I recently found myself once again giving some advice to a first-time international traveller, and as someone who took their first international trip at 4 weeks old, I realized that perhaps I have more insights into making travel easier than most. After all, I don’t think a calendar year has gone by in my 30+ years on this planet where I haven’t crossed an international border, and I have even accompanied a few others on their first overseas trips. I thought I would pass some of those tips along here, if my readers will forgive this aberration from my usual story-telling format. I promise, I will be back to telling tales of international travels very soon, but in the meantime, I hope you’ll find this helpful.
I’m currently in the middle of a 6 month travel work assignment in Africa, for which I could bring nothing more than the standard airline baggage allowance (which is something you should always know before you go – check your airline’s baggage policy so you’re not that guy or girl frantically repacking luggage on the floor of the check-in area or throwing things out at the airport to avoid hefty excess baggage or overweight charges!) 6 months is typically not considered a relocation. And, though I could have been reimbursed for excess baggage charges, I knew that whatever path I chose to my 3rd world, non-major hub airport destination, there would be connections and/or layovers, so if I brought an unmanageable amount of luggage, that would just make each stop more difficult. Also, I knew needed versatile luggage, so that if I wanted to take shorter trips during my stay, I could do so without having to take a massive suitcase around with me each time. So here’s the sum total of what I brought with me in terms of luggage:
- 1 Backpack style laptop bag (mine, which I love is by Samsonite and has seen me through many trips and a year-long study abroad, during which it took much abuse, so I highly recommend it) I took as my personal item;
- 1 canvas large tote bag (which is very stylish, and I got it for $20US as a Bath & Body Works promotion, and have gotten a ton of use out of – just goes to show, you don’t always need to get the most expensive bag to travel in style & comfort!) I took as my carry-on item;
- 1 Dakine Large Split Roller – checked in;
- 1 fully expanded Dakine Over Under, which could be carry-on size, if not expanded – checked in; and,
- And inside one of my suitcases, I brought a folded up Vera Bradley Tote bag, which I love for its versatility.
Now, as an aside, I have to say that I totally, absolutely and whole-heartedly favor Dakine luggage. As a company that is primarily known for making gear for active sports like snowboarding, skiing, skateboarding, etc., they know the value of strong materials and hearty construction. After all, a large part of their target demographic is active teenage boys, who aren’t exactly known for being gentle with their belongings! Plus, they use a range of patterns that makes your luggage easy to spot when it comes down the baggage carousel (though I favor the less, colorful, but still stylish gray-scale patterns since I’m a little more conservative when it comes to outward presentation, and am not a skater-girl in style – though maybe a little bit in spirit!) I’ve even gotten compliments on my luggage while in check-in lines at the airport! Patterns can be a huge benefit – don’t underestimate how nice it is to spot your bag from a distance, so that you don’t have to try to walk alongside the moving baggage, trying to read the name tag on some nondescript black suitcase to see if its yours, while almost knocking over your fellow travellers as they try to get out of your way!! I have yet to see ANYONE at the airport with the same bag as me, and I have had my Dakine set for a few years now, after seeing my first one on some super-thrifty SteepandCheap sale, trying it out and falling in love (though I’ve found Backcountry Store usually has the best Dakine luggage selection – and a lot of their gear too). Makes for a much less stressful, and often speedier baggage claim process. And avoids having to tie silly ribbons onto the top of your bag, or put unique stickers all over your suitcase – though if you possess sturdy, nondescript luggage already, those are good ways to make it more readily identifiable, along with using fun luggage tags or colorful belt/strap thingies.
For those among you who wish to stay stylish, even when you can only bring a limited amount of clothing with you, I have the following suggestions.
- Stick to a neutral color palette – while I’m getting pretty sick of wearing black, white, khaki & gray most days, I never have trouble matching clothing. And you can get away with wearing the same black top more times than you could that lime-green one that gets you noticed each time you wear it. Your outfits might be less memorable than you might normally favor, but that makes your wardrobe more versatile…. and you can still look good and stylish! A nicely cut black cardigan goes a long way!
- Bring pieces that are easy to mix and match. That one awkward length top that only looks good over that one pair of pants that match it perfectly? It should probably stay home, and be saved for when you have the luxury of unlimited closet space. On the other hand, that pair of jeans that go with everything are well-worth the luggage space they take up!
- Versatility is everything! That dress that you can pair with heels and a nice necklace for a formal event, or dress down with a belt and flats will get a lot of use while you travel. Again, you might wish you had that sparkly ball gown for the formal event, but the well-accessorized yet simple little black dress that you can also dress down more easily will get you a lot farther throughout your trip.
- Know the climate you’ll find yourself in and bring the appropriate fabrics. There is nothing that wastes space more than bringing the absolutely wrong clothing for the climate. For example, being in a hot African country demands a lot of cotton & natural fabrics, or fabrics that wick away moisture. Had I packed a lot of wool sweaters in my luggage just because I’d be here in winter, and hadn’t realized that it never gets cold enough for wool here, I would have been kicking myself, because that’s space I could have used for other things.
- (and this is the part I have the most trouble with) Try to limit your shoe selection to one of each “type” of shoe – I came for 6 months with 1 pair of sneakers (a Merrell Gore Tex pair that I can use on the treadmill or for a long hike), 1 basic black pair of elegant work heels, 1 black pair of casual wedge heels (as an aside, this pair from Payless, where I rarely ever shop, I got after seeing them on a coworker and they have quickly become a favorite of mine), a gray pair of casual flats, a black pair of leather low wedges (a work staple), and a couple of pairs of flip-flops (Teva casual ones and Via Spiga jeweled leather ones), a pair of brown sling-backs, and that’s about it. I miss my (probably too large) shoe collection from back home, but in a pinch, and for 6 months, I can manage with these. Though I will confess, I do have another couple of pairs of flats on the way in the mail……
Now, I wasn’t always a good packer, but there was a realization I came to a couple of years back that revolutionized my ability to pack and my stress level while doing it, and I will share that realization with you: very few things are “essential and irreplaceable”. Here are the things you really NEED when travelling: your travel documents – i.e passport/ID and ticket, cash and a major credit card (though make sure what you’re carrying is widely used where you are going, as, for example, Visa is accepted in Djibouti while MasterCard is not [at least not widely], and Discover I’ve rarely seen used outside of the US) or two, and any necessary prescription medicine. Everything else is replaceable. You may not get your preferred brand of moisturizer, or your favorite style of panties, or a toothpaste you like the taste of, but you’ll be able to find something to make do in a pinch, and get you through your trip. Adopt this “everything else is replaceable” mantra while you pack, and you will feel your stress level go down dramatically!
A couple of other random tips: for the girl or guy who must have their favorite styling products or toiletries and considers those additional essentials? Definitely invest in a good set of refillable travel bottles, and ditch the full-size versions. They’ll be waiting for you when you come home! If you don’t feel like buying anything like that, at least pick up a pack of Ziploc bags – they’re awesome for protecting clothes from anything liquid you’re bringing along! And if you plan on shopping while you travel, make sure to (1) leave enough room in your luggage to pick stuff up along the way; (2) bring an expandable bag or suitcase, or pack an extra folding duffel inside your luggage; or (3) bring old clothes you can throw out or donate along the way – those old sneakers that are almost totally shot, the ratty-granny-panties you should have ditched ages ago, or the top that’s in good condition but you never really loved, so you could happily donate it to a charity in whatever country you’re visiting. That last one is one that I’m going to rely on here, as I have tons of things that are in good condition but that don’t totally fit right, or I just don’t wear at home. They were perfect to bring along here, and I will donate them to a non-profit here when I leave, thereby freeing up room in my luggage while doing a good deed. It’s a true win-win!
Well, those are enough travel tips for now! Though, I’ll happily share more insights to anyone who asks. In the meantime, think before you fold & pack, and feel your spirit lighten with your baggage load!
Wishing you safe travels and light luggage,
PS, for other useful packing tips, check out this article on packing light!