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Wednesday, March 6, 2024

How I Quit Overpacking

One of the easiest ways to save money (and time) on travel is by traveling with just a carry-on. Not only that, but it also saves your sanity and your back, because you have fewer things to keep track of and less weight to drag around. Before I started packing small,  I brought entire outfits for every day of my trip, plus a bunch of random pieces and 4 or 5 pairs of shoes. 

One of the easiest ways to save money (and time) on travel is by traveling with just a carry-on. Here's how I learned to do it.

I am not a big person. I'm 5'1" and can't carry a ton or lift large things over my head. When I travel now, if I go alone, I usually don't bring a bag that has to go in the overhead bin. I have anxiety about holding everyone up while I struggle to shove that bag. Eric is taller than I am, and much stronger, so he can easily throw a carry-on bag above his head and I'm not restricted to such a small bag, but I still pack as small as possible.

So, how did I change my mindset while traveling? My journey to carry-on packing started in 2006, when we were on our honeymoon and had two checked bags and a large personal item. We arrived in London and were trying to navigate the Underground and cobblestone streets without GPS. If you've ever been to a city with a subway system, you may know that there are a lot of stairs you have to deal with, because escalators don't always work and elevators aren't always feasible. 

After a long flight - where I didn't do a great job trying to dodge jet lag - then standing in line at customs for almost two hours, and then walking up and down stairs and down the street for probably a good hour, I was over having bags of any kind. My feet hurt, I was starving, and tired, and I just couldn't wait to be rid of all my stuff for forever. 

I made the mistake of wearing boots on the plane, so by the time I arrived, my feet and ankles were incredibly swollen. I took them off and didn't wear them the entire rest of the 2 weeks we were gone. I had only brought a pair of sneakers besides those boots, so I knew after that trip that I didn't need to ever pack a bunch of shoes. 

Knowing the struggle of a heavy suitcase, I started packing a bit lighter on every trip, immediately only using a carry-on after that. Each trip, I would cut things that I traveled with before and never used. Having a packing list certainly helped with that. Did I wear these shoes? No. They were out. Did I use this makeup product? No. It stayed home. Was this dress functional? Not at all. 

When I started traveling more on my own, I realized that I was still taking too much and it was keeping me from being efficient and slowing me down either getting through the airport quickly when I needed, or dragging it up the stairs of a place that didn't have an elevator. I realized that I'd rather do laundry and rewear 4 items of clothing than have to keep track of 15 things and come home with a bag full of dirty laundry. 

Slowly, I've whittled down my travel list to a handful of clothing items: 

3-5 tops 

Depending on the weather or how long I'm traveling, I will pack 3 for short trips or for warmer weather, and I'll pack 5 for longer trips or those where it'll be cold and I layer.

2-3 bottoms 

Bottoms can always be worn a few times before they need to be washed, especially if you pack darker colors that don't show visible dirt, or jeans. I pack one or two, again, depending on the weather or destination, and wear one on the plane or in the car. The only time I don't do this is when I'm heading to somewhere that's very warm, like Vegas in the summer, and then I'll pack an extra bottom, since it's going to be something lightweight, like shorts.

2 pair of shoes + flip flops

I wear my walking shoes on the plane, because they are always the bulkiest and take up more room than any other shoes. I then bring either a pair of nice sandals, ballet flats, low wedges, or booties. Whatever can go with something a bit dressy, but are also comfortable to walk in all day, too. Often I will throw in a pair of flip-flops to run down to the lobby or hit up the pool. They hardly take up any space, but if you need them and don't have them, they are really missed. 

Rain jacket

I have been to enough place where it has rained and an umbrella has been more of a hindrance than a help, especially when it's super windy. The weather can be unpredictable and the amount of times I've needed a waterproof layer has far outweighed the times I've never needed it. Not only can a rain jacket be really helpful when rain breaks out, but it can also be an extra layer if there's a chilly day that doesn't require an actual coat.

Lightweight top layer

I often find myself chilly no matter the weather. The plane can be cold. The car can be cold. It might be 90 degrees outside and then freezing inside where there's air conditioning. I usually bring a lightweight hoodie or an athletic jacket that goes with everything. This easy layer is perfect for saving space in your bag and wearing it on the plane isn't a big deal. 

Optional items:

  • A coat - If you're traveling somewhere cold or are coming from a cold climate and know you will need a coat on your return, then a coat that packs down easily is essential.
  • Dress - Maybe you're a dress/skirt person and would rather take 3 dresses instead of separate pieces. You should absolutely do that and save even more space in your bag. If you're like me and like to mix it up, you might just throw in a multifunctional dress that can go from sightseeing to dinner. 
  • Cardigan/wrap - I almost always bring a cardigan, if only to wear in my room. If I'm headed somewhere that is too warm to wear a long-sleeve layer, I will just bring a light wrap, so I can cover my arms and shoulders when I'm under the air conditioning. A wrap can also be used as a scarf, a sarong, or a headcover, which might be a necessity where you are traveling. 
  • Swimsuit - Heading to a warm weather destination or like to soak in the hot tub at the end of a long day walking? Then don't leave your swimsuit at home 

When all the items you bring are able to be mixed and matched, you can create a larger travel wardrobe. For instance, 3 tops and 3 bottoms can be mixed to make 9 outfits. You can create more with the addition of a cardigan and belt. Throw a t-shirt over/under a dress to make a new combo and get creative with items you've brought with you. Maybe you want to wear a long skirt as a strapless dress or a short skirt as a top. Maybe a button-up shirt can be worn open and tied at the waist with a tank or bikini top underneath.  Have fun making different looks, while still having reasonable and functional capsule wardrobe for your trip.

I find that different bags work for different trips, and choosing the right size can help you not overpack as well. Skip the expandable bag, which seems great, but gives you the option to add more before you even leave. I opt for a hardside carry-on, because it will always fit in the overhead. There are no bulging sides or pockets to make it too big.

Packing light isn't always easy, but the more you do it, the better you get at it. I've managed to travel with just a slim backpack to a hot destination. It fit all my clothes, toiletries, and my laptop. When I've not taken a laptop, I've even traveled with a bag the size of a large packing cube, so it can be done, even if you don't want to travel extra small like that. 

Stay tuned for more packing posts, where I will show you exactly what I pack for upcoming trips. What items do you find hard to leave home that cause you to overpack?

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