“If you wish to travel far and fast, travel light. Take off all your envies, jealousies, unforgiveness, selfishness, and fears.”ceseare pavese
We have all been there. Last-minute packing. Staying up all night before an early morning flight. Getting ready to leave for our dream trip exhausted. Realizing you don’t have the right clothes or they don’t fit results in panic buying with rushed runs to the store. That item we know we have but can’t find anywhere. Buying new shoes then forgetting to break them in. The suitcase you were planning to use you discover is damaged. Then when you get to your destination, you realize that you have forgotten an essential item.
The list of the last-minute craziness we all can identify with some or all of these situations. We can guarantee we have all done all of them and even more.
After all our time traveling, we literally have seen everything. Those last-minute purchases and rushed shipping financially can bring quite a hit on your budget. That credit card statement arriving after your trip can be jaw-dropping. Having to shop at your destination to get items takes away from your fun and can be expensive too. If you are over 6 feet like Joelle, it can be almost impossible. One time in Spain, Joelle spent 4 hours out of her first full day to find a missing part of her camera. It goes on and on.
Part of this is inevitable and sort of adds to the craziness and funny stories of travel. That said, much can be avoided. It is all about early preparation and having detailed packing lists. We will share what has worked for us, how to reduce your packing stress level before a trip, and how to bring all those essential items and keep them organized.
The first step to packing for traveling abroad is to have a list. This not only keeps you organized but keeps you from overpacking and forgetting something important. We have put together two lists to assist you in getting ready for your next adventure. The first one is your comprehensive packing list of all items you will be bringing on your trip. The second one details which of those items specifically need to be in your carry-on luggage.
We will take you through each list, sharing tips and hard-earned lessons to take the stress out of packing for you.
A Tribute First
Before we start packing, we want to pay tribute to the people who have inspired us to see the world.
Joelle is a first-generation American born to French Immigrants. Her parents came here with a dream, leaving everything they knew behind, to start a new life. This was the very luggage on that ship with them that Spring day in 1959 as it pulled into New York Harbor. It serves as a poignant reminder of the magnificent world out there for all of us to wander if we reach for the stars.
Their spirit for adventure lives on in their daughter, and for that, we are forever grateful.
Take the stress out of packing
1. Use a list. We suggest one overall master list and a carry-on list. Review all items and cross off all you won’t need during your travels. Travel abroad is very different than a trip back east in the United States. It is essential for a successful and healthy trip to be organized and thoughtful in your packing.
2. Start early. Joelle starts laying out her packing 3-4 weeks before. Do you have a guest room bed or a room in the house that is rarely used? Take advantage of that space!! This gives you time to determine what you need and don’t need. Approaching it this way, you will be able to determine early on what you will have to shop for without expensive last-minute panic buying.
The main packing list below is all items you may need to bring on your trip. It is a list geared for all trips abroad, whether one week or two months. This is not a list for backpackers, as their needs are unique, especially if they stay at hostels or are camping. This is for your average traveler, who will likely have one checked bag, a carry-on, and a purse or backpack.
There is a second list that is for carry-on luggage. All items are contained in the master list but detail what you need in your carry-on specifically. Checked luggage can get lost, or you are held up at a connecting airport for a long time due to weather or mechanical problems. Or what happened to Joelle before when the person sitting next to her in the first hour of the flight accidentally spilled their whole glass of red wine on her.
For Joelle, this has helped her reduce her over-packing issue. Those last-minute packing events often brought many unneeded clothes along that didn’t match anything or didn’t fit right. It helps with mixing and matching outfits. Sort out what weighs too much or is bulky. It is amazing how quickly that original pile thins in those weeks.
3. This is also an ideal time to sort out the nonclothing items. Look for travel-size items. Or buy small containers to avoid bringing bulky products such a facial care jars or big tubes of face scrub, or bottles of astringent.
4. Make the effort to assess your daily routine and truly only bring what you need and leave what you don’t need behind.
5. Packing abroad also means preparing for the what-ifs. By making sure you are not bringing more than you need leaves room for the medical supplies.
6. As you layout your belongings, you can then determine how you may want to sort them. We use packing cubes for smaller items and tend to get lost in a suitcase, i.e., undergarments, socks, nightwear, swimsuits, and summer wear. We have found packing cubes useless for large items such as pants, sweaters, and more. They seem to take up too much room and are bulky.
7. All miscellaneous items should be ideally packaged in some container. Whether you use Ziploc baggies, mesh bags, or cosmetic containers, it doesn’t matter. Follow the rule; everything goes into some kind of pouch. This will make it easier to find things during your travels. You know the “it has to be somewhere” moments.
8. Keep your packing list with your pre-trip layout. Once an item is there and can stay, check it off.
9. As your list is complete, you can assess the suitcase you will need if you have not already chosen. Documents are something to organize and prepare early. Find a water-resistant folder, binder, or sleeve.
Put together a detailed itinerary. Have both paper and electronic copies. Copy all your important documents such as passport, credit cards, medical insurance, travel insurance, etc. Make two sets of copies to hide in separate suitcases. Leave one with a family or friend back home. It is important to have paper copies. People often say I have it saved on my phone, but that will do you no good if your phone is lost or stolen. See the story in the sidebar about how important leaving copies at home are.
10. Don’t bring valuables if you can avoid them. No one will remember or care if your pearls are worth thousands or are fake. Or if your designer purse is an authentic Louis Vuitton? Do you really need that huge diamond ring or earrings? No one really cares if your husband got you a big diamond; well, the thief might. It only draws attention to you and makes you a target for theft. It can also be seen as ostentatious. You are there to experience their culture, not to show off to people you will never see again. As a whole, in Europe, they live a much simpler, less materialistic life.
11. We can not encourage you more to get a digital hand scale for all your travels. It weighs your luggage before going to the airport. They are dead-on accurate, small and lightweight. It is now permanently in both our carry-ons; we never travel without one. Especially handy coming home if you bought lots of souvenirs and gifts. You will find it on our Travel Gear and Accessories page. They are inexpensive, around $12, and invaluable.
12. Keep in mind if you plan to bring items home from your travels, you will need space to do so. Make sure as you leave space and that you are not at the weight limit before you leave. Plan for this ahead of time, or take a small duffle to check an extra bag coming home. You can often pay for this in advance to save costs.
Check out Ryan’s Travel Tips on how to make travel smoother
Our Master Packing List
Let’s start packing for our trip. It is the beginning of what will be an amazing adventure abroad. This list is for a trip of any size. A week to months. That involves washing clothes for longer trips.
We will go over the packing list categories in order as they appear on the list. Our list is a PDF and can easily be printed in color or black and white. Many items you may not need. Simply cross off unneeded items. Click on the image to the left, and it will open the packing list.
Keep in mind what the weather will be like at your destination. There is no reason to pack shorts if you are in Switzerland in November. Take the time to learn what people tend to wear so you blend in better.
Think light and layers. Darker colors and mix and match. Easy to wash and fast to dry. Pick clothes that are comfortable to wander in all day and nice enough to go to almost any restaurant if you can’t make it back to your room to change. Keep in mind no one but you and your travel companions will know the dress you wore in Milan is the same dress you wore in Rome. That sundress you wore during the day with a light black sleeved sweater can become evening wear. Men who are more comfortable in jeans choose darker ones, and with a darker light jacket can easily become more dressy as a whole most places are casual. If you want that one special place, maybe a Michelin Star, research ahead of time the dress and keep it as simple as possible.
Undergarments are about comfort, easy washing, and fast-drying. Socks are important, especially if a lot of walking is planned. Research a bit and try some out before the trip. Joelle has been getting socks from REI for a while due to having problematic feet. One recent pairing was a success. Using silk under good quality exterior Merlino wool socks. There are many choices; research what is best for you.
Washing on the Road
We wash our clothes in the sink in any hotel we are in for two nights or more. The reason to choose fast-drying clothes is that hand washing is hard to squeeze the amount of water a washing machine does. You need to plan for a longer drying time. On the packing list have travel-size liquid laundry packets. Hotel soaps and shampoos are not a good idea to wash your clothes with. They are getting very sudsy and may be difficult to rinse out. After carrying a sink stopper and clothesline with us for years, we never once used them. Leave those items behind.
With or without having feet issues, what works best is changing out shoes every 1-2 days. It is ideal for bringing two pairs of walking shoes. Joelle brings her OOcloog clogs and a pair of lightweight black Nike sneakers. On days with less walking and evenings for dinner out, she brings her lightweight slip-on black Toms and a pair of Teva flip-flops. Obviously, in colder weather, Ugg boots would be added to the collection when packing shoes that think light, breathable and sturdy.
Ryan historically brings one pair of slip-on leather loafers meant for extensive walking. During our Portugal and Spain trip, we walked like no other. For the first time, Ryan was hurting a lot. Those one pair of shoes wore his feet out as they were a few years old. He got another pair and interchanged his shoes every other day. It made a huge difference. He brought two pairs to Croatia after that.
The lesson is if you plan to walk a lot, bring two pairs of good walking shoes. If you plan to hike a lot, a good pair of hiking boots is a must.
Check out our favorite items on the travel essentials list here.
This is simple. This is the one area men may need more of. Most items can be worn during travels, such as a belt and hat. Sunglasses no matter the season, we suggest packing a pair. We travel off-season but landed up buying some at our destination as it may be cooler, but it was still very sunny.
Toiletries and Hygiene
Review your routine and the volumes you use during the time frame of your trip. Seek travel size or transfer your products to smaller containers. If you stay in hotels, you can avoid packing soap and shampoo but always bring conditioner, which is often not provided. We use clear mesh bags, clear toiletry bags, or Ziploc to hold our toiletries. Most everyone has had some product leak out over all their clothes. The key is to put your items in some kind of leakproof container at all times. (Check some out here on our Travel Essentials list) Clear containers make it easier to see, and you don’t waste digging looking for your lip balm.
Electronic supplies should be minimum. Avoid a laptop if you can. Today’s modern smartphones are just a smaller version. A tablet works as well. If you are like us, we need to bring at least one. Streamline these items as best you can. Keep them packaged and organized. For a laptop, put it in a thinly padded sleeve.
We tend to bring lots of international adapters as we lose a lot along the way. It is important to keep all these smaller, easily lost items well packaged. We found this great electronic case that holds everything we need and keeps it all well organized. You can find it on our Travel Essentials list. We haul a bigger SLR camera around, but that is the price for being a photographer.
This is a mish-mash of items that we feel are essential. We bring all of these. It seems like a long list, but most of these items are small. We only bring one of most items for the whole travel group. It is about being prepared. Look for small versions of these items; small, durable flashlight, lightweight tote bag, mini sewing kit, travel first aid kit, etc.
Medical supplies. We have a nurse on this team who is always about being ready. Not only for our travel group but for people who may need help along our travels. Covid made some of these items even more important. This was not new for us to bring but became a must-have moving forward. They don’t take up that much space, and all can go into a Ziploc bag. Joelle also brings a stethoscope. See our more detailed post on Medical Travel Supplies.
Bottom line, you need all of these documents and copies of what you bring. Make three sets of copies. Take two with you and leave one with your family at home. You can also make an electronic copy. We always advise going with some local currency on hand. We get some at our local Chase before we leave. Airport exchanges are pricey, and you will get a better rate at your local bank, so plan ahead.
Part of the list speaks to putting together a Travel Emergency Contact Info. It is of paramount importance to carry with you a card that holds all this important info. If you would take ill or get injured away from your belongings and documents, you must have on your person all the info that may be needed in an emergency. Your nationality, passport number, medications, medical conditions, emergency contact, health and travel insurance numbers and contact info, embassy info, local 911 numbers, calling code, and how to call in or out of the country you are in. Time is of the essence in emergencies. We will deal with this in more detail in our travel health posts. We will also be made available to our subscribers our Wanderers Compass Emergency Contact Card with all the above info in a wallet-size card.
Over the Counter Meds
Finally, we have a list of over-the-counter meds that we suggest everyone has packed. Being prepared helps you stay healthy during a trip. Do not expect that you can buy these meds there if you get sick overseas. If you get ill on a Saturday evening, you will not find open stores anywhere, and most stores, even pharmacies, may not be open on Sunday.
This was learned by Joelle in Norway when on vacation with her husband that some countries require a prescription for Sudafed or Benadryl. They both had bad colds and were going through their supply. She wanted to restock, but it was not possible in Norway.
Now in some countries, you can get meds that are prescriptions in the US right off the shelf but don’t count on it. Be prepared. Check out our post on what over-the-counter meds to bring to be here.
Our Carry-on Packing List
All the items on the carry-on packing list are on the main list above. It serves to provide a detailed list of which of the above items stay with you versus going into your checked luggage. These essentials are the things you can not take a risk do not arrive at your destination or are of high value. Let’s be honest; luggage can be lost or delayed.
In all of our combined decades of travel, it has occurred about two dozen times, usually on the trip home. It is not too bad, considering we have flown over 1.6 million miles. You never forget, though, that feeling of dread that sets in as you stare at the baggage carousel, praying your suitcase will suddenly pop out, but it never does. Your heart sinks. The biggest hassle is the often long wait to complete the forms to get the luggage to you, most often the next day.
The good news is all luggage that was recovered lost during trips has returned to us. Ryan, though when he returned home from his 15 month Afghanistan deployment, sent a chest home, via the Army, of all his belongings. He had a lot in there. That was the year I “adopted” Ryan through Soldiers Angels. I sent him many care packages full of goodies: books, DVDs, magazines, tools, video games, clothes, photos, art projects, gifts, etc. The chest arrived empty. He was heartbroken. Luckily those stories are rare. But anything that would break your heart to lose keep with you.
So what do you put in your carry-on? Most are obvious, such as all your documents, prescription meds, electronics, medical supplies, valuables, and a change of clothes. We also have some significant heads up to be aware of when it comes to carry-on. Avoid learning the hard way as we have at times.
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Carry-on Heads Up
- Why do we prefer to have carry-on rollers? Hauling things on your back and shoulders is not healthy or wise. If you have long layovers, it could seriously hinder your movements. Joelle has had multiple shoulder surgeries, so trust us, this comes from personal knowledge. A roller can take all items, even your backpack, off your body. You can drape your jacket and neck pillow off of it. It also makes a nice leg rest for long layovers. And if you do some after security shopping, it comes in quite handy to avoid carrying shopping bags with you.
- Many international airlines, if you are flying economy, have a weight limit for carry-on. This will not be easy for you if you have laptops and heavy camera equipment. All of a sudden, all those important items you should not separate from you will be forced to. If there is more than one in your group, spread out the weight before heading to the airport. Don’t have one person carry the laptop, camera, and all the paperwork. The airlines can make quite a bit of extra income this way too. Joelle had an Air France story that still leaves a bad taste in her mouth. Check out the sidebar story.
- If you are coming from Europe and have a layover in the US on the way home, be very conscious of what you buy after security. We love buying liquor or gifts duty-free. We save room in our carry-on just for that reason. But if you fly through Newark Airport to make your connection, you have to leave security and go through TSA. If you buy liquor or olive oil, they could confiscate it. Once we had enough time to check the bag in at the counter and make it through TSA in time. This is not a problem in most places. Some airport TSA, as long as it is well sealed in the duty-free bag, they will allow but not always. Know your airports.
To Those Who Pack Lite
To those you can pack for a whole trip in a roller board, we commend you. Congratulations, you have our awe and respect.
That will likely never be us; well, it is mostly Joelle when as a nurse, she must be prepared for anything. That has served her well over the years. There are stories to tell……..
We hope these packing tips and lists still serve you as well in the little you do bring.
Packing doesn’t have to be chaotic. Using a list and staying organized is all it takes. Use our packing tips above, and you may even find it fun. What we have found is our greatest tool is starting early. That has dramatically reduced packing stress.
Have that suitcase zipped up at the front door days before your trip even. Your heart will smile each time you see it. You will also leave more rested and ready to hit the road the second you arrive.
The printable PDFs of both packing lists are in the promo boxes below. They can be printed in black and white color or downloaded to your computer.
You are packed and ready to go. We wish you safe and exciting adventures. May all your travel dreams become a beautiful reality.
Share your stories and tips.
As always, we would love to hear your packing stories. Any packing tips that have worked for you. Or any painful or funny stories from your travel that have to do with packing. We learn from each other as we share our tales.
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