Packing your travel essentials for the great wide world

Over two decades of travel to 65+ countries, we’ve uncovered some tips and tricks for packing that can make the difference between comfort and complaints.

If you’re a bit “high maintenance” like me, you should put some thought into your packing. It could lead to you having your own “travel drawer” of invaluable and quickly available items.

By high maintenance, I mean you use hair products – and lots of other products – hair dryers and hair irons, and need a variety of outlets for them and various electronics. If you take at least an hour to get ready and spend a lot of time on your laptop, we have something in common.

Many products are available in small containers of 3 ounces or less for your plastic baggie in your carry-ons if you’re worried about airlines losing your luggage. (And we have many notable examples of this happening to us. Hello, having to borrow my mother-in-law’s underwear in Germany. That was GREAT.)

But after many trips, we’ve also collected a number of useful items we keep at the ready. In fact, we have a designated “travel drawer,” a large drawer full of all sorts of things we now consider essential. It’s very useful to just empty the drawer into the luggage.

Here are some of our best examples:

Disclosure: We may receive compensation from purchases of some products Iinked in this post.

Power cord, extension cord, power strip, converter, chargers

Say you want to charge both of your phones, your laptops, dry your hair and plug in your hair curler. Good luck in most countries.

Not only are outlets scarce in many hotel rooms abroad, you’re most likely not going to carry that many electricity converters. And not only that, these outlets are never near where you need them to be. For example, the outlet is 20 feet away from the nearest mirror. Your compact mirror is not sufficient. Trust me.

There are nice universal adapter packs available and we recommend getting one rather than buying individual ones for a trip at a time. Carry them with you if you think you’ll have the ability to plug in while also on the road. Also, it’s a bit of an incentive to see every place you could use one!

We brought a new combination converter, power strip and extension cord on a recent trip to Africa and we absolutely loved it. It’s the Sokoo Power Converter:

It converts voltage, has four USB ports and regular plug outlets for plugging in appliances and laptop chargers. It handled a curling iron without breaking a sweat. On top of that, the plug adapter set and the long extension cord meant the sparse outlet situation was no longer a hassle. We highly recommend it!

Clothing packing cubes

These things are small miracles. If you’re traveling and are moving on every two or three nights, you don’t want to actually unpack. At least I don’t. I used to keep everything in the suitcase and dig around and wind up constantly having to repack the mess.

Well, these cubes allow me to organize by clothing type, sort of unpack, and be much more travel efficient. For example, I’ll have an undergarment/accessory bag, a shirt/top bag, a pants/bottoms bag, or a night life bag. Everything in these bags is ALWAYS rolled up because that truly does take up less space. And the mesh bags allow you to easily see everything that is in there.

I can lay these bags out and easily choose what I need. I also have a designated laundry bag that separates out what I definitely don’t want to use again. That one isn’t mesh and is almost literally dumped into the washer when we get home.

Other than the easy organization and packing/unpacking, these bags also truly seem to open up space in a suitcase.

Not only that, if you’re bringing home something fragile, putting it in the center of a bag is great protection. Small miracles!

We’ve used these from Suntribe:

As well as a couple of no-name brands. If you are looking at them online make sure the review don’t mention zipper problems too often.

Zippers on these seem to be the main point of failure and when they split, the thing is useless.

Bar shampoo and conditioner

I have no idea why it took so long for me to discover bar shampoo and conditioner. They’re light. They take up little space. And they work! I was a skeptic, but the shampoo lathers like magic. The conditioner isn’t what I’m used to at home, but it’s adequate for my needs. I’ll never cart heavy and large bottles of either again.

If you don’t want to risk the effect hotel products will have on your hair, check them out. We used these from Aspen Kay Naturals and absolutely loved them:

The scent of lemongrass will make you think of good Vietnamese food.

Footrest

We’ve all seen the awful memes of people on airplanes putting their feet every which way we don’t want to see them. The worst is when you are relaxing on your armrest as a foot creeps into your view. There’s a reason for this: cramped space and aching muscles.

If you can’t do first or business class, we’ve found these footrests that you hook over the seatback in front of you without bothering the seat holder. You can adjust the height.

This is the one I use on a trip that had a lot of in-county flights and it was a huge plus:

It’s amazing how just positioning your feet upward a bit helps with your comfort.  

Washcloth

Truly, truly I don’t know how people wash their faces – and the rest of their bodies – in most other countries. And for some incredible reason I’ve never asked. But they don’t use washcloths.

I awkwardly used many hand towels before I thought to always bring my own washcloth. I also always pack a water-tight baggie to be sure a damp cloth doesn’t affect my other packing.

Luggage inside luggage

If you’re a shopper, or if you have any thought of bringing things back from your trips – this is a trick I’ve mastered: luggage inside luggage.

Before I figured this out, we collected a lot of duffle bags and small suitcases we wasted money buying on site. But here is what you do: put a smaller piece of luggage inside of your larger piece, pack them as though you’re filling the larger piece, and when it becomes too much pull out the smaller piece and go from there.

You may have to pay to check that extra piece of luggage on your way home, but I suggest you do a bit of research on shipping costs. They’re outrageous. Also, if you can keep a small bit of space in the smaller piece of luggage, you can insert whatever carry-on you had and take it on the airplane as your carry-on. So there, husband, I WILL get this thing you’re trying to dissuade me from bringing home!

Check hairdryers and irons

Having a hair dryer is a must for me, so I always check whether hotels have one. If not, I bring a folded small dryer along. I also try to pack for non-wrinkle clothing, but that’s kind of impossible. I’d suggest you check and bring your own small iron if possible. In our experience, the wrinkle release sprays do not work well enough.

Small product bottles

If you use hairspray, or lotion or anything that might come in a large bottle, I suggest you look at whether they come in small bottles as well, or if you can, sort their contents into small separate containers. As you use them throw them away and you can loosen up space and weight in your luggage.

I know this isn’t ecofriendly and I am very, very sorry about this.

Large cross body bag or sling backpack

I have a few very large leather crossbody bags that I love. My laptop and all of the other things I’d carry in a purse fit, as well as other things I want onboard a plane or on the road, wherever we are.

Depending on the type of trip, I also have a crossbody backpack that may be even better. Lots of pockets and organization. My only complaint is that it can get heavy when Adam asks me to carry his water, etc. So he now has one too!

I use the Magictodoor:

It’s light but tough and holds more than enough stuff that I need during travel or to use as a daypack when we are exploring.

Adam swears by his Under Armour sling that you can see at the top of this post. Unfortunately they discontinued that model.

Whatever you choose, be sure to test it out around home before you carry it abroad. It’s better to learn at home if it won’t hold enough or will pinch your shoulder.

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