Category Archives: Lessons from Less

Packing light: how we traveled for 3 weeks across Europe (and got on stage!) with only small backpacks.

Packing Light

If there's one thing I can't stand, it's carrying an over-packed wheely suitcase through crowded subways and city streets up four flights of stairs after a long day of traveling.

Between being cramped in an overnight flight across the Atlantic, negotiating the limited quarters of overhead bin space, and standing sleepy-eyed at the baggage claim carousel, I'm shaking my head no, no, no to anything roller-bag related. By the time I'm in my new room, I'm cursing the loads of stuff I brought—and wishing I had packed less.

Somehow it always seems easier in retrospect to leave stuff behind, but I often get stumped at the packing process. When we set off to Europe for our honeymoon in June, I knew I wanted to travel light. The problem? I also had an on-stage keynote, three cities to be in, and at least one or two lakes and oceans to swim in.

Luckily, my history of taking a few plane rides here and there helped me winnow it down, and my packing process is getting more and more seamless. So I thought I'd geek out and put together a complete list of everything we packed on this trip, including some bonus notes on my favorite tricks for traveling light (and traveling in general) at the end. 

Traveling light.

Heading off on our adventure together + a peek inside the closet once unpacked.

Equipment:

  • Two backpacks (see the first photo at the very top for our backpack sizes).
  • My favorite one-shoulder day-pack. This day pack fits inside the main backpack while traveling (I store my liquids and meds inside of it while traveling for easy finding, then repurpose the bag itself for my day bag after we've dropped stuff off at our hotel.) This bag is awesome because it's a cross-body strap and has a double-zipper feature: zip-top closure, and another zippered enclosure inside. I use the inner zipper pocket to carry my passport and dollars, and wear the back with the pack on my front to thwart pick-pocketers. I bought my bag about ten years ago, but similar bags by Overland are the Isabella, Donner, and Auburn.
  • Two small and large foldable zip-bags by MUJI. I LOVE THESE BAGS. Light, airy, and they compress down to nearly nothing. Great for sorting underwear and dirty laundry — we used them as laundry bags throughout our trip.
  • Also — an airline pillow, but we left this behind at the airport for someone else to use as soon as we got to our destination. In the future, I want to get a blow-up pillow of sorts, but for now I don't mind grabbing a $10 airline pillow in the airport and then donating it to someone at the end of my trip.

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My favorite bags and carrying cases.

The technology pile:

We were two people and we were both working for part of the trip, so we took an 11-inch Macbook Air. I love this size because it fits on airline seats so easily; other laptops are harder to open up fully to use. The downside is the storage space is small and the tiny screen can make it harder to do all the work you want. We experimented with an iPad and keyboard, but some of the computing functions and editing functions (like having to touch the screen each time you wanted to move the cursor) were a little cumbersome. We ended up sharing the MacBook Air for creation and using the 'Pad for reading and email.

  • 11-inch Macbook Air + power cord.
  • iPad + keyboard case.
  • Headphone splitter — my husband and I like things at different volumes, and this lets you watch a movie together on an airplane. Confession: we might have watched the entire season of Orange is The New Black on our iPad while traveling.
  • 30-way power adaptor with 2 USB plugs. The Tripwell World Travel Adaptor is my favorite international travel plug; it covers almost all countries and you can charge three devices with it at a time (one plug and two USB inputs).
  • Power cords + cubes. We brought one kindle charger and one phone charger, plus an additional USB-to-plug cube.
  • Cell phones as cameras. We bought an international data plan for one of our phones to use as a back-up map, and then left our phones on airplane mode for the most part; instead, we used our phones as cameras while we traveled.
  • Kindle + kindle charger (only the cord; words with a square USB plug)
  • Iphone + charger (cleared of space-hogging apps and used the phone to take photos with throughout the trip).

Clothing: how do you dress for traveling, hiking, walking, stage-ing, and exploring?

For clothing options, I picked pieces that were versatile and easy to pack. Here's a sampler of my favorite outfits and the things I wore every day for three weeks:

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Shoes:

The biggest problem for me is often shoes — ladies' high heels do nothing for my feet. I narrowed it down to three pairs, and wore one set on the ride over and back.

  • One pair of Teva sandals (my favorite walking sandals of all time — extremely comfortable and very versatile);
  • A pair of walking keds (I use them for running even though the aren't really running shoes — really, the idea that you have to have a certain outfit to run is a little silly — you can run in jeans and sandals if you want to).
  • The trick here was the stage shoes — I couldn't afford to carry a pair of heels for a 3-week adventure, so I brought a second pair of walking shoes, my bright orange loafers. They looked nice enough on stage, and still let me go city walking in them later.
  • Optional: a pair of yoga-toes socks. In lieu of a travel yoga mat, I bring sticky gloves and socks, and use those to provide salamander-like-grip on the floor to bend, twist, and fold to my hearts' content. (Vibrams are also a great shoe to do yoga poses in, I've found).

Pants:

Believe it or not, I actually had quite a few pants options — they roll up small and tight and don't wrinkle, so I had two long options (for cold nights) and two short options, plus a pair of athletic stretchy shorts.

  • One pair of skinny, stretchy jeans. These were my "stage pants." Nice enough to look good on stage, comfortable enough to wear anywhere. And do yoga in. Because, yoga.
  • A pair of yoga pants. Because, obviously. Wear these on the plane, wear 'em when it's cold. Wear them ALL THE TIME BECAUSE I LOVE THEM.
  • A loose pair of "Aladdin" pants — breezy, comfortable, below-the-knee length loose pants. Perfect for hot days, the beach, and anything. Cover you up enough (I'm not a fan of shorts all the time — sticking to seats; feeling too naked; the like).
  • One pair of everyday shorts. For the beach and touristy days.
  • One pair of athletic shorts. First, for running in, and second, because I wear these under dresses to flip upside down in handstands! Safety first — I mean, handstands first.

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Boat neck black shirt works for nights out; the alleyways of Barcelona, one of the cities we got to stay in.

Tops:

  • 3/4 boat neck black rayon-cotton t-shirt. (Long sleeves and high neck make me feel modest and keeps the sun off my skin and back.) Great for anything from a date night out to a day travel to a shirt to cover-up at the beach. Rayon/cotton blend dries overnight. Black hides stains and sweat.
  • Long-sleeve Quick-Dry Gray Athletic shirt by Gap body. This layered underneath a jacket keeps me nice and warm; the long-sleeve by itself is small enough to stuff in my daypack and warm enough for anything 45 degrees and higher.
  • One fancy blouse that's crumple-free from Ann Taylor. (See photo, above). This wrap shirt was my stage shirt + going out fancy at night shirt; it was wrinkle-free and easy to wash and wear.
  • A red billowy top. Pairs well with leggings, looks great going out. Halter-style.
  • A tiny tank top for sleeping in and going to the beach.
  • An exercise top that's quick-dry for running and casual wear with jeans.
  • One dress, which doubled as a cover-up and a second top — in a bright color, of course, to make me happy. (See: purple dress, in photos).

Orange shoes in stage action!

Other things:

  • Bandana — I like to have a bandana on hand and I often use it as a way to wrap up my underwear so I don't yank out my computer from my packpack and have a pair of undies come flying out on the train and hit a passenger.
  • Hat — I carry a baseball cap for days when showers are too far between, or sunshine
  • Sunglasses. Because, well, sun.

Rain gear + jackets:

  • The jacket du jour: my favorite jacket of all time, a light black lululemon zip-up jacket with zip-up pockets on both sides (the better to hold my keys and wallet with). When it's paired with a long-sleeve shirt, it's super warm. Great for over-air conditioned airplanes and busses, unexpected late nights, and days that drop into the 40's and 50's.
  • Rain gear: it rained upon landing in Berlin, and the backwards airports meant we walked from plane to bus, and then bus to terminal. We bought two ponchos, but I think I may buy a real lightweight rain jacket in the near future because the rain jackets made us look like hunchbacks and total tourists. (Looking like tourists was not the goal — next time, we'll leave them behind).

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We look like dorky druids in our ponchos; while traveling I love my stretch-jeans and a kindle to practice my squats while catching up on my reading. (You can't take my yoga love outta me when I travel.)

Planning for warmth + some notes on the magical properties of a scarf for all-season traveling:

We traveled in temperatures from low 40's to high 90's (Fahrenheit), so we had to plan well enough to stay warm — and also cool. My favorite travel item might be a scarf. A long, wool-based scarf can transform into a hundred things. Scarfs double as pillows, blankets, and head-wraps: a blanket when you're cold; a head wrap when you want to bury yourself in darkness while on an overnight flight. They also can be knotted and tied to create a quick second handbag if you buy something — all you do is wrap the scarf around your object, tie it in a knot, and then bring the two ends up and tie in another knot to create a carrying satchel to transport whatever object you've acquired.

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The magical properties of a scarf. 

For the warmest days (when it hit 90F) — I wore shorts and a small shirt or tank-top. On the coldest days (it was 40F and raining when we arrived in Berlin), I wore a combination of my long-sleeved tech shirt, my black jacket, a scarf, and, at times, the rain poncho.

I also love to travel with wool socks because keeping your head + feet warm makes your entire body temperature rise. So, for warmth:

  • One pair of slim wool socks.
  • My favorite scarf.
  • Layers (jacket, long-sleeved t-shirt).

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Toiletries, medicines, make up + other lady stuff: 

Traveling and incorporating full makeup on stage can add an entire extra travel compartment — and a lot of unnecessary weight — for the road. I knew I wanted to backpack for two weeks and only needed makeup for one day. I use a clean contact lens case (they are GREAT travel tools, see my bonus tips at the end for my favorite tricks) and I put a little bit of the makeup I need (foundation, concealer, smudge blush) in the micro-compartments for travel. I also carried an eyebrow pencil, a compact, mascara, and some red lipstick. The entire bag compressed down to a small ziplock.

When packing makeup and toiletries, I try to take all of the big bottles and make them as small as possible. The smaller the bottle, the smaller the pack. Other things I love:

  • MUJI also has a very small one-ounce spritzer, which you can use for super-mini hairspray and perfume doses if you want. Most hotels carry this kind of stuff, so It's not necessary if you just want to borrow some.
  • The "feminine bag." Ladies, when you travel for three weeks, you know it's likely going to happen. I pack a reusable carry-case that has "first aid" on the outside of it, and I keep a stash of all the feminine goods I'll need in there + any other essentials for an emergency kit. Not every country has the feminine products you're used to, so bring 'em so you're not surprised. 

Let's talk drugs: sometimes while traveling, countries don't have things that might help (anti-nausea, etc). I always travel with a few bonus tablets of each of the following in a tiny ziplock bag, as an emergency stash.

  • Benadryl.
  • Vic's Vapor Rub — smear a little into one of those contact lens cases. (Bonus: get a six-pack with six different colored lids so you can keep everything identified).
  • Some Advil, Vitamin C and Vitamin B, and a couple of cough drops.
  • Small nailclippers. Two weeks without nail clippers and I'm picking at my hands like a hen at a feed.
  • Bug-spray. Mosquitos love me. My nickname in the woods (and in warm, muggy, urban areas) is "Juicy Blood" to all those terrible nats, critters and skeeters that like to chomp on me. For me, it's a necessity.
  • Small bottle of hand lotion. Hotels usually have this, but I'm Vata-based in my constitution and dry skin happens as quick as I can say good morning. Dry airplanes suck the moisture out of me, so I drink water and lotion up + stay hydrated.

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Other favorite travel tricks I love: 

  • Vicks Vapor Rub is great for clearing out the sinuses and opening up the air passageways — and it's also great when you're stuck on a smelly bus with a bathroom-gone-foul. If you've ever taken a 4-hour bus ride with a nasty bathroom port-o smell, you know what I'm talking about. My favorite trick? Rub a swipe of Vicks or another scent (lavender and lemon grass are favorites) across the bottom of your nose. This blocks the offending smell and lets you breathe in peace for the rest of your trip.
  • Earplugs. I love earplugs — I keep a pair in almost every pocket that I travel with. Stick 'em in to avoid the overly-chatty pilot; stick 'em in to fall asleep; stick 'em in to drown out obnoxious chatterers and enjoy some stillness and quiet. I used to live next to a hospital, and these were lifesavers for dealing with the constant drown of wailing sirens.
  • Bring a facemask and socks on the airplane in your carry-on luggage. Some airlines give them to you, others don't. I love covering up my face (or wrap that scarf around your head), and socks keep me warm enough to doze off to sleep.
  • Contact Lens cases are brilliant carrying devices. Use 'em to put a bit of lotion, vaseline, or wash if you only need a few drops of stuff. I put my concealer and makeup in 'em because I only really put on my face for the stage days; after that I was back to the hippy-dippy freedom of sandals and yoga pants.

I also like to pre-pack some food when I travel.

I also like to bring a few non-produce based food items on my trips. I'm mildly hypoglycemic and I don't love eating gluten, so I buy 10 (or 20) of my favorite food bars, stick 'em in a bag, and carry them around. (I prefer the nut based KIND bars as a travel treat). I also like to bring about a pound of almonds.

While traveling, I'll stick a bite in my bag so I can go on a bike ride and not have to wait in tourist lines (or spend $20-$30 unnecessarily) on lunch—and I'll eat a bar or two and have a bottle of water. $1 lunch? Yes, please. A handful of nuts, a banana at a local market or bodega, and I can last until dinner — and then I splurge and get my main meal of the day. (This is also how I like to keep food budgets cheap during the day while still enjoying and savoring the local cuisine over decadent, lengthy evening meals).

Other international travel reminders:

This list isn't comprehensive, but a couple of things to remember before you travel internationally: Photocopy your passport and email it to yourself so you have a digital copy. Also, you might have someone at home base have a copy for you. Know how much money you have in cash, and accessible through ATM.

Bring a small phrasebook of language notes for the country you're traveling to. (You can download Lonely Planet books to your kindle, or rip out your language pages from the books to take just a few sheets with you).

In retrospect, however, I would have brought one more thing.

I love traveling light: all of my clothes fit on two hangers and in one stack on the shelves, and it's both strange and delightful to have my clothing take up so little space.

Each time I travel, however, I learn one more item that I either overlooked or could have left behind.

One late night, nearly two weeks into our trip, I was sitting on the couch after a long day with my husband. Somehow after close examination — perhaps a few flights seated inches from each other did the trick — I realized that this man can grow an impressive unibrow when it's left unattended. While laying in bed in our hostel, we decided that I might usefully help hand-pluck each of the offenders one by one.

I looked up and realized that I was in Barcelona, grooming my man's face, and decided we had one more item to add to the the packing list.

Next time I'll bring tweezers.

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