Tips for Traveling on the Cheap: Luggage and Packing

by heather

This time of year, a lot of people are traveling. Some people are going a few hours away by car. Others are hopping on a plane to head halfway around the world.

I’m pretty good about saving money. But, I do have a major spending vice: travel. I was born with a gypsy heart, and if I go too long without a trip I start to get really restless. So, we travel quite a bit.

Over the years we’ve learned how to trim our travel budget down, and then down again, so that we spend less on each trip (and, as a result, can take more trips).

I got the idea today to run a series of posts on cheap travel tips. I wanted to share some of my favorite tips for traveling on the cheap because so many of us are planning vacations. And, of course, I would love to hear your tips for saving money while you’re on an adventure!

Today I’m focusing on luggage and packing. Think this has nothing to do with saving money? Think again.

Cheap Travel Tip #1: Invest in the Right Suitcase

What does the right suitcase have to do with travelling on the cheap?

Well these days, everything.

Now that airlines are charging, on average, $30 per bag each way, checking luggage can raise your travel costs fast. For a family of 4 traveling round trip, this is $240 in checked luggage (if everyone has their own bag).

Plus, think about how awful it is to lug multiple bags through the airport, up and down subway stairs, into cabs, down the street…few things will sap your enthusiasm and energy faster than lugging around a bunch of bags.

You can avoid all this simply by taking one bag.

Andrew and I each take just one carryon apiece. That’s it. Even if we’ll be gone for two weeks in a foreign country. Rule #1 is NO CHECKED BAGGAGE.

Sounds impossible, right? It’s not. It all depends on your clothing choices, and the bag you’re using. But first, let’s tackle bags.

Let me introduce you to my own travelling companion, The GoLite TraveLite Carryon.

This bag is amazing because you can fit a lot of clothing into it, and yet it’s still “carry on legal”. In fact you can fit so much in here that when Andrew and I go away for a week or less, we share this thing. No kidding.

This bag is loaded with pockets and zippered compartments. I’m telling you, it’s astonishing what you can put in here.

You can also carry it three ways: as a backpack, shoulder bag, or using the handle. And since it’s so lightweight, it’s not dragging you down while you schlep through the airport.

The best part?

It’s made out of recycled soda bottles.

Thanks to this bag, and our strategic packing, we never, ever have to pay bag fees.

I think that many of us have gotten used to having a huge wardrobe and endless options for dressing ourselves. So when we travel, we feel like we have to pack tons of clothes for our journey.

The truth is that we simply don’t need that much to be completely comfortable.

Cheap Travel Tip #2: Pack Strategically

When we went to Spain last fall, we didn’t yet have our awesome GoLite bag. We packed our clothes in bags smaller than many women’s handbags. We were gone 2 weeks, and we did just fine. So, it can be done! But it did take some planning.

First, it’s important to fully understand the climate you’re travelling to. Unless you’re going to sub-Saharan Africa, chances are you’ll need at least one sleeve (even if it’s just for chilly restaurants). So, factor that in.

Next, pack clothes that all look good together. That is, every shirt you pack should look good with the one sleeve you packed. And all the pants you’re packing will look good with the shoes you have on your feet. And so on.

Your initial packing session might result in more clothes than you really need. Keep trimming! Remember, pants and shorts can usually go awhile without being washed. Plus they’re bulky, so go light on these.

You can also reduce space by reusing t-shirts and tops. Keep the gross-factor down by packing really light, thin tank-tops. These roll up really small, and can be worn under your shirts to keep them fresher longer. To me, even though I’m technically packing more items with these tank tops, I’m getting “longer wear” out of my tops. And again, tank tops roll up so small that you hardly notice them.

I usually pack more underwear and socks than anything else when I travel, but this takes up quite a bit of valuable space. For our next trip I think I’m going to invest in some of Ex Officio’s underwear. Why? Well, check it out…

Think about it…not having cotton underwear means you could wash it in your hotel room every evening. It’d be dry when you woke up. Plus, you can only imagine how small and lightweight these garments must be.


Tip: Folding

When it comes to getting all your clothes to fit into your small bag, the secret lies with how you fold it. Think small, tight rolls, NOT how you fold things to put in your dresser.

For instance, here’s how I fold a t-shirt:

1. Lay the t-shirt flat

2. Fold it in half length-wise

3. Fold in the short sleeves so you’re looking at a rectangle

4. Starting from the bottom, start rolling up the shirt very tightly, just like you would a toothpaste tube

You won’t believe how small your clothes will get once you get the hang of this.

Cheap Travel Tip #3: Use the Laundromat

Eventually you’re going to run out of clothes. So before you leave, make sure you know where the nearest laundromat is from where you’re staying (many hotels now have their own pay-as-you-go washers and dryers, which is incredibly handy).

Last Word…

In my next post I’ll tackle the Stage 2 of travel: the journey itself, and how to save money on hotels.

But first, if you have any handy dandy packing and travel tips to save money, I’d love to hear them!

{ 3 trackbacks }

Tips for Traveling on the Cheap: Flights and Hotels | The Greenest Dollar
July 21, 2010 at 8:59 am
Tips for Traveling on the Cheap: Getting Around and Having Fun | The Greenest Dollar
July 22, 2010 at 12:49 pm
Tips for Traveling on the Cheap: Staying Safe | The Greenest Dollar
July 26, 2010 at 12:35 pm


c. July 19, 2010 at 5:27 pm

1. Bring a bar of Dr. Bronner’s soap. This works as facial scrub, shampoo, lather for shaving legs.
2. Baby belly bar – this is hard and bee-based and smells heavenly. A little goes a long way and works as lotion, salve, etc. and doesn’t go towards your 3 ounces. (for a red-head that needs lotion daily this is a life saver when travelling).
3. razor, toothpaste, tooth brush, floss, neti pot – this is the rest (minus female stuff (get a “cup” and learn to use it)
4. The extra “ounces” are now available for essential oils: lavender, lemon, peppermint and then something heavy to sedate like vetiver (I can tell stories about how these cross cultures and break ice).

I also recommend an immersion heater, coffee crystals, tea, oatmeal with raisins and cardomom oil already on it. Dried packets of miso soup, nuts. Emergency foods that require just a bit of hot water can save you money and keep you safe when you’ve arrived too late to find food or are too tired to go out for food when you’ve just arrived or need to leave early the next day.

c. July 19, 2010 at 5:28 pm

I should probably note that the above Dr. Bronner’s bar means no shampoo, no conditioner, no special anything else is brought along. One bar lasts a month on the road. That includes washing laundry in the sink.

heather July 19, 2010 at 5:48 pm

@C- Thanks for these amazing tips! You did reveal a glaring hole in my post, however. Toiletries. I was so focused on luggage and clothing I forgot to mention tips for trimming those down.

Thanks so much! 🙂

Amber @ Because Babies Grow Up July 20, 2010 at 1:18 pm

I’m a huge fan of traveling with as little luggage as possible. I recently flew with my two daughters (ages 3 and 1) for a two and a half week stay with grandparents. Including life jackets and a complete supply of diapers for the one-year-old, we had just one large suitcase (which we checked because there was NO way I was carting that through two airports with young, tired children!)

When my parents came to visit me in Bulgaria I told them they could only bring one backpack each with all their stuff for a week. They ended up bringing along an extra bag for taking home souvenirs, but I was impressed they got all their clothes into the backpacks so we had less to travel with as we toured the country. It’s easier to enjoy the trip when you aren’t worried about moving all that luggage!

Dave Doctor July 21, 2010 at 12:02 pm

On arrival and departure days, light luggage is easy to carry or pull around the city. Even when a hotel can hold luggage, sometimes my travels take me far from the hotel and close to the airport. If the hotel holds the luggage, I have to return to the hotel and then go to the airport.

Claire July 21, 2010 at 2:02 pm

I bought two pairs of Ex Officio underwear for my recent two-and-a-half-week trip to Italy; four pairs of underwear total. Ex Officio’s were always dry by the morning. One thing, though, is that it can feel a little oppressive to “have” to do laundry by hand every night, or every other night. I guess you just have to weigh the benefits of traveling light with the detriments of performing regular chores on your vacation. I thought it was worth it.

heather July 22, 2010 at 11:23 am

@Claire- Thanks so much for letting me know how they work? I’ll definitely get some before our next journey. I don’t think I’ll mind the handwashing…after all, we always hit the laundromat when we’re gone anyway, so handwashing is a breeze compared to that! 🙂

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