It’s Packing Light Week on Never Ending Voyage to celebrate the launch of my new book, The Carry-On Traveller: The Ultimate Guide to Packing Light.
When you are travelling carry-on only you need to be careful about what you pack and only include things that you’ll use regularly. Experience is the best way to learn what you really need, but you can also learn from other travellers.
We asked 21 carry-on travellers about their packing mistakes—what they packed that they regretted or got rid of.
I initially packed a pair of high heels, which I discarded one month into the trip. After wearing them a grand total of once, I just couldn’t justify taking up valuable space in my backpack for something I would use so infrequently. While I think it’s possible to achieve both style and comfort while travelling, in order to pack light you have to be smart and selective about the clothing items you bring with you.
When people say “less is more,” they’re usually right. Chances are that you can get away with a lot less than you might think, and even some of those “must have” travel gadgets are still kind of iffy. Unless you’ve got serious work to do, leave the laptop at home. Your phone can probably handle emails, hotel reservations, video entertainment, and photo storage just fine. You can even upload the pictures to the cloud, so you can skip the external hard drive. There’s no reason to worry about losing a $2,000 laptop if your phone can handle it all.
Leave the bulky towels at home. They take up too much space that’s better saved for more important things. Most hostels and guesthouses provide bath towels, so you can decide not to stay at places that don’t provide towels. If you’re going to the beach, a travel towel or sarong will work. If it’s warm enough for the beach, the sun will dry you off without needing a normal beach towel. Or you can buy a cheap beach towel when you arrive and leave it behind when you no longer need it.
I love travelling light so I loved the idea of a travel towel made of microfibre that took up barely any room in my pack. It was smaller than a hand towel, super absorbent and helped me travel with only a 20-litre backpack. However, in practice I found it annoying. It did work very well to dry me. However, it was always annoying to have to dry myself with something so small, especially when it was cold. It also was no good for hostel bathrooms or to take to the beach. I took it on quite a few trips as I am stubborn, but I am glad I finally retired it! Only normal towels for me from now on.
Mosquito Net and Repellent
I did a round the world trip with changing weather conditions with carry-on luggage only. Deciding what to pack and adapting it to different climates wasn’t an easy task. I was mostly happy with my packing list, but I made a few mistakes. I especially regretted taking a mosquito net and mosquito repellent. In Southeast Asia, the rooms had mosquito nets (when needed), even in budget guesthouses. The mosquito repellent I bought in Europe wasn’t effective and I had to buy another one in Thailand. I learnt that local products are more effective on local mosquitos.
Don’t pack all in one liquid soap for hair, body, and clothes like the Sea to Summit kind. It’s much more effective and cheaper to get a 3-oz (90 ml) travel shampoo bottle and keep refilling it with shampoo you like that you purchase throughout your travels. Separately purchase a solid bar of laundry soap and keep it in a plastic bag. It should last many, many months. Solid beats liquid for packing light.
Liquids over 100ml
I always try to pack light and organized, especially for air travel, but I still experience an occasional hiccup when going through airport security. I once packed an aerosol can of saline spray (for cleaning my nose piercing), which cost me an extra 20 minutes at a U.S. security checkpoint. When the TSA agents can’t perform their usual test on medically necessary liquids, the alternative is a lengthy pat-down and item-by-item luggage inspection. (Bleh!) Good thing I was ahead of schedule, or I may have missed my flight. Lesson learned. Now I buy when I arrive!
When we set off on our long-term journey, Gianni carried a Nikon D7100 and a bulky external flash SB-800. He used it for the fashion photography he was doing in the past and he expected to use it on our travels. However, after a couple of months on the road, he switched to a lighter mirrorless Fuji X-T1 and sold the flash, which turned out to be completely redundant for street and travel photography.
Another unnecessary device was an Olloclip 3-in-1 lens for an iPhone. It’s a tiny thing, but we never used it and eventually we gave it to a friend.
I have found that packing pyjamas is a waste of space. I got rid of them and am now using soft leggings and camisoles as my pyjamas so they can be used during the day sometimes as an extra layer as well as at night.
I originally brought a hair dryer but never used it. I ditched it after a month.
Playing Cards and Torch
Though I’ve been carrying them in my backpack for years, I’ve still never used either the set of playing cards or the small torch (flashlight) I used to travel with. Sure, they might be useful one day if my phone runs out of battery, or heaven forbid, is lost or damaged, but in reality, a smartphone serves the function of both items. I had thought that I might use playing cards to pass the time on long bus journeys or while waiting at airports, but in fact, I just play on my phone, so I’d rather carry an external battery for my smartphone than continue to carry these two items that serve only very limited functions.
Clothes that Don’t Work Together and a Gym Ball
At first I packed all my favorite clothes, but what I didn’t think about was how well they fit each other. I ended up with several pieces of clothing that only went well with a certain other piece, and bad luck if that specific piece was already waiting for laundry. I learnt that with limited luggage space it’s very important to make sure all the clothes you pack look ok with each other, unless you want to hand wash your clothes every other day.
Another mistake was starting our nomad travels carrying a gym ball. Our logic was that as nomads we often don’t have ergonomically sound working conditions, so a gym ball would be great for exercise and could double as a working chair. We ended up lugging it around eight countries and using it twice.
My biggest regret is packing clothes I hated just because I thought that’s what travellers should wear, but it’s not the brand that matters, it’s the functionality.
Alex, Travel Fashion Girl
Hiking Boots, Travel Pants, and More
I was wrong about so many things! I replaced my fancy laptop bag with a zippered tote, my embarrassing safari hat with a packable sun hat, my cumbersome hiking boots with sneakers, and my inappropriate “travel pants” (i.e. safari) with a pair of leggings. In the process, I discovered that finding ways to reduce and modify my stuff is one of my favorite projects. For example, I sewed secure zippered pockets into a pair of athletic shorts and ditched my silly passport holder necklace and money belt.
Thick Yoga Pants
I regretted bringing thick yoga pants to Southeast Asia. They were way too warm for that hot and humid climate. When I mailed a box home for Christmas, those went with it!
Hammock, Mosquito Net, and More
We used to travel with a double hammock, travel towels, a mosquito net, and more technical style clothes, such as pants that zipped off into shorts. We only used the hammock once; we have found that if we are in a place where we need a mosquito net around the bed, it will be provided; and we always stay in places where towels are provided. So we stopped travelling with all of those things.
Chipless Credit Card
While it’s important to pack a backup credit card, I made the mistake of packing an old one without a chip. The number for my card with a chip was stolen online, and now I only have my chipless backup, which I can’t use in stores or at ticket machines. It turns out it’s not so easy to get a replacement card delivered to a temporary rental, and it’s only good for a month anyway, which doesn’t help when you’re traveling long-term.
Many moons ago, as we prepared for our first trip abroad, I knew two things about using electronics in a foreign country: (1) different countries have different shaped outlets, and (2) some countries work on a 110v system, while some are 220v. #1 is easy, you just need a small adapter. #2 is a little more complicated; in order to not fry your electronics, the voltage needs to be on the right system. So we bought this giant, heavy thing called a converter (transformer). Here was our mistake: most modern electronics have a converter built in (it’s that “bump” on your charger). Anyway, we carried this stupid thing around for two weeks, and didn’t use it once!
Travel Clothesline and More
I got rid of my travel clothesline, compact flashlight, waterproof/rugged camera, long underwear, sandals, and silk travel liner.
I’d recommend not packing oversized waterproof jackets, clothing, ponchos or even a waterproof cover for your backpack. I traveled with a waterproof cover for my backpack for over a year and never used it once. I am also currently traveling with a poncho that thankfully takes up no space at all, but know I’m never going to use it. I want to throw it out every time I go through my backpack but don’t. My point is you really don’t need any real waterproof gear unless you’re going to be hiking during the rainy season. I’ve traveled with a small water-resistant jacket for years and it’s been great.
Tripod and More
Over the years I’ve got rid of a lot! Recently? Umbrella, suspenders, thick sole flip-flops, pillowcase, notebooks, excess art supplies and equipment, and a tripod. (I’ve been carrying a tripod but haven’t used it since 2005! Considering a monopod, but probably wouldn’t use it, either.)
John, A Farnsworth a Day
What about us? If you want to see what we’ve got rid of in the last few years, see our updated carry-on packing list.
If you’d like to learn more about how to travel carry-on only, see my book, The Carry-On Traveller: The Ultimate Guide to Packing Light, which is available for the Kindle or paperback on Amazon.
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