Rick Steves: Travelers’ mantra - pack light, pack light, pack light

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The measure of a good traveler is how light he or she travels.

You'll never meet a traveler who, after five trips, brags, "Every year I pack heavier." The measure of a good traveler is how light he or she travels. You can't travel heavy, happy, and cheap. Pick two.

Too much luggage and camera gear mark you as a typical tourist. It throws up a wall between you and the grizzled Spanish fisherman mending his net. Serendipity suffers. Changing locations becomes a major operation. Con artists figure you're helpless and move in. With one bag hanging on your back, you're mobile and in control--and less likely to have your luggage get lost, broken, or stolen.

Limit yourself to 20 pounds in a carry-on-size bag. A 9" x 22" x 14" bag fits under most airplane seats. For many, this is a radical concept. "9 x 22 x 14 inches? That's my cosmetics kit!" But I've bullied many people into packing lighter than they thought reasonable. Checking in with them halfway through their trip I find they're converts--evangelical like me about the beauties of packing light.

Whether you take a backpack or small soft-sided suitcase (with a shoulder strap or zip-away backpack straps) is up to you. I use a carry-on convertible suitcase/backpack. Some day I'll join the many travelers who prefer the soft-sided suitcases with wheels ("roll aboard"). But as long as I'm strong enough to carry my bag on my back, I will.

How do you fit a whole trip's worth of luggage into a small suitcase or backpack? The answer is simple: Bring very little. Spread out everything you think you might need on the living room floor and scrutinize each item. (This is fun to do with your travel partner.) Ask yourself, "Will I really use this snorkel and these fins enough to justify carrying them around all summer?" Not "Will I use them?" but "Will I use them enough to feel good about carrying them over the Swiss Alps?" Frugal as I may be, I would buy them in Greece and give them away before I'd carry that extra weight over the Alps. Think in terms of what you can do without--not what will be handy on the trip.

Packing light
Pack happy.

Whether you're traveling for three weeks or three months, you pack exactly the same. I've seen people pack a whole summer's supply of deodorant, tampons, or razors, thinking they can't get them in Europe. The world's getting awfully small; you can buy Dial soap, Tampax, and Bic razors in Sicily. Look forward to running out of toothpaste in Bulgaria. Then you have the perfect excuse to go into a Bulgarian department store, shop around, and pick up something you think might be toothpaste....

Entire books have been written on how to pack. Here are a few simple tricks. Pack for the best scenario--not the worst. You can buy yourself out of any little jams as you go. Use stuff bags (one each for toiletries, underwear and socks, bigger clothing items and towel, camera gear, and miscellaneous stuff such as a first-aid kit and stationery). Roll and rubber-band clothes, or zip-lock them in airless baggies to minimize wrinkles. Pack your backpack only two-thirds full to leave room for picnic food and souvenirs.

The bulk of your luggage is clothing. Minimize by bringing less and washing more often. Every few nights you'll spend 10 minutes doing a little wash. Be careful to choose dark, lightweight clothes that dry quickly and either don't wrinkle or look good wrinkled. To see how wrinkled shirts will get, give everything a wet rehearsal by hand-washing and drying once at home.

Many travelers are concerned about appropriate dress. During the tourist season (April-September), the concert halls go casual. I have never felt out of place at symphonies, operas, or plays wearing a decent pair of slacks and a good-looking sweater. European women wear dresses or skirts as often as slacks, but American women generally feel comfortable wearing slacks.

Once you've decided what to pack, remember you'll walk with your luggage more than you think. Before leaving home, give yourself a test. Pack up completely, go into your hometown, and be a tourist for an hour. Fully loaded, you should enjoy window shopping. If you can't, stagger home and thin things out.

Go casual, simple, and very light. In your travels you'll meet two kinds of tourists--those who pack light and those who wish they had. Say it once out loud: "Pack light." 


Rick Steves / Expatica
Rick StevesRick Steves ( writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at


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