It’s taken me YEARS to get over being a serial overpacker. I was famous for throwing in a few extra outfits and shoes “just in case.” Ninety percent of the time I’d come home after the trip and still have those extra outfits tucked away, never worn.
Once we moved to Europe, I had to learn how to pack lightly for a vacation. Hauling huge suitcases on and off trains & paying double the ticket price to check a suitcase just wasn’t going to happen. We really didn’t need all that extra STUFF anyways. Seriously, it’s okay to only have 2 pairs of shoes.
So how do you go from overpacking to packing light? A lot of practice and planning. Have you ever heard the phrase, “take half of the stuff you were planning to bring and twice the money?” It’s a true statement. Most travelers overpack and under budget. The budgeting tips are for another time, we’re going to get into ways to help pack light for a vacation.
How to Pack Lightly for a Vacation
First, pick your suitcase. The challenge is to accept that you can only bring what fits in your cabin luggage. Period.
I’ve even managed to pack for a 2-week holiday and get all the clothes for 4 people in a single carry-on sized suitcase. Granted, the toiletries went in another bag, but you get the idea. It can be done.
My European modus operandi is to pack for our family of four, in 2 or 3 carry-on suitcases plus a backpack. Typically, the European airlines only allow one carry-on per person. Some don’t even allow a personal bag, such as a purse in addition to that bag. Make sure to check the size allowances before making the trip as well. US and European carry-on size restrictions aren’t always the same!
Think in layers when laying out potential outfits. Find a light sweater or jacket that can go over your tops. If chilly weather is forecast, pack a thin top to wear under your clothes for added warmth. You can always remove layers and throw them in the backpack as the day heats up.
If you pack it, you must be able to wear it more than once. When picking out what clothes to pack for your next holiday, think about what can be worn multiple times. You don’t need 3 sweaters. Stick with the one that can work with multiple outfits.
I also try to stick with the same color palette when packing. Personally, I tend to pack black with a few colorful tops to change things up. You also want to pack items that won’t show stains. The key is to be able to wear it multiple times before washing. Drinking white wine instead of red can also be helpful!
I don’t follow this rule with socks and underwear. These items are typically so small, you don’t have to be too restrictive with the number you take. However, I have been known to pack laundry detergent and wash a few items in a hotel sink. Speaking of doing laundry, it only takes a couple hours to stop and do laundry halfway through your trip. This is particularly helpful if you’re gone longer than a week.
Limit shoes to 2 or 3 comfortable pairs maximum. If you’re packing a pair of strappy heals because they look cute with one outfit, they need to stay at home. Find shoes that look good with multiple outfits and pack those instead. Also, think about the types of activities you will participating in during your trip. Do you need hiking boots? Flip flops for the beach? I try to pack a pair of tennis shoes for exploring and a pair of black flats for going out. Depending on the weather, I may add in a pair of boots – only if I can walk all day in them without getting a blister. If it’s summer, I’ll substitute a pair of sandals for the boots. I avoid heels unless I know there are several nights of dressing up.
Derrick and K usually only have a pair of everyday shoes plus a pair of flip flops in the summer. Lucy’s shoe choices are usually similar to mine.
When laying out outfits, find bottoms that can go with multiple tops. I wear my jeans at home more than once anyways, so why should it be different while on vacation? It’s much easier to pack several tops that work well with 2 or 3 bottoms than to try and pack a different pair of pants or skirt for each top. If you pack solid bottoms, you can have fun with the tops and no one will be the wiser that you’re on day 3 of those black capris.
I usually travel with a black maxi skirt and one or two dresses during warm weather. I’ll also take one pair of jeans with several tops that can work with either the skirt or the jeans.
Derrick takes even less bottoms than I do. It’s not uncommon for him to travel with 1 or 2 pairs of jeans or 1 pair of jeans and 1 pair of khakis. That’s it. Or in the summer, a pair of jeans and 2 pairs of shorts. He may have 5 or 6 shirts and only 2 pairs of pants for the entire trip. And yes, we still shower and change our underwear each day 🙂
Avoid items that wrinkle or are heavy. You need clothing that can roll-up tightly and come out ready to wear. Ideally, you need durable clothing that takes up minimal space and is lightweight. I avoid anything that says 100% cotton. If it is a synthetic, polyester blend or jersey fabric, it will likely hold up well during travel. Wool is also something I avoid since it’s heavy and likely needs to be dry cleaned. That is unless you’re visiting extremely cold climates and need the added warmth.
You also want to pack clothes that you love and fit well. If you pack a cute top that’s been hanging in your closet unworn for 2-years, chances are you won’t want to wear it on vacation either.
Don’t forget to accessorize, but in moderation. To keep your vacation pictures looking fresh, mix up the outfits you pack with scarves, a statement necklace or light jacket. You might be wearing a similar outfit as yesterday, but you’ve changed up the look.
I admit that I still have a slight problem with toiletries. The best advice is to pack a shampoo with conditioner and a face lotion that also doubles as a sunscreen. I like my shampoo and conditioner separate. I have lotion for my face and a separate one for my body. All four of us do share the same toiletries, except for deodorant of course. So that cuts down on some of the load. We don’t bring separate shave gel for men and women or one body wash for men and another for women. Speaking of body wash, I save that for home and pack a bar of soap in a travel soap case. These can be found at stores like Target for around $1. It’s takes up considerably less space and weighs much less than a bottle of body wash.
I do ensure I’m always packing plenty of bandaids and medication. Traveling with 2 kids typically means someone will scrap a knee or get a headache. While I can usually find everything I need in a drugstore, I like to keep kid meds on hand. If I don’t speak the language, I like to know the kids really are getting Tylenol for their weight.
My other packing problem tends to be electronics. Since I work while on the rode, I typically travel with our smaller Macbook Air, a camera with extra lens, Gopro, iPhones and iPads. The electronics bag can be larger than our clothing bag! For the everyday traveler, you can likely skip the laptop. Also be mindful of charging cords to see what can be combined for multiple uses. With the advent of USB, often the same power adaptor can be used with different cords.
Once you have everything laid out and ready to pack. Ask yourself why you’re taking it. If you think, “what if” or “just in case”, the item goes. If you can’t easily clean the garment or it can’t be matched with other items in your suitcase, it goes. Pack for a best-case scenario. If something unexpected happens, you can always go shopping.
We prefer to roll our clothing for maximum space. Packing cubes have also been a lifesaver. In the past we’ve used Ziploc bags, especially for the kids clothes. Everything goes into our packing cubes with belts getting looped around the outside of the suitcase. Anything that needs to get hung up, like a dress shirt, gets laid neatly on top. That way I can quickly hang the garment once we reach our destination.
Need more help getting organized? Take time to download our FREE travel planner which includes a packing list. Start making notes of needed items in advance, so nothing gets left behind. You can also edit your list once you return from your trip. Mark off items you didn’t use and add anything you’d like to take on your next trip. You’ll be ahead of the game the next time you jet off on the next big adventure.
Pack lightly for a vacation from the beginning, don’t wish you could dump a suitcase while on the rode later.
Disclosure: I was compensated for my time creating this article. As always, opinions are 100% my own and may differ from others.