top of page
  • Merrilee MacLean

Packing Light - is it really possible? 5 steps to packing light

Everyone says you should “pack light” but what does that really mean? It obviously means different things to different people, but the basic concept is that you don’t want the weight or bulk of your luggage to impact how you travel, or whether you enjoy it.

There is lots of advice out there, but what will work for you depends on the kind of traveling you like to do, when you are doing it, and for how long. Someone taking a cruise with formal nights is going to have different needs than someone hiking or biking the countryside. Someone going skiing in the winter is going to need more than someone lying on the beach in the summer. Also, there are those with special issues, from medical requirements to sports equipment to demands related to work or a special event. But, whatever your situation, these tips should help make your traveling a bit easier.


For those starting a trip by air, it is easy to focus on airline restrictions. A checked bag has the potential of being lost, damaged, or even stolen from. Waiting at the baggage carousel delays the start of your adventure and can create anxiety, particularly as the other passengers all leave with their bags and you don’t. For all of those reasons, many people try to carry their bags on the plane instead, but airlines are increasingly making that difficult. Restrictions on size and weight vary by airline and seem to be getting tighter every year. What works on one airline may not work on the connecting airline. European airlines are generally much stricter regarding both size and weight of what can be taken on the plane. For instance, KLM states that the weight limit for all items taken on the plane, both the carry-on and the “personal item,” is 26 pounds. A number of airlines outside the U.S. limit the weight of carry-on bags to 15 pounds per piece. See this article setting forth the weight requirements for different airlines as of June, 2019 by Trip Savvy: Carry on Bags Size and Weight Limits. Also, there isn’t always room on the plane for all cabin bags. So, your bag may be checked regardless.

But keep in mind that you are traveling not for the airplane ride, but for the destinations, and that’s where packing light is really beneficial. The days of steamer trunks, porters, and even bellhops are over. You are generally responsible for carrying your own bag (that’s what all those wheels are for!). My experience is primarily in Europe, and Americans are often surprised that those cute cobblestones are both difficult to walk on, much less drag a bag across. Stairs, not escalators or elevators, are common, and those stairs can be unbelievably steep. Elevators are often miniscule or out of order when they do exist. European hotel rooms, especially in budget hotels, can be quite small, with no extra room for big suitcases. More and more people are using Airbnb and VRBO – which are great, but usually don’t have the conveniences of elevators or even reception desks where you can leave your bag if you get there before check-in time. You might need to leave your bags in a locker at the train or bus station, and they aren’t always very big.

If you are using public transport, you will soon find that the connections between subways or platforms in a train station often involve several sets of stairs. Even getting on the airport bus can be problematic, climbing up the stairs and then lifting your bag onto the storage racks. Keep in mind that you are expected to keep your bags out of the way of the other passengers – much easier if your bag is small and light. Even those renting cars will discover that European cars are usually much smaller (good thing, given the size of many of the streets), but that also means less trunk space. So, both the size and the weight of your bag is important and can make your travels either easier or harder. Bottom line, you don’t want your bag to get in the way of enjoying your adventure



There is no one “right” bag. There are two basic options, a suitcase or backpack (or combo of the two). It depends on your body and what kind of traveling you are planning to do. If you will be staying in hotels, on a cruise ship or bus tour, where you will be mainly on streets or sidewalks and you don’t anticipate handling your bags that much, a suitcase will likely be fine. If instead you anticipate walking a lot with your bag, a backpack may be a better choice, particularly if you anticipate walking on cobblestones or other uneven ground, climbing stairs or going on ferries which also have a lot of stairs. I recently purchased a bag that both has wheels and converts to a backpack, which hopefully is the best of both worlds. It is also only 19.5” high, so should fit anywhere.

Regardless of your choice, there are two things to pay attention to: the weight of the bag itself (empty) and the size of the bag. Recently bag manufacturers have been paying more attention to these issues, but if you have a bag that is more than five years old you might want to weigh it empty. You might be surprised. Weight didn’t use to matter that much, so older bags are pretty heavy. I just weighed one of the bags I used on several trips and it weighed over 7 pounds, with nothing in it. So, it may make sense to invest in a newer bag, and save several pounds – every pound counts.

Size depends on what you need to take, but choose as small a bag as you dare. There is a tendency to fill available space, so if the bag is bigger, it is tempting to pack that “what if” item you really don’t need and likely won’t use. Sure, you want to have room to bring home treasures or souvenirs, but remember you can always buy an extra bag over there for the trip home, or you can take a lightweight fold-up tote bag as a backup. I did ten days in France last year with a 17” rollaboard. The freedom of it was lovely. Keep in mind that you will usually have a secondary bag like a day pack, purse, or cross-body bag for touring and day trips, and you can use that for your daily needs and what you want access to on the plane.


Since there is no guarantee that you will not have to check your bag (see above), there are certain things you want on your person at all times. These go in the “personal item” you keep with you on the plane. These include:

- your passport and other identification (you may want to use a money belt)

- your tickets, and reservation and transit info for first lodging

- your ATM and credit cards (though it is good to have a backup ATM and credit card also in your bag, in case your personal item is stolen)

- your smartphone and charger

- your tablet/I-pad/e-reader/book or laptop (not all – be disciplined) and chargers/cords

- your medicines

- headphones/eyeshade/eyedrops/lip balm for the plane

- your camera if you take one, battery and memory cards


This is where you need to really think about what you need to have. Be aware that most other countries don’t have the same affinity to electronic gadgets as those in the U.S. and have neither the power nor the outlets you are used to. Your outlets will likely be taken up with the chargers for your phone, tablet and camera. So, leave everything else electronic at home (most places you stay will supply hair dryers). Go native. Similarly, reconsider your beauty/grooming routine and keep everything as simple and small as possible. Consider switching to multi-use products like shampoo/conditioner, moisturizer/sunscreen. If you are planning not to check your bag your liquids will be limited to 3 ounce containers that fit in a quart sized Ziploc bag. Do that regardless – in most areas you will be able to buy more locally, if you run out. You will save space and weight. You will generally be able to find personal hygiene products where you are going. If you have medications, bring only what you need for the trip, and consider using smaller packaging (take a copy of the prescription or label, just in case you are asked). Travel sizes are your friends (your dentist will probably be happy to give you some toothpaste). If you wear jewelry, leave your expensive jewelry at home – you don’t want to worry about it, and it makes you more of a target. Finally, avoid the temptation to bring things “just in case” you might need them.

That said, there are some things that make sense to bring – just bring the smallest, lightest versions that you can find. You will decide, but assuming you aren’t planning to be camping, common items include:

- Toiletries and make-up (minimized – see discussion above)

- Hairbrush, comb, nail file or clippers (beware sharp points)

- First aid items (put in a Ziploc), with band-aids, blister protection, aspirin or ibuprofen, antacids, cold tablets, cough drops, antibiotic cream, etc. Bring enough to nip a problem in the bud, expecting that if you get really sick you will seek assistance locally.

- Chargers, cords, backup camera batteries and adapters for electrical plugs (your two prong plug won’t work – be sure to find out what kind of plug you need for your destinations)

- Information about your reservations and destinations. Read guidebooks in advance and photocopy relevant pages – guidebooks are heavy and bulky. Compile info from internet and print onto one or two pages. Remember, paper is heavy. Printed copies of reservations – yes, it’s probably on your phone, but if your phone is lost, has a dead battery or has no wi-fi that’s a problem. You can put all reservations onto one page, just be sure to have the name, address and reservation number for check-in. As a backup, you might consider saving all the information onto OneDrive or equivalent on your computer, accessible from any of your devices.

- Laundry items like a clothesline, inflatable hanger, laundry soap, small bag to store dirty laundry

- Mini umbrella if rain is likely at destination – it will keep you drier than a jacket and hood

- Entertainment – a deck of cards, sudoku or crossword book, a game or reading material

- Quart and gallon size Ziplocs and/or plastic bags (takes no space and very handy)

- An envelope with a photocopy of your passport, info on all your credit and ATM cards, including the phone numbers if they are lost, insurance information, some cash and a backup ATM and/or credit card – all in case your wallet or purse is lost or stolen

- A small notebook or journal to keep notes on what you’ve seen and experienced

- Orthotics or something to help with sore feet – I bring a tennis ball to roll my feet on at night

- If staying in hostels, consider a padlock, travel towel, and flip-flops


This is where most people overpack, and it is also the area where you can do the most to minimize the weight of your bag (assuming you have been disciplined in the section above). Assuming you are not on a trip that requires several formal outfits or special costumes, there are some basic rules that you can follow to make your “packing light” effort successful.

Everything should go with everything else, so you can mix and match. That means keeping to one color palette, with accent colors. Avoid “single use” clothes. Pack only one week’s worth of clothes, regardless of how long you will be gone. Your travel companions will know your clothes anyway, and the people where you are going don’t care what you wear, as long as you are clean and neat. It is generally safest to wear dark colored clothes since they are less likely to show dirt and stains (avoid light colored pants – it’s like a magnet for spills). Bring clothes that are easy care, non-wrinkle and can be hand washed. While hotels can wash your clothes it can be quite expensive and laundromats can take valuable time from your touring, so be prepared to hand wash your clothes, particularly underwear and smaller items. One benefit of Airbnb and VRBO is they often have laundry facilities. Avoid bulky clothes; if you are going somewhere cold, plan to layer. You can always buy a sweater if it gets real cold. Dress appropriately for your destination, and be aware of local rules and customs. Try to fit in with the local culture, not stand out. Europeans generally dress more formally than Americans. Try not to look too much like a tourist, which means you should avoid the following items: sweatpants, sweatshirts, graphic or logo t-shirts, baseball caps, fanny packs, white tennis shoes (it used to be the mark of every American, it’s better now), bright or flashy colors, badly fitting clothes.

With these basic rules in mind, we come to the list. Really, this is all you need to bring, for one week, or three months. This includes what you wear on the plane. Wear your heaviest and bulkiest clothes on the plane, to conserve both space and weight.

- 2 pair jeans or dark pants

- 1 pair lighter weight pants or capris or leggings

- 1 pair shorts (if going to a warmer climate)

- 3-4 tops or t-shirts

- 2-3 blouses or over-shirts or long sleeved shirts

- 1 dress or skirt or elegant shirt (for dressy occasions)

- 1 sweater or heavier top (for layering)

- 5 pair each underwear and socks

- 1 sleeping shirt or nightgown, can also be used as beach coverup

- 1 swimsuit, if appropriate to destination

- 1-2 scarves or 1 tie, good for accent colors and good for warmth on plane

- 1 workout outfit that is also comfortable for lounging at end of day or on night trains

- 1 pair good walking shoes (comfort is more important than style) and NO new shoes

- 1 pair sandals (that can be used for dressy occasions)

- 1 pair flip-flops

- 1 rain-proof jacket with hood


There are numerous theories for the best way to pack a bag. Some people swear by packing cubes or compression bags. Whether to roll or fold clothes is a frequent topic of debate on travel sites. Those issues are all a matter of personal taste. There are some basic rules, however, that apply regardless.

Before you start filling your bag, put everything you intend to pack out on the floor or bed or wherever. That way you will understand your challenge, and hopefully will decide to remove some things from the pile. If you don’t do this, it’s very easy to just keep adding one more thing, particularly if your bag is big and there appears to be room. Remember you want to leave space to buy things, and everything you add just increases the weight.

Manage all the various compartments and pockets in your bag. When the bag is still empty, identify all the available storage places in your bag and develop a system for what will go where. Otherwise you might overlook a compartment that is perfect for storing something.

Always put your heaviest items in the part of the bag that will be closest to the ground when you are moving. Put the lightest things in the opposite end. That improves stability of your bag (it’s less likely to tip over). It also reduces the impact on the other items in your bag.

Leave no empty spaces. Fill shoes with small items like jewelry, chargers, underwear, socks, etc. Many roller bags have ridges along the back of the bag where the handles recess. Use the spaces between those ridges wisely, putting smaller items in those spaces. Socks and underwear are particularly good for stuffing in small places.

Develop a system so you know where things are and don’t have to paw through everything to find what you are looking for. Packing cubes are helpful for that, but it can be done with any method. If you develop a routine you won’t spend time looking everywhere but the right place for things, and your space will be neater, which is important in those small European hotel rooms and will be appreciated by your travel companions. You are also less likely to leave things behind, because you will note that something is not in its place.

Hopefully these tips will help you achieve the goal of packing light. If you have any comments or suggestions, please share. We can all learn from each other.


bottom of page