Smart Packing for Frugal Travel

Smart Packing for Frugal Travel

Frugal travel means taking one bag.  It counts as your personal item.  This bag should be easy to carry, sturdy, well-made and lightweight.  Check any travel size restrictions for your personal item before buying a bag.  Having a smaller bag forces you to pack less

The benefits of packing light:

Less to carry.  Give yourself the freedom and flexibility to sight-see all day when you arrive and then check in late, or check out early the day you leave and explore before the flight back, rather than coordinating with the hotel/host for drop off and pick up of a rolling suitcase or a heavier bag.

Less to worry about.  There is no risk the airline will lose your bag.  There is no waiting for the baggage claim.

Less expensive and more frugal since there is no checked bag fee.  4 trips a year, $50 one way per trip to check the bag, $400 that could have been spent on a 5th trip!

Less to end up lost or stolen.  I never bring anything I would be sad to lose.  Everything in my bag is easily replaceable.  You never need to ask for help holding your bag, so there’s less risk that anyone would run off with it.

Things I always bring with – my “List”

  • License/Passport and insurance card (photo copies of each are left at home)
  • A print out of my hotel/AirBnB information (specifically showing the address)
  • Two credit cards (one Visa, one MasterCard) and cash – I don’t bring my wallet because I don’t need it and it would be a pain if lost.  (I keep a list at home of all my credit cards and the phone number to call if something were to end up lost or stolen.)
  • A bandaid or two and a small package of Tylenol (two capsule wrapped pack)
  • All these go in my money belt – any time I travel alone and will be sightseeing, I always wear the money belt under my shirt.  I also put it into my backpack while I’m walking through the airport.  The money belt provides a lot more flexibility and safety.  I don’t bring a purse.
  • The contents of my bag, packed for a 4 day trip to Mexico City.

    My phone, charger, and small headphones plus country adapter if needed – it doubles as music player, camera, kindle, guidebook, and mode of contact when I find free wifi. I don’t bother with any other electronics.

  • Any needed medication
  • Dollar store sunglasses – who cares if they get lost or scratched?
  • A drawstring bag – for just in case my backpack doesn’t feel light enough.  It doubles as a laundry bag on the way home.
  • One large and two small Ziploc bags.  I’ve used them for snacks, sand, a wet bathing suit, dirty clothes, maps/paper I wanted to save, to protect my book in my bag to and from the beach, and all sorts of other things.  They take up next to no room and are extremely useful.
  • A physical book – much more convenient for the airport and on the airplane, plus no drained batteries.  Also can be a useful conversation starter depending on what you’re reading.  I occasionally bring a couple magazines instead of a book and then recycle them as soon as I finish reading.  (I just rip out any interesting articles I want to keep or share.)
  • A sweater or jacket (either carried or packed depending on where I am going and how many other clothes I need) – it gets cold in the airport and at night
  • Toiletries and clothes
  • Food/Snacks (I buy a disposable water bottle when I arrive at my destination and refill throughout the trip and then toss before I go home)

That’s it!

Before you start packing anything, you should always check to see what’s already at your destination.

I like to use AirBnB, and I always check with my host to see if they have basic toiletries or other necessities on hand.  If not, I make a plan to bring them with.  Depending on the item in question, it might be appropriate to acquire early and leave with the host for future guests.  When I went to St. Thomas, my host didn’t have any beach towels on hand for guests, so I bought one for $4 at Target before I left and then I left it at their home for their future guests.  It was much cheaper and more efficient to bring one than buy one there, and leaving it behind left a lot of space in my bag for gifts I brought back.

When staying with friends or family, they may have everything you need that you can borrow.  If you visit enough, they may even be willing to let you store items there.  I keep spare toiletries at my parents’ house under the sink in the extra bathroom, which makes packing for my visits and quick flights up so much easier.  I keep a full set of extra basic supplies in my house as well for my guests, and I am happy to return the favor.

My favorite travel hack: Now is the time to use up anything on its last leg

When I have toiletry products that are almost out, I stop using them and save them for my trips.  If there are any products that will soon need replacement, I bring those as well.  Deodorant, mascara/make-up, face wash, anything that is still under the 3 fl oz bottle requirement.

Any old clothes that I no longer wear but that aren’t in good enough shape (or appropriate) for my Buy Nothing Group come with.  (If possible, give it away rather than tossing it out!)  I bring any worn out gym socks with holes.  I search my pile for any undershirts that lost elasticity or underwear that is on its last legs.  I also regularly bring old flip flops for the beach (they get pretty beat up living in Florida).  I brought old beat up tennis shoes for sightseeing in New York City (that purposely didn’t end up in any photos!).  Stained shirts can be layered under sweaters.  Cold places warrant the leggings that get holes in them to wear under my jeans.

Every single one of these items is tossed in the trash can on the day I leave without a further thought.  This is the best tip to save room for souvenirs or special new things to remind me of the trip.  If nothing else, it’s less weight to carry around on the last day when sightseeing or through the airport on the way back, and it’s a good chance to clean out your closet.

Toiletries/Basic Needs

When you leave, all your toiletries/bathroom needs should fit into one Ziploc bag for easy traveling.  This is a good exercise for item restriction.  If you don’t use it every day and don’t need it, don’t bother bringing it along.  (Exception: Sunscreen!)  Worst possible case: you find that you needed it after all and buy it there and remember for your next trip.  You can fill small travel-sized bottles with your necessities and then keep and maintain them, or you can visit the Dollar Store for travel-sized items and dispose of them on the trip, or any combination thereof.  The dollar store has toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, body wash, floss, small mouthwash, deodorant, and other necessities for traveling.  These can easily be used up and disposed of, or you can save the bottles and refill them.  I bring exactly enough cotton balls, Q-tips, feminine products, etc. (maybe one or two extra) for the duration of the trip and put them directly in the Ziploc bag.  No bringing a whole package.

I don’t recommend a “travel kit” or bag unless it is TSA-friendly.  It’s a waste of time if you have to open your travel kit to remove your plastic Ziploc bag with your liquids.  It’s a waste of space if you keep the Ziploc separate from the bag.  I’ve never been questioned for having a toothbrush with my toothpaste and face wash, and if it was an issue for some reason the non-liquid items could easily be pulled out.  Also, if you throw out the disposable items and leave the travel kit half empty then the kit itself still takes up space for anything acquired on your trip.

I always pack a disposable toothbrush and throw it out when I leave.  I keep these toothbrushes in the house for my AirBnB guests.  They are good for about 4 days, so I bring two for longer trips.  I leave my retainers and my Sonicare toothbrush at home.

Abandon the styling tools (hair dryer, curling iron, etc.) in favor of hair ties.  I always let my hair air dry.  If you really need any of these, check with your hotel/host before looking into travel sizes.

Do any “grooming” before you go

I always trim and paint my nails the day before I leave.  No use dragging all the tools along!  I bring a small file if I’m gone for more than a couple days, but otherwise the rest stays home.

Disposable razors are $1 for a package of 8 at the dollar store, so I shave my legs the night before/morning of my departure and then use a disposable razor and soap during the trip.  They work really well for one-time use.  They are much smaller than my usual razors and then I also don’t have to worry about transporting wet razors back and forth.

The same goes for men and their hair/beards.  Trim beforehand!  I’m absolutely a fan of growing a beard while you’re on a trip. (We all know I’m partial to scruff…)

Always check the weather and then choose low-maintenance clothes in the same color family that can be layered

Choose clothes that are comfortable for wandering but can still be dressed up. (Low-wrinkling is a plus.)  Make sure they are weather appropriate.  Each item should coordinate well with everything else you are bringing.  You want to be able to mix and match.  It’s a lot easier to pack less when you can layer up.  Aim for as few heavy layers (like a jacket or fleece) as possible, since you can change the t-shirt underneath daily.

My normal travel color palette is shades of blue.  It’s a flattering color on me that blends in with the tropical places I like to visit.  Sticking with the same color palette ensures all my clothes will look good together and I will always be ready for a photo opportunity.  It also means less thought and effort when getting dressed each day and less thought in what I need to bring.

Take exactly what you need for the time away.

Bring as many shirts as you’ll have days on your trip – or less if you can do laundry or know you want to go shopping.  (Some travel hackers suggest bringing powdered detergent and washing clothes in the sink for longer trips.  Over a week?  Pack for 7 days and find a laundromat.)  You can always re-wear a previously worn shirt if needed for some reason (like accidentally spilling all over your shirt at breakfast… oops.), and you might find a nice shirt to take home as a souvenir that you can wear on your trip as well.

All the contents fit nicely into the bottom of the bag for my 4 day trip to Mexico City, and my food fit with plenty of space on the top.

Bring one good pair of jeans, max 2 pairs of pants.  Wear the jeans traveling in the airport.  Plan to re-wear them without washing.  You don’t need a fresh pair for every day.  If you’re going somewhere warm, bring jeans and a good pair of shorts or cargo pants.

Max of two pairs of shoes, one that you’re wearing to the airport and one in your bag.  You can pack your socks inside your shoes.  Wrap them in a plastic grocery bag to save the most space while still keeping the other contents of the bag clean.

Max one pair of pajamas, if you use them.  I put it on after my evening shower and get dressed first thing in the morning so that it’s fine for sleeping in throughout the trip.

No “just in case” clothes.  Only bring gym clothes if you work out regularly and never skip. (Full disclosure – I never bring them because I want to maximize my time exploring a new place.)  Only take a “dressier” outfit if you know you are going to end up somewhere that it’s needed.  This should be a unique experience planned in advance.  (When visiting New York, I brought a little black dress and flats to go see the Phantom of the Opera in the theater.)  Otherwise, don’t waste the space.

The bags I use

I have a couple bags and choose what feels appropriate for the trip.

  • My Venture Pal lightweight backpack
  • My Vera Bradley duffel bag
  • My Vera Bradley laptop bag with extra pockets
  • If I need a purse at my destination for some reason, I take a larger one and pack clothes directly into it.  I choose one that has an interior zippered pocket and use that instead of the money belt.

Tips for actually packing

  • Lay out everything on your bed before putting it in the bag to make sure you have what you need
  • Rolling clothes tightly can take up less space for longer trips
  • Heaviest items go in the bottom of the bag or against your back in a backpack
  • Ziplock bag with toiletries should be packed last so that you can easily take it out at the airport
  • Don’t add extra things just because you have extra space

While on the Trip

I always unpack the bag completely into the closet upon arrival so that I can use my backpack/bag while I’m there.  It takes very little time, usually only 5 minutes.  Since I only bring what I need, it’s also more convenient to not have to dig around in the bag for things anyway.

Remember that you’re traveling to see the world, not to be seen

No one who you interact with will care what you look like or what you are wearing.  They likely won’t even remember you two days from now.  Travel light so that you don’t miss out on any opportunities for new experiences.

More frugal travel…

3 Replies to “Smart Packing for Frugal Travel”

  1. Love it. I always pack WAY too much. Will take all your tips and put them into practice. I hike and horseback a lot on vacation so I usually need extra clothes to replace the stinky ones. Any tips? I do roll all my clothes for maximized space.

    1. If you shower after your hikes and change clothes, you could try wearing the prior day’s “evening clothes” that you put on after showering for the hike the next day, especially if you only wear them a couple hours to eat or relax.
      I will do that if I’m going out again for dinner after a day of exploring. Otherwise, it’s OK to wear the same evening clothes two days in a row. That would cut down on things you need to bring. Focus on bringing enough inner layers – undershirts, t-shirts, etc. – and using the same outer layers – jackets, rain coats, etc. I’d bring a heavier fleece and a thin raincoat for maximum versatility. Fleece if it’s cold, rain coat if it is wet, fleece and raincoat if it is miserable. Both can be carried through the airport if you don’t have enough room in your bag. Wear your hiking boots through the airport if they take up a lot of room, especially if they are the only shoes you’ll need. (You could always throw flip flops/nicer sandals in your bag just in case, and you can take the boots off on the plane if you like.) Definitely be mindful of color coordinating so that less outfits are required.

      Part of it is being strategic about when you visit places, too. Hiking in Norway in August requires significantly less clothing than hiking in Norway in January. There are a lot of travel hackers who bring soap to wash in the sink and then hang clothes in the bathroom to dry on longer trips. I have washed clothes in a sink before (actually somewhat regularly… I seem to spill a lot and don’t want any stains setting in), and it’s not a big deal, only about 2 minutes to be honest. You just have to make sure they have enough time to dry.

      I imagine for horseback riding, you’d have your long riding boots, a helmet, riding pants, and other gear, in which case one smaller bag may be tough. You could always Tetris clothes into the helmet and bag clothes in plastic before tucking them into boots. However, I’ve never traveled to ride horses, so I may be totally off the mark. Sometimes a specific activity necessitates more, so it all depends on your priorities. You may find more joy and freedom in only hiking while you are traveling and then frequenting a local stable instead, or maybe you only ride horses in places you can drive to. Otherwise, if it’s an experience you’d hate to miss, you could just check a larger bag (know airline rules for weight limits) or rent gear from the stable. A lot of divers have that problem! They plan for lightweight gear when making initial purchases specifically to travel with it, or they bring a couple smaller things and rent the rest when they arrive. The important thing is knowing your priorities, realizing there are plenty of options, and knowing which solution aligns best. 🙂

      1. Thanks for the tips! I went to Ireland a little over a year ago and I think I packed too many dressy clothes. You’re right! You can wear these a bunch of times! I have no problem wearing twice or sink washing. Actually have thought about the sink washing before just haven’t tried it. Will do on the next long trip! Cheers!

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