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The art of packing lightly

During a job interview, I was once asked, “If you were going on vacation to Ireland, what would you pack and when would you start packing.”

My answer was normal for how I used to pack – I’d make a list of everything I need about two weeks ahead of time and double it and then I’d probably add more right before I left, too.

I’d like to change my answer.

Since embracing simple living, I’ve realized that the way I pack could totally be improved upon. So for the last several years, I’ve been practicing packing lightly, not only for myself, but my four kids as well (my husband already had this down).

The art of packing lightlyBy the time this post publishes, I’ll be on a plane, heading to Tuscany to hang with Tsh and other amazing friends for a writer’s retreat. I am ridiculously excited to see my friends and spend time in such a magical place.

I’m also super excited that I’ll be able to put my light packing to the test (I’m a nerd like that). I’ll be gone 11 days and my goal is to get away with just a carry-on and my backpack as my personal item with room to bring some things back. Ambitious, I know, but doable.

Here’s what I’ve learned about traveling lightly, whether it’s for one or six:

Know your style

Since finding my style a few years ago, I’ve been able to simplify to a capsule wardrobe. Everything can be mixed and matched to go together to make different outfits and though I have a relatively small wardrobe now, I always feel like I have something to wear because I love everything I own.

This has simplified packing for the trip SO much because I know that no matter what I take, it’s all going to go together so I can get away with bringing fewer pieces but still get plenty of outfits out them.
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Lay it out in advance

Before you go, lay everything you plan on taking on your bed or floor so you can get a visual of it all. By doing that, I usually find that I’ve planned too much (old habits die hard) and take out a few things.

Then, if I’m still not sure I’ve pared down enough, I actually try putting in my bag to make sure it’s all going to fit and take things out accordingly.

I’ve gotten to the point where I just take a mini version of my everyday capsule wardrobe.

Plan for souvenirs

If you know you’re going to bring things back, plan for them. Maybe you’ll need to bring less clothing so you can fit them in your bag. Or, if you’re flying, bring an empty backpack as a personal item that you can use for souvenirs on the way home.

You could even find out where the nearest post office is and just plan on mailing things back if that works better.

Do your research

It usually doesn’t take much time to find out what’s available where you’re staying and the surrounding areas. On a recent trip for instance, I found out in advance that I would have access to a washer and dryer. (I also found out there was a hair dryer and plenty of pillows and blankets, so I didn’t need to pack any of that).

Knowing that I would be able to wash clothes if necessary, I was able to bring even less to wear and just packed a small packet of laundry soap (I have super sensitive skin and can’t use most detergents).

The art of packing lightPack versatile shoes

It’s tempting to take all the shoes. Really, I know (and I’ve done it in the past). But I’ve found that I can usually get away with just a pair of comfy walking shoes, sandals if it’s warm and my running shoes. Same goes for the rest of the family.

Examine normal daily habits

If you typically wear one pair of jeans for a few days, you’ll probably do the same while you’re away. My husband would always just pack one pair of pants for trips and now I know why. He almost always makes a pair of pants last for a few days, so why bother packing extra for a trip “just in case?”

Same goes for traveling with little kids. If you have frequent accidents with one, plan accordingly.

The other kids might be fine with one extra pair of jeans, but this one will probably need two or three. In this case, I usually pack leggings as extras since they take up less space.

Buy or borrow when you’re there

If you get there and the washer is broken or your little is peeing her pants faster than you can clean and dry them, you still have options. We usually visit family, so borrowing something for us or our children is pretty easy to do.

If we’re not, a clothing store of some kind is invariably within close walking or driving distance. I heartily recommend checking out the thrift store before making your way to Target. Whoever’s dirtied all of their clothes can lounge in jammies while they wait.


Simplifying your travel baggage isn’t only for singles or couples with one or no children.

All it takes is a little planning (even less than before in my case) so you’re sure to have the stuff that’s too expensive/impossible to replace and letting go of the “what if and just in case” mentality.



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  1. Seana Turner

    I’ve come to embrace this idea as well. Not only does it ease the packing process, but it also makes the travel easier– because you aren’t schlepping as much stuff around everywhere you go! I used to take twice as much stuff as I do now, and I enjoy travel more now as a result.

  2. Sarah

    I went to Tuscany for 8 weeks in the summer of 1997 with one carry on and one backpack – most of which was occupied by textbooks, since I was taking two college courses while there. I *thought* I was going to do laundry, and capsule wardrobe mix and match…but when I got there, laundry cost $12 a machine-load, and my clothing made me an obvious foreign target. Solution: I bought two cheap sundresses from the market, a hat, a beautiful cocktail dress and a pair of smooshable fabulous sandals for the dinners out we kept going to, and threw out some of my inappropriate American clothes. IF I were doing that long period again, I would pack only the ‘American student’ type clothing/shoes I would fly in and underwear, and buy everything else to wear.

  3. Betsy

    I love the lay out your clothes and your money quote. So true…….we traveled to Italy for 10 days. I took limited clothing in black, gray and cream and matching was simple. I never ran out of clothes but had to visit the bank for more money. : )

  4. Niha

    “All it takes is a little planning…” Amen to this! As new parents, we are finding out that traveling is made so much simpler by bringing the least amount of stuff possible. We just spent ten incredible days in Iceland with our baby and toddler, and we took only backpacks. We had everything we needed, bought the rest locally, and lacked nothing. Was it easy? Not always. But, worth it? Totally. I love to encourage friends who say that traveling with kids is “stressful” to pare down what they bring but, unfortunately, not everyone sees their possessions as the cause of stress.

  5. Meyli

    I love packing light for traveling! Somehow I always have what I need, and never get bored. My husband and I went to Disney World a few years ago for 6 days. We had carry-on bags only, and we did just fine. It was awfully hot, so we stuffed our small suitcases with t-shirts and clean underwear, a pair of flip-flops, and a bathing suit. Our personal bags had essential toiletries, phone and phone chargers, and some snacks.
    We weren’t traveling to look fancy, we were traveling to have fun! So we didn’t really care what we had with us; we were going to be out in the parks or floating in a pool all day anyways!

  6. Ashley

    I’ve been working really hard at this, especially when packing for myself and a toddler and baby. One additional helpful idea is that we share toiletries when appropriate. At home, we each have a shampoo, soap and lotion we like best but for trips I take a baby safe shampoo + body wash that we can all use and an unscented lotion we can all use. My husband and I use the same type of deodorant (Primal Pit Paste – the best!) and even though we prefer different scents, we also can share that when on the road. I’ve got us all sharing one big suitcase and a toiletry kit for most trips under a week now. Yay!

  7. tayler

    i usually try to decide what kind and how many of each item i’ll bring with me before i even look through my closet, because if i look at everything i’ll want take all of it “just in case.” so i start with planning it out in my head, saying “okay if i’m gone for 1 week, then one pair of jeans and two pairs of shorts should be more than enough…” and then i grab only those things out of my closet, and so on. it forces me to pick the best and most versatile of each kind of item. i’ve totally gotten okay with rewearing clothes too. i’m not afraid to wear a shirt a couple times, especially if it’s a trip that’s on the longer side. you’re not going to remember what you wore, only how much fun you had!

  8. Emily

    This is so timely for me – I’m about to do a 3 week road trip with 4 kids, and my husband will join us part way through.
    We never do end up wearing all the clothes we bring on a trip. It’s time to travel lighter!!

  9. Sarah

    Brilliant post and so true, the just in case items can usually be bought if needed. I’d add that packing cubes (in particular the ebags slim ones) have been a fabulous tool for me in terms of keeping things organised and compact! The website Travel Fashion Girl has amazing advice on minimalist/ carry on only packing which I’ve found really helpful as well!

  10. Beth

    Regarding packing entertainment for preschoolers: I like to bring light weight items. For our international trip coming up this is what I’ll put in my (3yo) son’s bag: special stickers and a small, flimsy notebook to put them on; a small magnetic drawing board with a pen tied to it; a few small airplanes or dinosaurs; his two favorite stuffed animals; and one or two lightweight books. Everything except the stuffed animals and books are cheap – walmart/dollar store type stuff. It won’t matter if it gets lost or broken. I usually do not bring crayons/markers because I don’t want them a) rolling across the floor or b) being used on airplane furniture. For books I try to aim for something that’s not a story book but instead has lots of detailed pictures. My son really enjoys an English picture dictionary we have (we’re ESL teachers) and a comic book (graphic novel) geared more towards 7-10 year olds but has lots of pictures that he can talk about. He likes to “read” them independently or with us for long periods of time. Much more than just the few minutes a story book takes. Disclaimer: he does LOVE to “read”/be read to. These items don’t take up much room but are pretty versatile on a trip.

  11. Michele Gordon

    I also like to use the bags you put your items in and then squish all the air out. It serves a couple of purposes. One it helps to keep things organized and I put like things together or each for persons. It does make them take less space too. Also if any liquid does spill it protects your clothing (or if it rains during your travels, you arrive with dry clothes).
    It is also easier to find something if you need to open the bag in transit vs having to dig through all the separate things and then get them packed back just right. You pull out the bags until you find the one you need, then open that one. You can use gallon and the 2.5 gallon bags without buying the special travel edition bags. Seal them most of the way, roll them up to get the air out, then seal the rest while it is rolled, then just flatten it back out. Anything wet or dirty on the trip home also can have its own back. I usually throw a couple of extra plastic bags in my suit case.

  12. Courtney

    This comes at the perfect time. My husband and I are packing to go to Mexico for a week. What’s funny is we’ve managed weeks away with 2 backpacks and one carry on before in the past when we were flying. This time we’re driving and our list keeps getting bigger and bigger of what we can bring. Thank you for the reminders of what we actually need.

  13. Anna

    I like to pack light, too. I had to learn to do it by necessity, and now I prefer to pack fewer things. When we don’t have access to a washer & dryer, we will wash some things out in the sink or tub. It can be a pain at times, but less of a hassle than lots of luggage. One place that we lived, we had to fly to the capital to get out of the country (driving was not an option.) Frequently, they would refuse to take checked bags, or they would check them, but not put them on the plane. That gives you motivation!

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