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How to Pack Smarter and Travel Light

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A tip when it comes to traveling: always pack lighter. Baggage fees are astronomical these days so it has become critical to define and pack only the “essentials” for a trip. Plus, who wants to haul around a bunch of clunky, heavy bags?

I find you always need less, not more, than you think.

After reading Rick Steve’s travel guide prior to our Mediterranean Cruise, my husband and I finally hit our stride for doing it right. Here are some of the secrets we learned throughout our various travel journeys as well as recommendations on what you should bring.

In the next 3 sections we break out the items you already have and how to use these, items you may not have but should, and items that you don’t need at all but are fun. The fun ones make great gifts if you are looking for something special for that person in your life who loves to travel.

Travel items you already have:

travel must haves
#1 – Documents: IDs, Passports, Reservation Info, Confirmation Numbers, and any other important information. Write the contact numbers (but NOT your account number) for your credit card/bank account company(s) on a piece of paper and keep these separate from your wallet or bags. If your credit/debit cards are stolen, you need to cancel the accounts right away and won’t have the card with the phone number on it since it was stolen.

You might also want to write down numbers for emergency contacts in case you lose your phone and don’t know what these are (who remembers numbers anymore?).

Make a photo copy of your important information such as your driver’s license and passport and keep one of these versions in your hotel safe and one on your person. This has helped us in the past when we lost our passports – long, embarrassing story, don’t ask.

#2 – Toiletries: You’ve probably covered the main items – toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant, brushes, razors, feminine products, etc.

But don’t forget some of the smaller important stuff like Advil, Maalox , Q-Tips, nail trimmers, tweezers (splinters happen) and scissors. If you bought something during your trip you’ll most likely need to get the tags or packaging off.

When traveling to Europe bring a face washcloth (they don’t typically provide one – which to me is so weird).

If you’re staying anywhere for longer than a week I recommend doing a wash in the middle so that you don’t have to pack as much. Do this in the tub and hang the clothes over the shower curtain bar to dry if there is no washer/dryer in your hotel. If you plan on washing items, grab a few Tide packets and throw them in your suitcase.

We hang a toiletry bag in our bathroom, which is great for being in different hotels each day, just zip it up and throw it in your suitcase. I highly recommend something like this to keep all your bathroom goodies in one easily accessible place.

#3 – Clothes: There are 2 critical elements to packing clothes for travel and those are layers and comfort. You will inevitably be dealing with fluctuations in temperature depending on where you’re going and the time of year, so dress accordingly for their season. Layer up as much as you can, including pants which convert into shorts if that suits your style. I always include a little sweatshirt or jacket that I can wrap around my waist if it gets warm. Scarfs come in handy; in Scotland, which was freezing and windy even in the middle of June (who knew?), I had a wool scarf wrapped around my face 70% of the time.

As for comfort, wear sneakers or other comfortable shoes that you can walk in ALL DAY. I wore these Crocs sandals for miles and miles of walking in Italy and my feet never hurt (from the shoes at least). I wore sneakers throughout Ireland and Scotland which was the best clothing investment I made on that trip aside from the scarf. Unless you are doing a tropical vacation where your primary goal is to lay on the beach or float in the water, you will probably be walking a lot wherever you go.

Roll your clothes when you pack them. This keeps them wrinkle free and compact. Roll socks into balls and stuff them inside shoes.

#4 – Money: Your best bet here is to diversify. Bring a little cash but not so much where if you lost it or had it stolen your vacation is over. Cash or its foreign equivalent, depending on where you are headed, can be useful for bargaining purposes. A lot of places prefer it and some merchants will ONLY take cash (street fair vendors and the like) so it’s great to have a little for trinkets and souvenirs. However, it’s also the riskiest of all the currency options and you want to be careful letting people see how many bills you actually have. Best practice is to keep the larger bills hidden in a hideaway wallet or at least put your lower bills on top of your stash.

I’d suggest putting one credit card in one location like a hideaway wallet or a pocket and the other in your purse or backpack. OR, depending on where you are going, just bring one card and leave the others in your room safe. As far as currency conversion, most places will actually take U.S. dollars locally, but if you want to exchange it (which sometimes gives you better prices) you can get the best rate from your bank – avoid airport conversion rates. We try to use paper money sparingly but will also try to get rid of it before we come back so that we don’t pay the currency conversion fee twice.

A great thing to look into if you will be traveling often is a credit card that offers 0% foreign transaction fees. Ours charges 3%, but we have been eyeing the 0% Venture card for a while now.

#5 – Plastic Bags: These can be just your regular grocery bags or you can invest in fancier ones (although then they need to be washed/bleached in order to avoid mold). I throw a few plastic grocery bags in my suitcase whenever I travel and will typically use them for a variety of uses: keeping my dirty clothes separate from the clean stuff, keeping my bathing suits and other wet items separated from the rest of the dry items, any trash I may not want to put directly into the bin in the room and, to hold souvenirs.

Travel items you should have or should buy if you don’t:

travel nice to have items
#1 – Foreign Adapter/Power Plug: Electrical outlets are specific to the country you are in. To be adequately prepared to travel to any country, invest in an adapter like this highly-rated gadget – which is basically your all-in-one solution for a fuse protected adapter that works in any country and provides 2 USB ports. If you will be renting a car a device like this car USB charger can also come in handy. You can find converters at the local destination as well, but the price will be a lot higher than you can find online.

#2 – Money Belt/Wallet/Necklace: Foreigners typically stick out and theives are looking for an easy target with a purse or something hanging off them. A criminal is looking for the path of least resistance, their object has to be easy for them to get to and run off with. With that in mind, keep your important documents, cash and credit cards, either in a money belt, a secret pocket, a money necklace (these go under your shirt and are hidden), or at minimum, a wallet stored in your pocket. If you use a regular wallet in your pocket, an inexpensive hack is to tie a rubber band around it so that it doesn’t easily slide out of your pocket.

#3 – Waterproof Container: Romantic Beach trips are awesome but when it’s just the two of you longing to spend some quality bonding time in the water you don’t want your valuables (like your hotel key and a little cash) sitting on your towel. Even the really sneaky shoe-hide can be susceptible to theft, although one would think that reaching that far down should be enough to deter anyone. A waterproof container is a life-saver for peace of mind – check out these magnetic closure waterproof bags. While the description mentions being safe for phones I don’t personally trust that – however, it WILL keep your money, IDs, etc., safe and dry.

#4 – Beach Bag: Target has tons of beach totes for really low prices. I use mine (from Target) all the time when we go to the local pools in town and when we go on beach vacations. These great bags come in handy to throw all your pool items (sunscreen, blankets, sunglasses, inflatables, radio, water bottles, etc.) in. If you don’t have one yet and ever plan to go to the beach or pool, for less than $10.00, it’s a wise investment.

#5 – Power Bank: I personally have about 5 of these and usually forget to charge them before a trip – DOH! So, if you have or plan to buy one, just make sure you charge it in advance. They do come in handy when you need power and are on the move.

Travel items you don’t need (but might want):

Luxury Travel Items
#1 – Packing Cubes: People are CRAZY for these packing cubes which help organize, separate and pack more items efficiently in suitcases. There are also compression bags which function like the vacuum bags (space savers) but they work without vacuums by manually pushing air out of them.

#2 – Travel Neck Pillow: Most people swear by the travel neck pillow and I have a collection of about 4 of these that I don’t use. A friend of mine who travels every week can’t go anywhere without his wrap style pillow, but I can’t deal with an anaconda-like neck pillow strangling me. I bought this front leaning style pillow for our flight to Ireland and it was okay, but I ended up just deflating it some, squishing it on my husband and using it that way – I didn’t really like it the tray table position – it’s clunky. I included neck pillows because I know a lot of people enjoy them, but I don’t happen to be one of them – I’ve resolved that plane travel is just always going to be uncomfortable for me.

#3 – LED Speaker: I bought a little speaker doodadlike this one on a whim and I love it. I have a very nice Bluetooth speaker in my house that I would never bring with me to a pool or allow to be thrown in a suitcase (it’s expensive). I figured for $20.00 I could afford it if this got ruined and hoped I would get at least a few uses out of it. 4 years later I still have this and it is functioning great. I take it with me poolside to have some tunes and have brought it on a family cruise where we used it to jam out by the pool numerous times. The sound is surprisingly good, and it’s given us hours of entertainment, plus it’s compact and easy to use/charge. Having a portable speaker is a great unnecessary travel accessory that can bring some extra added fun, especially when traveling with a group.

#4 – Snorkel & Mask: I received a full face snorkel mask as a gift recently and haven’t used it yet but they are getting great reviews. My hubby and I always choose to bring our own masks with us because we’re a little weird about using rented gear that other people’s mouths have been on/in and it’s difficult to get the right fit with generic gear. It is a little bulky to bring these along, but if we are going on a beach vacation our suitcases are typically packed with mostly light items anyway, so to us it’s worth the real estate for the hygiene and comfort they provide.

#5 – Wrap or Pareo: For most beach trips this will be the only item you’ll really need besides your bathing suits. You can dress up your beach outfit for a nice dinner by throwing on a cover up like this one, or just grab a simple pareo and learn how to tie it in all different ways.

#6 – Travel Backpack with an area for a Charging Bank (not included): A convenient travel backpack with all the compartments you could ever want plus an area for a charging bank will come in handy during your flight as well as in the city of your destination.

#7 – Noise Cancelling Headphones: What may feel like a luxury item before purchasing will quickly become a necessity once you are stuck on a flight longer than an hour next to a feral, screeching baby. We picked (and purchased) these specifically for their high marks in drowning out airplane noises.

~Don’t worry about taking hair dryers, shampoo/conditioner/lotion/soap, and towels, which all hotels or rental properties should include. Most hotels will also have amenities at the front desk like combs, toothbrushes, toothpaste, etc., so if you’ve forgotten something, just ask them. If they don’t have it, they can most likely recommend a store close by where you can purchase some.


What are your favorite travel accessories? Tell us if you think we missed anything.

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