When your Sherpa is unavailable.


After 45 years of traveling I’m finally getting the knack of packing.

It all comes down to one question – do I really need this?   I’ve now been on four successful 2+ week trips with only a carry-on and backpack purse.  Still a work in progress but I’m getting smarter each time.

Here’s the deal, multiple or large suitcases limit you, cause you needless stress, zap energy, and are like an albatross —- unless you have a Sherpa on hand.   Husbands don’t count – they get grumpy carrying all your stuff, and that’s no fun.

Nothing about travel is easy these days and airline luggage fees are just the beginning, you have long airline and security lines,  massive airports requiring shuttle trains to get from A to B, broken or non existent elevators and escalators, congested gate areas, crowded planes with limited overhead storage, flight delays, and running through airports to make a connection.

Here’s what I’ve learned –
1. Choose a carry-on size, 4-wheel spinner, that you can lift and pull easily, and a purse or backpack that can hold what you need for the flight and fit under the seat.  Limit yourself to these two pieces and choose what you need to bring carefully.

2. Create a printable list of things you always have to do before departure (inform credit card company, arrange mail hold, arrange plant care etc). Use the list to check off items as you go. (if you Google ‘packing lists’ you’ll find many, then you can edit to your needs. Mine is in an excel spreadsheet, and is easy to print each time.)


3. Create a printable list of things you always need to bring like passport, electronics, and toothpaste. I have a universal list, then highlight things I’ll need for that particular trip. (This is also helpful if the airline looses your bag and you have to come up with a list for the insurance claim – but we won’t go there.)

4. On a piece of paper list each day of this trip so you can plan an outfit for each. You won’t stick to it, but it helps you plan your general clothing needs. This list is especially helpful if you’re moving from one climate (or elevation) to the next, or if you have a special occasion planned. However this doesn’t mean you’re bringing a new outfit for each day – you’ll be wearing some of the same clothes several times.  Remember you can wear pants, skirts,  dresses, jackets and sweaters several times changing them up with tops and accessories. Err on the side of too few clothes rather than too many. You can always wash or have them laundered if necessary.

5. Check bag or carry-on? As I get older it’s harder for me to lift my bag into the overhead bins.  I’m too independent to ask for help and I’m afraid one day I’ll injure myself or drop the bag on someone’s head!   Recently when I have a full, heavy bag for a long trip I check it.  In some ways its nice to be rid of it, in other ways its a huge pain.  However,  as they say, it is what it is.  I know there will be times when I have to carry on and I’ll just have to suck it up and ask for help.

6. On the other hand, don’t let your liquid needs dictate whether you carry on or not. I use small plastic jars and my label maker so I can bring just what I need. After a trip I top them off for next time. In most cases you don’t need full containers of liquids, and if you do, buy what you need when you get there.  carryon kit

7. Choose a color palette, start with a basic black, beige, or navy, then work around the basic. I usually have black as my basic and add white, beige or gray tops, then perhaps a colorful sweater or jacket. The trick is to add scarves and jewelry to change it up, or dress it up, and give some variety.

8. Plan on layers – this is especially true when you’re in different climates on one trip. For instance France in September was cool in Paris, warm in Provence. Same clothes, just different layers. Or Peru in July was cool in the Andes, warm in the lower elevations.

9. For longer trips when space is at a premium roll your clothes and tuck them into every spare inch. It’s amazing what you can fit into a carry-on if you take the time to pack carefully.

10. For trips when you’ll be moving from place to place I use extra large plastic zip lock bags.  I have one for each day.  I put an outfit in each, squeeze the air out, and layer the bags in the suitcase. You can’t fit as much as when you roll but for certain trips the bags are the way to go. I take out a bag a day and avoid rummaging through the suitcase everyday. I pack bottoms separately and interchange. The bag holds the top, sometimes a sweater, scarf, and perhaps jewelry depending on what I’m doing and the climate. This works well when you’re changing hotels every night or two. BTW the bags are a much cheaper version of packing cubes and work just as well.

11. Laundry? Laundry service at a hotels or cruise lines can be expensive, but if you’re traveling for 2+ weeks with a carry-on you’ll have to find a way to wash clothes somehow. When I was in Peru I washed clothes in the sink almost every night. It was very dusty {who knew} and my clothes got dirty a lot faster than I planned. The secret is to roll the clothes in a towel and squeeze out all the moisture  so they’ll dry overnight. I got away with bringing fewer clothes and looked fine,  I was pretty sick of them after 14+ days — however I’ll take that over dragging a big suitcase any time.

12.  This works on cruises too – which is a whole different packing topic. When necessary I wash clothes in the sink and hang them in the closet on hangers.    Dressing for dinner I wear a pair of plain black pants and black top,  colorful scarves/shawls and jewelry change the look.  For dressy shoes I have a pair of very light weight ballet flats with sparkles on them. They pack easily, weigh nothing, and add a little sparkle. I fit in and look dressy without having to pack a steamer truck.

12. The bottom line  – you have to be really serious about asking “Do I really need this?  and What’s the chance I’ll need it often enough to carry it?”   I’m talking about things like an umbrella, rain coat, bathing suit, heels, hat and gloves, etc. When space is tight you have to scrutinize everything. Can I manage without it? In the unlikely event I’ll need it, can I buy it there rather than carting it around for two weeks just in case?

Smart packing is a huge topic for good reason. There’s a plethora of information on the web,  and several sites dedicated solely to packing.   Until some young wunderkin develops teleportation we’re stuck with air travel and lugging our belongings.  Learning to pack smartly will make your travel less stressful and give you more freedom.


I'm in my sixties with the world at my feet and thoughts mostly of "where to next?". I retired in 2017, sold my house in Massachusetts and most of my furniture and "stuff." When not traveling you can find me in Florida in the winter and Rhode Island in the summer. Travel has been a passion from a young age, over the years I've discovered I'm a traveler, not a tourist. I prefer traveling solo, with a travel friend, or small groups. Whenever possible I would rather spend time in one place rather than moving around. I'll never turn down an opportunity to go to France, but my travels have taken me all over the world. I've met some incredible people and had some fantastic experiences.

1 Comment

  • Bev October 21, 2014 at 9:45 am Reply

    We spent 3 weeks travelling in S.Africa, Mozambique and Tanzania – cities, towns islands and safari with just a carry- on. I felt and looked just fine but I couldn’t believe it!
    I wasn’t as organized as you are, Kathy – love the tip about the plastic bags for each day – but I am now a big fan of packing carefully and travelling light. Thanks for this – no sherpa, only a kind very light-packing husband who gets crabby if I bring too much!
    Very helpful blog post.

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