In case you were wondering, I’m now an authority on minimalist travel. My wife and I just returned from a 2-week trip to Europe through Italy and Barcelona. Just six months ago we did a week-long trip to Paris. I do a decent amount of travel for work as well as a film producer, and often spend a weekend to two-weeks on the road flying from city to city.
Needless to say I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time—and too many late nights—researching everything about minimalist style travel. In the age of the internet, that makes me an expert 🙂
This is the post I wished existed, so I decided to write it. This is not a “here’s what products and brands to buy” post with a thousand affiliate links. This post is what I believe are some basic, universal principles to packing and traveling light, getting the most out of the gear you bring, and to having an incredible time traveling. Some of my own opinions will be sprinkled in, so, as they say, your mileage may vary.
These aren’t in any order, they’re just what I believe and what I’ve found to be true from my personal experience and reading dozens of blog posts from other travelers and “digital nomads” across the web. I’m looking for principles that improve both the comfort of travel as well as the “happiness quotient”, so things that make the trip more enjoyable.
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1. Your “Stuff” Will Fit Whatever Size Luggage You Bring (so choose a smaller bag for minimalist travel)
I am constantly amazed to see people getting off the plane and loading this kind of luggage into a taxi to get to their hotel:
Now, that works for some people, but think of how inefficient and cumbersome that is to travel with. I’m all about showing up 40 minutes before my flight, zooming through TSA PreCheck (which is absolutely worth the $85 for 5 years price point), and walking onto the plane.
No checked bags, no paper tickets, nothing. I’ve also never lost a carry-on due to my bags getting redirected or left behind…
I’m assuming you’re like me and are trying to find some minimal, easy solutions to traveling a better way, so here’s what I’ve found when it comes to luggage:
Decide what kind of “bag” you want
There are a ton of options, everything from carry-on size suitcases to duffel bags to travel backpacks to backpacking backpacks.
I prefer the single bag method, with a small day-pack tucked inside for when I arrive. On this most recent trip we used the Cotopaxi Allpa 35L pack (more about packing sizes – and bags – below), and it was more than enough room for two weeks worth of clothes, a camelback day pack, an extra pair of shoes, my camera with a decent-size lens, and some protein bars.
Here are some pros and cons for each style of luggage for traveling:
Roller Style Carry On
While I am impressed with the new breed of “smart luggage” that’s popped up over the last few years, and while I traveled with a backpack + rolling suitcase for most of the last 10 years, I’ve moved away from it recently because of the happiness quotient. That is, I enjoyed it for some types of travel, it wasn’t great for others.
There are definite pros and cons to this style of bag:
- easy to get around in the airport and on smooth surfaces
- no physical strain to lug it around
- fits in overhead compartments 99% of the time
- can get hard shell versions for extra protection of your gear
- clamshell style opening provides easy access to all of your stuff
- often asked to gate check on smaller plane flights
- not great for getting around the city or on uneven surfaces
- not great in crowds
- takes one hand to lug it or keep hold of it, making it harder for taking pictures or other activities
- depending on style, no outside pockets for easy access to things you need while traveling
Bottom Line: Use this style of bag if you don’t need quick access to your things, and/or plan on going straight to your hotel or AirBNB from the airport, or if you’re driving to your destination. I recommend spending $150+ on a nice version, as every roller bag I’ve ever bought at Costco or under $100 has failed within the first 3 months.
There are a ton of duffel options on the market, everything from super slick with rollers to backpack style duffels. My wife traveled with duffel bags for years, but I never really took to them.
Here’s some pros and cons from what I could find:
- large opening provides easy access to your stuff
- comes in multiple styles – backpack, roller, shoulder bag – to fit your style of travel
- not optimized for long term carry on your back
- no hard shell for protection of your equipment if required to check it
- often have to unpack the top layer of stuff in order to get to things at the bottom of the bag
Bottom Line: Use this style of bag for looks, for packing a lot of “stuff”, or if you’ve got one sitting around and don’t yet want to spring for another type of bag. My second least favorite option for traveling.
The picture above is an updated model of a bag that I own from Gregory Backpacks. It’s an incredible bag, has tons of space, and is one of the most comfortable backpacks I’ve ever worn, despite its size and how much weight it can carry.
That said, backpacking bags are terrible for traveling by plane. They’re made for the trail, not the terminal.
- Comes in many sizes from 22L all the way up to 85L+ for long trips
- Extremely comfortable for carrying over long periods or distances
- lots of space with easy access to lots of compartments
- Side pockets for easy access to things you need without having to take off your bag
- often too large to fit in an overhead bin or to qualify as a carry on
- top loading varieties are not great for hotel travel – you have to unpack top layers to get to bottom ones
- not great for traveling around town, through crowds, on transit, or in and out of buildings and museums
Bottom Line: As much as I love these bags, I’d never bring one on a city-style trip like the ones we’ve done to Paris and Italy. If you are planning on doing some actual backpacking once you fly to your destination, it’s really the only way to go, but if you’re going to be in the city for most of your trip, I’d go with the next option.
A large backpacking-style backpack is great when you’re bringing your lodging with you, i.e. a tent, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag, but as most are top load style bags, they aren’t great when your gear consists more of laptops, cables, and stuff for the city.
If you’re thinking “hey, that just looks like a carry on suitcase that you wear like a backpack” then, yep! You nailed it.
It’s pretty brilliant. Like a cronut for your clothes.
This new-ish breed of luggage (I find it hard to believe that this is entirely new) is really taking off as of late, as I don’t remember seeing a ton of posts about it just a few years ago. But now? Everyone and their mom is writing about this style of bag.
Just look at Kickstarter. There are a dozen or more bag companies that have sprouted up over the last few years offering something in this category, and for good reason.
- just enough space in a 25-40L pack
- fits in the overhead compartment on most planes
- optimized for lightweight, minimalist travel
- easy to carry for long distances
- handles for loading and unloading
- clam-shell style opening for easy access to your stuff
- external pockets for easy access to things you need while traveling
- many come with rain flys or waterproof/resistant material
- hip belt for extra support over long distances
- laptop sleeve and space for electronic accessories
- no wheels
- soft exterior means less protection
- can be large making it not optimal if around crowds or inside spaces
- if packed to the brim can become quite heavy
Bottom Line: My current favorite way of traveling, and what I plan on using for the foreseeable future. While I haven’t narrowed down a specific model, my wife and I used the Cotopaxi Allpa 35L on this most recent trip. While it was great at holding all of our stuff, I wish it had more external pockets, and that it was more comfortable. I really liked the security loops to keep your zippers from being opened up by pickpockets or during travel, but overall I was a bit underwhelmed. They’re a company local to Utah and I want to support them, but I’ll be looking for other options for my next trip coming up in May.
Anything bigger than a 35 or 40 liter size backpack is also pretty big and unruly, and since travel backpacks aren’t built like backpacking backpacks, they often lack the support or the comfort for longer walks with the bag on. I’ve seen 45-55 liter “travel” backpacks that don’t even have a waist strap. No thanks. You’re not going to want to carry that for more than a few blocks.
I took a serious look at The North Face Overhaul 40, the Osprey Farpoint 40, and the Evergoods MPL 30. Ultimately I ended up going to an REI garage sale one weekend and found what I hope to be the PERFECT travel bag, the REI Co-op Ruckpack 40. I’m very excited to try this bag out on my next trip in a few weeks.
If it weren’t obvious, I would strongly recommend looking at purpose-built travel backpacks for this style of minimalist travel I’m advocating in this post.
Alright, enough about bags. Let’s move on…
2. Don’t Bring Cotton Clothing.
Just to test out this theory I brought one cotton henley shirt on this trip along with 3 other “smart wool” long-sleeve shirts. The difference was shocking.
Cotton absorbs moisture (and therefore odor) and doesn’t breathe well. Wool in all it’s varieties is the opposite. It breathes well, keeps you warm if necessary, and doesn’t retain moisture or odor.
I could wear a smart wool shirt for 2 days and not smell or feel gross. Amazing. It also washes easily in a sink and dries in a matter of hours.
You don’t need to go out and buy the $150 merino wool shirt that every other blogger is telling you to buy. Yes, I’m sure merino wool is 10X more awesome, but I went and bought some smart wool shirts at WAL-MART of all places for $5 a piece and they are GREAT. They look good, are fitted, and work just as well for my purposes.
Same goes with socks. Find some light or mid-weight wool hiking socks and thank me later. They’re super comfy, don’t smell, and wash and dry very easily.
3. That said, Jeans are Just Fine.
Everyone and their mom has a recommendation for the perfect travel pant.
Sure, there are features for these other pants that make them “better” for travel, like waterproof material or hidden pockets. But guess what? Jeans are super comfortable, you don’t have to wash them, they fit nicely, and they look good on the trail or at a nice restaurant. You don’t need to go spend $200 on “travel pants”. Just take a favorite pair of dark jeans and you’re good to go.
4. Bring a Day Pack With a Bladder.
I can’t stand the kind of bags with no support that can compact down into the palm of your hand.
I have a 10-year old camelback that holds a 3 liter bladder of water and has some pockets for stuff and it’s perfect. You don’t need to go get a new one, just find a small enough backpack or messenger bag that can fit water, your camera, batteries, a light coat, and some snacks and you’re good to go.
Oh, and drink the water. Lots of it. It will help you sleep better and prevent any dehydration from all the walking around you’ll be doing.
5. You Don’t Need To Buy New Stuff If You Already Have It.
I’ve said this a few times but it’s worth getting it’s own sub-heading. You’ll have a ton of FOMO (fear of missing out) from reading all these other blogs about how much stuff they bring with them that you don’t have.
That’s why I stay away from Pinterest…
Just look around for something similar. If you don’t have wool shirts or socks, sure, go spend $50 and buy 3 shirts and 2 pairs of socks. Done. It’s maybe the only thing worth spending a little money on because of how much better it is and how it affects the happiness quotient of your trip.
You don’t need a new backpack if you have one that will work.
You don’t need new pants.
You don’t need a new camera.
Bring what you have, see how it goes, then make changes for your next trip. Start with the thing that bugged you the most and work up from there.
6. Melatonin Helps You Fall Asleep.
If you’re going overseas you’re going to be on basically an opposite schedule. Paris and Rome were both 8 hours ahead of my normal time in Utah.
Figure out how to stay awake or fall asleep on the plane ride over the ocean, depending on the time you land and whether you should be waking up or going to sleep, and then either take some caffeine or some melatonin to help. Either way, drink lots of water as that tends to help with the jet lag as well.
Your first night or two may be hard to fall asleep, so bring some 1mg or 3mg tablets of melatonin and take one before going to bed. They work like a charm.
7. Bring A Battery Case For Your Phone
If you’re planning on using your phone for everything from directions to pictures to audio guides and searching for restaurants, you’ll likely burn through your battery in a matter of hours.
Get a phone case with a battery in it that can charge your phone while in your pocket. For iPads or kindles get a usb battery charger and let it charge in your bag.
I like the Mophie Juice Packs but the Apple brand ones work as well, and the Anker battery packs have been solid for me for years now.
8. Bring A Camera
Now, you don’t need to bring anything more than your phone. I’ve taken great pictures with just my iPhone 7 or 8.
That said, my wife is a photographer, and I work in film. We own DSLRs, and so we bring them when we travel.
To DSLR or Not To DSLR, That Is *A* Question
Your phone camera is enough.
Sony makes killer cameras. So do Canon and Nikon and Olympus and Panasonic. Get one you can afford, learn how to use it, and then learn how to master it.
Invest in lenses first, then bodies once you get better.
Wide Lenses For Travel Photography
For travel, get a wide telephoto lens – the 16-35 is my favorite. 24 just wasn’t wide enough. 35-40mm is about what the eye sees, so that size pancake lens means you put the camera up to your face and it looks about the same as what you’re seeing. Plus, it’s great for compact carry and being a little more inconspicuous with your street photography.
Taking Pictures Is The Only Way To Get Better
I’m going to make a very bold statement that would get me kicked out of any photography group on Facebook, if I were a member of any of them:
Shoot in aperture priority mode with auto white balance and auto ISO.
Most cameras today will do a much better job of getting proper exposure than you will in much less time, so trust your gear. 95% of the time the picture comes out perfectly, and if you’re shooting in RAW you can always edit and make changes in post. You don’t want to miss a perfect moment because you were still set for shooting indoors in a dimly lit museum and you come outside to see this:
If you see something that looks interesting, take a picture of it. Don’t worry about getting the best picture ever, worry about documenting your trip.
Don’t worry about people in the background, or the perfect angle, or capturing something in a way that you saw on Instagram.
You’ll get better with time, so just take lots and lots of pictures. At the end of each day, upload them to your computer, mark the ones that are your favorites, edit those and post them for the world to see. It’s the only way to get better, and it makes for a great experience when Facebook shows you your old pictures from years past.
Make sure you bring 3-4 batteries and a quick charger just in case you’re not in a place you can charge them for a few days. You don’t want to be left with no power half way through a day exploring a new city. Batteries are small and cheap so invest in a few and replace them every 2-3 years as they tend to degrade over time.
You don’t need a huge 5D Mark IV and a 70-200 lens to get great photos on the road, so look for something a little more compact and easy to carry.
9. Use Google Maps Abroad
I love Apple maps and I default to it on my iPhone while at home or in most states, but Google maps are just better for some of the big cities and especially abroad.
For booth trips I started out using Apple maps only to be led to a completely wrong location, and recently missing a great reservation I found because it led me in the opposite direction.
I don’t know why it is, but Google is just better abroad, and has transit info for most major cities overseas. While in Paris, Rome, and Barcelona, I could easily get step by step directions for the metro that were very clear.
Walk as much as possible, and use the metro for longer trips. There’s no reason to take a taxi all over the place. They’re expensive and you don’t get to experience the people, the culture, or get to snap pictures along the way.
10. Give yourself at least two full days in a city.
This most recent trip we went from Rome to Venice to Florence to Rome to Barcelona to Rome. Whew! It was a lot.
We had 48 hours split over 3 days in Venice and Florence, and it felt like we could have used a little more time in each city.
I’d recommend giving yourself 2 full days in each city you want to go to.
I also felt “done” after about 10 days, but we had booked a full two-week trip nearly a year ago so there was no turning back. Good to know, but if it’s your first trip abroad, plan on 2-3 days per city and no more than 3 cities (10 days with the days you’re traveling to and from) in one trip.
BONUS: Never Pay Full Price For Airline Tickets
There are a number of sites now that will help you find tickets for cheap. My favorites include lowfaredontcare.com, scottscheapflights.com, and the Hopper app. They all work a little differently, but they all help you do one thing – fly where you want to go for cheap.
The dates may not be what you want them to be, and you may go to your 3rd favorite city before your first and second, but you’ll pay $430 round trip instead of $1,200, so you just saved enough for your next two trips right there.
What are your favorite principles and tips for lightweight, happy traveling? Share yours in the comments. Thanks for reading!
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