Elizabeth Elizabeth is a divorced mother of two elementary-aged boys. She is a former English professor and lay minister who now manages the office and communications for a local church. When she's not working or writing, you'll usually find her cooking for her loved ones or hanging out at coffee shops and bookstores. Contact her by e-mailing her at Elizabeth@mumblingmommy.com.

“Where y’all headed for today?”


“How exciting! And what’s the occasion?”

“It’s our anniversary.”

“Congratulations! How long will you be there?”

“One week.”

“Wonderful! And how many bags will y’all be checking today?”


The friendly middle-aged woman at the Dallas/Forth Worth airport was stunned. And as someone who obsesses over how to travel light, it was my proudest travel moment: a week in France, and we each had only one large backpack plus a stuff sack packed away for souvenirs. (Yes, this was B.K., Before Kids.)

It was another international trip, several years earlier, that converted me from a “pack anything and everything” person to a “pack as lightly and efficiently as possible” traveler. While in college, I spent a lovely June in London, studying and touring around. The journey there was less than lovely, however.

I borrowed my parents’ largest suitcase, one of the earlier-model rolling designs, which could barely be called a “rolling bag.” Instead of the sleek models you see now, it was a giant box with tiny wheels and a short leash. Getting through Heathrow with that suitcase was a nightmare. It would fall over every three feet or if I turned a corner. Escalators were awful. Stairs were impossible. People-movers were tricky because I had to lean against the thing during the whole ride to keep it upright, blocking traffic.

Besides its unwieldiness, the bag was overstuffed and too heavy for me. I had to ask for help getting it off of the baggage carousel. And don’t even ask about lugging it onto the bus that took me to my host family or lugging it up two flights of stairs to my shared room.

While in London, a few friends and I decided to spend a weekend in Dublin. I’d learned my lesson and bought myself the first sensible piece of luggage I ever owned—and I still have it—a large backpack. I took that same backpack on my trip to France with my husband eight years later.

Don’t be this family. NOT how to travel light.
Photo via pixabay.com

That backpack forever changed the way I travel. I discovered that packing only what I can comfortably carry is freeing. Even with kids in tow, I find it less stressful to navigate airports, hotels, and even car trips with a bare minimum of luggage. I can find what I need when I need it, and so can my family. We can get into a hotel or
onto public transit quickly and easily.

Last summer we weren’t able to take a long vacation, so we took the train to our state’s capital—about a two-hour train ride—and walked everywhere. We each carried one backpack, even the kids. (To be fair, we carried their clothes and toiletries; they only carried a few toys and a soft blanket in their bags.) Jefferson City, Missouri, is very walkable but very hilly, and we were grateful that we didn’t have to carry heavy luggage uphill from the train station to our hotel (or pay for a cab ride.) It was a great trip, but taking too much stuff would have made it either more expensive or more exhausting.

How to travel light without wearing dirty clothes or skipping makeup? I’ve learned a few tricks along the way that help. Any one of these might not seem like a big space-saver on its own, but when you add them up together, they make the difference between packing heavy and packing light.

How to Travel Light

How to Travel Light With Clothes
Choose your clothes carefully, and don’t accidentally pack your pets.
Photo via flickr.com

One thing I love about summer travel is how much less space summer clothes take up. But you can pack efficiently in winter, too. My motto for clothes is, “double up and lighten up.”

  1.  (Almost) all of the clothing you pack for a trip should never just have one purpose. Swimsuits and underthings are the obvious exception, but everything else should do double-duty. A simple sundress doubles as a great swimsuit cover-up, or you can pair it with leggings and flats for a more casual look. A neutral, lightweight cotton cardigan can be worn with a dress, over a swimsuit, or with leggings and a tank top. If it’s extra-long, you can even use it as a robe. You should consider long-sleeve or short-sleeve maxi dresses to save room too (check some out here).
  2. Pajamas are a waste of suitcase space. Simply pack comfortable clothes that can be worn for sleeping, too, such as knit shorts and t-shirts or leggings. A husband’s clean undershirt makes a great sleep shirt. And kids’ clothes are usually light and comfortable anyway, so they can sleep in their “normal” clothes. On a recent trip, I slept in leggings and a long-sleeved t-shirt that doubled as an outfit. In the summer, I have capris that are comfy on long car rides and nice to sleep in, too.
  3. Pack the least bulky clothes possible, and don’t fold them: roll them. Rolling clothes packs them tighter than folding, and they won’t get as wrinkled. Leggings are much less bulky than jeans. Tank tops are a girl’s best friend. They’re a great extra layer in winter and a necessity in summer. And they barely take up space in your bag. When I pack, I roll up all of the clothes I think I need and line them up on the bed, next to the suitcase. Then I pull out the biggest rolls and swap them out for something that rolls up smaller. Then I start culling further: maybe I just need one long-sleeved shirt instead of two? Maybe I could plan to wear the same cardigan twice but with different shirts?
  4. In cool weather, add light layers instead of bulk. I went to Colorado in January, and my only bulky layer was my heavy coat. Otherwise I layered long tanks, t-shirts, and cardigans with leggings and boots (one pair of cute snow boots, and I wore them in the airport, too). I packed several outfits in a tiny suitcase because the clothing itself was all lightweight knits that could be rolled up and packed efficiently. Bulky sweaters or anything denim would have taken up much more room and offered fewer choices.
  5. You never need more than 2 pairs of shoes: One comfort, one fashion. Or just get by with one pair. Because no one cares about your shoes. Honestly: no one cares if you wear the same sandals or the same boots every day. Wear sandals on the beach that you like enough to wear on the boardwalk, too. Bring flats that are comfy enough for walking but cute enough to pair with a sundress. Don’t ever bring shoes that only go with one outfit. That’s just a waste of time and, again, no one is really looking at your feet that much anyway. If you’re flying, wear the bulkiest shoes you need. That way you’re carrying them on your feet, not in your bag.
  6. Don’t waste space. This is less important on a car trip but crucial for carry-on luggage. When my husband travels for work, he likes to wear comfortable shoes in the airport and pack his dressier shoes. Men’s shoes are especially bulky and take up a lot of space in a small suitcase. So I roll up his socks, underwear, and belt, and stuff them into the shoes. Otherwise that’s just empty space in his luggage.
  7.  Bring something to “refresh” your clothes at night. I like Downy’s Wrinkle Release better than
    Febreeze. It does help with the wrinkles and smells like fabric softener (and they have a nice little travel size bottle). So each night that I travel, I hang up my clothes, spot clean as needed (hotel “face soap” makes a great spot-cleaner for clothes), and spray them with Downy. That way I can re-wear things without getting stinky or looking like I’m wearing day-old clothes.
How to Travel Light With Toiletries

1.  All of your toiletries – except deodorant – should serve more than one purpose. (Even toothpaste can be used to clean jewelry!) One of my favorite toiletries to bring on a trip is an “all in one baby wash” that is highly moisturizing and doesn’t have that “baby” smell. It works on the kids, of course, but it also becomes body wash, shampoo, and shaving cream for me and my husband, too. One bottle replaces several!

Coconut oil: what *can’t* this stuff do?
Photo via www.flickr.com

Instead of packing night moisturizer, day moisturizer, and sunscreen, I pack coconut oil (in a small 1-ounce jar) and a gentle, high-SPF sunscreen. I use the coconut oil day and night, mixing it with the sunscreen (in my hand) for daytime use. The coconut oil is also my hand cream, body lotion, eczema treatment, eye cream, after-shave treatment, eye makeup remover, lip gloss, deep conditioner, and anti-frizz treatment. And you can mix it with a teaspoon of sugar to make your own exfoliator that works great on face, hands, feet, etc. I love using those little sugar packets in hotel rooms for this!

2. Double up on makeup, too. Lipstick makes a great creamy blush. Or bring a highlighter cream and use it on your eyes and cheeks, adding in soft-pencil eyeliner at night. BB or CC cream is foundation and moisturizer (though I still need a little extra moisture.) Or go more natural and just bring concealer and a light powder, skipping foundation completely. Get a travel-sized mascara. Use the hotel’s hair dryer (yes, they work!). Don’t pack more than can fit easily into a small zip bag that you can stash in your suitcase or purse.

3. Invest in a hanging toiletry bag. I have a large one from L.L. Bean that can fit enough toiletries for the whole family. It packs into the front pouch of our suitcase, and it saves me space and time while traveling. Instead of having to unpack at each stop, I can easily hang this up and find everything I need.

How to Travel Light With Books and Toys
Leave your army of Little People at home.
Photo via pixabay.com/

It’s easy to pack far too many books, toys, and entertainment for kids on a trip. Kids are easier to entertain than many people give them credit for. They’re geniuses at making up their own games or using what’s on hand as a toy. On a recent camping trip, my kids (ages 5 and 7) entertained themselves for hours playing with sticks, rocks, leaves, and so forth. So don’t worry that if you don’t bring all of their favorite toys, they’ll be bored. A good rule of thumb for air or train trips is that the child should only have as many books and toys as he or she can carry (assuming they’re big enough to start wearing  a small backpack.) Here are a few tips on how to travel light with keeping books and toys manageable if you’re traveling with young kids on road trips, too:

1. Choose one container for books and toys, and don’t pack more than it can hold. I have a small plastic tote box, with a lid, that fits between the boys’ seats in my minivan. We pack books, coloring books and crayons, a few soft toys, puppets (great for car entertainment), action figures, and little cars. We’re careful not to pack anything that we would mind losing. A vacation is not the time to bring your child’s favorite, irreplaceable toy! The kids can grab what they want while we’re driving, and the toys stay organized. When we get to our destination, the box becomes a portable toy box we can bring into the hotel room or rental house.

2. Pack multi-volume books. My kids love books, but they easily take up a lot of weight and space. So I have several that are great for traveling—books that hold several stories or picture books. Some of our favorites are Frog and Toad and various Dr. Seuss Beginner Books compilations.

3. Pack one oversized book for each child to double as a lap desk. We have a lot of thin but oversized books, such as the Richard Scarry Big Books or Where’s Waldo. Bringing one for each child can entertain them in the car and it can be used as a lap desk for coloring books.

4, Limit stuffed animals to 1-2 per child. My kids like to sleep with a small army of stuffed “friends.” But when we’re traveling, that’s more hassle and potential for lost toys than I like to deal with. We let our kids pick one large or two small soft animals each, and they keep them in their backpacks or in their portable toy box. They don’t miss the animals who are left behind because they’re too busy to notice. And having one special friend to cuddle with is enough for a child to feel homey on the road. In cooler months, we also let them each take a special throw blanket that can be folded up to double as a pillow.

How to Travel Light Conclusion

All of this requires advance planning and organization, but it pays off when you’re traveling alone, with a spouse, or with the family. Don’t obsess about bringing “everything we might need.” You probably won’t miss it, and if you do, there are stores everywhere. Bon voyage!

What are some of your tips and tricks on how to travel light?

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