When I was young, and a Boy Scout, my troop leader told us to “always be prepared”. For most of my life I had taken this too literally. My car has enough tissues for a roman army and a pharmacy in the glove box. I have a small toolkit for the inevitable breakdown. I also squirrel away granola bars and bottled water in various cubbies about the cabin. Parents understand that, “I’m hungry” will only ever happen when you are 40 miles from food OR right after they refused to eat what ever you paid for at the diner and by “Diner” I mean McDonalds. You’re not better than me; you know you feed your kids McDonalds. Besides, McDonalds has apple slices and salads now!! I think I may have just plugged McDonalds, it’s a slippery slope from there isn’t it.
Pro Tip: French fries are magical. They are delicious golden salty bits of heaven that don’t rot, apple slices…not so much. Make sure to search for wayward apple slices in the crevice between the child seat and where the seatback meets the seat cushion. The physics of how they get there is beyond me, but the stench certainly is not.
Anyhow, yes I’m THAT helicopter parent. Traveling was no different. All of those things I thought made me prepared simply turned me into a pack mule. I was young, I was strong, and I was prepared, or so I thought. As it turns out, you can’t always be prepared and encumbering yourself with unnecessary stuff inhibits your ability to travel and have fun. The way I look at it now is that “being prepared” is abstract. After all, Mary Poppins and MacGyver were both always prepared. Since I’m not that brilliant I regularly air to the “Marry Poppins” side of that equation. I can’t turn an avocado into a lock pick and I can’t distill allergy medicine from a dandelion. I can, however, carry a giant assortment of stuff.
As it turns out the airlines, and subsequently my wallet (thanks for the fees fellas) are very much against the “Marry Poppins” traveler. So being cheap and probably more than a little lazy I said to myself, this time it’s going to be different. “This time” was referring to the whirlwind European vacation I was planning. I tend to be a man of extremes, much to my wife’s chagrin.
I had been following ticket prices to Europe for a long time. One day I found an incredible deal on flights to Europe. I jumped on the tickets and then decided to pack light for the first time. For the record, I live in Hawaii, traveling to Europe with 2 young children a wife and 4 tiny suitcases was no small feat of engineering. I went and bought 4 European sized carry-ons. (Click here for why you should buy a European sized carry on). I then proceeded to take everything I “thought” I needed and cram it into these 4 itty bitty suitcases, with my wife looking especially irritated. I guess standing on a small hard shelled suitcase for half an hour while I tried to zip it up was not her idea of a “good” time. I conceded her point that “maybe I didn’t to take everything” and that I should, “perhaps, cut down the load a little bit”. I then started to look at what I really needed. I had already reduced my normal amount of clothes substantially but this wasn’t going to work. Then something novel occurred to me. I wasn’t taking the children to a warzone or any third world countries (this time). So I did a few calculations.
It would cost me less to buy some of things I may or may not need at an airport or a local drugstore than to pay the baggage fees. These included things like shampoo, soap, Tide, Lotion, cough medicine, Nyquil, Dayquil, Theraflu, coffee, toothpaste, my electric toothbrush with charger, my electric shaver, my entire shaving kit including the shaving cream etc. etc. etc. A note on that last one, you don’t need shaving cream, you think you do, but you don’t. This was absolutely the hardest thing for me to leave behind. I have my Gillette razor with all 14 blades of glory and an “Art of shaving” badger hairbrush with “Art of shaving” cream that is just amazing. I have some gnarly thick facial hair and some baby soft sensitive skin and I’m here to tell you that you don’t really need shaving cream. I now have travel razors; el cheapo Mach 3 disposable razors and I use either bar soap or conditioner in lieu of shaving cream when I travel. I also shave my head with the same razor. I wouldn’t recommend doing this on an ongoing basis, but for travel it’s just fine. Make sure the razor is NEW when you leave.
Half of the pharmacy I carried with me on a regular basis was, shockingly, illegal in most of the countries I was visiting anyway. Seriously, you wont believe what you can’t bring to what countries. (Here’s my list of banned substances)
When I say travel light I mean NO checked baggage at all. This limits you to one carry on sized suitcase and one “personal item” (what size personal item can I bring on the plane) keep in mind that airlines have different limitations on the sizes of bags and personal items and their associated weights. Traveling light means traveling smart. In this case that meant I may be on and off trains and on “discount” airlines in Europe and elsewhere so I wanted the meet the minimum standard among all the vehicles I may be on for travel at all times. Typically the discount airlines in Europe such as Ryan Air or Aer Lingus have the strictest carry on policies, next to the trains, so I used their sizes and weights as a baseline. (Should I fly discount airlines in Europe?) This means the carry on should be under 22lbs as well.
(What toiletries should I bring?) Thanks to TSA and other countries equivalents you are now limited to a single one-quart bag of very small 30z liquids in a carry on. My wife looked at me like I had 3 heads when I removed her makeup bag from the suitcase. Ladies, you don’t need your cosmetics bag. You are beautiful as is. I promise. On a fun side note my wife was “busted” in London for having mascara and in her purse. They considered it to be a liquid. After 30 minutes of arguing, unpacking and other needless excitement we were free to go. But be aware, different countries, even western ones, have very different ideas of things than Americans.
By my calculations I really only needed 3 “outfits” as my wife calls them. She taught me about things like “style” and “layering”. What did I know? I’m a jeans and T-shirt kind of guy for the most part. I learned to dress like the Parisians from my wife. As a bonus she had a great time dressing me up like a Barbie doll. For the sake of brevity, buy clothes in basic colors that can dress up or down and be layered. This means neutral colors, black white and khaki. (What clothes should I bring to travel with, how to dress for traveling?) Grab a reversible belt. If you plan on doing a fancy restaurant or two grab a tie that will work with all your outfits. Men, Exofficio boxers, Trust me.
Buy a Scrubba. My hats off to whoever designed this thing (How to wash your clothes while traveling) You should wash your clothes every couple of days to keep a good flow of clean clothes. You’re going to get home late some days and not want to bother. You’re going to miss a day or possibly two if you’re traveling to multiple locations on one trip. Make sure to keep on top of it. This will save you an enormous amount of space and is well worth the travel.
I love photography; hell my first company was a photography company. (Here’s an article on why you shouldn’t start a photography company). I spent years amassing quite a collection of lenses, cameras and associated gadgetry. Get all that stuff out lay it on the floor… and say good bye. Leave the DSLR at home. You don’t need it. One more time: Do NOT travel with a DSLR! I have an article on this here (Should I bring my DSLR on vacation: why you should leave your DSLR at home)
Buy a QUALITY European sized carry on with a hard shell. (Should I buy a hard shell or soft shell suitcase) (What size suitcase should I buy)
Buy vacuum bags. (vacuum bags for travel) they compress fluffy winter clothes amazingly well. Beyond compressing your clothes into nifty stackable bricks they have other added benefits as well. They keep everything in them from smelling like plane or getting wet. I cannot recommend these enough.
Bring a travel clothesline (I have a review of one here)
Bring as small of a plug converter as you can find. I chose this one (link)
If you are anything like me you hate all the noise on planes pickup LIGHT small in-ear noise cancelling headphones. (Best travel Headphones)
IF you travel a LOT get a Microsoft Surface. (Here is my shameless plug for the Surface. Why you should buy a Microsoft surface for travel)
To further solidify my point with traveling light I present to you this picture of my friend dragging his gigantic broken bag all over Japan with me. It cost him a fortune to bring it, he didn’t need it, and it broke off a wheel. Beyond this, it didn’t fit on most of the trains, especially the bullet trains where he was straddling it for hours on end. My tiny carry on fit in the overhead rack and left me with a plethora of leg room. He also had less of what he actually needed with him than I had in my tiny suitcase.
Flexibility: Another great benefit to traveling light is the flexibility. We got stranded in NYC for a bit due to a “maintenance” issue with the plane, and were going to miss our connecting flight through Dublin to London. We were able to skip that entire layover and get on a much nicer direct flight to London because we had no checked bags to worry about.
An added, and often unsung bonus of traveling light is time savings. While most people on your flight will jump off a plane and herd through the airport to the baggage claim to wait for another 35 minutes you will already be in your preferred method of transportation to wherever you are headed. This time makes the lines shorter for cabs and buses and saves you bunch of time when it’s added up that you can be doing other things.
Not having a giant suitcase is better for your body as well. I don’t know about you but my back doesn’t appreciate cramming a 70lb bag into the back of a car 10 times for a multi-leg journey. Large bags make using public transportation cumbersome as well.
So to recap, traveling light saves you time in lines, it saves you money on bag fees and private transportation, it saves your back, it offers greater flexibility, it lowers stress and allows you to enjoy the journey to your destination. It also teaches you live with less and think on your feet. If you don’t have something, improvise. MacGyver was always prepared and he needed next to nothing to be that way. So on your next family trip I encourage you travel light!