I love traveling. The number one thing that I don’t love about traveling is packing. Even car rentals are higher up on my favorites list, and we all know what a pain those can be. When travel day comes, I just want all my stuff to magically fold itself into a bag, my wife to remind me to take my passport, and be on my way.
So, as one does for things that are annoying, I try to minimize the time and effort needed to get it done. The goal is to pack all essentials without lugging around two humongous suitcases. You aren’t Paris Hilton. The idea here is smart, functional, and minimal. You can still be cool and fashionable, don’t get your panties in a bunch!
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What you take obviously depends on where you are going and when, but if you set aside the extremes, like an adventure in Antarctica or a 4-day hike in backcountry, your basics will always be the same.
Tip: Book hotels ahead of time to get top pick!
Let’s zero in on a classic travel situation: you’re flying to a destination during mild, warm to hot weather, spending a week or two traveling in a rental car, hitting up a few different spots for a couple days each. You will see some cities and some nature, but no extremes.
Let me try to minimize the hassle of packing for travel for you with this handy dandy packing list and some tips for being a smart packer. Scroll own to the end for a downloadable checklist.
1. Before you even start packing for travel, make a pile
One thing I always do is, starting at about 3-4 days before travel, I start setting aside things that I run into and know I will want to or may need to take with me. Just shove it all in one spot, like a guest room bed or even just the top of your dresser.
That way, when the time comes, you already have half your stuff ready with next to no effort.
The reason this works is because a lot of the things you use in your day to day at home, you will want to use on vacation, too. Now since these items are your go-tos, you might need to actually use them and not have them sitting on your dresser for a week.
Tip: Book your hotel early so you get one more thing off your to-do list.
Don’t toss them in the pile too early or just be willing to return it to the pile for a couple of days. For things like your toothbrush, just make a note and put that on your pile. It still saves time in the long run.
The worst thing you can do is start thinking of things you absolutely can’t forget to take and trusting your brain to remember them all once you actually start packing. You will forget things this way. Not having your sunglasses is five times more annoying after making a mental note of them a few days before. Notes on paper work, notes in excited travel brains do not.
Summary: Make a pile and write your reminders on paper!
2. You can’t travel without travel documents
If you are traveling to Europe, like to Italy or Spain, know that there are no border checks within the Schengen area. Even so, unless you are an EU citizen traveling through Europe, in which case your national ID is sufficient for travel, always have your passport with you. And I mean on your person, not in your hotel room.
For most travel, your passport should not expire sooner than 6 months after the end date of your trip.
You may not need it at the border crossing, but you should be able to identify yourself to authorities at any given time. Plus, many tourist sites that require advance tickets also require you to show the passport that you used to order your ticket when entering the site.
This is for US citizens especially: Your driver’s license won’t get you anywhere outside of your own country in terms of ID. Passport. Always passport.
Also remember that some countries require you to obtain a visa. I know, bummer. Make sure to check at least 6 weeks in advance what the rules for your destination are. That way, you have enough time to arrange for your visa—some can take up to a month.
There was a time when I was not as ready for traveling as I thought I was. At least, packing list-wise. Imagine you are in the USA, super excited to experience an amazing road trip when all of a sudden an unexpected error occurs. You forgot your driver’s license.
I have no piece of advice if that happens, just make sure that it doesn’t happen. Otherwise, your road trip is doomed. That is, unless you hate driving and staged this forgetfulness to put your travel partner behind the wheel! Sneaky!
Be sure to get your international driver’s license if you need one. That will be the case any time you are leaving your own continent. Car rental companies can be really strict when it comes to checking documents, so come prepared.
If you don’t have a covid app, make sure to have your covid requirements met on paper.
3. Money matters to consider before travel
Long gone are the days when you needed cash in your destination’s currency or were left to run around shady exchange shops once you got there.
I always have some cash currency with me, say enough for the first day, and then just withdraw more in my destination as I go along. How feasible this is really depends on where you are going.
Most likely you are heading to a place where ATMs are plentiful and not exorbitant. Always remember that there are fees the ATM will charge you, and fees your own bank can charge you. You can’t change the former, but you can check the latter before you leave. Get a new bank if yours charges an arm and a leg for international withdrawals.
There are countries where ATM fees are high, but it’s never been so bad that I’d rather stuff my pockets with hundreds of dollars to last the whole trip. Also, that’s such a safety red flag!
It always comes in handy to have coins or banknotes left over from your last holiday if you can use it in your next destination. Small change is hard to come by beforehand and can be a life saver in some situations. Like getting a soda out of a vending machine at the airport.
Tip: Book your hotels now and start looking forward to you stay!
For countries with strange currencies, and I mean that in the most loving way possible, you can carry American dollars to exchange on the spot. They usually have a more favorable exchange rate compared to euros. Otherwise, ATM withdrawal will work once again.
I wouldn’t arrive to a country totally without cash. I learned this the hard way in Malaysia when all 5 of the ATM machines at the airport outright refused to give me money. Thank goodness for Uber online payment, otherwise I’d be stuck at the airport forever.
4. Credit or debit?
Both credit and debit cards are widely accepted, but not all places accept all cards. If you have a Visa or Mastercard, you’ll be able to use them almost everywhere where cards are accepted. Others, like Diners Club or Amex, can be problematic.
Tip #1: Car rental companies want you to pay with credit card, not debit card. Or rather, if you pay with credit card, you will often get a better rate and won’t have to pay as much for insurance. If they let you use debit, you are almost always looking at much higher insurance rates.
Tip #2: I also recommend carrying your cards in different places so you have a backup in case your wallet gets lost or stolen. That way you aren’t left completely poor. Ideally, carry one in your wallet and keep the other one in a safe at your hotel. You just never know.
5. Staying connected
I mean how else would anyone be able to reach you these days, huh? Your cell phones and charger are one of the most important things on your packing list. You need a phone not only to call places and send pics back home, but also as your GPS, your translator, your camera, and your Uber/whatever other taxi-summoning device.
Our top tips for packing: 🚗 Don’t forget your international driver’s license. 🧦 Invest in merino socks or even shirts. 👓 Traveling sucks without glasses and sunglasses. 🖊️ Always take a pen. You know you’d forget it.
You’ll want to get a local SIM card at the airport, or make sure your plan allows for data roaming for a good price. The further you travel, the less probable that is. A local SIM card is the way to go.
If your phone’s battery sucks or if you plan on super long car rides, consider taking a power bank. Personally, I’d only take it if I knew I was going for an overnight hike, but I never do, so I never need a power bank.
6. Get your apps ready for your trip
I highly recommend downloading an offline map of the country you are traveling to on your mobile phone.
I can’t tell you how crappy it is to be driving around Peru trying to find a virtually invisible turn up a mountain without a map. Reception can be spotty all over the world, don’t underestimate it.
Other apps to consider are Uber or similar taxi services, and the booking.com app for your hotel reservations. And, since we are so lucky and are living in a pandemic, whatever app you use for showing off your covid vaccination and test results.
7. What clothes to pack for travel
Besides your passport, the one thing you cannot go without is clothes. Well you can, but you don’t want to. You’re not a nudist or a smelly backpacker with one shirt and Jesus shoes.
You know you need underwear, a pair for each day. Ladies, don’t forget your bras, my wife says two is perfect for a week, more if you’re gone for longer, unless you’re prepared to do a little hand washing in the hotel sink. Choose neutral colors that you can wear with any of your outfits and make at least one comfy for days when you are out hiking or sweating excessively for some other reason.
Tip: Many good hotels will do laundry for you, so you can take less and reuse!
Socks come in handy on every trip, but don’t take ten pairs if you’re going to Spain for a week in the summer. Be reasonable. Socks are for special nights out and hikes. If you want to go pro, get socks made out of merino. They are antibacterial, which translates to “they don’t smell” and can be reused.
The outfits you take should be easily mixed and matched and layered. Unless you are obsessed, don’t take black shirts for a summer vacation. You will bake in the sun. Also steer clear of anything extra wrinkly.
For a week away, you will be fine with 2 fancier options (for dinners and such), 2 comfortable, sportier outfits (for long days out and hikes), and 3-4 casual, everyday outfits. You want to be able to walk around Old Town all day, take a day trip out to the national park, make reservations at a Michelin restaurant, and fly there and back looking presentable.
Add a sweater or sweatshirt, one light jacket, a long-sleeved shirt, and you’ll be prepared for anything. Remember you don’t want a sweater for each outfit and three types of jackets, take items that are versatile.
A scarf or sari can be used as an easy extra layer, a shoulder cover (for religious building visits), or something to sit on during a hike or beach wander. Versatility at its finest.
Minimize the “just in case” items that you put on your packing list. Will it really be that terrible if you don’t have your leopard print sweater on that one day when the temps drop below 22°C?
Shoes depend a lot on personal style, but for the majority of travelers, you will always utilize a pair of sandals or flip flops and a pair of sneakers. Unless you plan on a formal event, you won’t need any other footwear. Sneakers can be used for regular sightseeing as well as moderate hikes (again, we aren’t packing for extremes here), and if you choose your style wisely, even dinner. Just wipe off the mud from your hike beforehand.
8. Don’t forget your meds
Even if you’re traveling to the end of the world, you will always be able to find local meds in case of an emergency. But, if the emergency is small enough, I’d rather just pull out my little med kit than search for a pharmacy.
I make sure to pack the basics for things like headaches, fevers, cuts, eye irritation and stomach problems. Something like ibuprofen (or other pain/fever meds), eye drops, band aids, and anti-diarrhea medication.
For that last one, consult your travel doctor to get the best ones for your destination—stomach bugs vary across the world and different meds target different bugs. If all else fails and you get a terrible case of Montezuma’s revenge, the local pharmacy will probably have the best cure. They know their bugs the best!
You might want motion sickness or allergy medicine. Also, it is clever to think about illnesses and other unpleasantries you have dealt with in the last 2 years and consider taking medication for those just in case.
All that said, unless you are going to a third world country, you really don’t need to be taking a whole first aid kit and half a drug store with you. They have pharmacies and they will likely be more than sufficient for your needs.
If you take prescription medication, get a note from your doctor and have it translated into English. Keep the medicine in its original container with all the information on it. Don’t forget your birth control!
9. Toiletries to pack for your trip
We always stay at hotels, and there are always basic toiletries provided, but there are items I’d rather take with me. It’s a comfort thing. Like toothbrushes. The hotel ones usually suck, so I take my own. I’m not as strict with toothpaste, so I just use what they provide.
Moisturizers, deodorant, razors and all that jazz are basics. You know what items you use, take them. Just don’t make the mistake of putting them in your carry-on. Remember there is a limit for liquids in carry-ons: 1 liter total max and each individual container can be a maximum of 100 ml. Makeup, mascara etc. count as a liquids too!
I cannot imagine my travels without antibacterial wipes in my carry-on. I try to avoid getting sick on the road so I try to wipe down tray tables, armrests, and any other surfaces that might need disinfecting before interacting with them (we all got a little paranoid since covid, am I right?).
Fun fact, I very much appreciated them on a plane from Mexico after I got sick from Mexican tap water. But all the wiping in the world couldn’t have helped me avoid that nightmare.
If you’re traveling by plane or generally suffer from dry lips, lip balm or moisturizer should not be missing from your hand luggage. Even otherwise healthily moisturized lips and skin tend to crack after taking a flight. So instead of balm, you can take, for example, shea butter, which is perfect for both lips and skin (big thanks to my lovely wife for that piece of advice).
You can probably work out that SPF 15 is not enough for tropical destinations or generally anywhere in the summer. An SPF 30 is my minimum. Don’t forget to reapply during the day!
But don’t be fooled by cooler weather in higher altitudes either (like when hiking in Mexico). Remember you’re closer to the sun up there! Pack on the SPF 50 no matter how many clouds you see. Take it from a man whose skin has been burnt way too many times.
10. Extras to put on your packing list
If you’re traveling internationally, an adapter is often a must-have. Some countries have the weirdest socket shapes! Europe generally has round prongs, the USA has two little lines. The UK has a more massive 3-prong doodad, while the Chinese one is slanted.
Are you expecting rain? Depending on the activities you plan, a compact umbrella or rain jacket is a must.
Remember to take sunglasses. And avoid catastrophe—bring your regular glasses or contact lenses!
For long-haired individuals, hair ties.
And this is one you’ll miss even before you get there: a pen. On almost all plane trips nowadays, there will be a form or three to fill out. Come prepared so you don’t have to bother your neighbor.
We haven’t even talked about the actual type of luggage you will be traveling with. Since you aren’t hitchhiking, you don’t need to be worried about having a suitcase. Just make sure it is wheeled and lightweight. Your carry on, on the other hand, can and should be a backpack. You’ll use it for day trips and walking around Old Town is much more comfortable with a backpack than a shoulder bag.
11. The ultimate packing list
Now that we talked about some travel packing tips, get ready for the ultimate packing list. I’ve divided it into categories, so you don’t get a headache seeing it all in one long list.
- passport and ID card if you have one
- travel insurance
- insurance card
- driver’s license (plus international one if needed)
- offline map of the country (downloaded on your cell phone)
- credit and debit cards
- covid app or documents
- phone + charger + power bank
- travel adapter
Don’t travel naked
- 3-4 casual outfits
- 2 dressy outfits
- 2 sporty outfits
- long-sleeved shirt
- light sweater or sweatshirt
- light jacket
- scarf or sari
- rain jacket if needed
- underwear, bras
- flip-flops or sandals
- pajamas or sleep shirt
- backpack that doubles as your carry-on
Your personal drugstore
- first aid kit (details above)
- prescription medicines, including birth control
- personal toiletries (deodorant, face creams)
- lip balm
- razor and shaving cream
- bug repellent if needed
- contact lenses kit
- menstruation items
- tweezers, nail clippers
- hairbrush or comb
- hair ties
- wet wipes
Bits and bobs
- Glasses, contact lenses
- And finally, if you do forget anything, relax. Unless it’s your passport—in that case, get stressed asap.
Otherwise, you can buy anything almost anywhere on the planet. If you do end up leaving your underpants at home, just think what an incredible souvenir you’ll have! Undies from [fill in your destination country]!
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