Minimalist Travel: What’s in My Suitcase

In response to my Traveling Light post last week, I received several requests that I list the contents of my carry-on. I’m happy to oblige, as I think we’d all be happier travelers with much less stuff. :-)

Furthermore, my minimalist packing system is no secret—in fact, there’s a certain security official at London Heathrow who could have written this post for me, given the 20 minutes he spent unpacking and inspecting the entire contents while I was trying to make a connecting flight to Venice. (Note: if you don’t want to treat airport security, and dozens of strangers, to an intimate look inside your perfectly packed bag, don’t bring a spork on an international flight.)

The list below covers what I pack for a trip of about 10-14 days (the typical length of my overseas travel). However, I’d pack the exact same stuff if I were traveling for 3 months (I’d just wash more often). For shorter trips and domestic travel, I pack less; and for overnight or two-day trips, I often take nothing more than a large purse.

Because I don’t like to have loose items in my suitcase, I pack almost everything into two “holders”: clothes in a packing cube, and toiletries and miscellaneous items in a large rectangular toiletry bag:

My suitcase: the Outdoor Products Essential Carryon

My suitcase: the Outdoor Products Essential Carryon

So here you have it—the contents of my minimalist suitcase:

What I’m wearing on flight/travel day:
Black pants (lightweight, straight leg pair that can be dressed up or down)
Lightweight top
Lightweight silk cardigan
(This is all I need for an overnight trip, along with some toiletries in my purse—I have no qualms about wearing the same thing the next day.)

In the packing cube:
Black pants (so that makes two pairs total, counting the ones I’m wearing)
Black nylon skirt (long or short, depending on season and itinerary—I’ll often skip this if we’re unlikely to go to a “fancy” restaurant during the trip)
Two or three tops in different colors (in lightweight, packable materials)
Lightweight pajamas
5 pairs of underwear
1 bra
2 pairs of socks
lightweight silk scarf (this folds to practically nothing, and dresses up any outfit)

For winter travel/colder climates: If I’m going somewhere cold, I’ll also include silk long johns—they’re extremely lightweight, take up next to no space, and eliminate the need for bulkier clothing. I’ll also pack one heavier sweater or jacket, and either wear it or lay it across the top of my packing cube and toiletry bag.

A note on shoes: Most of the time I travel with only the shoes I’m wearing (my pair of choice is comfortable for walking, but also appropriate for a nice restaurant). But if I’m bringing a skirt (which means a more formal dinner or activity is on the agenda), I’ll slip in a little pair of ballet flats or dressy sandals.

In toiletry bag:
Travel toothbrush
Small toothpaste
Small plastic bottle of facial cleanser
Moisturizer (with SPF)
Powder compact
Lip balm/lipstick
Tiny tube of blush
Small travel brush
Travel-size pump hairspray
One or two travel packets of laundry detergent (the key to traveling light!)
Travel clothesline
Lightweight, super-absorbent towel
A handful of band-aids
A few ziplock bags
For foreign travel: Small packs/bottles of Immodium, Pepto Bismol (caplets), and Advil (you can’t buy ibuprofen off the shelf in some countries). Though they take up some space, I find it’s easier to have these things on hand than try to request them from a foreign pharmacy, or decipher labels in a foreign language.
Titanium cup (not every hotel provides mugs for coffee/tea)
A couple of tea bags
Spork (great for picnics and eating grocery store fare) (Warning: for domestic flights only—my last one was confiscated by the above-mentioned security official.)

Note: I don’t travel with soap, shampoo, or conditioner; I use whatever’s provided at the hotels in which I’m staying. First, because I *hate* worrying about liquids spilling in my bag, and second, because the hotel provisions are usually more luxurious than whatever I would bring. :-)

Other stuff:
Travel umbrella
Paper confirmations of flight, hotel, train, museum reservations (better to have them than not—my husband spent a morning in Rome looking for somewhere to print off our Vatican reservations)
Photocopy of passport (for foreign travel)
Lightweight nylon purse (used as a day bag), holding the following:
A couple of power bars
Small hand sanitizer or wipes
Small foldable rain poncho (for unexpected downpours)
Passport, drivers license, credit card, debit card, cash
Money belt (for foreign travel)
Book (for long flights or train rides)
Ipod and earbuds (for long flights or train rides)
Cell phone
Camera and extra battery
Maps and *pages* (I tear them out) of guidebooks that relate to where I’m going

You can see from my clothes list that I’ll wear the same outfit multiple times during the trip. Of course, nobody knows (or notices) this other than my husband—and it’s perfectly fine with him.

Everyone has different needs and preferences—this is simply what works for me. I wouldn’t call this ultra-minimalist, as I could certainly get by with less. I’ve included some things that would be considered luxuries or “just-in-cases” (like medicines, titanium cup, iPod, etc). But from my experience, this is the stuff that meets all my anticipated needs, and provides me with a nice level of comfort during my trip.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments!

99 comments to Minimalist Travel: What’s in My Suitcase

  • Sandi F

    I love your blog! One item I have found useful is an iron! If I hand wash the clothing and it is not quite dry, even underwear, ironing can help to eliminate the dampness. I would like to find a 3/4 sleeve knee length black dress. I have looked at Dresses at Travel Smith and Icebreaker, and would like to fine one for a little less, but with a wool blend. Has anyone tried the one from Icebreaker? Is it really good in warmer weather as well?

  • […] Minimalist Travel: What’s In My Suitcase […]

  • Rachel

    Wow, there really are kindred spirits out there! I love reading about everything minimalist, but especially traveling, one of my passions. My husband works for a major airline, so I fly free and have experimented with minimalistic packing for trips to Geneva and Hawaii thus far. It’s great how with each trip, I learn something new to streamline. My iPhone has been a godsend: Kindle, camera, iPod, games, travel book and phone!! It really saves me a lot of space in my carryon bag. (Plus, if you fly first you can plug it in on the plane.) Keep up the good work, Francine! Your writing is resonating with a lot of people. There are lots of people on hold for your new book at my local library. :)

  • My husband, son, and I went to visit our former home in the Netherlands a few years ago. An American friend of ours was to meet us in Amsterdam a week after we arrived, take the train with us to Paris, and then back again a week later. The three of us just brought backpacks, even our 5yo son. His backpack had three zip-loc bags full of clothes and one small teddy bear. Ours had just clothes and a couple of small gifts for our Dutch friends. Having lived there before, we also knew to guard our wallets and bags because of the “zakkenrollers” (pickpockets).

    Our American friend got off the plane for his 9-day stay with two large suitcases, one small suitcase, and another carry-on sized bag. His whole outfit and demeanor screamed “American tourist!” before you even got to his suitcases. He had been expecting us to pick him up in a car. We always use public transport in Europe, and it was SUCH a pain to move his suitcases through the tiny turnstiles on the metro, and onto the buses. Then, just as we arrived at our hotel in Paris, he realized that in between the train and the hotel, someone had nicked his wallet. We had to loan him some money until he could contact his banks and everything. Lucky his passport had been in another pocket.

    So it goes to show you — bring big suitcases and it impedes your travel and marks you as an easy target. Travel light and you blend in with the general populace. Not to mention you don’t have as much to steal!

  • I discovered your blog a few weeks ago and it has been very inspiring for me.

    I am an Argentinian traveler (and writer) and I am currently traveling around Asia since April 2010. I believe there is nothing better than traveling light: it gives you much more freedom, less worries and less back-pain! (I travel as a backpacker). When I read this post I decided to get rid of my “big bag” and just travel around with a small backpack. My only problem is that my computer and camera (+lenses and charger) add a lot of weight, probably around 3-4 kg, and I cannot get rid of those (I don’t want to!).

    Thanks to you, I’m learning to travel (and live) with less stuff.

    I mentioned your blog and way of life in my most recent post (it’s in Spanish, but you can give it a try here:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and inspiring!


  • I’m about to read this article and am looking forward to it. After going on a trip to Pars for a month with 2 suitcases filled with what I thought were necessities, I found that I would have been perfectly happy with just a backpack and nothing but jeans and t-shirts to wear. Now I’m about to leave on another trip and I’m not making the same over-packing mistake again. Really, my Paris trip would have been perfect if I didn’t have to lug around heavy baggage!

  • Marilyn

    I love your blog so much and look forward to everything you write. I was wondering if your black pants and silk cardigan are a certain brand or can be found on a website. Also wa wondering where to find your purse that you use for shorter trips.
    Thank you so much!

  • […] I started to Google things like how to pack everything in one bag.  This led me to a blog post on miss minimalist. Minimalism? Visions of white walls and sparsely furnished homes sprang to mind. But I was […]

  • Tanya

    Thank you for this very useful checklist. However, I notice that you wrote this some time ago . . . and now you have a baby. I resent having to check in a suitcase just because of my 1 1/2 year old maximalist. How do you do minimalist packing with a baby?

    • MelissainSC

      I know this is an old comment but I wanted to respond because it is a really good question and I have a little experience with this. First, I have only one child (I might have had another but DH was done and it turned out I was fine with that too). I started out as a minimalist when it came to baby stuff. We purchased a crib, a high chair and a car seat. We were given an infant swing which was passed on pretty quickly. I purchased a nice diaper bag from LL Bean which served as my son’s one piece of luggage for the first couple of years of his life with a nice changing pad that was used everywhere except home. We did not own a stroller. I used a sling and loved not having to carry, unfold, fold, load and steer a stroller. For daily outings all I needed was the sling and an extra diaper/wipes and a ziplock baggie in my purse–and the baby.

      For longer trips we did end up using disposable diapers. I would pack clothes, a small pack of diapers & wipes, the sling, a couple of bottles or later, a sippy cup, a spoon and a lidded tupperware container for food. Sometimes I also threw in an insulated bag and an ice pack. Most of this equipment fit in the diaper bag with some clothes overflowing into my suitcase.

      Our first long trip, we did pack a portable crib but barely used it. In general, baby bunked with us in the big bed while traveling which simplified that aspect. Keeping the equipment to a minimum meant that traveling with the baby was absolutely doable and quite fun. It meant more time discovering stuff and playing with baby and less time figuring out how to manage furniture. It is absolutely possible.

      • MelissainSC

        Forgot to mention–breastfeeding. This pretty much eliminated the need to lug bottles and formula when I was traveling with the baby. It did necessitate a breast pump, bottles and supplementary formula because I went back to work when he was 3 months old and needed to provide bottles to the daycare. I did usually bring a bottle and formula as a backup on trips though I rarely needed to use them.

        • Michelle

          I’m gonna reply to this older post as well. I have 3 kids but our last was a surprise after all baby stuff was gone and we were travelling full time for hubby’s job. I breastfeed so that helped with keeping items down. No bfing clothes either a tank top under regular clothes worked great. No other feeding items needed except a sippy cup and bowl with spoon as she got older. I cloth diapered with flats and covers which dry quickly even indoors so that would be easy for light travel 2-3 covers and maybe a dozen flats. They double as burp clothes also. A travel in the bed baby sleeper serves as a bed and is easily transportable. We did also have a small pack in play for home use. For clothes we only needed about a dozen onesies, probably could get by with half that, a couple of pairs of pants, sweater, hat, couple of pairs of socks. I used a sling to carry her and changed me to a large hobo style purse that served as purse & diaper bag. It really is possible to have a baby with few items and travel a lot! (Don’t forget to toss in baby care items like nasal aspirator and medicine dropper and medicines)

  • […] Francine Jay, autorka bloga Miss Minimalist ( i książki “The Joy of Less”) – z tym wpisem. Nie będę, oczywiście, powielać jej listy, bo każdy ma inne artykuły podstawowej potrzeby, […]

  • […] vacation where you live in shorts and tank tops 24/7) (Want more inspiration for packing lightly? This.) :: Sleeping :: Flexible Sleeping Arrangements: Sometimes we all shared a bed. Sometimes Gabe […]

  • Cindy

    I was directed to your blog from the CNN article about living with less – an ideal I strive for not primarily for finances (though that is a nice side benefit) but for efficiency in cleaning and organization. With the airlines charging for fees for checking in baggage for domestic flights (some international allow at least one baggage free for checking in), I have to reconsider streamlining my packing even further. (I have been traveling typically with one small carry-on bag that fits under the seats and a small 18″ rolling suitcase.) I don’t want to bring the 18″ rolling suitcase on board even though it passes the carry-on restrictions. I’ve seen how quickly those overhead bins become full and wheeling another bulky item adds to the chaos of embarking and disembarking.

    What I’ve found is even though I pack lightly (not as much as you experts), I end up not wearing several clothes. I can wear the same article of clothing for several days without washing (or wear dark colors so stains aren’t so easily visible) and if you ensure that you wear undies like camis, you can extend how long the tops and bottoms can be worn without washing.

    Anyhow, I am inspired by Francine with her ability to travel with just a carry-on bag to reduce what I pack further. Multiple purpose toiletries such as a bar of soap (which could be used to wash one’s hair and clothes, if need be) and going without say, a hairdryer (short pixie hair is a traveler’s dream), will lighten the load a lot. I love how thin, small and light cameras have become. I used to lug around a SLR Minolta which required rolls of film and batteries. Now I can slip a small Casio in my pocket but I actually tote it (along with my other valuables) in a small camera bag (about 4″x6″) which substitutes as my “purse” across my shoulder.

    Thanks for the tips and happy traveling to all.

  • Jo C

    I have mentioned this on other sites, but I am very fond of using either Dr Bronners (which can be used for laundry + body). I am also a fan of solid shampoo and conditioner-it saves you from leaks and spills, plus it means less in that Ziplock bag of liquids you have to dig out of your bag at the airport. I use the ones from Lush, they work well and I love the scents.

    I admire your minimalist packing; I thought I was doing well (no checked bags in 3 years!), but I need to go back and really look at what I am carrying with me.

    Thanks for a memorable post.

  • alysha

    Love this blog and love trying to be a minimalist. I have to say, I think I might carrry just a tad less than you! But yes, for the most part I pack very light and know I can deal with what I need when I arrive.

  • Michelle australia

    I travel light it is so liberatiing whether in Paris morocco or instanbul
    I go on Hiking hols so need to pack my hiking boots and wear on plane take a blackball purpose shoe and foldable ballet flats for wearing with my black travel dress the bag the travel flats come in doubles up as an evening purse I pack one silk scarf and a wrap and silk sleeping at liner for remote area stays such as basic Berber home stay in morocco I usually buy a scarf as a souvenir and wear all yr round and future travels I wear bamboos d silk and wear a leather coat short purchased in Paris wear lots of times last trip to Paris I purchased two classic silk. Cardigans at Kerrymara rue cler… i wear both several times a week now one in cream and the other deep pink online stores like bodypeace bamboo silk body and New Zealand by nature…great for bamboo and silk travel clothing that I wear all yr Roy d even for hiking the bamboo pants from body peace which I wear travelling and at home and work toiletries I don’t use hotels as they have para end and other chemicals I use dr haushka rose oil for face and body deodorant towttes or hurts bees wipes a. small bottle advantage oil for hair wet and dry and decant shampoo and conditioner Into small bottles love your blog and book and ideas and philosophy

  • […] This post as well as this one I found pretty inspiring and helpful….packing cubes – was I the last to know? […]

  • Kirsten

    I recently travelled to the USA from Australia for a three and a half week trip. I took a small suitcase, about the size of a standard carry-on, as my checked luggage, and a large handbag on the aircraft.

    I felt like I’d packed pretty light, but on reflection could have been a touch more ruthless. Our trip included a range of activities including staying with my in-laws in Virginia (which necessitated appropriate clothes for church), sightseeing in Washington, and a week in New York. Things I packed that were PERFECT included sequinned Converse sneakers (excellent for walking in but cuter than a lot of walking shoes), lightweight, pale grey cotton jeans (slightly dressier than traditional denim and less bulky), and leggings by Australian company Black Milk Clothing which are super comfy for plane wear and provide a dress option for evening (with a long-line top and high heels). Also I never travel without a large, soft wool scarf.

    As a NZ-expat I also take regular trips home to visit family. I’ve just bought a small carry-on satchel for my next trip in October from Lipault… I plan to just wear my grey cotton jeans, brown leather ballet flats, a long-line black merino wool cardigan, and pack three changes of tops and underwear. I’ll also be attending a wedding so will be taking a cocktail dress, opaque tights and a pair of high heels. Should be plenty of room!

  • […] Traveler; Stylebook; Tim Ferris; Fashion After 50; Squawkfox; Travelite; Already Pretty; Miss Minimalist; Little House Big Heart and My Jet Set Style to see a variety of packing […]

  • We travel a lot with our 4 kids and 2 adults living in China, and I have found packing cubes invaluable. one for each family member, and nothing gets strewed about the hotel room or floor and packing up is easy at the end. Even with kids about 3 outfits per child is enough for nearly all travel, including cross continental. most places also have a cheap laundry service on the street near the hotel if you’re not staying with friends.

  • JC

    I know this was posted a long time back but I’m wondering what shoes you recommend. Going to NY this summer and planning to walk a lot. I’m a Texas girl and walking here is river sandals or hiking boots. Need to pack very light. Attending a wedding then staying to site-see for a week. Any suggestions?

  • Tina

    We are both over 65 from the US. We have been to Canada and Europe several times. we each take a carry on and a tote-bag when we travel. It is much easier to go places with less luggage. Now that suitcases have wheels,you can easily use escalators, etc. We take public transportation a lot. I wear gym shoes and take a pair of nice shoes, no skirts. Wear jeans and take black pants. No T shirts as my friends say that marks you as an American. I am surprised how much luggage and expensive jewelry some people travel with. I take a black sweater or black hooded sweatshirt on the plane. And a small umbrella, sunglasses and sun hat.

  • Tina

    We have gone on cruises. They say formal night but we wear business casual and have no trouble. I wear jeans and pack 2 pairs of slacks. We were gone 11 days, 8 days on the ship. I had 5 tops, 1 nice cardigan, 1 sweater for on the plane, a shawl, a pair of dressy oxfords, and of course, underwear. I take a carry on and a tote bag. I take cheap jewelry that is in various colors. I was surprised to see the fancy clothes and purses and what looked like expensive jewelry on our cruises. Again, we saw people with large suitcases and multiple suitcases. I can’t imagine how they get all that luggage around, they must take cabs and use sky caps at the airports.

  • Small toothpaste and shampoo are the best. People underestimate the usefulness of small packages. I am so glad I have found your advices. Best regards!

  • Tina

    I have talked to women who take 5 suitcases full of stuff with them when they travel. How do they keep track of all that? I take enough for about a week or less. Most places we go there are laundry facilities or you can rinse something out. Unless it is summer I take gloves and a hat.

  • Great list! One thing that I find really usefull is a long scarf, as I can use in different ways.

  • A friend went on a week’s cruise with 11 pairs of slacks among other things. I told her I never take more than I can carry so we can always take public transportation. If I get to the point where I can’t lift my suitcase, I will take 2 tote bags.

  • Tina

    When I travel to visit family, I bring small gifts. When abroad, I buy only picture postcards or small items. When we were in Rome and Jerusalem, I brought some small crosses back. In Greece, I got some eye beads. Some cities give away tiny pins. I have gifts for close friends without filling my suitcase. If we go to a famous museum, I pick up bookmarks. And I never take any real jewelry except my wedding ring.

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