5 Steps to Travelling Light

Back in September, my partner went under the knife again for his third and final ankle surgery.  This ordeal has sapped four years of our lives.  He’s had two reconstructive ankle surgeries that failed and this time, finally, his ankle was fused.  We were excited at the prospect of this being “it”.  Hopefully, after he started walking again, we’d be returning to our previously scheduled life.

At the same time as the surgery, my job became extremely busy.  Like, insanely busy.  Busier than it had been for years.  So along with full-time care-giving, I was working ten hours a day then coming home, walking three dogs and taking care of my partner and the house and then preparing things for work.  It wasn’t long before any spare moment I had (which weren’t many to be sure and were mostly those times that I was utterly brain dead), I was scouting out cheap plane tickets for anywhere.  Seriously, anywhere.  I couldn’t book for Christmas because we had no way of knowing how well Bob would be walking by then so I was searching for mid-March.  There were four conditions: dates between March 9th and 18th (my pre-determined holidays); a place neither of us had been; under $800 (because I’m cheap); less than 8 hours flying (because we only had a week).

For two weeks, I randomly put in the names of cities I thought would be good for a short getaway and Expedia pulled up a WOW Air flight from Montreal to Amsterdam for $439 round trip.  I really didn’t know how this was possible so I went to the WOW Air Website and discovered that is only the actual flight cost.  EVERYTHING ELSE is extra. There are no meals, no wifi, no entertainment system, no blankets offered, nothing.  You have to pay extra to choose your seat (which you have to do), extra for cancellation (which I think might the norm for other airlines as well), even for your checked AND carry-on luggage.  That $439 list price was basically just to board the plane.  So I added on carry-on luggage and medical insurance (cancellation for medical reasons has been the norm in our house for several years) and the ticket bumped up to $650 each.  Still a great deal and I booked it in a heartbeat.

And then freaked out because I was only travelling with a carry-on.

Generally, we as North Americans, used to our every comfort and convenience, pack WAY more than we need to, even if we think we’re being sensible.  Bob and I had travelled with only a carry-on to Paris and I had done it to Spain but those carry-ons were truly testing the limits of that little metal measuring box at the check-in counter.  And we had no room for anything we bought and ended up with checked baggage on the way home.  My uncle told me about my cousin’s carry-on – only 8 lbs! – and I was astonished! How is that even possible?  Other than he’s a guy.  I was up for the challenge.

After everything was packed, my backpack only weighed 9 lbs (4 kg)!  If only I could’ve packed this well for the Camino! And in all honesty, when we boarded the flight, others had carry-ons that were twice the size.  WOW Air allows a sizeable carry-on up to 26 lbs (12 kgs), so three times the size of what I ended up bringing.  However, I was happy that I had packed so minimally.  It made transit to and from the airport as well as on and off the plane quite easy.  There was nothing I didn’t need and nothing I wished I had brought and didn’t.

My Luggage
A 9 lb backpack and a handbag. My best packing yet!

I had a few people ask how I did it so I reflected on my thought process for packing this time.  The last time I traveled, I was carrying my entire life on my back across Spain and my perspective on what we truly need changed drastically.  I’m not sure if I’ll every overpack again.  That being said, everyone travels differently – you may enjoy eating at fancy restaurants and need fancier outfits, you may enjoy more athletic endeavors and want to bring along your running gear, you may feel weird about wearing something twice (or more) before washing it.  All these things factor into your decision as to how much to pack.

Here is a list of what I brought.

  • I brought two outfits in dark neutrals that could be mixed and matched.  I wore one and packed the other. (Two long-sleeved tops, two bottoms (black pants and jeans), two tanks, two pairs of socks, three underwear and two bras)
  • A layering system for my outer wear – a fleece and a rain jacket
  • A light hat and gloves
  • One pair of comfortable shoes – Blundstone’s – that I wore everywhere, every day
  • Yoga pants and a T-shirt for sleeping in (clothing that could be worn in public if need be)
  • my camera and lenses
  • a backpack and handbag
  • minimal toiletries (conditioner, a razor, deodorant, toothbrush, toothpaste, hand cream and a hair elastic)
  • a phone charger and adapter
  • a reusable bag
  • a tiny backpack that folds into its own pocket
  • a book and a journal

That’s it.  That’s all I brought.  In fact, I couldn’t believe how easy it was.  I didn’t buy anything in Amsterdam except for two or three small souvenirs that fit without any fuss into my backpack.

So, here are the 5 things that went through my head as I organized my packing.

1.  The Weather

The first thing to consider is what time of year you are travelling and what the weather will be like.  We were travelling from a Canadian winter (though a very warm one) to a slightly warmer destination – Amsterdam – in early spring.  Two weeks before we travelled, Europe had been experiencing very cold winter temperatures (more akin to a Canadian winter than we were experiencing!) so by the time we got there, it was warmer than Ottawa, but not especially warm – between 4°C and 10°C.  Amsterdam is also known for changing weather, like many other places (Ottawa, Iceland, England, etc.) so we knew that rain at some point was a big probability.  We also figured due to the cold weather systems happening, that wind would be a factor as well.  Spring wind is generally very icy and uncomfortable.

For outer layers, I brought a fleece and a wind-breaking, water-resistant shell.  These two items together were the perfect warm coat.  I also brought my driving gloves, a woolen hat and a scarf that would work with my outer jacket as well as my outfits.  Depending on how warm it got, I could forego the shell, or the fleece, or the scarf.  In the end, I wore every layer I brought every day, all the time.

Because the weather wasn’t going to be too warm, I didn’t feel like sweat would be a problem.  However, I have been to some extremely hot places in which I have had to change outfits several times a day (not to mention shower several times a day) to look presentable.  This clearly affects the amount of clothing one must bring.

Wear your heavier, bulkier clothing on the plane to save space in your luggage.  A two-layer winter-ish coat is not considered luggage when draped over your arm.

In the evenings, while in the AirBnb, I did get slightly chilled at times.  I wished I had brought a light sweater but was perfectly fine wrapping my scarf around me or using my fleece.

2: Laundry Access

Also consider whether you have laundry facilities at your accommodation.  We stayed at a fabulous Airbnb that offered laundry services but we in fact, didn’t need to use them.  If you can minimize your luggage by doing a small load of laundry, then do so.  Don’t bring anything that needs special care (ex. dry clean).

Handwashing is also an option. Having done it for three weeks on the Camino, it seems strange NOT to do it now when travelling.  I will never bring more than three pairs of underwear and two pairs of socks.  They can be washed in the sink or in the shower with you.  (I realize this is bordering on some people’s comfort zone, especially if you haven’t done much minimalist travelling but it’s something to consider if you really want to save money and space in your luggage.)

3. Activities

Consider what you’ll be doing while away.  When I travelled to Italy, I made sure to pack one nice dress for our evenings out because we had special dinners planned with our group at more upscale restaurants.  Also, Italians have a higher standard of dress than other places.  When we went to the Balkans, we brought something “in case” we decided to go somewhere fancy on Christmas or New Year’s Eve.  In both Israel and Italy, I brought a scarf for any situation that required shoulders or heads being covered.  On the other hand,  I didn’t pack anything that wasn’t hike-worthy in Iceland because we were camping, driving and hiking.  While I was not aware of how laid-back Amsterdam was, I do know, from many previous experiences, that fine dining and evenings out at clubs aren’t our style.  So I opted out of bringing anything fancy this time.

Also, are you planning on shopping?  Then packing light is really important because you’ll probably be wearing some of the things you buy.  You’ll need extra space in your carry-on for the extra things you buy.  If I were planning on shopping (like if I knew I was hitting the markets in London), I would only bring the outfit I was wearing and then buy all my clothes there.

Also, carefully consider your footwear.  Are you an expert at walking in heels on cobblestones? On dirt roads?  Do you get cold feet?  Need orthotics for long walks? In my travel experience, there is a hell of lot more walking everywhere in the world than there is here in Canada (especially in winter!).  I chose to wear my Blundstone’s.  They go with everything and are extremely comfortable.  They worked with casual outfits as well as a more dressed up look.  They were well broken in and I knew I could walk for hours in them.  They were perfect.

4. The Fashion Culture

Many times, you can’t really know this.  I like going to Instagram and checking out what people are wearing in the street photography photos (ie: not the selfies of other tourists). Any information you get about the fashion culture, may be given to you by friends who have been there.  We had no idea that Sarajevo and Amsterdam were so laid-back with their fashion (their style being quite hip with a vintage and independent feel to it), but I was expressly told about some clothing considerations in countries that tend to be more conservative.  No shorts for men or bare shoulders for women in the holy places in Israel or Jordan. Always bring a nice dress and natural fibers (linen and silk breathes in the heat) when travelling to Italy.  Sensible shoes in Amsterdam are a must because they are always riding bicycles.  Classic fabrics and cuts and darker colours in fall, spring and winter in England to deal with the cooler temperatures and the dirt of London.  Warm, outdoor gear in Iceland.  Of course, if you have no problem looking like a tourist, then go right ahead and wear your running shoes, baggy jeans, hoodies and Gore-tex.  By no means am I slamming these items of clothing; I own all of these things.  But I generally don’t travel with them because I don’t want to look like a tourist, more for safety’s sake than anything.  I also carry a lot of camera gear and I don’t want to be a victim if people think they can get away with jacking a tourist.

It’s also good to keep in mind that the rest of the world (literally, every country in this world except Canada and the U.S.) is quite comfortable wearing the same outfit repeatedly.  It’s actually very normal.  We had four days in Amsterdam and two days of travel.  I brought two full outfits that I could mix and match for four different outfits.  Every evening when we returned to our accommodation, I hung up my clothes to air, handwashed my undergarments and socks and wore a different outfit the next day.  Yes, I was pushing it on the 6th day but then I was just sitting on a plane all day so I didn’t really care.  Packing a small bottle of Febreeze may be something you consider to make your clothing last longer.  If people everywhere else in the world can survive year after year with ten key outfits, I feel like we can travel for a week with only two.

5. Non-Clothing Items

Tech: Leave the tablet and laptop at home.  There is nothing they can do that your phone can’t. You are on holiday after all.  (Unless you are actually travelling for work.)  I brought a DSLR camera and two lenses since I love photography.  I didn’t bring my laptop to download photos, I brought a key that connected to my phone.  I did worry a little about losing the memory cards but I brought 64GB memory card so there was no need to change a card like I had to in Iceland with my 8GB card.  I didn’t feel the need to bring a battery pack assuming I would be in close proximity to an actual outlet most of the time.

Books: Download books onto your phone (Kobo, Kindle, iBooks app) if you enjoy reading that way.  I brought one real book with me – a short paperback that I started while in Amsterdam and finished at the airport.  I would have left it there or given it away had it not been a library book.

I use a Midori Traveller’s Notebook Passport for a journal.  It’s small, beautiful, and lightweight for keeping notes and observations.

Your hair: Leave your hair styling products and accessories at home.  European locales do effortless hair.  People in hot locales put their hair up or back (on the Camino, in the sweltering heat with my long, loose hair getting trapped under my pack, my hair was in two braids EVERY. DAY.).  Humid locales have no need for straighteners or product.  Adventure holidays need hair to be pulled back under hats and helmets.  So don’t stress about your hair or what you’ll look like in your photos.  Chances are, you’ll look like you’re actually enjoying your holiday.

The actual luggage: I took a backpack as it always keeps your hands free.  I’m also a hiker and feel a little strange without a backpack. I had a handbag as well that had both hand straps and a shoulder strap.  It was large enough to carry my camera and a lens, passport, wallet, and journal.  The book to read stayed at the accommodation as if there was time to sit and pass, I would write in my journal.

My pack was still small enough that on our return flight, when the other passengers were fighting over overhead cabin space for their bulging carry-on pieces, the flight attendants breathed a sigh of relief as I tossed my pack up with one hand and rearranged it smoothly and easily between two other overloaded suitcases.

If you have other tips and strategies for keeping luggage light, I’d love to hear them!

Wow Air
Boarding the last leg of our flight in Reykjavik, bound for Amsterdam.

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