He who would travel happily must travel light

scene from Up in the Air

“He who would travel happily must travel light.” – Antoine de St. Exupery


I have been a traveler since I was a newborn. Traveling has always been part of my life.  Because my family was spread out over the country*, we often traveled during the holidays to see different family members.  We always took family vacations and road trips for long weekends. In high school and college, I did not need much of an excuse to drive two to five hours to a neighboring city for a weekend or even a night.  Now that I am in graduate school (and an adult), I don’t have as much “free time” or “fun money” as I did in college.  I still travel often, but now I have to budget my time and money.

Lindsey shared a great article from The Everyday Minimalist: 10 Days in a Carry-On.  I loved the article because I identified with the flight attendant’s packing habits.  Over the years, I learned how to pack light and how to pinch pennies while on long** vacation. In the last two years, I have rarely checked a bag at an airport.  I have honed my light packing skills and figured out ways to cut back on spending money while traveling.  I am about to go on a ten day vacation to three different states.  I’m going on a graduate student’s budget with only a carry-on and a messenger bag. Did I mention I’m going to Scotland for six days with only a backpack?

Here are some things I do to pack light, save money and enjoy an extended vacation. There are countless websites outlining the what, where, how and why of packing light for leisure and business travel.  I understand this is all common sense, but sometimes it’s nice to hear again from someone you know.

My twelve tips for a lighter, cheaper & happier vacation

  1. All you need is a carry-on and a messenger bag or laptop bag. If you check a bag, you will probably end up spending $20 each way to check that bag.  Why not save that $40, a wait at baggage claim and the potential stress of a lost bag?  Carry-on instead.  Put your purse in your messenger bag.  If it doesn’t fit, find one that does. Make it work.
  2. I know it may be hard to believe, but you really do not need ALL of your toiletries. Ladies, you don’t need to bring ALL of your makeup with you on vacation.  Downsize.  Buy travel containers. Buy travel sizes of your skin care and hair care and refill them.  Bring only what you need.  Use an Intuition razor for travel so you don’t have to bring shave gel.  Make it work.
  3. Wear the same thing multiple days. You really do not need to bring a different outfit for every day.  Pick two pairs of shoes (one dressy and one comfortable for walking) and plan outfits around those shoes. There is no need to bring a suitcase full of shoes.  You will still look fabulous. If you are weird about wearing a shirt or dress or jeans two days in a row, bring a little bag of detergent and hand wash your clothes in a bathtub in a hotel.  Hotels have irons for a reason.  If you stay with friends, I bet they will let you use their washer and drier if you ask really nicely.
  4. But what about my HAIR?! I have wavy hair that requires blow drying and flat ironing.  I bring my flat-iron and hair dryer and put them in my messenger bag with my laptop.  I make it work because I prioritize. I find room for some things by not packing other things.  Figure out what you consider an essential travel item and sacrifice bringing something else.
  5. Sign up for frequent flier miles with some major airlines. Don’t wait until you get that dream job.  Sign up now because you might be surprised how many flights you will take in any given year for work and leisure.  I fly US Airways, Delta and Southwest depending on my destination.  Because I signed up for frequent flyer miles in college, I’ve already been able to use miles to pay for flights.
  6. Be flexible with your flight schedule. Thursday night to Monday morning round trip flights are often substantially cheaper than peak flight times.
  7. When you can, stay with friends and family. This is a self-explanatory money saver.  Sacrificing a little privacy and control can go a long way when you are on a budget, but always remember to be a low maintenance house guest.
  8. If you have to stay in a hotel, stick to one or two brands. Sign up for those brands’ rewards programs so you accumulate points.  It may be a better deal to stay a cheap motel if you are alone on vacation, but often a name brand hotel comes with amenities that a motel does not offer (including but not limited to your personal safety). If multiple people can stay in a room, I highly recommend staying in a name brand hotel.  I stay with Hilton properties if I can help it. I worked for Hilton for two years and am now partial to the brand.  My preferred Hilton property is Embassy Suites for three reasons:  1) Free happy hour (drinks and food; 2) Free cook to order breakfast; 3) Suites equal a pull out sofa for extra guests.
  9. When you arrive at your destination, make a trip to a grocery store, a drug store and/or a liquor store. If you are visiting a big city or tourist trap, there will be one on every corner.  Buy a case of water bottles.  Buy some snacks.  You can keep snacks and water in your bag with you at all times so you don’t have to spend $2 on water every time you are thirsty.  You will be less likely to spend money on junk food that will make you feel lethargic. If you know you will go out drinking after Happy Hour is over, a $10 of pregame wine will go a long way.  You will not have to spend $10 for a glass of wine later.
  10. If you’re really up for being as neurotic as I am, pack your own snacks. For long trips, I always pack oatmeal, power bars, whey protein and hot tea bags.  I can’t tell you how much money I’ve saved on vacation by bringing these items.  I have some dietary restrictions.  One of the worst things that can happen on vacation is to be hungry without anything to eat.
  11. Create a budget.  Stick to your budget. Duh, right?  Sadly, a lot of people don’t plan out their vacation before they go and they end up spending more than they anticipated.  Calculate the maximum you are willing to spend and stick with it.  Include things like lattes, souvenirs, alcohol and local transportation.  If you know you cannot stick to a budget, withdraw cash.  I know, “cash is so 1997,” but some of us cannot spend $200 a day while on vacation.  If you are one of us, use cash so you stick to your budget.
  12. Bring a bag of disinfecting wipes. I worked in a hotel for two years.  Housekeeping has fifteen minutes to clean your room before you arrive.  Your room is not clean.  Trust me.  People get sick on vacation because of other people’s germs.  If you get sick while on vacation, it is waste of your time and money.  If you get sick after vacation, you will have to take sick leave from work or will be unproductive.  Your vacation ends up costing you twice what it should when you get sick.  As soon as you check in to your hotel, wipe down everything in the room.  I’m talking the phone, the remote, the clock, the sink… everything.  When you are on a plane and in an airport, use hand sanitizer and wash your hands with hot water.  Being neurotic by taking your vitamins and keeping your hands clean will go a long way in making your vacation worthwhile.


How do you stick to your budget on vacation?  Do you pack light or carry your house with you on vacation?  How do you avoid getting sick after vacation?


*I was an Army brat.  We moved every few years until I was in high school.  We traveled out of necessity if we wanted to see family.  Once I started college, I took road trips constantly to visit friends and family in other cities. My family also instilled in me a love of travel for leisure. We took short trips out of town all the time to go camping, shopping, sight seeing, etc.  I don’t really have roots like many of my friends. I have wings instead.

**This post does not apply to road trips.  Packing for a road trip is much easier than packing for a vacation that requires air travel.

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19 thoughts on “He who would travel happily must travel light

  1. I’m with you on the “go to the store when you get there”. I’m planning on doing that for my trip this summer; this way I can use it all there and I won’t have to bring it back. I always make a trip to the liquor store and stock the fridge that’s in the room. This way I don’t have to spend money on drinks when I’m out.

  2. Great advice! And just in time for Vegas :) I’ve gotten quite good at the “limit the number of shoes and toiletries” thing – and it helps so much when traveling in groups (ahem, Vegas and 4 girls to a room?) to plan things like blow dryers, etc. PS – see you Thursday :)

  3. Congrats on the shout-outs via tweet and whatever else.. this is a great article. I am one of those people who packs at least 2 outfits for every one that I need… booo to me. Although, I was better at the ACLA conference, in April… (although, yes, 4 pairs of shoes… yes). I *have* figured out the hair thing, though… but that is because I am completely unafraid of super big and curly hair–mostly, because it would just be a complete failing as it is unavoidable… And in pure Nashville fashion, I just heard yesterday: “the bigger the hair the closer to god.” Hrm.

    1. The hair thing is rough for me because my hair has been short for so long. I have wavy, fine hair and hotel hair dryers do not do well with my hair. I always pack my Chi dryer. I probably can’t this trip because I need a couple pairs of shoes I wouldn’t normally bring. Ah, Vegas. Hehe.
      And if you can rock Nashville hair, do it! 😀

  4. Haha! I almost wrote a post about this after we got back from our vacation. Fitting everything in to a carry-on is life-changingly wonderful.

  5. I love this. Especially since it’s right before Vegas! When I decided to go, I made up my mind that I refused to check a bag. For two reasons, mostly: 1. To save money and 2. This is my first trip alone. I could just SEE this being the one where my bag got lost.

    Some people who know me were all “Umm, Stacey, have you even MET yourself?” because I am so guilty of overpacking. I went to California for 5 days a few years ago and took like 10 pairs of shoes. Umm, what? Or when I went to New York for 4 days and took a large suitcase, a small suitcase AND a carry on. WTF?! I’ve learned a lot since then.

    I packed for Vegas over the weekend and I got all my stuff into one small rolly suitcase (carry-on) and a backpack. Here’s to traveling light!

  6. I REALLY REALLY love this post. There are a lot of things I second and some I need to take to heart too. I’m really good about bringing a carry on and one other bag, but the hardest lesson I had to get over, was the makeup/toiletry stuff. Seriously, I had to check my vanity at the door.

    1. I definitely know what you mean about the toiletries. I just figured out how to use travel sizes of everything and to consolidate the make up down to what I need for just that trip. My thing is the hair. Ugh. I have weird wavy hair and need to blow dry and flat iron it or it’s a fro. Not having my awesome hair dryer kills me on vacation. I usually can fit it in my carry on, but this Vegas trip is hard because I’m having to pack for the bar crawl. Haha. C’est la vie. :)

  7. Disinfecting wipes=brilliant. Other than that, I think we’re the same person when we travel. My brand loyalty is Kimpton–such a fun group of hotels! They tend to be more expensive, so once, when we were looking to go somewhere, we just found the one having a sale–in Portland. Southwest also happened to be having a sale. That was a blast, but didn’t really come from any travel savvy.

    PS You can use our washer and dryer. =)

    1. :) I agree it’s great when you can find cheap deals online. It’s amazing how great Priceline prices can be for name brand hotels.
      And, thanks for letting me use your washer and dryer. I might have to since it will be day 7 of my trip. 😉 Can’t wait to see you!

  8. AMEN! I have yet to really master the art of packing for *short* term trips. I went to europe for three months with a backpack and a duffel (which I REALLY did not need–I just needed a slightly larger backpack!). My trick is LAYERS. Pack things that can be layered over one another, so it looks like you have multiple outfits, when it’s really the same damn one!

    Also, to save money, bring snacks in your purse while you’re out, and if you REALLY want to save money buy a baguette at the grocery store. OK fine I don’t REALLY advise you doing this, that was my diet in europe. 😉

    Awesome tips! I can’t wait to see you in like A WEEK!!!! I’m so going to be observing your luggage, just to warn you.

    1. I love hearing about how other people travel lightly. Layers are the key! I am bringing a few cardigans and some different colored tank tops to make multiple outfits. I’m bringing dresses this trip because they’re so easy.
      I totally agree about the bread, by the way. When we go to San Francisco on vacation (it’s one of our regular vacation spots after New Orleans and NYC), there are days when we just go to Boudin’s for bread and cheese and eat that for a cheap lunch. :)
      You are more than welcome to check out my luggage… hehe.

  9. You’d be so proud of me, Alex! I tweeted that blogpost with the statement that “I won’t even be able to pack for 4 days in Vegas in just a carry-on” but today, I threw everything together just to see, and I’m well under the limit of my carry-on suitcase and a backpack or messenger bag. I was pumped! You were right, it’s a lot easier than I thought it would be!

    Now if I can just take your advice on the money side and not spend my whole life savings while we’re there, I’ll be set :)

    1. Yes!
      That is awesome! As for the budget… just make cute boys buy you drinks when you’re out and you’ll be fine. 😉
      I’m concerned because of my theme party outfit. for the bar crawl. It may take up too much space for me to bring my hair dryer. Ughface. But I am not going to pack until Thursday morning.
      Can’t WAIT to see you! So happy you are coming. 😀

    1. Love it!
      I might post a pic of my backpack when it gets closer to my Scotland trip. Unfortunately, I have to wear nice clothes two days for a conference, so that will be interesting. :)
      It just feels so liberating to have less to deal with when you travel.

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