Several people have expressed surprise that I can travel for several months with only two small bags. So in order to explain how I do it, I created the video below. Both these bags can be taken as carry-on luggage on most airplanes (one as the main bag, and the other as the personal item/laptop bag).

Don’t forget to read the rest of the post for more packing tips and a copy of my packing list!

Why packing light is good

In his highly popular guidebook “Europe through the back door”, Rick Steves warns: “You can’t travel heavy, happy, and cheap. Pick two.” For maximum comfort, peace of mind and independence “packing light” is imperative. Travelling light will also save you money and keep your possessions more secure.
Indeed, if you are carrying very little luggage, you can:

  • Take a local bus/train from the airport and pay only a few dollars instead of $15 or more for a taxi, then walk to your accommodation.
  • You can easily carry your bags everywhere and don’t need to hand them over to other people or tip porters.
  • Save on accommodation by choosing a cheaper hotel that may not have elevators, or a shared room in a hostel where you only have a small locker to put your things
  • Take all your luggage as carry-on, saving money on checked luggage fees AND not having to worry about lost bags and waiting at the baggage carousel.
  • Hold on to everything, highly reducing the probability of bag snatching or theft.
  • Fit your luggage in small spaces like the overhead compartments on local buses, or between your legs (instead of out-of-sight in the luggage hold).

With the ever-shrinking carry-on allowance on planes (both by weight, size, and number of bags), it has become very difficult to fly without checking any bags. On the other hand, many airlines now charge you for checking a single bag! So what do you do? Travel with very small bags.

The bags

Two small packs - my entire luggage!

For maximum ease, you shouldn’t carry more than two pieces of luggage, and the bags themselves should be as light as possible. I like to use regular knapsacks (the kind kids take to school) or travel packs (a backpack that can transform into a soft-sided suitcase with handle). Make sure the larger bags have a padded hip belt to take some weight off the shoulders.

Heavy-duty top-loading backpacks with an outside metal frame are only useful if you plan to hike over long distances with your bag. They are heavier, a lot more expensive and don’t offer easy access to their content once packed. If you don’t plan to go on a major hiking/camping expedition, I would recommend that you stick with the smaller, cheaper, lighter bags.

Little suitcases on wheels work well on smooth floors and even sidewalks, and are easier on your body. However in the developing world, where sidewalks and streets are anything but even, they may be constantly tipping over. You also won’t be able to take them inside most buses. A new option are backpacks with wheels. (I have heard of them, but haven’t tried them yet.)

As an independent traveller, it is important that you be able to hold onto all of your luggage at once, and be able to walk with it, ideally for at least 15-20 minutes, while having at least one free hand.

The contents

Expect to wash (or have washed) at least some of your clothes during the trip, so bring items that can be washed by hand or machine, dry easily, and do not wrinkle too much.

Since you will only have a few changes of clothes, make sure that most items can be mixed and matched to create different outfits. You should be able to buy most things in most countries. A few items that may be harder to find in the developing world are: tampons, condoms and large size shoes.

Bring small size toiletries. Large drugstores usually have sample size toothpaste tubes, shampoo, lotion, and so on, or you can pour liquids from large bottles into small ones. Try to use mostly bottles that are 100 ml or less so that you can keep them in your cabin luggage if you chose.

For cooler climates, bring several items that can be layered rather than one heavy jacket. For example with a fleece and a windbreaker/rain jacket, you should be able to handle temperatures as low as 3 or 4C.

Finally, a point I want to emphasize: do not take anything that you cannot afford to lose. Irreplaceable or very expensive items do not belong in a traveller’s bag. Follow this link to my generic packing list.

Packing tips

  • To make sure you don’t forget anything, create a packing list several weeks ahead of your departure. Cross the items off the list as you pack them.
  • Always make sure that all your important items (passport, tickets, money, cards, medications) are in your carry-on luggage.
  • If you check luggage, carry enough clothes and toiletries in your carry-on to live comfortably for up to three days. This will save you the hassles of having to shop for things at your destination if your checked luggage is delayed.
  • Bring a couple of quick-dry underwear and pairs of socks (which can dry overnight).
  • In many parts of the world, places of worships (churches and temples) require that you cover your shoulders and thighs. In mosques you may have to cover your head with a scarf as well. Make sure you pack some light pants or capris and keep the short shorts and tank tops for the beach.

Make sure you go watch the video if you haven’t already. Happy packing!

(Feature photo courtesy of

Do you have any tips for packing light? Please share them in the comments.

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