Smart Packing for Frugal Travel

Frugal travel means taking one bag.  It counts as your personal item.  This bag should be easy to carry, sturdy, well-made and lightweight.  Check any travel size restrictions for your personal item before buying a bag.  Having a smaller bag forces you to pack less.  

Benefits of Packing Light

Less to carry.  Give yourself the freedom and flexibility to sightsee all day when you arrive and then check in late or check out early the day you leave and explore before the flight back, rather than coordinating with the hotel/host for drop off and pick up of a rolling suitcase or heavier bag.

Less to worry about.  There is no risk the airline will lose your bag.  There is no waiting for the baggage claim.

Less expensive since there is no checked bag fee.  6 trips a year, $50 a trip to check the bag, $300 that could have been spend on a 7th trip!

Less to end up lost or stolen.  I never bring anything I would be sad to lose.  Everything in my bag is easily replaceable.  You never need to ask for help holding your bag, so there’s less risk that anyone would run off with it.

Things I always bring with – my “List”

License/Passport and insurance card (photo copies of each are left at home)

Two credit cards (one Visa, one MasterCard) and cash – I don’t bring my whole wallet because I don’t need it and it would be a pain if lost.  I keep a list at home of all my credit cards and the phone number to call if something were to end up lost or stolen.

My phone and charger plus country adapter if needed – it doubles as music player, camera, kindle, guidebook, and mode of contact when I find free wifi. I don’t bother with any other electronics.

Any needed medication

A bandaid or two and a small package of Tylenol (two capsule wrapped pack)

Dollar store sunglasses – who cares if they get lost or scratched?

My granny pack and a collapsible bag – any time I travel alone and will be sightseeing, I always wear the granny pack under my shirt to keep my valuables as close to me as possible.

One large and two small Ziploc bags.  I’ve used them for snacks, sand, a wet bathing suit, dirty clothes, maps/paper I wanted to save, to protect my book in my bag to and from the beach, and all sorts of otherthings.  They take up next to no room and are extremely useful.

A physical book – much more convenient for the airport and on the airplane.  Also can be a useful conversation starter depending on what you’re reading.  If you finish it during the trip, you can leave it behind at a Little Free Library or in an Airport Exchange.

A sweater or jacket (either carried or packed depending on where I am going and how many other clothes I need) – it gets cold in the airport and at night.

Food/Snacks (I buy a disposable water bottle when I arrive at my destination and refill throughout the trip and then toss before I go home)

Toiletries and clothes.  That’s it!

Before you start packing anything, you should always check to see what’s already at your destination.

I like to use AirBnB, and I always check with my host to see if they have basic toiletries or other necessities on hand.  If not, I make a plan to bring them with.  Depending on the item in question, it might be appropriate to acquire early and leave with the host for future guests.  When I went to St. Thomas, my host didn’t have any beach towels on hand for guests, so I bought one for $4 at Target before I left and then I left it for their future guests.  Much cheaper and more efficient than buying one there, and it left a lot of space in my bag for gifts I brought back.

When staying with friends or family, they may have everything you need that you can borrow.  If you visit enough, they may even be willing to let you store items there.  I keep spare toiletries at my parents’ house under the sink in the extra bathroom, which makes packing for my visits and quick flights up so much easier.  I keep a full set of extra supplies in my house and am happy to return the favor.

My favorite travel hack: Now is the time to use up anything on its last leg

When I have toiletry products that are almost out, I stop using them and save them for my trips.  If there are any products that need replacement, I bring those as well.  Deodorant, mascara/make-up, face wash, anything that is still under the 3 fl oz bottle requirement.

Any old clothes that I no longer wear but that aren’t in good enough shape (or appropriate) for my Buy Nothing Group come with.  (If possible, give it away rather than tossing it out!)  I bring any worn-out gym socks with holes.  I search my pile for any undershirts that lost elasticity or underwear that is on its last legs.  I also regularly bring old flip flops for the beach (they get pretty beat up living in Florida).  I brought old beat-up tennis shoes for sightseeing in New York City (that purposely didn’t end up in any photos!).  Stained shirts can be layered under sweaters.  Cold places warrant the leggings that get holes in them to wear under my jeans.

Every single one of these items is tossed in the trash can on the day I leave without a further thought.  This is the best tip to save room for souvenirs or special new things to remind me of the trip.  If nothing else, it’s less weight to carry around on the last day when sightseeing or through the airport on the way back.

Toiletries/Basic Needs

When you leave, all your toiletries/bathroom needs should fit into one Ziploc bag for easy traveling.  This is a good exercise for item restriction.  If you don’t use it every day and don’t need it, don’t bother bringing it along.  (Exception: Sunscreen!)  Worst possible case: you find that you needed it after all and buy it there and remember for your next trip.  You can fill small travel-sized bottles with your necessities and then keep and maintain them, or you can visit the Dollar Store for travel-sized items and dispose of them on the trip, or any combination thereof.  The dollar store has toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, body wash, floss, small mouthwash, deodorant, and other necessities for traveling.  These can easily be used up and disposed of, or you can save the bottles and refill them.  I bring exactly enough cotton balls, Q-tips, feminine products, etc. (maybe one or two extra) for the duration of the trip and put them directly in the Ziploc bag.  No bringing a whole package.

I don’t recommend a “travel kit” or bag unless it is TSA-friendly.  It’s a waste of time if you have to open your travel kit to remove your plastic Ziploc bag with your liquids.  It’s a waste of space if you keep the Ziploc separate from the bag.  I’ve never been questioned for having a toothbrush with my toothpaste and face wash, and if it was an issue for some reason the non-liquid items could easily be pulled out.  Also, if you throw out the disposable items and leave the travel kit half empty then the kit itself still takes up space for anything acquired on your trip.

I always pack a disposable toothbrush and throw it out when I leave.  I also keep extras in the house for my AirBnB guests.

Do any “grooming” before you go

I always trim and paint my nails the day before I leave.  No use dragging all the tools along!  I bring a small file if I’m gone for more than a couple days, but otherwise the rest stays home.

Disposable razors are $1 for a package of 8 at the dollar store, so I shave my legs the night before/morning of my departure and then use a disposable razor and soap during the trip.  They work really well for one-time use.  They are much smaller than my usual razors and then I also don’t have to worry about transporting wet razors back and forth.

The same goes for men and their hair/beards.  Trim beforehand!  I’m absolutely a fan of growing a beard while you’re on a trip.


Always check the weather and then choose low-maintenance clothes in the same color family that can be layered

Choose clothes that are comfortable for wandering but can still be dressed up. (Low-wrinkling is a plus.)  Make sure they are weather appropriate.  Each item should coordinate well with everything else you are bringing.  You want to be able to mix and match.  It’s a lot easier to pack less when you can layer up.  Aim for as few heavy layers (like a jacket or fleece) as possible, since you can change the t-shirt daily.

My normal travel color palette is shades of blue.  It’s a flattering color on me that blends in with the tropical places I like to visit.  Sticking with the same color palette ensures all my clothes will look good together and I will always be ready for a photo opportunity.  It also means less thought and effort when getting dressed each day and less thought in what I need to bring.

Take exactly what you need for the time away.

Bring as many shirts as you’ll have days on your trip – or less if you can do laundry or know you want to go shopping.  (Some travel hackers suggest bringing powdered detergent and washing clothes in the sink for longer trips.  Over a week?  Pack for 7 days and find a laundromat.)  You can always re-wear a previously worn shirt if needed for some reason (like accidentally spilling all over your shirt at breakfast... oops.), and you might find a nice shirt to take home as a souvenir that you can wear on your trip as well.  

Bring one good pair of jeans, max 2 pairs of pants.  Wear the jeans traveling in the airport.  Plan to re-wear them without washing.  You don’t need a fresh pair for every day.  If you’re going somewhere warm, bring jeans and a good pair of shorts or cargo pants.

Max of two pairs of shoes, one that you’re wearing to the airport and one in your bag.  You can pack your socks inside your shoes.  Wrap them in a plastic bag to save the most space.

No “just in case” clothes.  Only bring gym clothes if you work out regularly and never skip. (Full disclosure – I never bring them because I want to maximize my time exploring a new place.)  Only take a “dressier” outfit if you know you are going to end up somewhere that it’s needed.  This should be a unique experience planned in advance.  (When visiting New York, I brought a little black dress and flats to go see the Phantom of the Opera in the theater at the Sunday matinee.)  Otherwise, don’t waste the space.

Tips for actually packing

Lay out everything on your bed before putting it in the bag to make sure you have what you need

Rolling clothes tightly can take up less space for longer trips

Heaviest items go in the bottom of the bag or against your back in a backpack

Ziplock bag with toiletries should be packed last so that you can easily take it out at the airport

Don’t add extra things just because you have extra space

Remember that you’re traveling to see the world, not to be seen

No one who you interact with will care what you look like or what you are wearing.  They likely won’t even remember you two days from now.  Travel light so that you don’t miss out on any opportunities for new experiences.