We all know the pain of finding a great deal on a flight only to have the airline charge you an extra $100 for bags. Traveling abroad is expensive enough, so it’s especially annoying when there are hidden costs and a la carte extras that you haven’t budgeted for. A great way to reduce the cost of your trip is to pack light and strategically.
In addition to being a budget-savvy traveler, I firmly believe that packing light is the best way to travel abroad, no matter the length of the trip. At airports, train stations, and on the streets, you don’t want to carry around 50 pounds of luggage causing stress and back pain.
Read on for minimalist-inspired packing tips and strategies.
Scroll below to download my ultimate packing list for any long trip abroad in PDF format
My history of light packing
Right after I graduated high school, I wanted to go on an adventure. I was able to find a $200 ticket to Paris that included only “small personal items.” At the time, I didn’t have the means to upgrade to a carry-on, let alone a checked bag. I took this as a challenge. During my three-week trip, I was able to bring everything I needed in just a backpack.
Five years later, I am now embarking on a three-month trip to Europe. I will encounter a wide range of temperatures, conditions, and activities ensuring I dress appropriately for each.
I can’t stop going back but this time the ticket included one 10kg handbag (a handbag weighs 22 lbs in America) plus a small personal item like a suitcase. While I knew this would be a huge challenge, I was confident that it would not only be possible but would dramatically improve my overall experience.
So, join me on my journey to attempt the seemingly impossible: packing for a 3-month European adventure with a 22-pound bag limit.
Get comfort with minimalism
The first thing I like to do when faced with the packing challenge is to make a list of the destinations I’ll be visiting, the average weather conditions for each place depending on the time of year, and the activities I expect to do in each place. This gives me a rough idea of the combination of items I will need and what I should expect.
Due to the maximum number of bags, you will not be able to bring everything you want. You should be comfortable with only taking what you need and seeing how much space you have left to bring what you want. Everyone prioritizes differently, but here is my guide to prioritizing basic packing.
- Travel documents
- Toiletry basics
- 5 tops
- 4 bottoms
- 3 shoes
- 2 dresses
- 1 bag
- Charging cables
- Comfort items
- Hair supplies
- Anything else you want to bring will do
Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize
Once I analyze the locations and conditions I will be in, I categorize everything into a five-level priority system.
The first level includes essentials that you cannot easily access outside. This includes medicines and toiletries that cannot be purchased from abroad and vital identity documents such as visas and passports. Basically, anything you need to get on the plane in the first place and the essentials that keep you alive and well.
Level 2 includes basic clothing that can be really annoying if you forget it. This doesn’t include the high-heeled shoes you wear once a month or the dress you’ll really miss. Put these in the Level 5 category and only bring them if there is room. Versatile sweaters, underwear, bras, pairs of socks, pairs of shoes, shirts, short sleeves, long sleeves, cardigans, jackets, pants, pajamas, swimwear, etc.
This depends greatly on where you are going and what you are doing. For me, it feels like I’m going everywhere and doing everything, so my best advice for a situation like this is to learn how to layer and build a capsule wardrobe.
Items you might need for work (if you’re going to work), keeping in touch with friends and family, or other things you deem essential other than toiletries and clothing belong in Tier 3. For example, I need my laptop, iPad, Kindle, and all chargers Theirs for both work and joy. These can also be small items for extra comfort during your travels, such as an eye mask, earplugs, wet wipes, etc. Many of these items will be packed in my backpack instead of my carry-on bag so they are accessible during transport.
I consider toiletries to be a Tier 4 category because you can buy mostly everything from abroad. I like to bring products that have multiple uses such as sunscreen for the face: Chase MD. Not only does it contain SPF 50, but it has a subtle tint that gently evens skin tone, hydrates and provides a gentle glow without looking like you’re wearing makeup. They have different types based on your skin needs. This is great for all genders.
For those who love makeup, it’s important to narrow down what you really think you’ll want to carry with you. I have a minimal makeup routine that includes facial sunscreen, eyebrow gel, blush, lip liner and lip gloss, and mascara. Simple but effective. I bring some extras to spice up the look and some for a good night’s sleep. Fortunately, makeup is small and light, but it can definitely add a lot.
As for shampoo, soap and everything else, I find it easier and more exciting to get it locally. Unless you’re really into products for your hair, face, and body (or are allergic), it can be fun to try out what the locals use. Many hotels also provide soaps and lotions that you can take from one place to another.
This category includes things you don’t necessarily need but are nice to have. If you packed everything on your list and those items add too much weight or don’t fit, they’re the first things you can cut. In addition, many small, inexpensive items can be purchased abroad as needed, such as toiletries.
- Expensive jewelry. You will feel sad if it is lost or stolen, and there is a very high risk of this happening when traveling. If you wear attractive jewelry, this also makes you a target for pickpocketing.
- Hair dryer, curling iron, hair straightener, etc.: Many hotels have hair dryers. For me, I choose to bring a towel to dry my hair, non-heat hair curlers, and a hair cap to protect my hair while I sleep. These eliminate the need for bulky hair products. There are also mini curlers and straighteners that get the job done when you need them to. Everyone’s hair is different, so if this is a priority for you, consider some ways to cut back on what you need.
- Too Many Shoes: This is a difficult thing that many people struggle with. Especially when there is a big difference in weather and activities, it is difficult to choose the shoes you need. I’ll discuss more about shoes below, but a rule of thumb is always to stick to one pair of comfortable walking shoes that goes with everything, and something a little more stylish but still durable and easy to walk on.
- Towels: Most hostels and hotels provide towels. The only time it would be nice to have one is if you are going to the beach. There are some built-in microfiber options here for this purpose.
- Paper guidebooks are nice, but they add weight and take up space. Read it in advance, take pictures of what you want to do, or write out your plan in advance. E-books are also a great way to save space.
Choose your bags
For a trip like this, I recommend carrying sturdy luggage, a multi-use backpack, and a small wallet that can fit in the backpack. I use a Guardian handbag that has survived many flights, cobblestone streets, and a fair share of conveyor belt tosses. TravelPro is a great brand that my entire family uses.
My favorites can be purchased through Amazon here.
In terms of luggage organization, which in my opinion is essential for a long trip, I love packing cubes, specifically ones that compress more to save space. I have had great success using these Which come with a laundry bag, a shoe bag, and a range of sizes for all your clothes. You’ve turned a massive pile of clothes into a manageable pile of organized cubes. Absolute savior.
If you travel with a lot of electronics, I recommend this Electronic organizer Which keeps all your cords neatly arranged. It can fit portable chargers, earphones, hard drives, and any additional power cords. I recommend this too Universal power adapter, which has ports for both types of USB, is a traditional plug and is compatible with outlets in the EU, UK, and Australia. Although it can fit in an electronic organizer, it is a bit larger so it may be better to keep it in a backpack.
For toiletries I suggest this Bagsmart toiletry bag It has enough space for anything from jewelry to hair supplies to makeup. It is waterproof with a convenient handle and measures 12.6 x 9.1 inches. It can still be put in your carry-on luggage or backpack. If there’s no space, it can be attached to the outside of your bag as well.
Necessary toiletries include a toothbrush, toothpaste, a small brush, and deodorant. All of this can also be purchased abroad if necessary.
Although I’ve never had issues traveling without my bags closed, it’s always a good idea to err on the safe side to protect your valuables. Unfortunately, pickpocketing is common in many countries across Europe. These bag locks can work with backpacks and other luggage. I am better TSA-approved lock set For the keys because you will be in trouble if you lose the keys.
I’d also recommend looking into getting a travel insurance plan that covers anything from lost luggage to health concerns and overall travel safety. I chose Safety Suites for my trip because of its affordability and wide range of coverage. For three months, it costs only $150. Travel insurance is worth it, especially if it’s a long-term trip.
The fine art of clothing packaging
Clothes represent 80% of what you bring. It is necessary to know what to take and what to leave at home according to weight, size, and necessity. For my trip, I will be traveling in the fall, which brings a wide range of temperatures and conditions. I’ll be traveling anywhere from Iceland to southern Italy, so integrating everything to suit the needs of those destinations is a big challenge.
The temperature range I’ll be working with will probably be between the mid-30s and mid-70s (Fahrenheit), so it’s a pretty wide range. In terms of activities, I’ll be hiking, walking around town, wine tasting, and more.
A capsule wardrobe is one of the best ways to pack strategically for a trip and make the most of your wardrobe. The principles of a capsule wardrobe are based on simplicity and finding pieces of clothing that can be matched and worn in many different ways. This way, you can increase the amount of clothing you get from a small group of items.
Not only does upgrading your wardrobe reduce decision-making fatigue while packing, it’s the best way to travel light. When choosing what to bring, it’s important to select items that are comfortable, timeless, and wearable in various weather conditions.
A typical travel capsule wardrobe should contain about 15 items. You can add more if you are going on a longer trip like me. In the photos above, I’ve come up with 4 outfits that cover most of my bases in terms of temperature and activities.
- Tops: Two base layers in a neutral color and two more layers that can be worn without layers. Always wear a jacket if you are traveling to a place where the weather is cold. I love turtlenecks because they are stylish and fashionable.
- Outer layers: I like to bring two jackets; a More dressed Trench coat It can double as a rain jacket and a warmer, waterproof winter coat.
- shoes: I’ve narrowed my selection down to three pairs of shoes, all of which are easy to walk on. On the plane, I’ll wear my biggest shoes, my black combat boots. I’ll pack a pair of Birkenstock And some white city walking shoes that go with everything. I have waterproofed all pairs so they can handle rainy conditions.
- If you want something a little more stylish, I recommend this unique brand called Passion Shoes. There are many custom options and comfort is the priority.
- I know I’ll be doing some hiking on my trip but my hiking boots are too big for me to pack. Many places offer rentals, so be sure to bring some matching socks.
- Dresses: I like to add a dress or two to my wardrobe. Dresses are versatile, easy, and comfortable. I’m bringing an elegant black dress to go out to dinner. I’ll also bring something casual for everyday exploration. Some hotels I stay at require nice clothes for dinner.
- night dress: This is something a lot of people forget. It’s smart to use some of your comfy clothes as pajamas but I really like the item Pajama set. It is stylish and comfortable and includes a tank top, shorts, pants, and long sleeves. Everything you need for a comfortable night’s sleep.
- Supplements: For bags, I’ll just bring a small black bag that fits everything and a small bag that barely weighs anything. For jewelry, I’ll keep it simple and choose a few things that go with most outfits. For hats, I’ll go simple Baseball cap And a warm winter hat as well as some gloves and scarves. The great thing about scarves is that they can easily dress up an outfit and add an extra layer.
- Swimsuits: Don’t forget a swimsuit or two. My father trained me from a young age to wear a swimsuit no matter what the trip. You never know when your pool, lake, or beach might magically appear.
Everything should be suitcase-proof (i.e. not prone to wrinkles and compressible).
When I put together my wardrobe, I like to choose 5 basic colors that go well together. The primary colors are definitely white and black because they go with everything and provide an elegant look. I love some bright colors in my wardrobe that are also a bit seasonal. For this trip, my favorite colors are sky blue, orange, and bright red. All of these colors go well with black and white and can be combined together as well.
In casual uniform
With this weight limit, it is always recommended to carry larger items during transport. My airport attire includes some comfy yoga pants, a white turtleneck sweater, black combat boots, a raincoat, and a sweatshirt or cardigan. Yes, I get hot, but flights are always freezing anyway and their layers can double as blankets and pillows. It’s not difficult to carry a jacket through the airport or tie a sweatshirt around your waist.
What should I bring?
Bottle of Water: Water is very difficult to get in Europe and other destinations, and it almost always costs money. I recommend taking a Collapsible water bottle It fits easily in a purse and is filled in water fountains or sinks.
Money: Transfer money early. There is usually a much lower exchange rate through your bank. Most places accept credit cards, but it’s a good idea to have €100 (or the equivalent in another currency) or so as a backup. Get travel-friendly credit cards that collect travel rewards and don’t charge international transaction fees.
Small first aid kit: Includes some bandages, Neosporin, basic over-the-counter medications like Advil and Tums, antiseptic wipes, tweezers, gauze, tape, hand sanitizer, and small scissors.
Additional travel tips from my other travel-savvy friends and family
- Sarong: Have you ever heard of a sarong? A sarong is a large, versatile piece of cloth that can be tied around your waist or served as a cover-up or scarf. Learn about all the different ways you can wear a sarong.
- Bring small games such as cards to entertain yourself along the way.
- It’s smart to bring homemade sandwiches for your train ride to save money. My friend recommends bringing a small salt and pepper shaker for this reason.
- She also recommends keeping small containers of food you pick up along the way. Interestingly, the Kinder Egg containers are leak-proof and are the perfect size for moisturizer or hair gel.
- Advice from my mother: If you can’t wear an item of clothing more than one way, don’t bring it.
- Laundry outside: Most places have easily accessible sinks. Some hotels and hostels have it too. There is always seating and Wi-Fi at the laundromats. It is recommended that you stay in the laundromat while washing your clothes so that you are not exposed to theft. All laundromats have washers but dryers are few and far between in Europe so I recommend bringing your own Clothesline To hang your clothes.
The ultimate packing list for any long trip abroad PDF
Have I accomplished my mission?
After some tough decisions, trying to practice what I preach, and some compromises, yes I accomplished my mission. I finally feel ready to start my adventure and I have peace of mind that I have everything I need.
The final words I will leave you with are that overpacking is not worth the extra back pain, costs, and hassle. Most of the time, you bring things you’ve never touched. I have never regretted packing light.