder straps. They can be used as a backpack or converted to check-in luggage. Some include a zip-off daypack.

  • Pros: Masters of versatility. They are good at the airport, exploring your destination or hitting a trail.
  • Cons: Multi-use design can create some compromises in comfort.

Wheeled backpacks: This is like a travel pack, but it has wheels for superior hauling in airports.

  • Pros: Gives you the versatility of a backpack with the convenience of wheels.
  • Cons: The wheels and handle add several pounds, so it makes for a heavy backpack.

Wheeled luggage: These are the mega-popular suitcases with wheels and a retractable handle.

  • Pros: Good for rolling around airports and other smooth surfaces.
  • Cons: No option for slinging it over your back.

Wheeled duffels: These are typically roomy, soft-sided bags with wheels and a retractable handle.

  • Pros: They hold lots of gear and can be wheeled around or carried as duffels.
  • Cons: No backpack option limits versatility.
Messenger bag

Laptop bags: These include padded totes, laptop sleeves that slip into other bags plus have carry handles, daypacks with padded sleeves, messenger bags, briefcases or even wheeled bags. Consider, too, one of the newer "checkpoint friendly" laptop bags that streamlines the TSA security check.

  • Pros: Protects your laptop, peripherals and paperwork. Laptop carrying options fit over many bag handles.
  • Cons: None, but it is one more bag to keep track of.

Bicycle bags: Bringing your bike? Protect it with a hard or soft bike case.

  • Pros: Hard cases are highly protective, acceptable as checked baggage (for a fee) and can be shipped internationally. Soft cases are less expensive, lighter and easier to tote.
  • Cons: Hard cases are more expensive and may cost more to ship due to their added weight. Soft cases are less protective.

Ski & snowboard bags: As with bike bags, these are available in either a hard or soft material.

  • Pros: Hard cases are more protective, and their wheels make it easier to maneuver and transport. Soft packs are lighter and less expensive.
  • Cons: Hard cases are more expensive and may cost more to ship due to their added weight. Soft cases are less protective.

For more information, see the REI Expert Advice article, Luggage and Packs: How to Choose.

Tips for Packing Less

Some time-tested strategies on how to reduce your bag weight:

  • If you're not absolutely sure you'll need something, don't take it.
  • Lay out all of your planned clothes and gear before you go; take only half of what you think you need.
  • Take older clothing or gear you don't care about, buy new clothing along the way and then donate or discard the old.
  • Before you leave, pack your bag and carry it around for a while. Too heavy? It's easier to ditch things at home.

To determine your bag's weight, weigh yourself with and without your bag or use a digital luggage scale (usually available at REI.com).

Toiletries

  • Staying in a hotel? Ask if they supply items such as shampoo, lotion or razors. Is a hairdryer available?
  • Bring sample-size (3 oz.) liquid toiletries, including toothpaste—the TSA does not permit tubes larger than 3 oz. in carry-on bags.
  • Consider alternatives to liquids:
    • Bar-soap shampoos and solid deodorants
    • Antiseptic towelettes
    • Solid perfumes, mascara cakes and stick foundation
  • Or, buy toiletries upon arrival and try out what the locals use.

Clothing

  • Plan clothing in layers, based on your destination's climate.
  • Avoid cotton; synthetic clothing wrinkles less and dries quicker.
  • Stick to neutral and dark colors to better hide stains and wrinkles.
  • Bring more tops than bottoms.
  • Think versatility (e.g., a sarong or shawl could be used as a skirt, dress or beach cover).
  • Take a hat and long-sleeve shirt for insulation or sun protection.
  • Try packing cubes or folders to reduce wrinkles.
  • Consider compression bags to decrease volume.

Footwear

  • Think multiuse (e.g., running shoes can work for running, walking and hiking).
  • Consider light trail-running shoes instead of bulky hiking boots.

Electronics

The less you bring, the less chance for lost or stolen items. Some tips:

  • Avoid packing sensitive electronics in your checked bags.
  • Try a prepaid international phone card instead of your cell phone.
  • If taking a cell phone, check with your carrier about charges. Consider an international plan for your trip. Remember the charger!
  • Hotel or cyber cafes (or your cell phone) may suffice with far less weight and hassle than your laptop.
  • Consider a small media-storage device for transferring, storing and backing up your photos.
  • Digital cameras and storage disks should be carried on and not put in a checked bag.
  • Do not pack lithium batteries in your checked luggage; they are a fire hazard and must be carried on per the TSA.
  • Keep spare batteries in their original packaging or place tape over the terminals to avoid accidental activation or short-circuiting; don't let loose batteries come in contact with metal objects.
  • Research the need for adapters/converters for electric-powered items.

Miscellaneous Tips

  • Leave jewelry and valuables at home.
  • Carry your credit card, cash, medicine, keys and passports close to you in a security belt or pouch.
  • Leave a copy of your trip info at home and/or with a traveling companion.
  • Write your name and contact info on the inside of your bags in addition to the outside, as tags can get torn off.
  • Keep a packing list for future trips so you can learn from your experiences.
  • Consider sending souvenirs home so you won't have to lug them around; check carriers and costs before leaving home.
  • Pack a lightweight, zippered collapsible bag. It can work for a beach tote, shopping bag or an extra bag to bring souvenirs home.
  • Never pack anything valuable or fragile in your checked baggage.
  • Do not wrap gifts as they may need to be opened for inspection.

Security Items

Some airports require bags to be unlocked for random security checks. The TSA, however, does recognize some locks, and TSA screeners have the tool to open and relock them.

Other lightweight security items to consider:

  • Money belt/security pouch to secure your valuables close to you.
  • Cable lock and/or a stainless-steel mesh systems that securely hugs your bag.
  • Whistle.
  • Rubber doorstop—put on inside of door for rooms where security is suspect.

Doing Laundry on the Road

Unless you have the luxury of hotel laundry or dropping your clothes at the cleaners, doing laundry is part of traveling light. The good news is that it doesn't require much effort. Prior to traveling, choose your clothes carefully and do a "test" wash to see how quickly they dry. Before hanging, roll items in a towel and squeeze out excess water to speed up drying.

Pack along a 3-oz. container of liquid soap in your carry-on or take a soap bar like Dr. Bonners or Soapies. You can also buy detergent at your destination. A travel clothesline is another handy option.